Friday, January 12, 2018

I love exploring Tehran’s District 12, the heart and soul of the city in my opinion. It’s not hard for me to get lost in my imagination, dreaming up the conversations that went on behind the doors that now stand deep in pavement unable to be opened, and imaging the faces that gazed out of the now shattered windows. When I wrote about Lalezar Street, I mentioned that my fantasy was to have a “Midnight in Paris” moment with a horse and carriage magically appearing and transporting me back to old Tehran. But when I stepped foot in Oudlajan, I realized it wasn’t necessary. Just strolling through this neighborhood, one of Tehran’s oldest, was itself traveling back in time.

Darolfonoon School, Oudlajan, Tehran, Iran
Entrance of Darolfonoon School

I started my journey into the past in the present, on Naser Khosrow Street where I first passed Darolfonoon School, Iran’s first modern school founded by Amir Kabir, the prime minister of Iran, in 1851. As I continued down this pedestrian path, I came across Saraye Roshan, one of the first commercial centers established around 1932. I had seen pictures of it before, and given the architecture, I could hardly believe it was in Tehran. It seemed like the architect couldn’t decide on a theme and so went with the overall theme of gothic, threw in a mishmash of cherubs to make it seem Roman, and finally ended with the Zoroastrian symbol of the Ahura Mazda. Completely senseless yet beautiful. 

Saraye Roshan, Tehran, Iran, Oudlajan
Saraye Roshan
Saraye Roshan, Tehran, Iran, Oudlajan
Close-up of Saraye Roshan

Turn around and you see the backside of Shamsol Emareh, the Edifice of the Sun, one of the complexes of Golestan Palace. You can hardly believe that at one point in time, this used to be the highest tower in Tehran, offering sweeping views of the city. The clock sitting between the windcatchers was presented to Nasser al-Din Shah by Queen Victoria. 

Shamsol Emareh, Oudlajan, Tehran, Iran
The back of Shamsol Emareh

From here, I turned into the two-tiered Marvi Bazaar whose porticos took me back to my days living in Bologna, Italy. And from here I came out somewhere along the backside of the Grand Bazaar (I always get completely disoriented in that area) but then plowed on towards the old Oudlajan Bazaar. It’s in these arched brick hallways that Timcheh Akbarian, Iran’s first bank, is located. Now a small teahouse, this former bank dates back to the Qajar era in the 18th century.

Marvi Bazaar, Oudlajan, Tehran, Iran
Entrance of Marvi Bazaar
Marvi Bazaar, Oudlajan, Tehran, Iran
Marvi Bazaar

Timcheh Akbarian, First bank of Iran, Oudlajan, Tehran, Iran
Inside Timcheh Akbarian

Now that I was officially within the borders, I came across some amazing sites I never knew existed in Tehran. Snaking my way through the narrow paths of Oudlajan, a once predominantly Jewish quarter, I noticed that down one of the narrowest alleys was a door with the Star of David on it. I had stumbled upon Ezra Yaghoub Synagogue, now seemingly forgotten in the back streets.

Ezra Yagoub, Synagogue, Oudlajan, Tehran, Iran
Entrance of Ezra Yaghoub Synagogue

Ezra Yagoub, Synagogue, Oudlajan, Tehran, Iran
Ezra Yaghoub Interior
Ezra Yagoub, Synagogue, Oudlajan, Tehran, Iran
Ezra Yaghoub Interior
Ezra Yaghoub Synagogue in Oudlajan Tehran Iran
Books inside Ezra Yagoub Synagogue

Fakhr ol Maluk Mansion, once owned by a Qajar minister, has been converted into Noon o Namak Restaurant. Despite their out-of-the-way location, they are apparently always booked. 

Fakhr ol Maluk Mansion, Oudlajan, Tehran, Iran
Fakhr ol Maluk Mansion

Navab Bathhouse is the site of a scene in the pre-revolution film Qeysar, starring beloved acting legend Behrouz Vossoughi. The space pod-like rooftop is a familiar sight in cities like Yazd or Kashan, but was not one I expected to see in Tehran. It’s now hidden among the higher rooftops of this concrete jungle. The bathhouse itself is nothing to write home about. At the time of my visit, it held little more than a few pieces of local handicrafts for sale. 

Navab Bathhouse, Oudlajan, Tehran, Iran
Navab Bathhouse

Navab Bathhouse Rooftop, Oudlajan, Tehran, Iran
Rooftop of Navab Bathhouse

The cone-shaped Imamzadeh Yahya Mosque reminded me of Daniel Nabi’s Mosque in Susa. An ‘Imamzadeh’ is the tomb of a person who descended from the Prophet Mohammad, and these small shrines dot Iran. The shrine grounds here protect a 900-year-old plane tree.

Plane tree in Imamzadeh Yayha, Oudlajan, Tehran, Iran
This 900-year old plane tree is housed in the Imamzadeh Yahya courtyard

Across the way are the windcatchers of the Qajar era Kazemi House, which currently hosts a museum. The simple yet elegant brick building is surrounded by a beautiful garden and offers a glimpse into the life of the wealthy Tehranis of that time. The badgir extending from the roof is yet another feature more commonly seen across Yazd or Bandar Laft in Qeshm but unexpected for Tehran.

Kazemi House, Oudlajan, Tehran, Iran
Kazemi House

As I wandered through the streets around Oudlajan, what struck me most was the fact that it seemed trapped in time. Men were working behind hidden doors or pushing trolleys that barely fit through the alleys. Women in black chadors were going about their daily business. Wooden doors stuck in the pavement made me wonder when the last time was that anyone had opened them and when they fell from use. Then there were the Saqqakhaneh, an encased water fountain-like structure built as a sort of charity. People can have a sip and say a prayer for the person who built it. Even public bathhouses were still in use here. It all seemed so far removed from the rest of Tehran, I felt as though I had not just visited a completely new town, but rather crossed into another era. 

Oudlajan, Tehran, Iran
Woman in Oudlajan

Oudlajan, Tehran, Iran
Man shopping in Oudlajan
Oudlajan, Tehran, Iran
Man working in  Oudlajan
Oudlajan, Tehran, Iran
A street in Oudlajan

I thought of today’s elite of Tehran, perched in their comfortable, cushy high rises in the north, most likely unaware of (or rather uninterested in) the fascinating history that exists just a few kilometers south. But it’s not just limited to the elite. I know my relatives are confused as to why such places interest me. Just as they asked, “Why are you going to Lalezar?” They asked, “Oudlajan? Why would you want to go there? It’s so old and dirty.” (Some had never even heard of it.) But then again, it's not entirely unusual when talking about our hometowns. I thought of myself when Arlington Cemetery would become flooded with tourists in the summer. “Why on earth would anyone want to visit there?” I would ask myself. Sometimes I think it takes seeing these places through the eyes of a person just passing through to truly appreciate their beauty and value. 


Oudlajan, Tehran, Iran

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