Beautiful Esfahan

Saturday 8 to Tuesday 11 November

Whatever way you spell it, Isfahan or Esphahan or any other variation, it is probably the prettiest city in Iran. From the elegant bridges that cross the Zayandeh River to the beautiful Imam Square with its polo goal posts at either end.

We arrived in the evening after a long drive from Shiraz and a stop at Persepolis. It was a slow crawl past the University of Esfahan, where classes must have just finished because the street was full of young people. We have become used to seeing women in habibs (scarves) or chardors (cloth covering the head and garments), but is was the first time I had seen so many women driving.

We stopped by the river to see the bridges as they were lit up at night. First the Si-o-Seh then the Khaju bridge.

There were crowds crossing the bridges, sitting admiring the view, picnicking and always taking photos. We learned that the river had been dry and now water was flowing under the bridges for the first time in about three years.

The bridges also act as weirs, controlling the flow of water downstream. They were built by various Sultans, but the most beautiful with its verandah was built by Abbas II.

Our hotel was an old traditional house with a large central courtyard and the obligatory pond, very close to the bazaar. These old houses are beautiful places to stay, but fitting modern amenities into the rooms mean you could be climbing steep steps and have too much or limited space. Agility and patience are important but the accommodation is much nicer than traditional hotels.

Our tour of Esfahan started with a visit to Chehel Sotun Palace, the 40 column palace, built by Shah Abbas II and completed in 1647, it has a beautiful pond in front of the palace and a verandah with 20 high wooden columns. The other 20 columns are the reflection from the pond.

Inside the Great Hall (Throne Room) a small gallery of frescoes tell stories of battles and visiting delegations from other countries. There were some smaller frescoes depicting life on a smaller scale in a distinctive Chinese style, evidence of artisans travelling to different countries to improve their skills.

It was touring in a hurry, as Rasoul wanted to cover the important sites before midday prayers.

We walked into Naqsh-e Jahan Imam Square and were overwhelmed by its beauty. Second biggest to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, it started life as a polo ground! It is completely surrounded by a two story building with lovely proportioned arches, the line broken by some spectacular buildings which we visited.

First was the Mashad-e Jahan (mosque). Since the square is not aligned to Mecca, the entrance to the mosque is along a twisted corridor that re-orients you for the prayer hall. The courtyard was full of scaffolding which a number of men were clambering over. The remnants of the Imam Hussain mourning ceremonies that we had witnessed in Yazd a few days earlier. There was beautiful tiled work in the arches and domes. The Madressas on either side of the prayer hall were brightly decorated in yellow tiles for the summer side and blue tiles for the winter side.

We then walked down to the Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah, named after Shah Abbas I father-in-law, a revered Lebanese scholar of Islam who was invited to oversee the king’s mosque and theological school.

The massive dome and side walls are all tiled to create a rich Copula with marble windows that allowed the light to stream through. This was a private mosque for the Shah so it does not have a minaret nor a courtyard.

We then visited the Kakh-e Ali Qapu (palace) which sits opposite this mosque. It is unusually high of six storeys. We climbed to the elevated terrace for a fantastic view of Imam Square, and then higher to visit the music room which uses stucco ceilings and walls with cutouts of musical instruments to provide acoustics for the music played in back rooms.

After wandering through the bazaar, our driver Hamid picked us up so we could do some touring outside of the main city centre.

We visited the Masjed-e Jameh (mosque) with ancient prayer halls and domes. Parts of this mosque were damaged during the Iraq-Iran war and various earthquakes, but have been restored. There is a massive brick dome, still intact, a delightful tiled mirhab, summer and winter prayer halls, all set around a courtyard with an ablutions fountain resembling the one in Mecca, where prospective pilgrims can practice the appropriate rituals.

And then a surprise monument – the Kelisa-ye Vank or Vank Cathedral. This is an Orthodox Church built for the Armenian people who were invited to migrate by Shah Abbas I. They were given land south of the river and the government officials were ordered not to interfere with them or their lifestyle. This church is deconsecrated now and serves as a museum, but another 14 remain. After much debate, the Islamic state has decided to allow the Christian Armenians to continue their customs and religious practices.

After a decent coffee we headed back to see the bridges in the late afternoon light and added a few more pixels to our cameras.

Then it was planning the all important dinner. After a visit to the Abassi Hotel built into the largest caravanserai, we decided it was too “touristy”. Plan B didn’t sound too exciting either, so after much discussion between our guide Rasoul and our driver Hamid, we settled for plan G, an amazing restaurant set in a beautiful green garden. Each table was enclosed in a little glass room with piped music and air conditioning. Unfortunately it didn’t meet our needs to stay warm on a 0C night. The enormous kebab meals were served with plastic cutlery. A truely curious experience.

We had a rare “rest day” the next day. Bruce negotiated a hair cut for the princely sum of $3.50, we didn’t get lost in the bazaar and we joined Rasoul at the eclectic Azadegan Teahouse, gazing over the enormous collection of tea pots, coffee pots, water pipes, oil lamps, light fittings and framed pictures. One of those rare places that can make such a display work.

We wandered through the bazaar at dusk, admiring it under artificial light.

Another Persian debate with lots of possible plans, before we settled for an interesting dinner, south of the river, and cheered ourselves with non-alcoholic beer.

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