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Chapter 32

The Grand Avenue of Isfahan--The Madrassah--Silver gates--The
dome--The Palace--The hall of forty columns--Ornamentations--The
picture hall--Interesting paintings--Their artistic
merit--Nasr-ed-din Shah's portrait--The ceiling--The quivering

The grand Avenue of Isfahan, much worn and out of repair, and having several lines of trees along its entire length of half a mile or so down to the river, is one of the sights of the ancient capital of Persia.

About half-way down the Avenue the famous Madrassah is to be found. It has a massive, handsome silver gate, in a somewhat dilapidated condition at present, and showing evident marks of thieving enterprise. At the entrance stand fluted, tiled columns, with alabaster bases, in the shape of vases some ten feet in height, while a frieze of beautiful blue tiles with inscriptions from the Koran, and other ornamentations, are to be admired, even in their mutilated condition, on tiles now sadly tumbling down.

So much for the exterior. Inside, the place bears ample testimony to former grandeur and splendour, but at present hopeless decay is rampant here as everywhere else in Persia. The Madrassah is attributed to Shah Sultan Hussein, the founder of the Shrine at Kum, and some magnificent bits of this great work yet remain. One can gaze at the beautiful dome, of a superb delicate greenish tint, surmounted by a huge knob supposed to be of solid gold, and at the two most delightful minarets, full of grace in their lines and delicately refined in colour, with lattice work at their summit.

In the courts and gardens are some fine old trees, amid a lot of uncouth vegetation, while grass sprouts out between the slabs of stone on the paths and wherever it should not be; the walls all round, however, are magnificent, being built of large green tiles with ornamentations of graceful curves and the favourite leaf pattern. In other places white ornamentations, principally curves and yellow circles, are to be noticed on dark blue tiles. In some of the courts very handsome tiles with flower patterns are still in good preservation.

There are in the college 160 rooms for students to board and lodge. The buildings have two storeys and nearly all have tiled fronts, less elaborate than the minarets and dome, but quite pretty, with quaint white verandahs. When I visited the place there were only some fifty students, of all ages, from children to old men. Much time is devoted by them to theological studies and some smattering of geography and history.

One cannot leave Isfahan without visiting the old Palace.

In a garden formerly beautiful but semi-barren and untidy now, on a pavement of slabs which are no longer on the level with one another, stands the Palace of the Twenty Columns, called of "the forty columns," probably because the twenty existing ones are reflected as in a mirror in the long rectangular tank of water extending between this palace and the present dwelling of H. E. Zil-es-Sultan, Governor of Isfahan. Distance lends much enchantment to everything in Persia, and such is the case even in this palace, probably the most tawdrily gorgeous structure in north-west Persia.

The Palace is divided into two sections, the open throne hall and the picture hall behind it. The twenty octagonal columns of the open-air hall were once inlaid with Venetian mirrors, and still display bases of four grinning lions carved in stone. But, on getting near them, one finds that the bases are chipped off and damaged, the glass almost all gone, and the foundation of the columns only remains, painted dark-red. The lower portion of the column, for some three feet, is ornamented with painted flowers, red in blue vases. The floor under the colonnade is paved with bricks, and there is a raised platform for the throne, reached by four stone steps.

There is a frieze here of graceful although conventional floral decoration with gold leaves. In the wall are two windows giving light to two now empty rooms. The end central receptacle or niche is gaudily ornamented with Venetian looking-glasses cut in small triangles, and it has a pretty ceiling with artichoke-leaf pattern capitals in an upward crescendo of triangles.

The ceiling above the upper platform is made entirely of mirrors with adornments in blue and gold and glass, representing the sky, the sun, and golden lions. Smaller suns also appear in the ornamentation of the frieze. The ceiling above the colonnade and the beams between the columns are richly ornamented in blue, grey, red, and gold. This ceiling is divided into fifteen rectangles, the central panel having a geometrical pattern of considerable beauty, in which, as indeed throughout, the figure of the sun is prominent.

The inner hall must have been a magnificent room in its more flourishing days. It is now used as a storeroom for banners, furniture, swords, and spears, piled everywhere on the floor and against the walls. One cannot see very well what the lower portion of the walls is like, owing to the quantity of things amassed all round, and so covered with dust as not to invite removal or even touch; but there seems to be a frieze nine feet high with elaborate blue vases on which the artist called into life gold flowers and graceful leaves.

The large paintings are of considerable interest apart from their historical value. In the centre, facing the entrance door, we detect Nadir Shah, the Napoleon of Persia, the leader of 80,000 men through Khorassan, Sistan, Kandahar and Cabul. He is said to have crossed from Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass to Peshawar, and from there to Delhi, where his presence led to a scene of loot and carnage. But to him was certainly due the extension of the Persian boundary to the Indus towards the East and to the Oxus on the North. In the picture he is represented on horseback with a great following of elephants and turbaned figures.

To the right we have a fight, in which Shah Ismail, who became Shah of Persia in 1499, is the hero, and a crowd of Bokhara warriors and Afghans the secondary figures. Evidently the painting is to commemorate the great successes obtained by Ismail in Khorassan, Samarkand and Tashkend.

