The Persian Garden

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In our trip in May 2017, we ticked off three: Fin garden in Kashan, the ancient garden in Pasargadae, and Eram garden in Shiraz. We also had a fair glimpse of Chehel Sotun garden in Esfahan from its gates. Generally, it is imperative to visit at least one Persian garden in any visit to Iran and it is not hard to find one, although only nine are inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites (WHS). However, after having seen India’s Persian gardens earlier in 2015, which were adopted by the Moghuls using no less than Persian artisans, how should we appreciate the Persian gardens from the country where the tradition originated?

 

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Kashan’s Fin garden

 

We visited Bag-e Fin on a Friday, which was not the best day to be a tourist in Iran since it is their weekend. Expecting tranquility and peace in the oldest functioning Persian garden in the world that was built in 1590, what welcomed us was a garden fully packed with locals picnicking and groups occupying every known space inside. Sadly, knowing that we enjoy taking photos, the experience did not turn out the way we expected it to be. If there was any consolation, however,  at least the waters were flowing, all the fountains were working, the pools were not empty, and the water source, the Solomon’s spring (a qanat opening that also feeds water to the T-Listed Tepe Sialk), can be publicly seen at the back. There were other attractions inside (ridiculously with separate entry fees!), but we no longer bothered giving them a try due to the long queues. Another thing that impressed me was that the garden is surrounded by thick and high mud walls typical in the desert region.

 

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Pasargadae’s ancient Persian garden

 

The 6th century BC-built ancient garden of Pasargadae is in ruins. Only the remains of the stone layout, watercourses, and fountain pools are left. One can only then re-imagine how the garden might have looked like during its heyday out of these relics — a leisurely activity that my good friend found difficult to enjoy. The garden was the realization of Cyrus the Great’s desire to recreate paradise on earth. The river that cuts through the capital used to supply the water needed for the garden via canals. We, however, did not see any tourists who paid any attention or interest in the ruins of the garden. This is despite the fact that the garden is an interesting case: while the garden is a WHS in its own right, it also happens to be located inside another WHS, Pasargadae (as a testimony to the first capital of the Persian empire). The inscription of the Pasargadae garden, ultimately, is a nod to the provenance of the Persian gardening tradition. The presence of a signage explaining this, as well as visual re-creations of the garden, might prove beneficial to visitors.

 

 

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Shiraz’s Eram garden

 

Bag-e Eram, which is now managed by a local university, is bigger than the one in Kashan, allowing more spaces for roaming around. The Qavam pavilion, which serves as the backdrop of the garden, is a pleasant work of art and architecture from the Qajar period. What we enjoyed the most there was the abundance of many local plants and trees, some were even in bloom during our visit. The only sad thing about Eram was that the water courses and fountains were dry, something that has been reported to be the case for quite some time now. A friend we traveled with from Yazd to Shiraz just had to compare it with the Bag-e Shahzadeh in Mahan, which has an abundant water supply despite being in the Lut desert region. Nevertheless, Bag-e Eram was the redemption we needed to truly experience a Persian garden eventually.

 

 

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India: Taj Mahal’s Persian Garden

 

Assessment: while there are more to appreciate in the Persian gardens in India (the Taj Mahal and Humayun’s Tomb, for example), the pleasure derived in visiting the Persian gardens in Iran lies in the fact that they represent the pure form of this gardening tradition that reflects Persian philosophy and ingenuity, mainly in their mastery in the use of water for the gardens’ survival and aesthetics. Overall, the Persian gardens are humble, modest and unpretentious gardens. I, however, cannot imagine having the need to visit more than what we have seen — 3 was more than enough to get a proper feel of what this UNESCO WHS has to offer.

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The Persian Qanat (Zarch Qanat)

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This is probably the UNESCO World Heritage Site I spent the most time in trying to understand how to “properly” visit it during my recent trip in Iran. When I was just about to give up on it, a sign suddenly emerged in the streets of the historic city of Yazd referring to the “Zarch Qanat gallery”. This seems to be an improvement since the last reviewer from our WHS community went to Yazd in 2016, reporting the glaring lack of any public information about the qanats.
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A signage that gave me hope. This is one of those that have been mounted on the mud walls of the old city of Yazd to show where the qanat flows underground.

