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Discovering Iran: Isfahan is half the world

Isfahan is half the world, they say. You’ll notice the people of Isfahan are full of exaggerations. So I too will say that I am the best guide in Isfahan” proclaimed our local guide Ehsan proudly.

Neither was in fact an exaggeration. Both he and the city are incredible.

An ancient metropolis lying across timeless trade routes, Isfahan became the Great Shah Abbas’s glittering Safavid capital during the 16th century and it was during this period that a well-known saying was coined. ‘’Isfahan nesf- e- jahan’’ – Isfahan is half the world –  for if you have seen Isfahan you have see half of the world’s beauty. Decadent use of hyperbole yes, however, after my recent time there I’d be inclined to agree.

You can see all the sites of Iran – Persepolis, Pasargad and all of its palaces but no visit to Iran is complete without experiencing the beauty of Isfahan. A glorious city rich in art, cultural wonders, and architecture lives on to this day. Below I’ve attempted to curate the must see’s of Isfahan, and no, they are not all mosques.

Where to stay in Isfahan – Abbasi Hotel

There is only one place that is worth staying at whilst in Isfahan – the grand Abbasi Hotel. Built around 300 years ago and once a caravanserai, now a palatial low-rise building around a beautiful garden courtyard with water courses, cypress trees and flowers, this is an opportunity for you to stay in a piece of historical grandeur.

The central courtyard garden provides a magnificent setting for dining al- fresco, drinking chai or enjoying gelato whilst being serenaded by the local musicians playing the santour and setar. The garden wasn’t just a place for tourists, domestic and international staying at the hotel, but a popular place for the locals to come and socialise too.

Welcomed by the most majestic of chandeliers in the lobby (a feature I have become accustomed to whilst in Iran) and a delicate array of glass and tile work be sure to stay in the majestic suites of the old part of the hotel. The ‘new’ extension which is more a throwback to the 1970s than Safavid glamour is less impressive – all frills and no knickers as they say.

It’s location on the Chaharbagh-e-Abbasi Avenue, the most famous in all of Iran, lends itself to provide you easy access to all the main sites including the Naqsh-e Jahan Square, bazaars and Siosepol bridge.

The Armenian Quarter

Journey south of the Zayandeh river to the Armenian and Christian quarter of Jolfa; established in 1603 it quickly rose to be an affluent area as result of the trade from the passing caravans.  Shah Abbas had granted complete religious freedom for the Armenians living there as well as administrative autonomy.

The best introduction to the area and its heritage is achieved by visiting the Cathedral of the Holy Saviour – Keli –saye Vank.  Though the cathedral is domed, much like the mosques, the interior is very different. Glazed tiles – not of the same kind as the usual tranquil coloured geometric designs of the mosques – and huge paintings of European inspiration depicting the life of Jesus, representations of Heaven, Earth and Hell as well as scenes of martyrdom from the Ottoman War (1603-18) can be seen.

A museum of Armenian culture just next door is also worth a visit. Not only does it house several edicts from Shah Abbas I giving the area its renowned status and freedoms but also remembers the victims of the 1915 Armenian genocide in Turkey.

A short stroll down Kelisa Street is Arca restaurant. Resembling a boujis bar of London’s Knightsbridge from the outside, with the token and unnecessary heavy set bouncer at the door, it provides a great atmosphere for dinner in the evening. Within its courtyard setting you’ll find an imaginative take on Isfahani and Armenian food and local young elites photographing their food and taking selfies for their Instagram accounts – not quite rich kids of Tehran but close enough.

Jameh Mosque

The Jameh Mosque in Isfahan is one of the oldest in Iran. Despite its dome of undecorated brick and somewhat plain vaulted halls, it is far from unimpressive.

Such a backdrop, in fact, allows one to appreciate all the more the intricacy of the tile work and the decoration of each of the four iwans. We walked in awe around the sunlit courtyard sheltering in each of the halls as birds fluttered around the marble fountain in the centre. As we entered the west iwan and our eyes adjusted to the darkness of the hall we set our gaze upon an exquisitely carved mihrab and mimbar of Mongol sultan Uljaitu. Built in 1310 and fantastically preserved they showcased beautiful floral motifs and stunning calligraphy in carved stucco.

