Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Post #204 - Half a World Away from Maryland

2006 Iran Trip, continued...

Esfahan, a capital of Persia in the ninth and tenth centuries was invaded by the Mongols in the 13 Century, restored to its former glory in 17th Century and taken by the Afghans in the next century, after the Safavid dynasty had declined. When the capital was transferred to Tehran during the Qajar era, Esfahan ceased to develop much beyond its pinnacle reached at that time. Passing through the heart of the city, we pulled up at the Sadaf Hotel, where we would stay, in the city that has been known as "half the world."

In his novel about old Esfahan (The Siege of Isfahan), Jean-Christophe Rufin writes:

European cities are first of all spaces, which may be green or not: streets, squares, and sidewalks from which the mass of more or less grouped buildings emerges. A city in the Orient, by contrast, is a compact weave of constructions so dense and continuous that one barely sees the narrow cut made by its alleys. At rare intervals, this fabric is holed and a garden or a square appears, encircled and circumscribed, plant with tall trees. Isfahan…seemed to draw equally on both traditions.

Family touring Esfahan's city-center
That first morning in Esfahan, after passing through river gardens and round-abouts, we entered the old Jolfa district. Our group visited the Armenian "Vank" (or cathedral) of All Saviors, done in what is termed “Perso-Islamo-Christian” style. We learned that of the approximately 200,000 Armenians in Iran, some 15 thousand live in Esfahan (half of those in Jolfa). Their conversion to Christianity took place in 301 C.E., with the population centered at the intersection of present-day Turkey and Iran and areas that later became part of the Soviet Union. The emperor, Shah Abbas I of the Safavid Dynasty, brought many of them to Esfahan in 1603 to avoid their being part of the conflicts with those other powers, especially the Ottomans. It was an Armenian bishop who brought the first printing press to Iran, using it to publish the Holy Bible.

Our host, cathedral curator Mr. Joseph Grigorian, was candid about the fact that some discrimination occurs against Armenians, but said that things are at least more predictable now than under the last Shah’s reign. There are only five priests for thirteen parishes, and theological study requires students to go outside Iran, most often to Armenia or India. The museum within the cathedral keep featured evidence of the history of genocide against the Armenians in Turkey early in the last century.

Armenian Cathedral
Being an Orthodox Christian, I was invited to attend services at St. Stephen's, another Armenian Church nearby. It happened to be a funenal service for a local priest, but the liturgy differed little from most Eastern services that one would find on any Sunday in Moscow, Athens or LA, with chanters and choir, icons and incense. The funeral meant that the church was filled to overflowing with representatives of the other dozen churches in the city, with most standing throughout the rites (common in Eastern churches). I noticed, however, that Armenians favor the more Western style of iconography, rather than Byzantine.

As I stood there, I felt blessed to be a Christian because being Christian means being a peacemaker; it means being committed to compassion as a way of life; and it means that all men are my brothers and all women my sisters. I cannot fathom the kind of Christianity that lords itself over the rest of humanity, insisting that they bend their knees in obedience and subjugation to us rather than trusting God to guide them to Himself.

Meeting Mr. Nikbeen
While the services were going on, the rest of the delegates were visiting with Mr. Behzad Nikbeen, Priest of the Zardooshti (or Zoroastrian) Fire Temple in Jolfa (where I joined them later). They got an introduction to Zoroastrianism, the religious tradition of Iran founded by Zardushi in the sixth century BC, predating Islam by some 1200 years. Like Sunni Muslims, Zoroastrians pray five times a day. Their spiritual practice is based on the four sacred elements of earth, water, wind, and fire. The latter, because it is a symbol of light, is particularly sacred. The priest spoke about his belief that Zoroastrians are in a unique position to act as bridge persons between faiths in Iran, and emphasized the need to talk together and accept one another. Zoroastrians believe in one God. Their holy book, the Gattah, was written by the prophet Zoroaster. Nikbeen has a holy book of every faith in his office. Most members of our group were impressed with the tradition of tolerance, the roles of men and women and the general philosophical approach of this indigenous religion which posits an eternal struggle between forces of good and evil and worships the God named Ahura Mazda. About 45,000 adherents to this faith remain in Iran, with the largest number in the western region (many having migrated to India, where there are known as "parsis" (or Persians); they have been highly successful in that culture).

The late Terence O’Donnell, an American who lived in Iran from 1957 to 1971 (and who acted as one of the resource persons who prepared my group to encounter Iranian culture), wrote about an afternoon’s friendly chat between leaders of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities in Esfahan in a time before any Americans, automobiles or internet were on the scene. He wrote these words for them:

Bishop Kent stood up, brushing off the seat of his pants. “My word. It’s late. I must be off to evensong.”
The Imam drew his cloak around him. “And I to the mosque for the call to prayer.”
And I am late for kaddish,” the Rabbi said.
Yes,” said the Imam, standing up, “we must hurry to God.”
Don’t trip on the way,” the Rabbi laughed.
Rabbi,” the Imam stood on one leg, “you are too droll, always your little jokes. But,” he smiled, shaking his finger at Rabbi Garbade, “we shall see, we shall see in eternity who reaches paradise first.”
Ah, yes, in eternity,” the Archbishop sadly said. “There at last we shall be as one. But at least,” he smiled, “here in our beloved Isfahan we have come close to it, haven’t we.”

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