Polo in Isfahan

April 16th, 2017

Polo in Isfahan used to be a big thing. The maydan at the centre of today’s city was originally an out-of-town garden. Then when Shah Abbas visited in 1590, he ordered it levelled and spread with river sand, to convert it into a polo field.

In 1595, a French steward called Pinçon saw how: “The King of Persia and his nobles take exercise by playing pall-mall on horseback, which is a game of great difficulty: their horses are so well trained at this that they run after the balls like cats.”

Manwaring gave more details: “There were twelve horsemen in all with the King; so they divided themselves six on the one side, and six on the other, having in their hands long rods of wood [with] on the end of the rods a piece of wood nailed on like unto a hammer.”

You can see something very similar before a modern game of polo in Isfahan, here below:

Polo teams before the match. Naqsh-e-Jahan maydan. Isfahan. Image: Payvand

Stone goals for polo in Isfahan

With a wooden ball, and goals at either end, the sport was “in the fashion of our football play here in England.” With one small difference, though, when the Shah had the ball “the drums and trumpets would play one alarum.”

I’ve included a photo of the goals which remain in the modern maydan.

Shah Abbas was a keen horseman. Cartwright, visiting in 1601, wrote of how the Shah started most days by visiting his horses in their stables. Then he viewed his Armoury, where “there are made very strong Curiasses, or Corselets, headpeeces and targets, most of them able to keep out the shot of an arquebuiser . .” [click here to see a replica 1602 arquebuisier in action] ”.

By around three o clock in the afternoon, the Shah “makes his entry into the At-Maidan, which is the greatest marketplace or high street of Hifpaan [Isfahan]”. Before 1602, the maydan had only a wall surrounding it, although there were “certain high scaffolds where the multitude do sit to behold the warlike exercises performed by the King and his courtiers”. All of these were performed on horseback, including: “running and leaping” as well as “shooting with bows and arrows, at a mark both above and beneath”. Cartwright was fascinated by the polo in Isfahan, which he described as “their playing at tennis.”

Here’s a photo of a modern game of polo in full flow in the maydan:

In action. Polo in front of the Masjid Shah, Isfahan. Image: Payvand
















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How to do hejab in Iran

April 14th, 2017

Hejab always seems a big deal for women travelling to Iran. So I thought it might be useful to share what I myself wear. I’ve visited Iran multiple times during the last decade. And can still remember the challenges I faced the first time I went to Iran!

So here’s some practical advice for any woman lucky enough to have a trip to this beautiful, hospitable and sometimes contradictory country.

In the West, hejab means the headscarf. But in Iran, women have to cover both their head, and their bum.

At all times.

That includes the steps out of the plane and the arrivals hall in the airport. If you are not going to wear your hejab on the plane, you must have it in your hand luggage.

The stereotype is that Iranian women all wear black cloak-like chador. Some women do choose to, or have to, wear chador. But see how wrong the universal cliche is here.

For travellers/tourists, chador are only necessary in shrines, or a few specific mosques. When they are necessary, chador are usually available to be borrowed – lots of Iranian women don’t always have a chador immediately to hand.

The rest of the time, most Iranian women wear a manto: a short or long ‘coat’. Many travel advice sites suggest wearing a long shirt, or shalwar kamiz. But I know that the coat-like nature of a manto means you can easily take it off in a private place – for example if – or when! – you are invited into the home of an Iranian.

And I think that going shopping for a (cheap) manto can be great fun. As well as letting you see what the current fashions are. And up to the minute fashion is a big thing in Iran!

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Just in case you thought Iranian women weren’t stylish as well as gorgeous, here are some images of high fashion in Tehran. It’s especially hot in elite North Tehran.

High Fashion in Tehran. Image: Tehran Times. Not everyone wants their face shown in fashion photos

It used to be that Iranian women wanted Western fashions. Recently, though, there are more and more Iranian designers producing some great Iranian fashion, including Raada:

Raada Fashion :And :

And Pooshema:

Fashion from Pooshema.

























