Kashan is the oldest city of Iran. It has been continuously inhabited for nine thousand years, since the Kasian tribe settled in the slopes of Sialk Hill, leaving to us one of the richest archaeological sites of prehistoric Iran. The city, lying where the desert and the fertile mountains meet, was for thousands of years the place of encounter for cultures, the first great stop and bazaar of the caravans crossing the desert fom the east, the city of caravanserais, center of craftsmen, wealthy merchants and politicians, with sophisticated art and lavish palaces. For Tehran, which was founded only in 1795, and which served mainly as an administrative and military center throughout the 19th century, Kashan was the cultural and intellectual backdrop where a great part of the architects and artists, writers and politicians who created the capital came from, similar to the relationship between other capitals that swelled in the 19th century, and their cultural backdrop; Berlin and Breslau, or Budapest and Szabadka. Fom the prestigious Ghaffari family of Kashan came the greatest painter of 19th-century Persia, Mohammad Ghaffari (1845-1940), who received from his patron, Shah Nasser ad-Din, the artist’s name Kamal-ol-Molk, “perfection on earth”, and is still revered across Iran.
The Ghaffari family belongs to the oldest clans of Iran. Their founder was no lesser personality than Abu Dhar al-Ghifari, a companion of Muhammad, and the first Muslim legist, about whom the site of the pro-shah family, living in exile, writes with considerable aloofness that “he was to Muhammad what Joseph Goebbels was to Hitler”. However, even this negative characterization suggests that the Ghaffari family has always belonged among the intellectual supporters of the Persian rulers, and several lawyers, politicians, writers, historians and artists, or in more recent times, filmmakers, journalists, scientists, singers and actresses have come from them. Mirza Abu’l-Hasan Ghaffari, the governor of Kashan in the late 18th century, was also an excellent painter, just like all his offspring down to Kamal-ol-Molk. The four-hundred-year-old house in the old town of Kashan, which bears the name of Kamal-ol-Molk, and where the participants of our Persian journey in late October will spend their first few nights, was among their property.
The traditional houses of Kashan have two floors, one above ground and the other below it, to keep their rooms cool even in the summer heat. Entering the Kamal-ol-Molk House, we arrive at a street level gallery, where traditionally the guests have been received and social life took place. One level below, we see a quiet courtyard with a small fountain in the middle, once surrounded by the family rooms, but now for guests. On the upper level, we are received by the two young hosts, Farshad from Kurdistan and Mohammad from Kashan. The latter is also a professional tour guide, a connoisseur of the desert. The former is a charming and intelligent manager, full of energy and ideas, who acquired his impressive English knowledge and accent only from American movies. With him we talk about the guest house.
• How did you establish the Kamal-ol-Molk guest house?
• Kashan has two hotels, both several kilometers from the old town, expensive and impersonal high-rise buildings from the eighties for business travelers and large tourist buses. We considered that the traveler comes to Kashan mainly for the old town, to see the traditional houses from inside, to have tea next to fountains in centuries-old courtyards, to immerse themselves in the maze of narrow streets and of the thousand-year-old bazaar as soon as he steps through the gate. We were looking for a traditional family house, and the Kamal-ol-Molk was just for rent. A perfect place for a guest house, not only because of its proximity to the monuments of the old town, the Agha Bozorg Grand Mosque, the great merchant’s houses, the bazaar, but also because of its historical patina, the memory of the Ghaffari family and of Kamal-ol-Molk. We made an effort to furnish the house in accordance with the requirements of a modern hotel, but in a traditional Persian way. The success of the guest house attracted others to imitate it, so now almost a dozen similar guest houses have opened in the old town. We are on good terms and cooperate with them.
• What distinguishes you from the other guest houses in Kashan?
• First and foremost is the fact that we are primarily set up for foreign travelers. English knowledge is a rare treasure in Kashan, and not very much in demand, either, since there are so few foreign tourists in Iran. Those few, however, who do need English-speaking management can only find it at Kamal-ol-Molk. Foreign travelers are sent to us from the hotels of Tehran, Isfahan and other great cities, as well as from the other guest houses of Kashan. But most of our guests come to us in the wake of news spread by word of mouth, by the recommendations of other travelers. We are almost full throughout the year. I mysef, as you have seen, give English lessons here in the upper level three times a week to local university students. I do it for free, and I only ask them to come here from time to time for an hour, speak with the guests, accompany them to the city, go with them on a desert tour of Mohammad. I hope that in this way we manage to educate a generation which speaks good English, can easily make contact with foreigners, and open Kashan for tourism.
• Apart from accommodation and desert tours, which other special offers do you have?
• For example, we are the first to lend bikes to the guests to ride in Kashan. We accompany them willingly and for free on a walk in the old town, to show them our personal city. And in the evening, if they feel like it, we cook together a traditional Persian meal.
• What are your plans for the near future?
• We want to establish our own restaurant nearby. Namely, a vegetarian restaurant. Not that we are vegans, but we find it shameful that in the whole of Kashan there is not one place where the few vegetarian tourists can have a good lunch or dinner. Most travelers associate Persian meals with kebab, although Persian cuisine has just as sophisticated meatless dishes, like in Indian cuisine. If we are successful, we want to create a franchise network in other Iranian cities, where such restaurants are also missing.
• What do you mainly recommend to European visitors of Kashan?
• The wonderful historical buildings of Kashan, many of which are also part of the World Heritage, the ancient merchant’s houses, the garden of Shah Abbas, the Grand Mosque, and the bazaar will be certainly visited by every traveler. But in Kashan it is equally fascinating to aimlessly wander in the labyrinth of the old town, look inside the courtyards of the little mosques, venture down the stairs of the abandoned houses, of which unfortunately there are too many. And the encounters with the people of Kashan. The locals here are very friendly, and they warmly welcome the guests. Even if they are not able to speak to them, they willingly show them the yards of the houses, the workshops, the mosques. Kashan is also referred to as the city of mosques, we have at least two hundred small apartment-mosques, where non-Muslims are also welcome. And, of course, the most amazing thing that one can see here is the desert. The Europeans think that the desert is dead and boring. But no, the desert is living, changeable, full of surprises. If you travel through the historical cities along the edge of the desert, Kashan, Isfahan, Yazd, Shiraz, be sure to spend a few hours away from the cities, in the desert. An unforgettable experience.
• It will be so. Thank you for the interview and the hospitality, and we wish you so much enthusiasm for many years.
Faraz Kaviani: خطی خطی های باران Khatikhatihâ-ye bârân (The scribbles of the rain). From the CD هنگامه های پگاه Hangâmehâ-ye pagâh (Dawn nearing) (2011)