Mountain Hideouts: Maalula and Abiyaneh

Two towns we have visited on our trip, Maalula in Syria and Abiyaneh in Iran, bear certain resemblances to each other, and I thought that it was worth covering their similarities in a post.

Maalula is located about an hour and a half north of Damascus, in the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon mountains. The village is famous not only for having a very early Christian population–seemingly established in the first centuries after Christ–but also for the fact that its residents continue to speak Aramaic, the language that was spoken by Jesus. Shops in town sell basic Aramaic grammars and the Lord’s Prayer written in Aramaic script. While it is true that many Syrians are Christian, Maalula sticks out as a particularly Christian-dominated town, where churches far outnumber mosques and a statue of Mary stands tall above the town.

Abiyaneh, located about an hour or so north of Esfahan, is also in something of a hidden valley. While its residents now share Iran’s dominant religion of Shia Islam, Abiyaneh was a late holdout of Zoroastrianism, and the remnants of a fire temple are visible near the town center. Abiyaneh is known for maintaining many unique traditions, and, like Maalula, its residents (or at least its oldest residents) speak an archaic language (Middle Persian, dating from the Sassanid era, before the Arab conquest and Islam).

Abiyaneh at sunset

The women of Abiyaneh are famous for their dress, which includes floral headscarves–much more cheerful than the black chadors worn by other older Iranian women.

This woman is knocking the door with her knuckles, but note the different metal knockers on the left and right doors–they are designed to make different noises so that the residents of the house know whether a man or a woman is at the door.

A couple local men

A local man at the top of an old underground cistern, a common site in Iran (though largely unused).

We saw relatively few younger people in Abiyaneh. We were told later that many residents of Abiyaneh are quite wealthy, and have citizenship in countries other than Iran. The elderly population is resident year-round, while others return for holidays and special events. Even before widespread emigration, people from Abiyaneh were known for accumulating land in neighboring towns, and such purchases were celebrated by the village while those who sold land away were considered traitors.

Maalula and Abiyaneh are reminders that mountainous or remote terrain has acted to protect minorities and persecuted/targeted groups for centuries, and of the ability of such terrain to fragment and shelter languages. Today, however, with modern technology, mass culture and more powerful governments, such barriers are no longer effective, and the scattered residents of Abiyaneh and the residents of Maalula will no doubt have difficulty maintaining their local traditions and dialects.

Shia Islam

Before starting, I want to stress that I know little about Islam or the distinctions between Sunnis and Shiites. Nonetheless, as a reasonably educated person with a basic understanding of religions, it has been both puzzling and interesting to learn about Shia Islam, and to see traditions and practices that seem to differ quite significantly with other religions that I have had at least some contact with through earlier travels. I imagine that this post would be especially interesting to those of you who know more than I do, to see an outsider’s impressions of the Shia faith Feel free to enlighten me, should I be mistaken or confused.

To start, the principal historical distinction between Sunnis and Shiites: the succession contest after the death of Mohammed. After the death of Mohammed in 632, there arose a dispute as to who should succeed his role as the (religious and political) head of the Islamic world. One faction supported Ali, cousin and son-in-law of Mohammed, while others supported Abu Bakr. In the end, Abu Bakr was elected the first caliph (or successor to Mohammed), followed in relatively quick succession by Umar, Uthman, and then finally Ali. Showing the contentiousness of the power struggles at the time, Umar, Uthman and Ali each met his end by murder. Some blamed the death of Uthman on the Ali faction (now known as Shiites), while the Shiites blamed the death of Ali on the others (now known as Sunnis). Following the death of Ali, the Sunni Umayyad dynasty, based in Damascus, took over the caliphate. During this period, the conflict between the majority Sunnis and the minority Shiites deepened, especially after the Umayyads killed Ali’s son Hussein, much of his family and many of his followers, at a battle near Karbala in now Iraq.