Later on, my friend and I realized that there were in fact a lot of signs all over showing some sort of a direction. Only to find out that — after intently and passionately following the signs for nearly an hour — it was not really leading us to a “gallery” (i.e., an exhibit, a museum, or a showroom)! Rather, it was just illustrating where the qanat flows underneath the city! This finding was interesting, but it was far from constituting a “proper” visit.
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The stairway of the Jame Masjid payab, an access to the Zarch qanat inside the Great Friday Mosque of Yazd

Much to my surprise later that day, however, we eventually got the proper visit that we needed no less than inside the Great Friday Mosque itself. It was a sweet accident that I will always be grateful for. At the main gate of the mosque, I already wondered why there was a banner congratulating “… the successful inscription of the Persian Qanats as a UNESCO World Heritage Site”. Sadly, it obviously and shamefully failed to indicate the more important detail, i.e., that a part of the qanat can actually be accessed within it. Inside, there is a small opening on the ground that can easily be missed which leads to a payab (underground water chamber). This payab, which has been supplying the mosque the water it needs since it was erected 700 years ago, is one of the public openings of Zarch. The properly lit stairway goes down to some 30 meters below the ground until one reaches the well.
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The well inside the water chamber 30 metres under the Great Friday Mosque of Yazd

Surprisingly, during our two hour wandering inside the complex, despite the hoards of tourists visiting the mosque and the no lack of tourist guides around, we only saw two other curious visitors who took the effort to go down the site, and they probably were not even aware of what it is at all. Even in the free walking city tour we hopped on the following day, our guide never mentioned anything about the qanats and their importance. We also learned later on that the Zarch qanat runs as well under the Emir Chaqmaq complex, but going there proved futile – there is no way to “see” the qanat.
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Courtyard of the Great Friday Mosque of Yazd and the small, unpretentious entry to the payab in the foreground. The tourists do not even find their way to go to the other end of the courtyard to realize that a qanat can be seen there.

In one of those cosy coffee shops in the city, I had a talk with its owner whom I shared my sense of achievement and pride in seeing a part of the Zarch qanat with when I least expected it. What he did next was something unexpected. He enthusiastically showed us a ground cover in front of his shop, opened it, and explained that it’s one of the shafts of Zarch. It was quite deep and one can hear the flowing water well!
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One of the vertical shafts of the Zarch qanat in front of a coffee shop in the old district of Yazd.

He also told us about the old underground watermill of Koushk-e No in the neighbhorhood which is also being repaired (or prepared) at the moment to become a tourist showroom for the qanat. Furthermore, he advised that if we go there, and if we’re lucky, we might just have a peek inside. And we eventually did.
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The actual watermill is on the second level of this qanat access. The fenced off area is the access to the lowest qanat in this intersection.

Going down through its small opening, several layers of water channels and chambers were seen. Apparently, the site lies at the crossroad of three different qanats, with the Zarch qanat specifically powering the mill. It is also interesting to know that the temperature on the ground compared to the temperature down where the waters flow can differ from 17 to 20 degrees Celsius, making it a wonderful refuge from the heat outside.
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A fresh water flowing on the Zarch qanat! Nothing has changed much in the three millenia of its existence – it is still working.

The Zarch qanat has been supplying most of the water requirements of the desert city of Yazd for more than 3,000 years already. It also happens to be the longest qanat in Iran at 120 kilometers in total length. In its entire course, from the mother well (water source) to the farmlands it irrigates, more than 2,000 shafts have been constructed. Indeed, qanats are a proof that ancient Persians were masters in hydraulic engineering.
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The forest of badgirs, or windcatchers, in the historic desert city of Yazd at dusk.

The Zarch qanat definitely plays an important role in the nomination of the Historic City of Yazd, which also has a living tradition registered in the Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site on its own right. This proposal will be decided upon this coming June when the committee convenes in Krakow, Poland. I sincerely wish Yazd the best of luck.
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Albeit not among the World Heritage-listed properties, other qanats we saw in the trip include the Solomon’s spring, an opening of a qanat that feeds water to the Fin Garden, a UNESCO World Heritage Persian Garden, and the 7,000 years old Sialk Tepe, the remains of the oldest known ziggurat, in Kashan; and the qanat that supplies water to an ancient caravanserai, refrigerator, and ice house in historic Maybod, another desert city along the Silk Road that is also in Iran’s present Tentative List for UNESCO WHS listing.

Historic Trading Towns and Cities in Southeast Asia

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My interest in UNESCO World Heritage Sites started some 10 years ago. Ever since then, I have always patterned my trips towards seeing as many of these sites as I can. I have also been lucky enough with a few sites as I was able to pay them proper visits because of fieldwork and assignments. I consider this as my little addiction.

For my next article here, I would like to discuss more the five historic trading port towns in East and Southeast Asia. I just need to find that much sought after spare time to write down my thoughts and observations on Hoi An, Vigan, Macao, Malacca and George Town.

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Hoi An Ancient Town, the best example of a traditional trading port in Southeast Asia dating from the 15th to the 19th century (Viet Nam).

