In this issue we proceed with the journey of Dalal al-Ghanim and Sheikha al-Nafisi on the Silk Road, and we focus on Turkmenistan and Iran, which represent an important stop on this route, thanks to their great cultural diversity.
It is well known that the ancient Silk Road has always been considered one of the historical paths that have contributed to the growth and prosperity of ancient people and civilizations especially that it has combined trade, culture and politics. This road had also played a role in joining cultures and nations and facilitating exchanges between them. Many travelers followed this road in order to take part in the intellectual and cultural exchange well developed in the cities all along it.
Turkmenistan … where Ibn Sina was born!
The departure towards the Uzbek borders in order to enter Turkmenistan was at 9 am sharp. Sheikha Nafisi said: This place was crowded with people of different nationalities, all waiting to get their entry permits. Here’s a Russian lady who raised her voice in front of the soldiers because they are taking too much time to complete the papers. It’s been a very difficult time.
Sheikha added: Once the soldiers saw our Kuwaiti passports, their reaction was as usual: Kuvait … ahhhh Arabcha!!
And they barely know where Kuwait is located! But their common question to us was: Are you Muslims?
After the Uzbek border point, Dalal and Sheikha walked for 3 kilometers to reach Turkmenistan. Dalal Al-Ghanim said: Imagine our situation under a temperature of 50 degrees and more and trailing along our luggage!! Finally we saw from afar a small van, we proposed some money on the driver to take us to the other border and that’s exactly what happened. We finally got to the other side. That is Turkmenistan, and the first city we visited was the city of Merv also known as Aka Mary.
Merv is one of the cities that one should visit in Turkmenistan, and it is where Ibn Sina was born, one of the most important inventors and educated persons in this city at that time. The city in real was different from what we read about in books: its heritage and historical features were not well preserved.
Ashgabat … the city of love
After 6 hours of driving on very rough roads, Dalal and Sheikha arrived to Ashgabat, also called the “City of Love” with reference to the legend saying that its name was taken from a love story similar to Romeo and Juliet’s, but this time with a local couple who ran away after facing major objections from their parents. After becoming independent upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the city witnessed some evolution and progress that seems visible through its high buildings made of white marble. Ashgabat is where the government is located and it is considered the administrative center of the state.
Iran, a land of beauty
The trip to Iran was for Dalal and Sheikha more varied since the city embraces many religious and historical monuments that people from around the world frequently visit.
The car is the only transportation way to reach the Turkmen-Iranian border, but the beauty and the magnificence of the Kopetdag Mountains extended from Turkmenistan across the Iranian border, made the trip easier and enjoyable. These mountains looked like a decorative panel that overlaps, and which beauty increases with the shades of sand.
Kashgar was the last stop for Dalal and Sheikha in China, especially that it was in the past a place where passengers from inside China and the Western countries stop in. It is considered a crossroad in the ancient history and one of the most important cities on the Silk Road, known for its brightly colored markets.
Mashhad…The holy city
Here we are now in Iran, specifically in Mashhad. Sheikha says: “It was necessary for us at first to wear the traditional garment of the country. Mashhad is where the grave of Imam Al-Ridha is located and that is considered a very sacred monument for the Jaafari disciples. I felt a spiritual energy in this place and what impressed me the most since we were during Ramadan was the fact that when the Imam calls for Iftar, people do not rush to eat or drive insanely, they take their time to pray and in some cases they do not close their shops as soon as they hear the Azan.”
Before leaving Mashhad and moving to Isfahan via the train, Dalal and Sheikha didn’t forget to buy nuts, sweets and most importantly tasted the pomegranate ice cream with tamarind sauce which was a very delicious dish as they described. They also visited the grave of the first Iranian Shah, Nader, a museum that tells the history and the ruling years of the Shah. It consists of two halls that display the works dated back to the Safavid era, and the Afsharid dynasty.
This shah was often called “Napoleon Iran” because he created an empire that covered the regions from North India to the Caucasus Mountains.
In Isfahan, Dalal and Sheikha’s day began at 9 am when they first visited the oldest mosque in Isfahan, which dates back to 1000 years if not more. It is called the “Friday” mosque and it is one of the best Islamic architectural examples, having all the elements of design, and the majority of styles that are currently used by Graphic designers in the Arab world!
The Armenian neighborhoods… conformity and harmony
Visiting the Armenian neighborhoods will surely surprise you, especially after you see the full conformity and harmony between the Iranian and Armenian cultures and the preservation of some of their symbols, most notably the “Vank” church considered a distinctive landmark in the city and the land of the first Armenians in Iran.
After that, in order to get a rest and to catch their breath, Dalal and Sheikha stopped in Imam Square, which is considered the center of the old city. What draw the attention here are the tiles and the sound that runs all over the place, along with the Ali Qapu palace where the Shah Abbas I and his wives used to live. What the visitors mostly like here is that all rooms have been decorated with mirrors and colored tiles without doors at all.
The excitement doesn’t end here, but it also extends into the music room located on the last floor of the palace: it is decorated with wooden sculptures, bottles with strange shapes, as well as a balcony with wooden pillars overlooking the Imam Square.
Golestan Palace with mirrors!
If you want to learn about the heritage and the history of Iran, you must go to Tehran, specifically the palace of Golestan where you can find all the Shahs palaces. It is characterized by its multi-shaped mirrors which add a cheerful taste to the place, as well as the artistic wall panels and the Majolica tiles that carry the architectural Iranian print, along with the Iranian Museum of Antiquities that includes the Antiques of the Islamic Empire such as some Sasanian potteries. And one of the distinctive pieces in the museum is a head from the 1700’s that was found intact and kept in a glass box.
The museum that Dalal and Sheikha recommend to visit was once the residence of the Egyptian Embassy and holds the character of the Zamalek houses with their traditional style and that are kept intact.
The carpet museum of Iran… The history teller.
Iran is known for its carpets and for that purpose Dalal and Sheikha visited the carpet museum that tells through some of its decorations and drawings the story of the Bakhtiari, a Bedouin tribe in Iran. Through a 47 meters’ carpet that dates back to 1700, one can get to know the tribal customs like dancing, eating and housing. There is another carpet that pictures the tree of the rulers of Iran till the last Shah Pahlavi.
“Tabriz” is a city that Dalal and Sheikha can’t forget; this is where they spent one of the best nights of their journey! This city is famous for its handicrafts, including the hand-woven carpets and jewelries.
Being the best in town, one can easily identify the local tabrizian sweets, chocolates, nuts, dried fruits and the traditional tabrizian dishes throughout Iran.
Tabriz is known for being an academic center and a place that embraces some of the luxurious cultural institutes in the northwest of Iran and its inhabitants mostly speak Azerbaijani slightly mixed with Persian.
Caves of Kandovan
The final stop in Iran’s trip was Kandovan or what is known under the name of Troglodyte Village, one of the strangest residential units in the world and it runs to 700 years ago!
These caves were drilled and constructed naturally by the accumulation of volcanic stones.
The habitants of this region dug their houses inside these stone formations and rejected all governmental attempts to remove them and replace them with modern accommodations. The houses take the conical shape resulting from the volcanic collapse, and they also take the form of the volcanic anthropomorphic in one of their aspect.
To be continued in the next issue…