On the eve of my departure from Iran in last August, we were dining with a rich textile merchant somewhere on the heights of northern Tehran.
His daughter, a cellist, a friend of a friend, had told us about the musical world in Tehran, a world between occidental and oriental classical music, between jazz and traditional singing, between male and female voices – and between public concerts and clandestine gatherings.
In her car, while slowly coming through the usual traffic jam in the evening, we listened to some of her favourite tracks until we arrived at the foot of the building, a high-rise block, very Parisian in its looks, with grey mansard roof and white shutters, planted in the middle of a green emerald garden with a wrought iron gate worthy of Versailles. Upstairs, in a huge living room with closed blinds, drawn curtains, in complete darkness, we had small talk with the young lady and her mother, each of us sitting at meters from each other. Then we had dinner with the head of the family, we had small talk again, sitting again at meters from each other around the huge table.
The scene was eerie – not a single personal object, not a single sign of inner life in the room, just the emptiness. Furniture closed on itself. The distant sound of a Qatar TV channel – the heir of the trading house, a ski teacher in his spare time, was awaiting the return of the snow.
Later, as I was about to leave, the merchant wanted me to admire his collection of rugs – the finest Isfahan carpets of the most delicate, silky and smooth fashion. The most delicate, indeed. Dozens of carpets, nearly all identical, white and creamy.
He insisted on their delicacy, the number and quality of knots, their regularity – nothing like Tabriz rugs, he said with contempt. There, they work with metal hooks. But these rugs are completely hand-knotted – but you need to have very thin fingers, the thinnest possible fingers, so there will be no irregularities. He stopped and he made a gesture with the hand: he drew a tiny hand in the air, and then he caressed a small, invisible head, sitting very low below us.
High like that.
Kayhan Kalhor & Madjid Khaladj, Endless Endearments (Har Saayeh, Khaasti…). From the CD Voices of the Shades (2011)
Here again, I was in a strange world.
One or one and a half century ago, in the time of the Qâjârs (1785-1925), the rich Persian or Armenian merchants had their homes built as lavish as palaces. Undoubtedly they also silenced their wives, sons and daughters when, sitting on their finest carpets, they entertained their guests from faraway countries.
But their palaces did not have wrought iron gates, and their gardens were not on display for passers-by. In Kashan, Isfahan or Shiraz, these proud houses are still hidden behind high walls. In Kashan, the walls are unexpectedly low and without windows, as if the houses were mere earthen cubes, several levels deep around the hollowness of their courtyards, always lower towards the water revealing itself. In Shiraz, the higher walls permit to see only the treetops of the wonderful gardens.
The Abbasi House is in Kashan the largest among the traditional houses, these historic homes from the Qâjâr period which all stand in the same neighborhood, just a few hundred meters from the Âghâ Bozorg Mosque with its dome of mud and sunken court.
Built in the late 18th century, the Abbasi House is a magnificent exemple of a traditional Persian residence. A huge maze with numerous courtyards, all very similar and yet all different. The house was built for a family of clerics, but it seems large enough to house dozens of people. A fortified house, fully enclosed on itself behind its high walls, it is said to have had several secret passages that allowed to flee the city in case of an attack.
Like most of these houses, it has a ceiling covered with fragments of mirrors, to convey at night, at candlelight, the feeling of being under a sky full of stars.
Kayhan Kalhor & Madjid Khaladj, Separating Shades (Saayeh-Roshan). From the CD Voices of the Shades (2011)
The Abbasi House is the oldest, and undoubtely the most beautiful, but probably not the most astonishing of the historic houses in Kashan. Three of these houses were built in the late nineteenth century by the same architect, Ustad Ali Maryam: the Tabâtabâei House around 1840, the impressive Borujerdi House in 1857, and the Timcheh-ye Amin od-Dowleh in 1863.
The first one, the Tabâtabâei House (Khâneh-ye Tabâtabâeihâ) was built in the 1840s for a family of wealthy carpet merchants, who were active all along the Silk Road. The house of great beauty and harmony was built around four courtyards. The walls were painted and carved, the windows made of stained glass. The house is organized symmetrically around the central courtyard and its long pool. The pater familias and master of the house received his guests in the central pavilion, at the intersection of the four courtyards, from where he could watch the activities in the house – the more so, as his married sons lived in the lateral buildings.
Kayhan Kalhor & Madjid Khaladj, Devotion of the Unveiled (Paaybandi-e Oryaan). From the CD Voices of the Shades (2011)
The Borujerdi House (Khâneh-ye Borujerdi) is another historical house in Kashan, and perhaps the most surprising of all. The house was offered in 1857 as a wedding gift by a rich merchant, Haji Mehdi Borujerdi to his wife. The bride was from the Tabâtabâei family, for whom Ustad Ali had built the above presented house just a few years earlier.
The house is organized around a single long courtyard. The main rooms were decorated with the paintings by Kamal al-Molk. Three 40-meter high badgirs (wind towers) help to cool the house on hot days: it is a natural air conditioning system which plays with the difference between the indoor and outdoor temperature. The decoration and the design of the house are characteristic of traditional Persian architecture: stucco reliefs on the facade; the three entrances of the house arranged to force oncoming people to change direction as they enter from outside (biruni) into a space oriented towards Mecca; the building organized around this axis materialized by the central pool in a courtyard enlivened by pomegranate and fig trees.
But the strangest part of the building is not visible from outside. You have to climb on the roof of the adjacent hammam to discover the stupendous domes of the Borujerdi House.
In Shiraz, the architecture is quite different – richer, if not this original. These two beautiful houses face each other on either side of a narrow, yellow and dry street to the east of the Regent’s Bazaar. Above the high walls you can only see the crown of palm trees fluttering in the wind. Behind the walls, the Bagh-e Eram, or Garden of Paradise was designed in the late nineteenth century as an imitation of the Persian gardens created by the Seljuks seven or eight hundred years earlier.
At the end of this garden there stands the Qavam House, rather a small palace, built between 1879 and 1886 by Mirza Ibrahim Khan. The Qavam family were merchants from Qazvin, who came to Shiraz in the 18th century, after the foundation of the local Zand dynasty, and acceded to high offices. Mirza Ibrahim Khan was Governor of the region of Fars. The Qavam House was only part of the Qavam residence, the building designed to accommodate the guests, so it is a house turned outward (biruni).
On the other side of the street, but connected to the first house by an underground passage, you find the house Zinat al-Mulk, a home designed for family life, and thus turned inward (andaruni).