Dressed in a long robe – a material that seemed crisp but soft and accommodating, the imam smiled, “Our duty is to show you the beauty of Islam and its teachings.” His smile now curled with a sense of cheekiness, “If you choose to follow, great.” Pausing for a moment, whilst his audience remained enthralled he slowly bowed his head. Creases formed around the corners of his eyes as he furrowed his brows with concern, “But we must respect people’s choice whether monotheistic or polytheistic. Let’s talk and get to know each other beyond what the media tells us to believe.”
“Sweets everybody? Please take one. They are delicious.” The imam stood up, with one hand he straightened his robe and with the other he extended his arm holding a bowl of the Persian sweets known as naan-e-nokhodchi. Similar to shortbread but made with chickpea flour and shaped into clover like flowers, they are often enjoyed with tea. No bigger than the size of a 10p coin these treasures made me warm to the imam even more. The sight of them momentarily took me back to when I celebrated Nowruz in London with some friends. A time when I yearned to discover the Safavid heartland but never dreamed it would be possible; a combination of growing political discordance, difficulties in obtaining a visa and a very overprotective father to blame.
“LET’S TALK AND GET TO KNOW EACH OTHER BEYOND WHAT THE MEDIA TELLS US TO BELIEVE.”
With British Airways relaunching their direct flights to Tehran, the embassy reopening their doors and a more open-minded father - “It’s a work trip Baba, I’ll be perfectly safe” - here I was.
I looked up, as I had become accustomed to doing during my time in Iran. Pained, craned necks were forgiven and forgotten in the admiration of this art-chitecture. Symmetry, there’s an undeniable beauty in it. Meticulous forethought and geometry come to play in a beautiful way. The Imam mosque, also known as the Shah mosque in the Royal Square in Isfahan, is just mesmerising to behold. It was featured on ‘Around the World in 80 Treasures’ presented by the architecture historian Dan Cruickshank, and rightly so. The towering turquoise minarets are stunning but the real wonders are inside – triple-twisted columns, a dome with a cascade of stalactites and beautiful calligraphy within the inscriptions of the arch await you.
Interestingly the mosque itself, commissioned personally by Shah Abbas of the Safavids in 1611, is not built in line with the gateway to the square. As the mihrab needs to point towards Mecca, a 45-degree angle has been created between the gate and north ivan. There are many theories as to why the mosque and square were constructed this way, particularly as symmetry plays such an important role in Islam and its architecture. Though nothing is verified, one of my favourite theories is that the slightly askew angle indicates a more winding path to find God.
The tiles of dome of the mosque are repaired each century, a painstaking process whereby one sixteenth of the dome is repaired at a time, all by hand, taking approximately 11 years to complete. It can be argued that modern technology could be used to speed up the repair, yet I’m pleased that this tradition continues. The creation and restoration of beauty need never be rushed.
It was within the madrassah of this mosque that I came across the imam. He had been tucked into an alcove of one of the walls overlooking the sweet-scented roses of the garden. It was an experience that will not be listed in your guidebooks. For me, however, it was quite possibly the most beautiful sight of my trip, architecture aside. As the crowds of intrigued travellers keen for a sweet treat, gathered forward to reach for the naan-e-nokhodchi, I stepped to one side. It was then that I noticed the banner behind him; “Free friendly discussion with the clergies. With mutual respect without prejudice”.
In an age where our differences seem to divide us and religion is prostituted to progress political agendas his words carried significant weight.
Listening to him, it was difficult to not feel his warmth. He spoke eloquently, and effortlessly commanded the attention of those around him despite his hushed tones. His words were in stark contrast to the billboard set before the tomb of Cyrus the Great in Shiraz – a great example of Khomeini’s anti-west rhetoric but not indicative of the modern-day Iranian, by any means.
Imam Khomeini: “The whole world should know that all of the problems of the Iranian nation and other nations are caused by the foreigners: by Americans. Muslim nations hate the foreigners in general and America in particular.”
As the crowds walked away, hearts, minds and taste buds fulfilled, a few more moved further forward to request pictures with the imam. “One dollar, no sorry two dollars and I will smile” joked the imam. The travellers erupted with laughter. In the UK, despite being Muslim myself, I’d be a little cautious approaching an imam, especially when requesting a photograph. That caution was thrown to the wind and I too stepped forward. “Please may I have a selfie with you?” gesturing toward my camera phone.
He smiled again. “Would you mind just a photo?”
I realised that in my excitement I had probably asked for too much and that a selfie would require us to perhaps stand a little too close to one another. Without hesitating I grinned “Of course, thank you so much. But I have no dollars left.”
“One for free.” He retorted.
Whilst we may still question the republic’s politics – questions that are necessary even closer to home to our western governments - what is undeniable is the authentic hospitality of the Iranians. It’s engrained in the Persian culture. From lavish feasts, an excuse to always have tea, to always engaging in a discussion. It is fuelled by a belief in the spirit of Islamic custom, a passion for poetry inspired by Hafiz and Saadi, the proud history of the great Shah Abbas and of course the rhetoric of modern day politics.
In fact, the Imam’s plurality was akin with the attitude of the Great Shah Abbas of the 17th century. He too had encouraged religious tolerance, especially in Isfahan where you can wander around and wonder at mosques that he had commissioned, as well as the Armenian churches and the Vank Cathedral in the Julfa district of the city. He had endeavoured to see Isfahan and the dynasty thrive, just as this Imam seems to wish for the whole of Iran.
Now, more than ever, we need and must strive for our differences to be understood, respected and welcomed. There can no longer be an ‘other’. In a country that has long been viewed as exactly that, this initiative of open dialogue and inclusivity is what I see the future of Iran to be. Much like the path to the mosque, though a little indirect, the journey will always prove worth your while.
IRAN: GROUP TOUR
14 days from $5,455 pp excluding flights.
Departing 6 Oct, 2017.