“…a wicked regime where anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial is official ideology, and with […] killing of women just because they’re women” – Sarah Palin
The south bank of the dried Zāyanderūd river is Armenian at heart. This piece of Iran, long since swallowed in the city of Isfahan, is one of the largest Armenian communities in the world, larger than Issy-les-Moulineaux and almost as big as the L.A. enclaves where System of a Down flourished.
I walked down Chahar Bagh-e Abbasi avenue, braved the traffic at Enghelab Square and caught my breath on Si-o-se Bridge, mercifully free from cars. “Bad traffic eh mister?” sympathised a man, before asking me where I was from and saying “Welcome to Iran”. It was only my second day, but welcoming me to the city and country seemed the national past-time activity.
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Along the banks of the river – dried, as it’s been for the past few years, apparently – are parks, playgrounds, birdhouses, amorous couples, picnicking families, friends chatting in the tree shadows and the sad sight of swan-shaped paddleboats for rent, now sun-bleached and aground.
Hakim Nezami street is almost as pleasant, were it not for the cacophony of traffic spilling on the sidewalks, where car and bike repair shops line up, seemingly without end. Isfahan shops are tiny, a riot of posters and LED lights flashing messages I can’t read, and almost always have a framed photo in the foreground. I looked at those serious faces, wondering who they might be. Older men must be the patriarchs of the family, but what about younger ones, their portraits in black and white? Their stern looks, their uniforms, made it probable they were a few of the thousands who died not far from here, fighting Saddam.
New Julfa starts there: Persia and Europe, Christian and Islamic at the same time. In the journey from their mountainous homeland, churches have lost their pointed cupolas, shaped like Mount Ararat, in favour of delicate domes, and stonewalls have been swapped in favour of bricks. If it wasn’t for the crosses and the delicate Armenian glyphs, one would’ve assumed that it was yet another mosque.
Inside, Vank cathedral smells of sweat and of perfume, whilst excited voices echo and bounce around the vaulted ceiling. The church is packed with Iranian tourists in a photo frenzy. I stand in the doorway, amazed at the excitement, then it dawns on me that this, for Tehran vacationers, is exotic. The frescoes of Judgement day, Judith beheading Holofernes, the visit of the Magi, Christ on the cross: however familiar they might be to me, they are completely unusual for those whose temples are decorated with abstract art, or with calligraphy. Armed with this newfound realisation, I see Vank – and the whole Julfa – for what it is, the staging ground where East and West can look at each other in the eyes and say to each other Ah, so this is how you do it.
It was Armenians relocated by the Safavid emperors who built new Julfa, and they made one of the finest neighbourhoods of Isfahan. Small, cobbled streets criss-cross each other in intricate patterns. Armenian signs distract me from keeping an eye out for ditches and steps. Shops are seemingly arranged by merchandise, with repair workshops and clothing sellers and cafes occupying rigorously separated streets.
Here and there, however, the modern texture of Julfa leaves way to the past, glimpses of what this place must’ve looked like before reinforced concrete, internal combustion and steel arrived. As I followed yet another onion-shaped dome a small piazza opened before me, mercifully spared from car traffic by a line of concrete bollards.
Copying the handful of people squatting in the shadows, I sit on the steps of a house, besides an antediluvian air conditioner, eating a lunch of flatbread, dried apricots and water, taking a look around. The steps might’ve been of stone, but everything else wasn’t. The verandas are shaded by screens of braided reeds, faded by the passing of years, and the walls, well, the walls are a surprise. Beneath the peeling stucco I can see rows of old, venerably old, bricks. They weren’t done in a kiln, not at all. The big furnace in the sky had.
I walk on, meal done, thinking about what I have just seen. Humble sun-baked bricks created the big civilizations of Mesopotamia, a few hundred klicks from here, when Europe was still living in caves. They built the ziggurats of Ur, the palaces of Nimrud, and the humble square in Julfa.
I walk a street flanked by two walls. Two domes – yet another two churches – eye me from both sides. Both places are closed, shut down for lunch a man tells me, even if it’s already 3PM. Lunch here lasts a while. A faded writing – a logo, or an advert, or both – still decorates one of the two walls. I sense potential for a picture, get a closer look, and find myself staring at the impossibly old mixture of clay and hay of a mud wall. I touch it, and feel the warm wall peeling away under my palms.
First sun-baked bricks, then this. Sumerian cities were made with cob walls. To this day, Afghan compounds are flanked by thick walls made this way, so sturdy – in facts – that they can stop bullets and explosives. Call me emotional, but to see this, in a world, as I said, of concrete, engines and steel is as close to finding a time machine as I can think.
I walk out of Julfa with a faint smile on my face and a spring in my step. I’d arrived in Isfahan expecting mosques covered in tiles and tortuous bazaars and I found them; but the city had also given me Armenian cathedrals and a window on how the beginning of civilization looked like. Not bad for an afternoon.