Persians say, Esfahan, Nesf-e Jahan: Esfahan is half the world. Find a flying carpet. And get yourself to one of the most breathtaking cities on earth. From atop any minaret view verdant oases offset by brilliant blue skies and violet-hued mountains.
As old as Iran itself, Esfahan’s history dates back to the 5th century BC. In 1598, the Safavids made Esfahan Iran’s capital, grooming it into one of the world’s most spectacular cities. Elegance personified is Esfahan, called Paris of the East. To Parisians, Persians epitomise refinement and Paris’s most exotic pastry is called Esfahan, such is Parisian fascination with Persians.
|Imam Mosque: Majestic turquoise dome, graceful arches
The most glorious manifestations of Persian art and architecture gravitate around the Safavid Imam Square and its environs, a veritable living museum.
Seven times larger than Venice’s San Marco and smaller only than Beijing’s Tianaman Square, Imam Square is courted by stupendous structures.
The ensemble of turquoise domes, soaring minarets, graceful arches, flowing arabesques, glowing mosaics, opalescent enamelled bricks and myriad other marvels enchant. Architectural poetry flirts with the Persian verses and Kufic or Tulth inscriptions that adorn monuments.
Imam Square’s sumptuous swards were once the regal arena for shooting, riding and polo. Today fountains and elaborately laid flowerbeds stud the expanse whilst quaint horse-drawn carriages process past centuries of heritage immortalised in stone. An air of antiquated elegance from more gallant times hangs like a tapestry. Like the locals, luxuriate on the square’s lawns relishing fab saffron ice cream and Gaz, the celebrated Esfahani nougat made of rosewater, almond, pistachio and exotic spices.
On the Square’s west, the lofty six-storey Ali Qapu Palace, embellished by celebrated miniaturist Reza “Abbasi,” stands testimony to the lavish era of the Shahs. Shah Abbas II’s Music Hall mesmerises with its 18 columns, exquisitely carved ceiling, swooping vaults, frisky fountains and a famous copper pond.
Obey the summons of the imperious cupola, flanked by towering minarets, of Imam Mosque.
Famous Tabrizi calligrapher Abd al-Baghi’s works adorn the cupola and main avian of this four avian structure. Silver-plated carved doors open into a serene sanctuary. Esfahani youth come to play games in the courtyard, read under iridescent beehive-like carved stalactites or picnic in the haven of arbours. Schoolchildren descend en masse upon us with a hundred million questions charmingly asked in impeccable English whilst someone else explains the mosque’s asymmetric architecture: it is imperfect because only God is perfect. Unlike in most tourist haunts of the region no monetary recompense is sought for the fascinating but unsolicited piece of information. Thank God!
Contrasting with Imam Mosque are neighbouring Sheikh Loftollah mosque’s harmonious proportions. This masterpiece took 17 years to complete. What superb Mehrab, marble cornices, cunning latticework, striking inscriptions by Ali-Reza Abbasi and colour scheme of outstanding beauty!
Nip across a garden to Chehel-Sotun Palace. Its 40 columns shimmer reflected in a fountain that extends from the palace gates up to the avian with its beautifully painted wood-panelled ceiling, intricately carved doors, stucco decorations and extraordinary frescoes. The gilded and mirrored palace houses chivalrous paintings of battle, court and pastoral scenes.
Pass the Hasht Behesht Palace (now a luxury hotel), famed for its magnificent marble slabs and décor, to the Abassi, a 300-year-old caravansary, the world’s oldest, built by Shah Abbas I to host his mother and royal guests.
In the Old Quarter stands the 900-year-old Jame Mosque, the city’s oldest and most diversified monument combining Dailamite, Seljuquid and Mogul art. The earth cupola, according to its Kufic inscription, dates to 1088 AD. If the Uljaitu Mosque’s custodian likes you, he’ll grant a private view of the legendary Kufic inscription-carved stucco Mehrab with its plasterwork, a 1310 AD masterpiece inaccessible to tourists.
Across the city-traversing Zayandehrud River lie the Jewish and Armenian Quarters, reminding that Muslims, Christians and Jews have co-habited Esfahan for centuries. An impressive belfry in Armenian Jolfa recommends visiting Vank Cathedral’s gilded painting-adorned interiors and mini museum. An Armenian lady invites us back to her boutique. Très chic! “One lives well in Esfahan,” she beams.
The Esfahani predilection for fine things is apparent in the swirl of sophistication around Imam Square and Chahar Bagh whose smart boutiques are patronised by fashion-conscious women.
Even Esfahan’s souks and bazaars, unlike those elsewhere in the Orient, exude elegance, from the beautiful vaulted Safavid Bazaar-E Honar to Qaisariyeh Bazaar, (with a superb mural adorning its great portal), which Alexander Pope declared “the handsomest bazaar of all.” Lose yourself in labyrinthine galleries of expertly handcrafted antiques, jewellery, silverwork, enamelwork, miniatures, carpets, qalamkar, textiles, embroidery… Observe master metal craftsmen meticulously engrave silver, brass, copper; miniaturists, working with a single hair of a brush, paint camel bone, ivory or Khatam-Kari jewellery boxes, cigarette cases, frames; carpet-makers weave sweepingly floral, uniquely Esfahani designs, which sometimes take years to complete.
Impressive too is Imam Square’s fruit market. And always follow the fragrance of freshly baked bread, as one does in Iran, for it unfailingly leads to a delightful bakery. Indeed, one of the most delicious aspects of sojourning in Iran is treating oneself to the multifarious breads hot out of the oven.
Esfahan is Iran’s gastronomic capital. Feast on gorgeous cuisine garnished with exotic sauces like pomegranate and walnut served with saffron rice. The famous Sheherazade restaurant is a must-do. But never resist being hijacked to magnificent villas for suppers fit for a Shah with Byron and Shelley recitals thrown in as sides. Persian refinement!
Ah, Esfahani bridges… They have long lured visitors with their exceptional architecture. Pol-e Shahrestan, Esfahan’s most ancient bridge from Sassanid times, stands on rocks of the riverbed. Si-O-Se Pol’s 33 spectacular arches reflect ravishingly in the river.
The manicured riverbanks with smart squares and high-rise skyline recall any ultra-modern city. But the oriental bridges remind that one’s not in Europe. The 17th century Khaju Bridge with its arched arcades and tiled alcoves is Esfahan’s most arresting. On balmy evenings the bridge’s terraces throb with couples enjoying the sensually lit sequence of bridges.
Paris, the world’s most romantic place? Courtly love flourishes in Esfahan. Esfahan is famed for its rose bushes. But approach them not- you’ll inevitably tread over the latticed feet of lovebirds chirping sweet nothings…