Shiites did not recognize the Sunni caliphs (which office survived to the twentieth century in the Ottoman Empire) but trace the authority of Mohammed through Ali, his wife (and daughter of Mohammed) Fatima and their progeny. Starting with Ali (the first Imam, or leader), then Ali’s and Fatima’s son Hassan (the second Imam), then Hassan’s brother Hussein (the third Imam), and then followed by lineal descendants of Hussein for nine more generations, the Shiites (or more precisely the “Twelver” Shiites, cf. my post of 4.12 for “Sevener” Shiites) recognize twelve Imams, the twelfth one being Imam Mahdi, in the ninth century, who is said never to have died but simply gone into hiding (more on this below). In essence, they form a royal line starting from Mohammed (somewhat reminiscent of the fictional “royal blood” of Jesus and Mary Magdalene described in the book The Da Vinci Code).

The persons of these Imams form a central focus of Shiite worship. This seems, in my view, so elevated that the veneration of the imams approaches something akin to the veneration of Jesus and Mary (that is, in excess of the veneration of saints) among Christians. The names of Ali and Hussein in particular appear in calligraphic form all over Shiite Mosques, emphasizing in my view not only the importance of their persons (in addition to Allah and Mohammed, whose names appear alongside), but also to stress the Sunni/Shiite distinction. We also saw a young man wearing a ring with not the name of God or Mohammed, but Ali.

Ali’s name in tilework Kufic calligraphy, next to swastikas, Friday Mosque, Yazd

Poem honoring Hussein, also in tile calligraphy, Friday Mosque, Esfahan

Shiite Muslims not only honor Fatima and the Imams (the number twelve, representing the Imams, and the number fourteen, representing the Imams plus Fatima and Mohammed, play important symbolic roles), but also accord special respect to the descendants of the Imams. In Iran there are countless (over six thousand according to sources) shrines (called “imamzadeh”) for the relatives of the imams, who take on a saint-like authority to intervene on believers’ behalf. Living relatives of the Imams are also specially respected, and have a special form of dress that identifies them. [More on this to come in my post on Persian identity.]

The veneration of the Imams and their relatives takes one particularly conspicuous form, which seems to me to be a central mode of Shiite worship: mourning. Observant Shiite Muslims mourn the deaths of each of the Imams for several days, putting up black banners and often breaking out into tears. The peak of this mourning is the holy holidays of Tasua and Ashura in the Islamic month of Moharram (this year, in winter), which commemorate the death of Hussein with great ceremony, including the infamous self-flagellation with chains.

We came upon this mourning first in Syria, where there are many Iranian pilgrims visiting holy Muslim (especially Shiite) sites. We thought that many of the Iranians, mostly women in chadors accompanied by a cleric, looked unhappy and seemed unfriendly. As it turned out, this was because (or at least in part because) they were mourning. It is said that crying for the Imams can cleanse sins. One man we spoke to said that his family made an annual pilgrimage to Mashhad to mourn the death of the eighth Imam.

Iranian pilgrims, in chadors, outside the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, Syria. The Umayyad Mosque contains a shrine to Hussein including a niche in which it is said that the Umayyads placed his head after his death.

Shiite clerics at A-Sayyda Ruqayya Shrine, Damascus, Syria. Sayyda Ruqayya was the daughter of Ali.

We were in Esfahan on the anniversary of the death of Fatima. A parade featuring drums, clerics, a singer and men carrying large black, red and green flags marched through the city, followed by a crowd of men and then women in chadors, to assemble at a main park, where there was chanting and ritualized jumping up and down, slapping of heads and beating of chests. Even in religious Iran, however, the crowd was quite small for a city the size of Esfahan–much larger was the number of people observing and taking pictures and videos with their cellphone cameras.

Another important (and to me previously unknown) feature of Shiite Islam is its millenarianism, or its belief that the world as we know it will soon come to an end. It is believed that the twelfth Imam Mahdi, who was born in 868, went into hiding at age five, just after becoming the twelfth Imam at his father’s death. Still alive, Imam Mahdi will reappear on Earth at a time of great war and disorder, when he will, together with Jesus, restore peace and justice. According to people I spoke to, this could happen at any time, and some Iranians believe that George W. Bush and the state of Israel are signs that Mahdi’s time is coming soon. [It is unclear to me whether it is believed that Mahdi is still alive with his physical body on Earth, or alive in some more abstract sense.] Early Christianity was also a millenarian faith, and of course there are evangelical Christians who daily await the “Rapture.”

