I had read that due to its beauty, the former capital of ancient Persia, Esfahan or Isfahan, in its heyday was dubbed Half of the World. When I got there and started ambling about, I understood why. Praised and celebrated by travelers, artists and writers from different nations and periods, from Venetian Marco Polo to Roman book collector Pietro Della Valle to Edward Browne in his “A Year Among The Persians”, Esfahan has bedazzled visitors for centuries and shows no sign of cooling.
The latter, Pietro della Valle, even had the chance to wander Esfahan’s streets right at the time when Shah Abbas was working on revamping the cityscape with the majestic mosques we can visit today.
My first experience in this beautiful city was with a group of Italian tourists, they were leaving the hotel where we were about to check in, and one of them gave me the first hint: “I didn’t expect such a oasis!”
As a matter of fact, Esfahan is precisely that, a oasis of beauty, and what we were about to explore was a vivid proof of that, starting right from its heart, world-famous Imam Square (Naqsh-e Jahan Square), a beautiful park boasting a giant pool festooned with dancing fountains and framed with historical monuments such as Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Imam Mosque and Ali Qapu Palace, the remarkable building commissioned by Safavid ruler Shah Abbas to mark the glorious entrance to the main palaces bearing the name of his dynasty.
Some of the brightest moments in Esfahan’s architecture was in fact the Safavid period, under Shah Abbas rule, more precisely, and most of the palaces and monuments in the city center date back to that time. Many were the projects part of Shah Abbas’ bigger design, and among them fit the construction of Chaharbagh Abbasi Street and a series of gardens on both sides of Imam Square. Part of this serie was also Chehel Sotoon Garden, literally meaning the Forty Pillars Garden, a square-shaped park the main entrance of which runs through a covered passageway that leads to Ali Qapu Palace. Chehel Sotoon Garden comprises also of a pavilion which, thanks to the usual elaborate decorations that adorn palaces, mosques and monuments in Iran, constitutes a great subject for passionate photographers.
Like in most Persian-style gardens, water plays a major role organized in basins, streams and pools, and here, probably due to the presence of the forty pillars, it does actually contribute in creating an otherworldly atmosphere when the porch of the pavilion reflects on the water.
The shift from Chehel Sotoon to Hasht Behesht is quick and spontaneous. Hasht Behesht, literally translating into Eight Heavens, is another palace from the Safavid era built in the heart of a garden. The name says it pretty much all, the place is a wonderful palace with sophisticated decorations, a maze of halls, passageways and porches decorated with pillars all around, adorning mirror artwork and fine wall paintings.
Obviously, despite the beauty of these gardens and palaces, the real, undisputed stars of the show in central Esfahan are by all means the two main mosques, Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, known for being without minarets, and Imam Mosque, the main place for prayer. Standing on two sides of Imam Square, the mosques are the city’s most visited landmarks, glorious examples of Safavid sacred architecture where majesty, opulent blue-tiled mosaic design and tangled pastel-colored patterns are the main features that define these monuments emblematic of 17-century Islamic decoration in Iran and Shah Abbas’ vision of art and beauty.
While Masjed-e Imam (or Masjed-e Shah as its original name) is, without a doubt, a striking feast for the eyes, I enjoyed more my journey through the play of light, the beguiling interaction of colors, symmetries and patterns, and the quiet atmosphere of Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque. Originally meant as a private prayer place for the royal family, this mosque, apart from being without minarets, it’s also much smaller than Masjed-e Imam. A detail that I would have certainly missed when I was leaving, if the mosque guard wouldn’t have pointed it out to us, was the beautiful trick of light on the ceiling with which the sunrays seeping through the hole sketch the shape of peacock tail, the only possible way an animal, or part of one, could have been represented inside a mosque.
All around Imam Square is another wonder of Esfahan, its bazaar, Ali Qapu Bazaar Artistic Complex, as reads the sign at its entrance. From minute one, I was fully aware I would have taken plenty of pictures and forked out good cash here, and as a matter of fact, this is exactly what happened. So, as history goes, since I love local markets, after the mandatory sightseeing, I dived into the colorful stalls displaying Iranian handicraft in all its facets, from fine silverware to blue ceramics to tiny marble mortars used to grind the precious saffron.
Several pictures and thousands of Rials later, I was making my way back to the park where Madi was waiting and sunbathing, when Navid happened, young carpet seller who invited me for, wait for it, that’s right, a cup of tea. With all the discretion and sense of respectability proper of a 18th-century corset-clad lady that would have made Jane Austen proud, I thanked him assuring I would have come back later, ill-concealing my inner thoughts of a very 21st-century worldly-wise experienced woman meaning pretty much “Yeah, right”.
Little did I know, however, that Madi had a different idea all together. As I only started to mention “te..”, she didn’t even let me finish and as a proper Iranian with only the cute tulip-shaped cup filled with the golden drink in mind, she darted towards the carpet section, giving me little time to collect my stuff (and myself). Navid was obviously lovely and the tea experience was enriched by an interesting chat and a plunge into the Persian carpet world, the best way to round off a long day spent around mosques, palaces and gardens.
Our stay in Esfahan didn’t end there, fortunately, and the day after we visited the Armenian Cathedral in the charming Jolfa district, near which we discovered the little gem of Firouz Cafe, for sure a place that will see us again next time we reach Half of the World in central Iran.
While I have already posted some of the pictures I took in Esfahan, below is a photo essay with more shots, in the hope to give you a hint of the magnificence of Iran’s former capital and, as usual, to inspire you a trip.
To get there, we booked the night bus from Shiraz to Esfahan. The journey took us 6 hours and cost 250.000 Iranian Rials (less than 8€). In Esfahan we stayed at 3-star Hotel Part in Jahanara Alley, Chaharbagh Street, a ten-minute walk away from Imam Square, for 1.600.000 IR (less than 50€) per night per double room.