There are only a few catwalks in Iran, and fashion in Tehran is much more about private showings and photo shoots. Iran is the nose-job capital of the world, and with so much plastic surgery locally, female models with less-traditionally-Iranian features are more popular. Mahya is a model who says she values her natural looks, and has not had cosmetic surgery. She explains that models do not have to be tall: “the brand may like the way [a shorter woman] looks”. But women who have had lip and cheekbone enhancements or nose surgery are more likely to be chosen as a model.

Even if not everyone is dressed in high fashion all the time, there is just as much (maybe more!) of a seasonal buzz for fashion in Tehran than there is in London. See what’s happening on the streets with the daily fashion posting at: https://manteausdaily.wordpress.com

Or you can get a good idea of fashion in Tehran in real life on this video. It’s supposed to be showing some buskers – but look at the mix of people passing by.

Iranian fashion activists include Hoda Katebi: a blogger and photographer. Her book: Tehran Streetstyle is a “visual introduction to the Iranian underground fashion scene and the young people who play active roles in shaping and defining it. This book presents an alternative view of Iranians by challenging mainstream Western notions of Iran and fashion as well as domestic government regulations”.


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Fighting hijab in Iran

March 30th, 2017

As a foreign woman in Iran, the most common question I’m asked is: “What do you think about hijab?”

I can often work out what answer I’m expected to give, simply by looking at whoever is asking. Some obviously pious women, usually without a single strand of hair showing, want to tell me how they have been liberated by hijab.

The others — women dressed in less good, or even ‘bad hijab — want to tell me (and, often, tell me and tell me again!) how much they despise the hijab laws.

These laws make it clear that all women and girls over the age of 9 must cover their head, and loosely cover their bottom, in all public places.

Some of the women — and men — who don’t like hijab are fighting against it.

The My Stealthy Freedom campaign shares pictures of women (as above) living in Iran who have enjoyed a moment of ‘stealthy freedom’ by (illegally) removing their hijab outside a domestic setting.

Men support the campaign by sharing pictures with their heads covered while their wives and female friends pose without hijab. Some #meninhijab have commented on what it’s like wearing hijab, in a video here.

Men in hijab. Image from: https://brownsparklefeminist.wordpress.com

Seven young Iranians were arrested after a video of them dancing – without hijab – to Pharell Williams ‘Happy‘ when viral. They were sentenced to six months in prison and 91 lashes, but their sentences were suspended “as long as they commit no more offenses against the Islamic Republic during the next three years”

Day to day, it’s the ‘morality police’ who enforce Iran’s Islamic code of conduct. Without notice, they set up mobile checkpoints in towns across Iran. There’s usually a van, a few bearded men and one or two women in black chadors. They can decide that women are showing too much hair, or wearing too much make-up. Women, and men too, can be wearing the wrong sort of clothes, or could be walking together when they are not married.

A woman being told off by a ‘morality policewoman’.

If the problem can’t be resolved immediately, the perpetrators can be taken into custody. An app has been developed to help people ‘get around’ the morality police – crowdsourced information about the pop-up locations means people can avoid the ‘police’.

More direct action is sometimes taken. The video here, from the city of Rasht, shows how police had to release a woman in the face of public outrage, or risk a beating themselves. And the video here shows a ‘morality policewoman’ losing out against a woman with much more hair showing than headscarf.

Even though hijab has been considered “the beating heart of the religion”, some senior politicians have spoken in the last decade against its over-zealous enforcement. Ahmadinejad, when he was President, shocked both his admirers and detractors on live television: “Some [men] get all worked up the moment there is the issue of women”, he said. “Whenever there are moral problems, they [the men] are to blame.” He added “We really consider it an effrontery that a couple are stoped on the street and asked about their relation to one another. No one has the right to ask them this kind of question. It is wrong in my opinion.”

