DOHA by Ruth Phillipson
The Sheik Faisal Museum established in 1998, is miles from the city centre and the drive there afforded an insight into this harsh, flat, desert landscape. The Qatari style structure was built around several old wooden boats but as the Curator led us through hall after hall, some resembling aircraft hangers, we were constantly amazed at the amassed treasures. It appears that this private collector knows no bounds, with the exhibits ranging from old and antique cars, to coinage, Arabic prints, and manuscripts, exquisite old Korans, fossils, weaponry, carpets, aircraft and even a gorgeous old house from Aleppo, lovingly reassembled, tile by tile, in the museum. The parting shot came as we learned that Sheik Faisal is working to house 650 more old cars! Whatever one thinks of this extraordinary and compulsive collector, it is certainly a vast treasury of Arabic history.
The Museum of Islamic Arts came as almost a relief after the Sheik Faisal Museum! Housed in a stunningly beautiful stone and glass masterpiece by I. M. Pei, it opened in 2008. The structure sits on a specially built island in Doha Bay affording a welcome breeze on the extensive outdoor terraces. The cool, soaring interior was a joy to behold and the world class exhibits of ceramics, carpets, jewels, metalwork and textiles took our breath away! The collection spans 1,400 years of Islamic art and history and one could spend hours gazing in wonder at the exquisite colours and sheer artistry of the lighting and display. This museum is a feast for the eye and well worth a revisit.
ESFAHAN – The City containing ‘Half the World’ by Lim Heng Tan
After driving along the Zayanderud river –‘the Living River’- we enjoyed the view of the lighted-up Si-O-Se (bridge of 33 arches) built in AD1632. It was good to feel the clean fresh water of the Zayanderud River which originates from the Zagros Mountains and flows 400km across the dry central plateau of Iran passing Esfahan all the way to the Gavkhouni salt lake.
Over our time spent in Esfahan, the ancient capital of Persia (AD 1598-1722), our visits covered four places of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The Chehel Sotun Palace is a perfect example of the architecture making full use of sunlight and reflection, from the lovely ponds and fountains to capture the 20 reflected columns in the water and the 20 standing columns to make up the “40 columns” Palace. At the Jame Mosque, we saw Islamic art spanning a thousand years starting from AD 841. It remained the oldest preserved mosque structure of its type in Iran. The four-courtyard layout was adopted from the times of Sassanid palaces (3rd-7thC). The domes were built double-shelled, an architectural innovation in its day.
No one going to Esfahan would want to miss seeing the grandeur of scale and size of Iman Square, the second largest public square after Tian An Men. The Square is surrounded by buildings dating back to the Persian Safavid era AD1501-1736. It is a lively place for families, some enjoying riding in horse-carriages, and others picnicking in the garden. The original use of Imam Square was for polo-playing, a royal sport. The Ali Qapu Palace on the side of the Square was built for Safavid monarchs to sit on top to watch the polo-games below. A centre-piece of the Square is the 17thC wonder of the Sheikh Lutfollah Mosque, an iconic Safavid Iranian architecture built in AD1603-1618.
Unique in Esfahan is the Armenian quarter where the Vank Cathedral is located. The Armenians were first settled by Shah Abbas I after the Ottoman War AD1603-05. What struck us was the Cathedral had a huge Persian Islamic dome with a crucifix on the top. There are unusual murals showing explicitly the scenes of Heaven and Hell.
Esfahan is truly a garden-city. We walked through several grand gardens including the Hesht-Behesht. All had a similar theme of streams of water, beautiful roses, sound of birds and nightingales and the clever planting of the appropriate trees of sycamore, cypress and elm for providing copious cover to shade the people from the bright hot sun. Gardens as the Iranians said are a glimpse of the promised paradise in heaven.
The Abbassi Hotel, originally a caravanserai, offers a very large beautiful courtyard garden with majestic old trees surrounded by roses, a perfect sanctuary from the mad traffic and heat outside.
We had the pre-conceived notion that under a strict and tyrannical Ayatollah after the 1979 revolution, large Iranian cities like Esfahan would have moral/security police patrolling the streets. Esfahan, as well as the other cities we visited Tehran, Kashan, and Shiraz were free and open. In Esfahan the women were mostly in colourful dresses of different styles and the only dress-code they must have was a shawl to cover their head/hair and long sleeves for dresses to cover their hands, and trousers or skirts long enough to cover fully their legs. Many women in Esfahan were in heavy make-up and wearing high heel shoes!
SHIRAZ – The ‘City of Secrets’ by Vicki Firth
Shiraz came at the end of our trip after a short flight from Isfahan. With the ruins of world-famous Persepolis, and the tomb of Cyrus the Great nearby, it is certainly one of the most intriguing places to visit, a beautiful oasis of green and Persian gardens surrounded by stunningly bare mountains. It is a city of gardens and poets, drenched with romance.
Shiraz means ‘City of Secrets’, so named during the heyday of nearby Persepolis when secret documents were kept there. The famous vines could be seen lying forlornly on the distant hillsides surrounding the city, now making non-alcoholic grape juice and awaiting a much longed-for regime change. As our lovely guide told us “We Persians used to pray in private and drink in public. Now we have to pray in public and drink in private.”
This is a city steeped in centuries of poetry and literature, with Persian gardens in all directions. These gardens are distinctive in character surrounded by walls with trees and hedges forming ‘rooms’ inside the walls, and bursting with fragrant rose blossoms. Pomegranate and orange trees are everywhere, mixed among the larger trees like elm, beech and plane, providing delicious cover from the sun.
Inhabitants of Shiraz, numbering about 1.8 million, are known to be friendly, hospitable, easy-going, and picnic-loving. The graves of two famous poets, Hafez and Sa’adi, are situated in lovely flower-filled Persian gardens and frequented by many locals, especially young couples and students. The rich intellectual life of Shiraz features a university and an excellent medical school. Hospitals and clinics are of regional importance and Shiraz has become a medical hub for surrounding countries.
Persepolis still deserves its renown, even though so many its important pieces are in museums around the world. Situated on a huge platform (with stones comparable to those of the pyramids) at the base of a mountain range and overlooking a wide valley, its commanding position and grandeur cannot be underestimated. The huge elegant staircase leading up to the entrance is imposing yet easy to navigate. Friezes still extant illustrating processions to see the King are exciting for their artistic merit and educational in historic detail of the many different nationalities and cultures that came to pay homage.