Take some time to wander the vaulted rooms with intersecting arches; despite being built entirely of brick they could never be guilty of being dull or monotonous.

Khaju Bridge

Khaju, a functioning bridge and dam, is like no other piece of architecture in Iran and our arrival to see it was timely. Water, coloured turquoise in parts from the algae below, flowed for the last time today before they were about to close the dam and divert much needed water to the desert towns of Yazd.

Crossing a bridge in Iran is not just a passage from A to B. It is an experience. In Tehran, 26 year old Leila Araghian had been highly commended for her design of the Tabiat (nature) bridge. Connecting two parks with shops and cafes between she created what seems like never-ending journey due to it’s curved shape and the inability to see where it lead you to. Khaju in Isfahan – a beauty of the 17th century is similarly impressive in its purpose. It once hosted tea houses and still today is a space for public meetings and poetry readings.

A continual row of twenty four arches over two levels and tunnels between, set the scene for all kinds of activity. Families perch on the edge of the steps dipping their toes in the cooling water, school children gossip and group around their phones on the upper tier, old men sing songs about the old city of Isfahan and old women in chadors congregate in the shade of the tunnels. Seek solace from the heat and join the locals for the afternoon.

Chehel Sotun Palace

Literally meaning “forty columns” in Persian, the palace which was built by Shah Abbas II for entertaining dignitaries was inspired by the twenty narrow wooden columns supporting the entrance pavilion. When reflected in the waters of the long pool and fountain, forty columns appear.

It was here that Ehsan, our guide bought paintings of the Palace pavilion alive. He described details that otherwise would have gone unnoticed, from the eroticism of the private court to the humanity of the depictions of battle scenes and the portrayal of the victories of Nader Shah. Marvel at the moustache exhibition – great source of inspiration for Hoxton hipsters, the ornate honeycomb stalactites set with mirrors on the ceiling and relax in the manicured gardens of the palace.

Naqsh-e Jahan Square – lose yourself for a day.

Immerse yourself in the symbolic centre of the Safavid dynasty and its empire. What once was used for polo matches is now the stage for the coming together local artisans, antique sellers in the bazaars, street entertainers, locals with their picnic mats and flasks of chai with the soundtrack of the bells from the hooves of the horse and carriages circumnavigating and the laughter of the children running through the fountains. Just idyllic.

Ali Qapu Palace in the east

Ascend to the very top – the Music Hall – via a winding staircase and en route get a great view of the skyscape of Isfahan and in particular its encircling mountains.

The hall is a masterpiece which serves both aesthetic and acoustic purposes. Complete with fretwork panelling on the walls and vaults carved into niches shaped like vases it is lit by the daylight from the windows just below. Positioned high above, rulers would watch the polo matches and assess the troops in the square from the talar on the first floor of the palace.

Mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah in the west

Directly opposite the palace, on the other side of the fountain is a mosque named after a famous theologian of the 17th century.  The tile work is a masterpiece; blue and black flowers accompanied with arabesques and yellow floral motifs. After entering a long heavily decorated corridor you are taken in to a stunning chamber. Stand at the doorway to this chamber and look up to see a play of light through the windows create a peacock shape on the ceiling of the dome. Though small in size, the arches and squinches and inscriptions of this mosque will keep you mesmerised for some time.

Imperial Bazaar in the north

The bazaar continues all the way around the Royal Square selling everything from clothes, gaz or nougat, silverware, pottery, miniatures, Persian rugs and jewellery. It’s the perfect place to buy gifts and to talk to locals. The standard bazaar etiquette applies of course; shop around and barter hard. Venture further down through the gateway to the Great Bazaar on the north side to be led into the old town and to the Hakim Mosque.

Imam Mosque in the south

Now if you’re ‘all mosque’d out’ you can bow out gracefully and continue reading our other Steppes blogs from around the world. However, if you’re just a little intrigued as to why this was such a special place click here to read about it. Visiting here and meeting the people that work to maintain it and protect it was a great privilege and served to round up my time in Iran quite beautifully.

 

Get in touch to learn more about how to discover the best of Iran with Steppes. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.