More recently, President Rouhani has expressed a belief that citizens should not be forced into “good” behaviour, saying that “you cant send people to heaven by the whip.”


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Although a lot of women (and men) despise the hijab in Iran, many like it, and are actively choosing hijab.

Three generations wearing hijab: Left to right: long manto over black; chador; minimum legal covering. Image:The Guardian

Some of this is generational — the oldest women may be able to remember the forced unveiling of women by Reza Shah and how shocking that was: some women remained in their homes for months. Others ignored the law and continued to cover themselves up with a chador — even though they faced having their covering literally ripped off them by the police. One Iranian historian has described the decree as if “European women had suddenly been ordered to go out topless into the street.”

When compulsory veiling was introduced in 1979, many working class and rural women of all ages were not too bothered: “Even if they were not conservative and tradition-bound, wearing [hijab] reduced sexual harassment and was therefore essential in tough work environments.”

And many women and girls from traditional families gained substantially from compulsory hijab.

Those who had been prohibited by their husbands or fathers from working outside the home or pursuing university studies, suddenly gained access to places which had previously been out of bounds. Thanks to the new ‘moral’ codes, literally millions of women could leave their family homes.

Other women would not work or study without hijab “because they feared unwanted sexual attention or simply abhorred the so-called male gaze [namahram] … Gender segregation and its attendant behavioural codes allowed these women the kind of freedom of movement that they could only dream about before the revolution.” Read more here.

More fundamentally, some Muslim women — including Islamic feminists — are actively choosing hijab. If you want to know more about this, I would recommend Samina Ali’s TEDx talk on What does the Quran really say about a Muslim woman’s hijab?

And none of this rules out being stylish! An increasing number of Muslim women are giving voice to their love of fashion while wearing their hijabs.

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Some well-known — and stirring — photos show large demonstrations in Iran against compulsory hijab, on 8 March 1979 and there are more photos here.

But I just found a great colour video which make it clear the demonstrations continued for many more days:

The Revolutionary spirit of the times is evident, with women declaring that “freedom is not Eastern or Western”.

They had, they said,  not risked their lives fighting on the streets against the Shah, to now be forced to wear hijab.  Women spoke of how: “We did not have a revolution to go back”. There was a strong feeling of “Either death or freedom!”

And there was recognition that: “First they will impose the hijab, and then there will be other restrictions”.

The women were not only demonstrating against the hijab. They wanted equal rights more generally, with equal pay, and freedom of association with men.

But the women knew that the Islamic authorities had strict control over state media. This meant that even these huge demonstrations were not covered on TV.

I  thought two of the veiled women in the demonstration were especially interesting. They did NOT think that everyone should follow their own personal choice. One woman said she hoped her six daughters would NOT grow up to be veiled. Sadly, we know now that her wish did not come true.

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Hijab in Iran: the basics

March 3rd, 2017

The word hijab is often used, in the West, for the headscarf – but in Iran women over the age of 9 also need to cover their bum.

The most common ways of doing this are with a manto or a chador.

Manto are short or long coats:

  • Many female Government employees wear long, loose dark manto, with their hair carefully covered, perhaps using a bonnet or cap under their headscarf, and minimal or no make-up.
  • Many young women in North Tehran wear short, perhaps tight mantos – and many of them have much more hair showing with nothing under their headscarf (except maybe hairspray to help the tiny scarf stick on the ‘big hair’!) and very heavy make-up.

Some different styles of hijab. Image from mircorp_com

Hijab is definitely what you make of it!