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Historic Town of Vigan, the best preserved planned Spanish colonial town in Asia that was established in the 16th century (the Philippines).

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Historic Centre of Macao, the first European enclave in the region and an outstanding representation of the interchange between Chinese and Western civilizations since the mid 16th century (China).

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Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca: Melaka, a strategic 15th century Malay port that developed further during the Portuguese and Dutch periods beginning in the early 16th century (Malaysia).

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Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca: George Town, a remarkable example of a British-built city in Southeast Asia from the end of the 18th century (Malaysia).

 

For now, may these photos continue to supply me the needed motivation, optimism, and determination to be able to finally sit down, gather my thoughts properly, and write again one of these days.

This is an article in progress.

Filipino Culture & History through the Northern Philippines

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The Philippines has a rich history and culture, but we sometimes do not understand the country well enough to realize to what extent. It is not a question of whether we have it or not. Rather, it is of how much we really know and are aware. One way to get reacquainted with the Filipino identity and our past is by taking what I would call as a heritage trail up north. The beauty of Northern Philippines lies on the fact that it is home to four UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites.

What does this mean?

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A UNESCO World Heritage Site (WHS) is any given natural or cultural place, monument or landscape that holds outstanding universal values critical to the development of humanity, and which reflect diversity. Some of the more popular WHS around the world include the Great Wall of China, the Stonehenge, the Taj Mahal, Chitchen Itza, the Table Mountain, the Great Barrier Reefs, and even the Statue of Liberty. Regardless of popularity and fame, however, all of these places are treated with equal degree of cultural and historical importance.

With the recent addition of Mt. Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary in Mindanao in 2014, the Philippines now has six sites listed as WHS. Two of which are marine natural sites in Palawan, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park and Tubattaha Reefs Marine Park. Both of these sites are also declared as Ramsar wetlands of international importance. The other three are cultural sites found in Northern Philippines: the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras, the Historic Town of Vigan, and the Baroque Churches of the Philippines.

From Manila — where San Agustin church, another WHS, is found inside Intramuros — one can make a Do-It-Yourself trip in taking on this heritage trail. A bus from Manila can take you to Banaue, the jump-off point for the rice terraces. From there, vans can be arranged to bring you down to Vigan. Sta. Maria is also along the way to Vigan, and finally, going further north by bus will bring you to Paoay in Ilocos Norte. Each place offers a taste of the depth of Philippine history and Filipino ingenuity.

Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras

Agricultural terracing is not unique to the Philippines. China, Indonesia, and Viet Nam have it. Peru and even Switzerland have this method, too. What makes the rice terraces in the Philippines unique is that they are the oldest and most extensive continually-used rice terraces in the world. As a comparison, these rice terraces have been around much longer than Machu Picchu or Angkor have! The more noticeable distinguishing marks of these engineering marvels would be their heights that reach as high as 1,500 metres from the base, and their steepness that defies limits with 70 degrees maximum angulation.

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The incredible mixture of purely man-made terraces, the mountains, the muyongs (forest caps), traditional hamlets, and other visible cultural artifacts in the region certainly does not disappoint. The Food and Agriculture Organization has cited the rice terraces as an outstanding example of “worldwide, specific agricultural systems and landscapes (that) have been created, shaped and maintained by generations of farmers and herders based on diverse natural resources, using locally adapted management practices.” The American Society of Civil Engineers also named the rice terraces as a ‘Historic Engineering Landmark’ for water supply and control. In 1997, the same group came to the Philippines and formally declared (through a marker) the rice terraces as the [original] 8th Wonder of the World.

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For the Filipinos, with the mode of farming and the people’s lifestyles largely unchanged, these ancient rice terraces are an enduring portrait of the ways of life of the Ifugao for over 2,000 years. The WHS-listed clusters are Batad, Bangaan, Hungduan, Mayoyao and Nagacadan rice terraces. Hungduan is also one rare site in the world as it is home to no just one but two UNESCO Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, the Hudhud chants and the Punnuk.

Historic Town of Vigan

Why does this small town merit a special place in the collective memory of the Filipino people? It is one of the few towns in the country that was spared from destruction during the World War II (Intramuros, Manila’s walled district, was razed to the ground and only one building was left standing there after the war). Being the best preserved Spanish colonial-era trading town in Asia, Vigan presents itself as an intact and authentic old town. It boasts a good collection of original houses wherein the ground floors are characterized as Hispanic, while its upper floors and windows suggest Chinese and Oriental influences. The best of these houses can be seen along Calle Crisologo, a re-created cobblestone street.

