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Esfahan, Iran

Esfahan, Iran

Enjoyable Esfahan — the capital of Persia 400 years ago — hosts an elegant palace and dazzling mosques. An imam discusses the differences between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and the reasons for the Iran-Iraq War. We visit a bazaar to learn about Persian carpets.

Complete Video Script

Iran's main highway, slices through the empty landscape, linking the country's leading cities like a lifeline.

After a few hours we reach Esfahan. The city, with a million and a half people, is a showcase of Persian splendor. One of the finest cities in Islam and the cultural heart of Iran, it's famous for its dazzling blue tiled domes and romantic bridges. Iranians come here to both connect with their heritage and to celebrate it. I'm not surprised that this city is Iran's number one honeymoon destination.

Along with being romantic, Esfahan is also just plain enjoyable. Its main boulevard is a delight giving the visitor a slice-of-life look at today's commerce. It's a bustling scene as entertaining for its people watching as it is for its window-shopping. We found the people in Esfahan were as friendly and willing to talk to us as they were in the countryside.

Rick: What is your name?
Woman: Lucia.
Man: Your heart is very kind.
Rick: Thank you, your heart is kind, too.
Man: I am very philanthropic.
Rick: Yeah? Can I take your photograph? Hello… Thank you… America and Iran, we can be friends.
Man: I wish that the relationship between Iran and America become good.
Rick: Me too.

The Chehel Sotun Palace is a vivid reminder that Esfahan was the capital of Persia 400 years ago. With its reflecting pool and fine gardens, the palace gives you a sense of Persia's 16th and 17th century golden age. The portico features twenty slender and stately wooden columns. The entrance shows the geometric motif the Persians were famous for. Twinkling mirrors lure you into the interior of the palace.

I was struck by the elegance and grace of Islamic Persia at its zenith. With tender dancers, flowing hair, and dashing moustaches, the sumptuous richness of this culture comes across in these fine paintings.

Scenes in its grand hall show how, around four centuries ago, the king or shah maintained, defended, and expanded his empire. Here the shah and his troops quell a revolt against his rule by the Uzbekis.

Then, defending his empire, the shah battles the Ottoman Turks — with their frightening new artillery — and manages to stop the Ottoman's Eastward juggernaut. Waging what I would imagine was very high powered diplomacy; the shah threw extravagant banquets in this very palace. These splendid scenes seem to show off the very best of Persian life.

In Esfahan, everything seems to radiate from the grand Imam Square — it's one of the largest in the world. Like so much in Iran that prior to 1979 was named for the Shah, now it's named after Khomeini, the great Imam — as leading Muslim teachers are called. Two striking mosques face Imam Square.

The smaller mosque was built for the women of the shah's harem. Under its colorful dome, lattice windows illuminate intricate mosaic work.

The Imam mosque — one of holiest in Iran — is both huge and beautiful with the elaborate decoration typical of Persian mosques. It has exquisite tile work and was constructed in the early 1600s. That's about when Bernini was redoing St. Peter's basilica and Europe was in its Baroque age.

Its towering façade is as striking as the grandest cathedrals of Europe. But Islam forbids images. Therefore, rather than the carved statues you'd find decorating a Christian church, a mosque has decorative designs and script. This creates a visual chant of Koranic verses praising Allah — or God. Locals believe that the color pattern of the tiles: light Turkish blue and dark Persian blue — is calming and contributes to spiritual healing.

This mosque's cantor is happy to demonstrate the splendid acoustics of its 17th century dome.

We're here it seems with much of Esfahan for Friday prayers. Filled with thousands of worshippers, the mosque comes to life. This scene struck me as similar to a church service back home — sermon… responsive reading… lots of prayer… lots of getting up, and getting down.

But there are perplexing differences: women worship in a separate section; soldiers stand guard among the worshippers — a reminder of the tensions within today's Islamic world; … and the seemingly innocuous yellow banner in the background proclaims death to Israel.

This disturbing mix of politics and religion apparently results from a deep seated resentment of Western culture imposed on their world. Esfahan, as a religious center, is an ideal place to try to better understand complexities like these.

Officially this is the Islamic Republic of Iran. It's a Shiite Muslim theocracy… there's no separation of mosque and state. The constitution does allow for other religions as long as they don't offend Islam. A major concern: Mohammad, who came in the 7th century, is considered the last prophet. That's why Sunni Muslims, Christians and Jews are tolerated but Bahai's (whose prophet, Baha u llah, came in the 19th century) are not. Tolerance?…to a degree. Religious freedom? Well let's put it this way: if you want to get anywhere in Iran's military or government you better be a practicing Shiite Muslim.