Chadors look like cloaks – the same word is used for ‘tent’. But chador are nothing like a standard cloak or tent – and very definitely nothing like a draped sheet! They are specially made to drape gracefully over your forehead, fall to the ground, and be held closed from inside – ideally, hands shouldn’t be visible:

  • Underneath a chador, women will usually wear (sometimes multiple layers of) long clothes to around ankle-length. They will often have a cap to ensure all their hair is covered, and a headscarf or something like a maghna-eh in case the chador slips.
  • I’ve seen lots of women wearing chador they’ve constructed to smoothly fit over a shoulder bag.
  • Many pious women choose to wear chador all the time. Students officially have to wear chadors.
  • Chadors are obligatory at some shrines – if so, you will be able to borrow one.
  • Rural women often wear chador tied around their middles, so they’re not stopped from working and getting on with daily life – you cant hold your chador closed from inside, when you’re doing agricultural work!
  • The western TV news stereotype has women in black chadors chanting ‘Death to America’ and I have been in a crowd of demonstrators doing just that – at the same time as welcoming me to Iran!
  • Not all chador are plain black – most rural women usually wear blue and white patterned chador, and many pious urban women who wear black chador in the street also have patterned (often blue and white) chador to wear at home.
  • Only once have I seen a high fashion chador – made from very gorgeous semi-transparent patterned material, worn over tight legged trousers you could just see a glimpse of. The woman wearing this was walking fast, holding the chador material over her mouth, and making sure she didn’t look at men, and that they couldn’t look at her for long (the ‘hijab of the eyes’). No wonder, I thought when I caught sight of her, that there is so much Persian poetry!

You only have to cover your hair and your bum – not your hands or toes.

Gloves aren’t necessary. Though:

  • Some very pious women wear black gloves
  • I wear white gloves when I go for a long walk – to keep the baking Iranian sun off my hands

You can wear open-toe sandals in most places.

If your hijab is sloppy, it may be called ‘bad-hijab’, especially by those many women and men who actively like hijab. Please be respectful of these people. They are then much more likely to be respectful of you!


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On the way into Natanz from Isfahan, don’t miss the Gonbad-i Bāz – the unique Safavid hawking pavilion built by Shah Abbas the First as “the greatest tribute ever paid to a single bird”. This unusual survival of a non-religious Safavid building is an octagonal domed tower perched on a conical mountain near Natanz.

View from the minaret at the Natanz shrine - the gonbad-baz is the little bleb on the highest mountain

View from the minaret at the Natanz shrine – the gonbad-baz is the little bleb on the highest mountain

I love how it can be seen from all around. I love even more the stories that are told about why it was built.

Although Kleiss suggests that it is a royal pavilion for hunting the “numerous deer” in the area; most other writers, and all the many locals I have spoken to, say that it commemorates a very special hunting bird.

According to Encyclopaedia Iranica, in 1592-3 Shah Abbas the Great ordered a mausoleum built for his favourite hunting bird, the valiant and gallant Lavand. This bāz – the word denotes both hawks and falcons – died during a hunting party near Natanz. To “the great affliction of the shah”, who would have been only 21 years old, the bird drowned whilst “tenaciously chasing a partridge inside a deep well”. A slightly earlier painting in the Metropolitan Museum gives an idea of what this hunting party might have looked like.

The octagonal hawking pavilion above Natanz. Image: Tishineh.com

The local version of the story is slightly different. It still concerns Abbas hunting near Natanz, a courageous bird, and a well. But in this account, just as Abbas went to drink, the “King’s darling” inexplicably struck his cup from his hand. When Abbas tried again, the bird attacked again. On the Shah’s third attempt, and the bird’s third strike, Abbas ordered the bird killed.  As the Shah returned to the water to drink unmolested, the Shah, or perhaps one of his falconers, noticed a snake slithering away. The sharp-eyed bird had saved the Shah’s life, but paid the ultimate price for his faithfulness!

According to the Natanzi’s, it was actually then the mayor of Natanz who had the gonbad – the dome – built.

Many pavilions were built in the Safavid era, but very few have survived. This one is constructed in relatively permanent building materials and in a relatively inaccessible place. There is a path – which I only found out about after I failed to climb up without one!

Young Safavid man, with his hawk. I couldn’t resist sharing this painting. Image: pinterest

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Many travellers stop at Natanz to see the gorgeous Ilkhanid (early 14th century) façade. It’s only an hour or so from Isfahan, on the way to Kashan.

