I’ve never been into travelling with a guided tour. I make my own plans, do a ton of research, read a lot and get on the road. But I’ve never ignored the fact that some places are best travelled with a guide, even if it’s your own hometown. Following my enthusiasm for exploring my hometown which is quickly becoming a trend between the residents of the capital, I knew of a friend who’s an expert when it comes to Tehran and does regular tours to very unknown parts of the city. I had been to Oudlajan before and was very aware that it was a Jewish neighbourhood. I had seen a few synagogues in iran but for some reason I was not really allowed to get inside considering I did not follow the faith. So as soon as I found out that he was doing a tour on Tehran’s Jewish quarter, I had me and a few friends signed up.
Despite the Jews having a representative in the Iranian parliament, I really acknowledge that the Muslim population definitely has their own privilege in Iran. I don’t want to get into politics but what strikes me most about Iranian Jews is their deeply rooted patriotism for their country. From what I’ve seen, most of them are extremely proud of their Persian background and even though they could immigrate to Israel or Europe for being a minority in Iran very easily, they have chosen to stay.
While I’ve had Jewish friends growing up abroad, unfortunately I have never had any relationship with an Iranian jew. So once we were on the tour, I was all questions.
Synagogues in Iran
It’s been a few years that I’ve become very fond of the concept of religion and extremely curious about religious minorities in Iran. But what hurts me the most is the limitations I face in creating any sort of contact with followers of other faiths. It breaks me to think that I attended a mass on Christmas eve in Italy, visited a ton of churches all across Europe and walked up a dozen temples in Japan, yet I find it so difficult to witness the Christmas rituals of my own Christian countrymen or the fact that I cannot just walk up into a fire temple or a synagogue whenever I wish. Wandering in Tehran’s Jewish quarter didn’t help much. Realizing that despite many other places in the world, there were no such thing as ghettos in Iran and Jews could live beside everyone else and witnessing that even though Oudlajan used to be a major Jewish neighbourhood where 14 synagogues existed, mosques, theological schools and even churches were built right next to each other. It seemed like everyone used to get along so well. So what grew us so apart? What made us so oblivious and unaware of each other’s traditions and customs? Why are we attending different schools and not sharing our celebrations? These were only a tiny a portion of things that crossed my mind and the response to these sort of dilemmas has proved to be a complicated one in Iran…
Synagogue of Mola Hanina
This tiny synagogue was our first stop. Thankfully we had a representative of the Jewish community who was there to teach us all about the rules and rituals of his faith and also answer our questions.
Oudlajan used to have 14 synagogues, from which only 3 are functioning today. But there’s an overall of 22 synagogues in Tehran where Jews can attend for their prayers and according to them there’s really no need for any more with their small population.
Public hamams or bathhouses used to be quite popular across Iran before showers came. But due to the restrictions for minorities to enter hamams dedicated to Muslims, they decided to build their own. There are a lot of myths and rumours from this place which was now left completely abandoned and was tremendously damaged by drug addicts who found shelter in it at some point. Obviously all public hamams in Iran are out-of-order due to hygiene reasons but some have been converted to museums and others like this one were left totally neglected. Nevertheless reliefs that depicted the stories of the Torah were still perfectly visible here and there.
Synagogue of Azra Yaghoub
The biggest out of all the ones we saw and I believe the largest in the whole city. Here was where we even got to open the chambers and see the holy book hand written delicately.
Synagogue of Hadash
Though pretty small, this one was the most ornamented synagogue in the whole neighbourhood.
For lunch we headed to the first bank of Iran that used to be run by Jews in the neighbourhood and is now converted into a tea house and Dizi place. This place is my absolute favourite for Dizi in town and I’ve done a full review about it before. I’ve taken a lot of guests here and everyone thought it was excellent.
The whole neighbourhood of Oudlajan boasts history. While it’s not the nicest neighbourhood in the city, it was once home to many primary figures of Iran who had their wealthy homes built around here. Unfortunately everything is left abandoned and is slowly undergoing deterioration. Most Tehranis don’t even know that this place used to be one of the oldest neighbourhoods of their city which held so many stories and tales of unity among Iranians of different faiths.
Sadly non of these synagogues are open to public, but perhaps a few of you will be curious enough to pay the extra cash and learn a thing or two. If you’d like to join the tour I participated, head over here for the info. I’m not sure if they are available in other languages apart from Farsi, but it won’t hurt to send email and ask. 😉