Iranians are predominately Shiite Muslim, not Sunni Muslim. Struggling to understand the difference, I asked our local guide, Mr. Seyed Rehim Bathaei, to explain.

Rick: So, there are more than a billion Muslims on this planet. Some are Sunni, some are Shiite, what's the difference?
Seyed: Difference is very simple. They were split after the death of the prophet Muhammad, and it was the beginning of seventh century, and it was over the succession of the prophet Muhammad. Those people who believed in Ali, as a successor of prophet Muhammad, and also his descendants, were Shiite, became Shiite. And those who didn't believe in the system, we call them Sunni's.
Rick: All the different Christians have one bible, what about Shiite's and Sunni's?
Seyed: They have got the same book, same holy book, it's called Koran. Same verses, same writing.
Rick: Good Sunni, good Shiite die, do they both go to heaven?
Sayed: They both go to heaven. That's the same for Sunni and Shiite's… There are only minor differences.
Rick: But these differences seem small, but still, many people are dying, and I read in the news Sunni fighting Shiite. Of course, Protestants have fought Catholics and many people were dying, today in Islam Sunni and Shiite are fighting, why is that?
Sayed: Just consider that many nations have fought each other during the course of history, not all of it has been because of religion.
Rick: But there's so much bloodshed between Sunni's and Shiite's. In the 1980's, one million casualties between Sunni Iraq and Shiite Iran. Why do they fight and shed blood when the differences seem so small?
Sayed: Because it wasn't a religious war. It has got nothing to do for being a Shiite or Sunni. That was a territorial thing, and also ambitions of a dictator, Saddam Hussein.
Rick: Economic expansion, nationalism.
Sayed: Nationalism, economic expansion, some help from superpowers. I think the best example for the people in the West to understand these matters between Shiite's and Sunni's, is this example of England and Ireland.

Whatever the root causes — religious or nationalism…the Sunni and Shiite Muslims share a bloody past. And the conflict continues. Like cities throughout Iran, Esfahan has a cemetery dedicated to the estimated 200,000 Iranian martyrs — as anyone who dies in a religious or national war is called — of the Iran/Iraq war. All the portraits and all the dates are from the 1980s.

Today, over two decades later, the cemetery is still very much alive with mourning loved ones. While the United States lives with the scars of Viet Nam, a generation of Iranians live with the scars of their war with Iraq — a war in which Iran, with one quarter of our population, suffered many times the deaths.

It's traditional in Iran to picnic at the gravesites of lost loved ones. We met two families, who each lost a son in the war, sharing a meal. They first met here twenty years ago and became friends. Their surviving children married. And they've shared memorial meals together here at the tombs of their lost sons ever since.

Esfahan's sprawling covered Bazaar still serves the community — as it has for 1300 years. It functions like a big shopping mall. Locals pick up the basics for everyday living. For me, it was a great opportunity to get a lesson in things uniquely Persian from merchants who, perhaps, had never met an American tourist.

Rick: Tell me, what is this for? Many colors…
Man: It is ah, seven spices.
Rick: Seven spices.
Man: Cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, red pepper, coriander and this is muscat. You then mix together and like this…
Rick: Ok, this is a pirates-punch…
Man: For cooking, this is for chicken or meat.
Rick: Oh, that takes me back to dinner last night, yea…
Man: Very delicious.
Rick: So when I have a meat dish in a restaurant I will have this spice, all mixed together.
Man: Yeah, mixed together.
Rick: This is saffron.
Man: Yeah, this is saffron.
Rick: Can I taste a little bit?
Man: Yeah, yeah… very good for body.
Rick: For the… yeah, I bet.
Rick: Am I red?

Like a vast department store, the bazaar has different sections. The countless gold shops are a reminder that for locals — especially the women — gold is a solid way to keep your wealth. It's considered a hedge against currency devaluation and inflation… and, it's dazzling to wear. Traditionally, women here wore their personal savings in the form of gold bracelets.

Another local treasure is so typical of this land that the words just fit together: Persian carpets. We're dropping into a shop for a little lesson.

Persian carpets go back twenty five hundred years and have a rich tradition. There are two types: Nomadic and city-woven. Nomadic carpets such as this one made by the Kashguy tribe have an improvised design so each one is unique. They always have a geometric design, are made of lamb's wool and use organic colors made from vegetable dyes.

City-woven carpets can be made of wool and/or silk. They are based on a pre-determined design and usually have floral patterns. This one, made in the Ayatollah Khomeini's city of Khomayn, took one master weaver 14 months to complete. With a combination of skill, tradition, and the finest materials, Iranians believe that Persian carpets are the best in the world.