Old photo of the frontage at Natanz shrine – presumably before the renovations in the 1970s. Image: Thanks to the staff at the Shrine

But when I first went there, I was excited to see the ancient plane trees at the front of the Shrine. These have been suggested to have protected the façade from the sun and wind, even if an old photo (at least partially) refutes this idea.

Ancient Plane tree at front of Natanz shrine

Ancient Plane tree at front of Natanz shrine. Image: Caroline Mawer

Stories tell of the “monstrous” plane tree “under which from time immemorial have lodged all the caravans which came from Shiraz or Isfahan to Qazvin and Tabriz”.  Even at midday, with the sun right overhead, the huge branches of this plane tree apparently shaded an area of more than thirty paces size. The Spanish Ambassador, García de Silva y Figueroa, described seeing a caravan of 200 camels, horses and other beasts of burden easily accommodated in the tree’s shadow when he travelled up to Qazvin to meet Shah Abbas the Great in 1618.

And Shah Abbas himself stayed by or under the plane tree when he walked from Isfahan to Mashhad in 1601.

Since oriental plane trees can live 2000 years, it’s theoretically possible that it’s the same tree. But I soon worked out that the tree in front of the shrine is NOT the one in the stories.

Satellite view: showing the avenue of plane trees through the middle of the town; the shrine with the ancient plane trees out the front; the shadow of the 37 metre minaret – and the site of the stump that I was shown by local men as the site of the “monstrous” tree in Safavid times

First, the people from Natanz say that the town traditionally stretched “az chenar ta menar” – from the plane tree to the minaret (of the Shrine). The chenar they are talking about can’t be just outside the sShrine!

Also, Figueroa described the plane tree he saw as being 200 paces from the Shrine.

Instead, the local Cultural Service staff showed me another – once enormous – stump now with just a few struggling leaves. This is shown on a satellite map of the town. The stump is very nearby the modern market – which fits with the idea that supplies were sold to travellers beside the monstrous tree.

But the tree at the front of the shrine does give an idea of the enormous tree in Natanz that the Safavid travellers admired so much.

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Persian and Indian textiles

January 13th, 2016

I just saw the V&A Fabric of India exhibition. It’s great: gorgeous colours, lots of short videos about how things are made … and several pieces that irresistibly reminded me of Persian textiles. You’ve just got time to go see for yourself – it ends 10 Jan

There was a lovely handpainted floor spread from the Coromandel coast.

Coromandel floor spread seen in V&A exhibition. Page: V&A

Coromandel floor spread seen in V&A exhibition. Page: V&A

Even if Persian textiles don’t have flowery grounds quite like the one here, it includes sportsmen and drinkers who look really quite Persian to me.

The image below is a turned-round version of a detail from the top border. Look at their hats, look at the clothes!

Or do you think I’m wrong? Maybe the faces are more Indian than Persian?

Detail from the top border of the Coromandel floor spread in the V & A exhibition. Image: V&A

























A mid-17th century, Deccan silk and velvet hanging from LACMA has a very similar feeling compared to the late 16th / early 17th century, Iranian silk velvet on permanent display in the V&A. Even if the figures shown in the Deccan textile are women, while the Persian textile shows  men!

Was this some sort of standard? Or is it possible that the Indian weavers saw something like the Persian textiles? And decided to try something similar?

And look at this early chintz (below) – with two men and two youths dressed a la Persane – even if they have disconcertingly blue eyes. It includes two European men – who are said to be “probably Dutch” – a striped dog, and two women in Indian-Western dress; plus glass dishes and vessels in Venetian, European, Chinese and Indo-Persian styles; all set in some sort of Indian palace.

It’s all very similar to motifs in Persian book paintings, if not in quite so many Persian textiles. It’s another reminder of the spread of the Persianate world!

'Depicting nations' in the V & A Fabric of india exhibition. Image: V&A















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