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Middle East Monica Dispatch

Visit to Kashan: At SCHOOL at the Madrasť-yť Agha Bozorg
April 19, 2000

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Madrasť is the Arabic term for "school," and particularly a religious school. Attention long-time readers! Do you remember the team's visit to a madrassa in Mali? That was a simple room in an alleyway. This "Grandfather School" (pronounced Madrasť-yť Agha Bozorg in Persian) in Kashan looks just as grand as its name, which I can't even say on my first try! Ma-DRAS-eh yeh ag-GAH bo-ZHORG...

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The architect, Pushta Mashadi, made sure that you're overwhelmed from the minute you see the courtyard and main building. The mosque inside is perfectly symmetrical, except for a megaphone on the left minaret. Look at the different designs and how carefully the architect placed each element into the whole. For something built 170 years ago, this "Grandfather School" is in terrific condition! The name "Grandfather" comes from King Mohammed, grandfather of Nasreddin Shah, whose picture is in the main room of the Broujerdi house.

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The guide shows Brian and me the mehrab, which is a small alcove inside the mosque, indicating the direction of Mecca. "Inside," says the guide, "the mullah sits."

"What's a mullah?" I ask. Luckily, one of our group whips out an electronic doodad that translates Persian into English, and, after a few seconds, it says in a computerized voice, "teacher." The mullah, a religious teacher, sometimes a cleric, stays inside the alcove, coming out every day to teach the students of religion who arrive here from throughout the region. The guide points inside the mehrab and explains, "Everything you see inside is a small version of what is in the mosque." This includes smaller copies of the kashikari (tilework) and two kinds of writing: "Sols," which is more common throughout the mosque, and "Nastalig," which is more stylized and covers the entrance.

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The script spells out Allah's (or God's) word, as revealed in the Quran, the sacred text of Islam. Islam first arrived in Persia from the Arabs as they swept through in the 7th century CE. Brian checks out an example of "Nastalig" that encircles the entire domed area, and finds some cracks in it due to earthquake damage. While water slicks off the domed top, preventing rain damage, structural damage still occurs.

One thing that isn't represented in the mehrab is the real live wishing well on the level below the street. It's a small well that's now gated over, with a woman resting nearby. Our guide lets us peek in and tells us that former students would write up their prayers and throw them down the well in hopes of having them answered. Can you imagine throwing notes into your water fountain at school? Probably wouldn't be the same!

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During its time as an active madrassa, the school's students lived in the courtyard directly below the mosque. Today, though, those doors are boarded up and the pool down below is stagnant. Only a cat rummages through a bin, looking for something only it knows. While learning from the Quran is still important in the Muslim faith, this particular mosque no longer attracts students as it did when it first was built, during the Qajar dynasty. Instead, the Grandfather School is now a peaceful place where trekkers, youngsters and families may sit and enjoy the space, the symmetry and the atmosphere of learning.


minaret - on a mosque, a tall slender tower with at least one balcony to summon people to prayer
symmetrical - the same on both sides
cleric - a member of the clergy
structural- relating to the structure of a building
stagnant - not moving or flowing in a stream
nubbins - small projecting parts or bits

As we head out, Brian notices little nubbins on the main wooden doors. When we ask Nematy, our guide, what they are, he explains that there are 6,666 pegs in the doors: one for each of the verses in the Koran. The madrasť continues to teach us, even as we leave.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Abeja - Chardors, Pepsi, and the Great Satan: A History of Modern Iran
Brian - Persepolis: Sacked, Hacked, and Packed
Monica - Visit to Kashan: At HOME at the Khan-ť Broujerdi
Team - Turn Off That Faucet! Water Doesn't Grow on Trees, You Know

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