If Shiraz is the pearl of Iran, Isfahan is the jewel in the crown. Applauded variously throughout its long history as “the Persian Florence”, as being “more cosmopolitan than Paris” or “grander than Istanbul” – or should that be Constantinople? – Isfahan has negotiated its roller-coaster past to remain a star on the world stage. In its long lifetime this twice capital of Persia has weathered sacking by Mongols in the 13th century, the Afghan army in the 18th century and long-range missiles from Iraq late last century.
World Heritage-listed Naqsh-e Jahan Square, or Imam Square, and Shah Mosque.
Isfahan is Iran’s third largest city after Tehran and Mashad, mainly known today for being home to Iran’s premier nuclear research facility. But significant moves are afoot by entrepreneurial locals to halt the despoliation caused by rapid modernisation and resurrect Isfahan’s hidden beauty and many charms. Apart from the exquisite art treasures incorporated into so many of its old buildings, its allure resides in its setting, nestling in surrounding hills with the (sometimes dry) Zayandeh River intersecting the city. Leafy streets and river banks lined with cooling trees and abundant shading parks are scattered throughout. Numerous elegant bridges span the river the most famous being the Si-o Seh Pol, or Bridge of 33 Arches. At night the bridges are decoratively lit and must create a wonderful spectacle when the river is running.
Isfahan’s elegant bridges.
Under the bridges – a popular place to escape the heat, or have wedding photos taken.
Young bridge visitor.
Leafy streets and river banks lined with cooling trees and abundant shading parks.
Isfahan’s premier site is the World Heritage-listed Naqsh-e Jahan Square, or Imam Square, famous for its size, grandeur, and gracing vibrant Safavid-era buildings including: the Shah mosque, home to Friday prayers; Ali Qapu Palace; Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque; and the Isfahan Grand Bazaar. Measuring 160m by 560m – an area of 89,600sqm – the 16th Century square reflects its founder Shah Abbas’ ruling priorities incorporating the power of the merchants and that of the clergy right under his watchful eye from Ali Qapu. Features of the square include the exquisitely coloured tile domes of the Shah mosque, built with no supports thanks to the outstanding architectural and engineering expertise of their designers, one of whom was rumoured to be the polymath poet Omar Khayyam. Ingenuity is also on display in the beautiful music room of Ali Qapu Palace with its finely carved walls combining decorative and acoustic qualities.
Ali Qapu Palace music room’s exquisitely carved walls combine decorative and acoustic qualities.
The square’s impressive dimensions made it an ideal location for the popular Persian pastime of polo, a favourite subject for Iran’s renowned miniaturists, and created a pleasing space for outdoor family recreation. On Thursday evenings, the equivalent of Friday evening for Iran’s workers, Naqsh-e Jahan Square is the place to be to enjoy some family down time. No TGIT drinks though!
Thank God it’s Thursday.
Other outstanding venues are the Jameh Mosque (the old Friday mosque) dating from the 11th century, the largest in Iran, and the Chehel Sotoun – or Forty Columns – Palace so called because of the 20-columned portico reflected in the entrance terrace pool. Built by Shah Abbass II for entertainment and receptions it is set in lush grounds, one of Iran’s World Heritage-listed gardens, and contains a treasure trove of delicate frescoes and ceramic paintings.
Isfahan’s Jameh Mosque, dating from the 11th century, the largest mosque in Iran.
Chehel Sotoun Palace, a treasure trove of delicate frescoes and ceramic paintings.