History of Iran: Safavid Esfahan

This is part of a series of an overview of Iranian history–please refer to my posts of 5.10 and 5.11.


The Mongols conquered much of Asia in the 13th century, establishing in the wake of Genghiz Khan four separate kingdoms, including the Ilkhanate dynasty in now Iran and the lands directly east and west of now Iran. The disintegration of the Ilkhanate kingdom in the mid-14th century brought with it a series of lesser rulers over now Iran, until the conquests of Tamerlane from now Uzbekistan in the 15th century. Tamerlane’s was an even more fleeting dynasty in Central Asia and now Iran, largely over by the reign of his grandson.

During this same period rose a Sufi (charismatic/mystical Islamic) order in Ardabil in now northwest Iran. Claiming descent from a Sufi leader named Sheikh Safi od-Din (1252-1334), who in turn was said to have descended from the seventh Shiite Imam [post on Shia Islam to come], this Sufi order became organized and militant and by the end of the fifteenth century declared itself a state that eventually conquered now Iran, the Caucasus, southwestern Central Asia and much of now Iraq and Afghanistan. During their rise they expanded trade and established links with the West, but came into conflict with neighbors the Uzbeks (to the northeast) and the Ottomans (to the west), which conflicts are memorialized in their art (see below).

The Safavids are notable not only for representing one of the high points of Iranian civilization, but also for religious intolerance. Like the Sassanids before them, the Safavids claimed descent from a religious leader (Sassan was a Zoroastrian priest) and enforced a state religion. The Safavids coerced the conversions of many Zoroastrian and Sunni Iranians to Shia Islam. One Iranian told us that the deepening differentiation of Shia beliefs and practices from those of the Sunni may have been encouraged by Europeans, who wanted to divide and weaken the Muslim world. I do not know what historical support there is for such a theory, but it seems likely to me that the Safavids also saw merit in identifying themselves as leaders of a (sub)faith in order to contrast themselves with their opponents, the Ottomans, who had stewardship of Sunni Muslims worldwide through control of the Sunni caliphate, and to unite Safavid Iran under a common banner. Then, as now, differences in religious sects were used to political ends, subfaiths used to distinguish one’s country from its neighbors. [Posts on Shia Islam and Persian identity to come.]

The greatest Safavid ruler was Shah Abbas I (1587-1629), or Shah Abbas the Great, who moved the capital of the kingdom to Esfahan and endowed it with architectural treasures, the greatest parts of which survive today. Esfahan is truly one of the most beautiful cities we have ever visited, its many Safavid relics still forming a harmonious whole, in combination with many earlier structures and the modern tree-lined streets and flowing fountains of a prosperous city.

The most famous landmark of Esfahan, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is Naqsh-e Jahan (“Pattern of the World”), or Imam, Square, located in the heart of the Safavid city. The square is truly regal in its proportions, and blessed with many architectural treasures.

On the south side of the square is the great Qeysariah Gate to the Great Bazaar of Esfahan. The mural depicts a battle between the Safavids and the Uzbeks (which was, of course, won by the Safavids).

The bazaar connects Naqsh-e Jahan Square all the way to the Friday Mosque in the northern part of the old city. [The Friday Mosque itself substantially predates the Safavids, although the Safavids, like almost every Iranian dynasty, built on to it. Post on Iranian architecture to come, which will feature some pictures of the Friday Mosque.] The shops closest to the square, including those around its perimeter, tend to specialize in handicrafts and souvenirs, including especially carpets and miniature paintings. According to guidebooks, only about a third of the bazaars of Esfahan survive, but what remains is still quite extensive.

