The Zayandeh river in Isfahan has completely dried up in a combination of damming the river upstream for irrigation and lack of rain at the end of the dry season. It is a forlorn scene, the river no longer reflects the beauty of the city's bridges which now straddle a field across which people now walk. The bridges have lost their purpose.
Si-o-Se Pol Bridge and field
We crossed the river to visit New Jolfa, the Armenian Christian part of Isfahan named after the original Jolfa in northern Iran, near the Armenian border. For the first time we were allowed to take pictures inside Vank Cathedral. It has an Islamic dome and turquoise tile below the dado as is found in many Iranian mosques, but there all resemblance ends, because the interior is full of images of seraphim and saints, but also some graphic pictures of the tortures of poor Saint Gregory, as well as a large and rather fearsome portayal of hell.
Visiting the Lotfallah Mosque later in the day is more restful, there are no gory images, just stunning tilework and calligraphy. For Muslims the Quran is the sacred Word of God, and there is no greater homage to God than to render these texts in exquisite calligraphy in a mosque or in a Quran. It is the Islamic equivalent of the Romans who burned expensive frankincense to their gods in the belief that their prayers were more likely to be answered if accompanied by fumes from the expensive resin - or the Scythians from further back in time, for whom gold was like ink. Their ceremonial rites to their gods included the use of gold figurines, and they buried their dead with gold to make sure their passing into the next life would be propitious. Calligraphy is perhaps the most admired and respected of all Islamic arts and the Persians went to great lengths to create scripts that would do justice to the message.
In the evening we went to a zurkhaneh, or 'place of strength', which can best be described as a cross between a gymnasium, a fraternity and a YMCA. At the start of every performance the men jump down into a circular pit in the room, touch their fingers to the ground then bring them up to touch their foreheads and mouth in a gesture of humility and respect. The leader - and often the owner of the zurkhaneh - sits above the room with drums and bells which he uses to conduct and pace the performance. Often it is he who decides which of the men, who range from skinny teenagers to stocky, mustachioed older men, who will perform a solo in any of the disciplines, although more often one man will suddenly spontaneously break away from the rest and dance out into the middle of the pit and start whirling. But they also swing clubs around their head (most people can barely lift them), as well as heavy bands of rattling chains which they brandish from side to side above their heads.
During the performance classical poetry and religious quotations are recited, and short discussions take place before another round of feats of strength begins. Every zurkhaneh has pictures of Ali, the first Imam, because the Twelver Shia consider him to be the most perfect man, that one should strive to emulate.
We flew to Istanbul. We sat on the plane which was delayed by forty minutes. There was no explanation. A steward passed by. "What is the problem?" "There is no problem." "Then why are we delayed?" We are not delayed we are leaving now. Thank you." And he fled up the aisle.
A highlight of our visit to Istanbul was a private visit to Hagia Sophia. The Romans used mosaics as a floor covering which were walked on, so the material which had to be durable, was made of different types of rock. But the Byzantines also used mosiac for wall coverings and could use more delicate material such as glass, nacre and gold and silver leaf. Because most people could not read, Christian art relied on symbolism in gestures, colors and items so that people knew what story was being told or the image that was represented. Examples of this that every Christian of the time would have known were Christ and Mary, usually in Byzantine art as the Madonna or as Mother of God, portrayed in robes of blue which denoted heaven, halos in gold which meant exalted ones, the color white indicating purity, a dove as the holy spirit and peacocks which represented immortality. The church was turned into a mosque after the Muslim Conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and the mosaics were covered over. It ceased to be a mosque in 1931 and in 1935 Hagia Sophia became a museum of both Byzantine and Islamic religious art.
The tulip became a widely-used motif in the exquisite tilework of mosques, madrasas, mausolea, palaces and hammams for which Turkey, and Iznik, in particular was renown. Tulip in Persian and Turkish is laleh, which, written looks like Allah. The crescent moon of Islam is called hillal in Arabic which when written is Allah back to front. Many Sufis delighted in such sacred allegory although perhaps the choice of decor was a decision not of arcane metaphor but simply that the tulip is a pretty flower. Although, on the flag of Iran in the center is a stylized calligraphic tulip, a flower which in Iran denotes suffering and martyrdom, while the letters forming the tulips spell Allah, or perhaps laleh.
In Christianity religious imagery was banned during the reign of Pope Leo III from 717-741, a ban that lasted until 843. The iconoclasm was based on the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament which forbade the making and worshipping of any graven image. However the iconoclasts ultimately lost the argument when it was pointed out that to forbid images of Christ's suffering was a denial of his human side, his incarnation and his time on earth. Islam meanwhile followed Judaism in forbidding the representation of humans and animals in religious art.
At the far end of the Basilica cisterns which are opposite Hagia Sophia, are two pillars that sit on the base of a head of Medusa, a gorgon with snakes for hair, who had the power to turn anyone who looked at her into stone with just one malevolent gaze from her ice-blue eyes. Her head was lopped off by Perseus and given to the goddess Athena to place in her shield as a protective device. It is undoubtedly the source of the perennial blue eye talismans found all over Turkey and Greece - protection from the evil eye.
The Great Silk Road ends in Rome. A route that tranformed the world not only because of trade, but in the exchange of ideas in religion, art and craft, knowledge and technology, fostering both unity and change in politics and culture from China to Rome. Peoples and tribes who lived along the Silk Road wanted a piece of the action and their participation re-shaped the cultural and political landscape in areas far removed from the immediate cities that made up the Silk Road. The Parthians, the Kushans and the Sogdians were initially nomadic tribes that became powerful empires and enablers of the cultural exchange.
During the Mongol Empire it was said a maiden could walk safely from one end of the empire to the other with a pan of gold on her head. With the fragmenting of the empire, by the 15th century it was no longer as safe for traders and when sea routes across the Indian Ocean opened up, it spelled the end of the great trans-Asiatic land route.
And the transformation continues. Before the domestication of the camel as a beast of burden sometime in the second millennium BC, goods were traded in small reed boats down the Persian Gulf. Overland camel caravans took over the sea trade because they could carry more.
The Pantheon in Rome
The sea then recovered its ascendancy when the maritime silk route took over from the land route because, aside from security issues on land, with larger ships more goods could be transported. But the land route is again becoming competitive and Germany, Europe's largest exporting country, now sends much of its export goods to China by rail, which takes only a third of the travel time by sea. We ended our odyssey at the Pantheon in Rome, a building initially dedicated to pagan gods then in the 7th century turned into a church. Built more than two thousand years ago, its concrete dome is still the largest in the world. Some things never change.