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One will notice that the town faithfully follows the historical “quadricula” or “grid” street plan. This, believe it or not, is the most ‘Hispanic’ feature of the town. The interior of a typical Vigan villa can be seen when visiting the likes of the Sy-Quia mansion, the family house of the former President Quirino.

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In 2012, Vigan bagged the ‘Best Management Practices for a World Heritage City’ award in a worldwide competition by UNESCO. And again, three years later, Vigan was voted as one of the Seven New Wonder Cities in the World through a global online poll.

Baroque Churches of the Philippines: Sta. Maria

Aside from the San Agustin church inside Intramuros and the Miag-ao church in Iloilo, the Northern Philippines boasts two of the best examples of Philippine Spanish-era churches. The town of Sta. Maria, some 40 minutes south of Vigan, houses a citadel church built on top of a fortified man-made hill. In the older days, the only way to reach the church is through the 82-step staircase made of granite slabs, making the complex easily defended.

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Made of red bricks, the Asuncion de la Sta. Maria church boasts a set of massive buttresses that supports the structure from the damages of earthquakes. The pagoda-shaped bell tower is leaning due to the collapsing retaining walls around the hill, which placed this church in the ’100 Most Endangered Sites’ in 2010 by the World Monument Watch of the World Monument Fund.

Baroque Churches of the Philippines: Paoay

The crowning gem of the “earthquake baroque architecture” is the San Agustin church in Paoay. This edifice is largely made of coral stones that have been glued together using egg whites, lime powder and molasses. This important church features a mixture of Oriental, Malay, and Western influences in its design. This comes as no surprise as long before the Spaniards reached present-day Paoay, the site was already a trading settlement known as Bombay in earlier records.

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Keen eyes will notice some fading carvings and bas-reliefs around the church. The most important exponents of this church are definitely its beautifully-constructed massive buttresses. Paoay church is considered to be a masterpiece of the Filipino reinterpretation of the baroque movement, fusing European principles with local Filipino craftsmanship. The bell tower is also separated from the church as a precautionary measure against the effects of earthquakes – this architectural innovation is unique to Philippine churches.

The churches of the Philippines are unique, and, thus, cannot be compared to those found in Europe or Latin America. As religious monuments, they are key in spreading further the Christian faith in the region (Southeast and East Asia, and the Pacific Islands). While as cultural specimens, they embody the artistic, technological, and intellectual interchange between the West and the East for more than three centuries.

While knowing and understanding Philippine history and culture is a large part of what I do as a heritage advocate, the biggest challenge is in making others see and appreciate things the way I do.

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I often have a hard time convincing friends who have already settled abroad to come back home to re-experience their native land. Most of them would rather spend their vacations going around Europe or elsewhere in Asia to see cultural and grand ancient monuments or old towns, believing none exist here.

 

A Pilgrim’s Progress: Our Lady of Caysasay

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A rare opportunity to have a photo taken of an all-women devotees presented itself. The photo below was taken from the back of the Nuestra Señora de Caysasay, a Marian image canonically crowned by virtue of a Holy See approval in 1954.

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Though I cannot come up with anything conclusive as to what the ongoing activity might have been then, the fact that the service was only attended by women made me feel alienated, and a bit awkward about my presence inside the shrine when things were unfolding. If any, however, despite my unconventional stance on religion, one cannot deny the experience and fulfillment in capturing religion in action as a material culture here.

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Pilgrims to the Shrine of Our Lady of Caysasay in Taal, Batangas may receive the plenary indulgence that is granted to those who visit the ancient church of Sta. Maria Maggiore in Rome.

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The old town of Taal is one of the only four heritage towns in the Philippines — together with Vigan in Ilocos Sur, Pila in Laguna, and Silay in Negros Occidental — designated as National Historic Landmarks by the National Historical Institute of the Philippines.

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A Maranao Woman in Tugaya

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Largely unheard of even among fellow Filipinos, the Maranao of Tugaya in Lanao del Sur are some of the most artistic groups in the country. The humble town beside the ancient Lake Lanao (one of the oldest known lakes in the world) is nearly purely composed of artisans in various pursuits.

The lady in this photo was inlaying shells to a newly constructed wooden chest. This, together with weaving local textiles called ina-ol, is one of the few things that women are permitted to do for work in this still gendered community.

Their unique artistic concept of okir manifests in their wood works, metal crafts, textiles, paintings, and even house decorations. The okir happens to be the strongest component in its nomination to the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List. Their epic, the Darangen, is already proclaimed in 2005 as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. 

As it was in the holy months of the Ramadan — in fact a few days before Eid’l Fitr — when I did this site visit for a project, she was on fast since sunrise and made some short breaks from work only at prayer time until the fasting ends at dusk. Such display of obedience and faith never fails to inspire me.