On the north side of Naqsh-e Jahan Square is Imam Mosque, known before the Islamic revolution as the Shah Mosque.

A huge structure with a large courtyard with four iwans, the Imam Mosque’s dome and minarets can be seen from far away.

A prayer hall of the Imam Mosque, truly cavernous. The Imam Mosque is said to have been constructed in a hurry, and much of its tilework is not mosaic but painted. [Post on Iranian architecture to come.]

On the eastern side of the square is the Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque, certainly one of the most beautiful mosques that we have visited (and likely one of the most beautiful in the world). The dome is muted and subtle on the outside and simply spectacular on the inside.

Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque at night. The apparent asymmetry of the Sheikh Lotfallah and Imam Mosques from the outside is due to the Mosques’ orientation toward Mecca, not shared by the square itself.

Finally, on the west side of the square is Ali Qapu Palace. The Ali Qapu also acted as a gateway to the many palaces and parks to the west of the square.

Roof of the terrace overlooking the square.

On the west side of the square are many former palaces, all set in lush parks. We were most entranced by Chehel Sotun (“Forty Columns”) Palace, which was re-constructed in the early 18th century following a fire (which supposedly the Shah, a religious man, let burn as it must have been intended by god).

The paintings inside are spectacular, and tell many stories. Some are Safavid in origin, and depict great events of the Safavid state, such as visits by neighboring rulers seeking the aid of the Safavids and great battles showing the Safavids defeating their opponents. The murals were covered up by the Afghans, who successfully invaded Esfahan in the early 18th century. Others were painted by Nader Shah, who defeated the Afghans and took over the reigns from the Safavids. The guidebooks (though not our guide) point out one mural of a man kissing a woman’s foot which was almost destroyed by during the Islamic revolution, but saved by the palace’s custodians.

Almost matching Naqsh-e Jahan Square in terms of enjoyability are Esfahan’s bridges. Some of the bridges predate the Safavids, but their present forms are largely Safavid. The Si-o-Se (or Thirty-Three Arch) Bridge, the longest in Esfahan.

Our hotel was across the Si-o-Se, and we loved strolling across it every evening on the way back to our room, pausing to sit under its arches. While we rested and enjoyed the cool evening air at least every few minutes Esfahanis would pause to say hello, leading to some interesting conversations!

The Chubi Bridge. The Si-o-Se and the Chubi bridges both house traditional teahouses, where you can sit and enjoy the river and snacks.

Windows, a Guest Poem

A man in Esfahan gave me this poem, unsolicited, and asked me to put it on my website. Here it is:

People tell me that windows
Don’t have feelings or a heart
But when the glass of a window
Is steamed up
And I’m writing with my finger on it
The words “I love you”
Then the window panes start to cry!!!

Esfahan Moment

10 PM, sitting at a table at a fast food shop on Chahar Bagh, the main avenue in town, itself a Safavid creation. Waiting on Derek, who’s ordering food.

Shop’s full of people–what a treat to eat with others, busy and lively, illuminated signs and maybe even the glint of neon. Nice to be back in urban life, out of cities that died in the evening, people retreating to their homes. Noise of the servers wrapping up food, people ordering, and the honking of cars on the road.

I hear Derek cluck to explain that he wants chicken, and then look over just in time to catch the end of his rooster strut and see him slap his butt to indicate a thigh piece–people stare and laugh, as do I.

An African man stands at the counter, an Asiatic (Hazara?) boy meets my eyes, a man with three shirt buttons undone empties a packet of ketchup onto his pizza pie.

Bus boy stands in his dirty short sleeve uniform, wearing a New York Yankees cap, wipes his brow.

A man scraggly bearded–is he an example of the type who supports the government? Contrary to so many of the people who choose to speak to us? Is it people like him that put the country where it is?

Next table, an odd couple: A middle-aged American (?) and a younger Iranian guy. Did they meet on the Internet? What is the nature of their encounter? The American seems to be explaining atheism–something about believing himself a monkey sitting on a rock revolving around a blazing ball.

Derek returns to the table.