The third is a more peaceful scene--a Bokhara dancing girl performing before Shah Tamasp, eldest of four sons of Ismail and successor to his throne. The Shah is represented entertaining the Indian Emperor Humaiyun in 1543. The lower portion of this picture is in good preservation, but the upper part has been patched up with hideous ornamentations of birds and flowers on red ground.

Over the door Shah Ismail, wearing a white turban, is represented riding a white horse and carrying a good supply of arrows. The Shah is in the act of killing a foe, and the painting probably represents one of his heroic deeds at the battle of Khoi against Salim.

To the right of the door there is a picture of dancing and feasting, with Shah Abbas offering drink in sign of friendship to Abdul Mohmek Khan Osbek.

Finally, to the left of the front door we have pictorially the most pleasing of the whole series, another scene of feasting, with the youthful figure of Shah Abbas II. (died 1668), a man of great pluck, but unfortunately given to drunkenness and licentious living, which developed brutal qualities in him. It was he who blinded many of his relations by placing red-hot irons in front of their eyes. Considering this too lenient a punishment he ordered their eyes to be extracted altogether. We see him now, sitting upon his knees, garbed in a red tunic and turban. In the foreground a most graceful dancing-girl, in red and green robes, with a peculiar waistband, and flying locks of hair. The artist has very faithfully depicted the voluptuous twist of her waist, much appreciated by Persians in dancing, and he has also managed to infuse considerable character into the musicians, the guitar man and the followers of the Shah to the left of the picture, as one looks at it, and the tambourine figure to the right. Fruit and other refreshments lie in profusion in vessels on the floor, elaborately painted. This picture is rectangular, and is probably not only the most artistic but the best preserved of the lot.

Great labour and patience in working out details have been the aim of the artists of all these pictures, rather than true effects of nature, and the faces, hands, and poses are, of course, as in most Persian paintings, conventionalized and absolutely regardless of proportion, perspective, fore-shortening or atmospherical influence or action--generally called aerial perspective. The objection, common in nearly all countries, England included, to shadows on the faces is intensified a thousand-fold in Persian paintings, and handicaps the artist to no mean degree in his attempts to give relief to his figures. Moreover, the manipulation and concentration of light, and the art of composing a picture are not understood in old Persian paintings, and the result is that it is most difficult to see a picture as an ensemble. The eye roams all over the painting, attracted here by a patch of brilliant yellow, there by another equally vivacious red, here by some bright detail, there by something else; and like so many ghosts in a haunted room peep out the huge, black, almond-shaped eyes, black-bearded heads, all over the picture, standing like prominent patches out of the plane they are painted on.

The pictures are, nevertheless, extremely interesting, and from a Persian's standpoint magnificently painted. Such is not the case with the modern and shocking portrait of Nasr-ed-din Shah, painted in the best oil colours in European style, his Majesty wearing a gaudy uniform with great wealth of gold and diamonds. This would be a bad painting anywhere in Persia or Europe.

The ceiling of this hall is really superb. It has three domes, the centre one more lofty than the two side ones. The higher dome is gilt, and is most gracefully ornamented with a refined leaf pattern and twelve gold stars, while the other two cupolas are blue with a similar leaf ornamentation in gold. There is much quaint irregularity in the geometrical design of the corners, shaped like a kite of prettily-arranged gold, blue and green, while other corners are red and light blue, with the sides of green and gold of most delicate tones. These are quite a violent contrast to the extravagant flaming red patches directly over the paintings.

The hall is lighted by three windows at each end near the lower arch of the side domes, and three further double windows immediately under them. There is one main entrance and three exits (one large and two small) towards the throne colonnade.

Through narrow lanes, along ditches of dirty water, or between high mud walls, one comes six miles to the west of Isfahan to one of the most curious sights of Persia,--the quivering minarets above the shrine and tomb of a saint. These towers, according to Persians, are at least eight centuries old.

Enclosed in a rectangular wall is the high sacred domed tomb, and on either side of the pointed arch of the Mesjid rise towards the sky the two column-like minarets, with quadrangular bases. A spiral staircase inside each minaret, just wide enough to let a man through, conveys one to the top, wherein four small windows are to be found. By seizing the wall at one of the apertures and shaking it violently an unpleasant oscillation can be started, and continues of its own accord, the minaret diverging from the perpendicular as much as two inches on either side. Presently the second minaret begins to vibrate also in uniformity with the first, and the vibration can be felt along the front roof-platform between the two minarets, but not in other parts of the structure. A large crack by the side of one of the minarets which is said to have existed from time immemorial foretells that some day or other minarets and front wall will come down, but it certainly speaks well for the elasticity of minarets of 800 years ago that they have stood up quivering so long.

The minarets are not very high, some thirty-five feet above the roof of the Mesjid, or about seventy-five feet from the ground. The whole structure, of bricks and mud, is--barring the dangerous crack--still in good preservation. On the outside, the minarets are tiled in a graceful, geometrical transverse pattern of dark and light blue.

A visit to the sacred shrine of the quivering minarets has miraculous powers--say the Persians--of curing all diseases or protecting one against them, hence the pilgrimage of a great number of natives afflicted with all sorts of complaints. Beggars in swarms are at the entrance waiting, like hungry mosquitoes, to pounce upon the casual visitor or customary pleasure-seeker of Isfahan, for whom this spot is a favourite resort.