Esfahan embodies the greatness of ancient Persia. Located in virtually the middle of Iran, the city was once the capital of the Persian kingdom, a lush green oasis rounded by vast deserts of sand and salt. It was said that Esfahan nesf-e jehan (Esfahan is half the world).
Amongst Iranian cities Esfahan is a unique jewel that still has a noble and fascinating shining after many historical fluctuations and the passage of several centuries. It is so fresh as if it has come to life on this very day; and yet it is so original and deep rooted as if it has always been there. Esfahan’s rich culture and beautiful nature are in such a wonderful harmony that they seem to be each other’s reflection. Esfahan may be a complete manifestation of the Iranian-Islamic civilization, culture and arts that are as old as Iran herself.
The city of four seasons
There are many climatic variations in the province due to varying altitudes. Generally, with the declining altitude from west to east, the temperature rises while precipitation declines. A breeze flows across Esfahan throughout the four seasons. Particularly the westerly and southwesterly winds of spring and autumn coming along the river Zayandehrood lend a certain delicacy to the city’s climate. Esfahan is a city of regular seasonal changes. Spring begins in late March with blossoming trees, summer begins in late June, autumn starts in late September with falling leaves and a cold winter begins in late December. Of all these seasons and months, Esfahan is in its most glorious state in May when a breeze comes from heaven to a colorful city of fresh favorable climate and fascinating light. Esfahan is a city full of sunlight. It is sunny in almost three fourth of the year.
A long story of civilization
Esfahan is an ancient city, which according to fables, was founded at the time of Tahmourass or Keykavous. In history, there have been reference to this city around the Achaemenian era, and today after centuries, this prosperous city resembles a large garden bounded on the north and east by stretch of Desert.
Esfahan’s golden age began in the late seventeenth century under the Safavid dynasty. The city had been an important trading center, but establishing it as the national capital was no easy task. The first monarchs had to drive out the Mongols, and Shah Abbas the Great (r. 1588-1629) was Esfahan’s champion. He expelled the Ottomans and constructed the awe-inspiring Imam Mosque, completed in 1638. His successors continued to build magnificent palaces, mosques, and schools. They established a flourishing tradition of support for the decorative arts, notably calligraphy and miniature painting, and Esfahan’s era of glory lasted into the nineteenth century.
Bisected by the Zayandeh River, Esfahan is today the showpiece of a nation slowly beginning to welcome Western visitors. A casual stroll can lead the stranger to diverse and unexpected discoveries. There are parks, historical bridges crossing the river, tearooms where patrons smoke traditional water pipes, monuments and landmarks adorned by ubiquitous pale blue tiles, a Zoroastrian Tower of Silence, and a dozen active churches that have served the city’s large Armenian community since the seventeenth century. The heart of the modern city is Imam Khomeini Square. Formerly a royal polo ground, it encompasses twenty acres and is second in size only to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Two magnificent mosques and madrassas (religious schools), a pavilioned seven-story palace, and the Grand Bazaar border the square, eloquent testimony to the former capital’s eminence in religion, culture, government, and trade.
Let us visit some of the more favorite places in Esfahan:
At the end of the Imam Square is one of the most stunning buildings in Iran, the Imam Mosque. Two turquoise minarets flank the huge gateway (27m high). Behind it and slightly to the right is the main dome (52m high) of the prayer hall. It was built over a period of 26 years and was eventually completed in 1638. In Shah Abbas’ impatience to see it finished, he attempted to hurry up the work by adopting a new method of glazed tile work, known as haft rangi (of seven colours). As a result, some sections are decorated with the new style and some with the old and these ornate tiles take on a different hue according to the light conditions.
Imam Mosque, Isfahan
(Photo by Henri Stierlin)
Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque
This small mosque was built during Shah Abbas’ time and dedicated to his father in law, Sheikh Lotfollah. The pale tiles on the dome change colour from cream to pink, depending on the light conditions; and the mosque is unusual because it has no minaret or courtyard. The mosque was once called the Women’s Mosque, because there is apparently a tunnel between this mosque and the Ali Qapu Palace, allowing women from the old dynasties to attend prayers without being seen in public.
Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan
(Photo by Henri Stierlin)
Ali Qapu Palace
This palace was built in the 18th century as a functioning seat of government, and included a huge pavilion from where the Safavid rulers could watch the activities in the square below. Unfortunately the Palace today is devoid of any furniture, and many of the Murals have been destroyed.
Ali Qapu Palace, Isfahan
(Photo by N. Kasraian)
On the north side of the Imam Square lies the Bazaar Qaisarieh (Great Bazaar). The gateway to the bazaar, built in the reign of Shah Abbas is decorated with the town’s astrological sign, Sagittarius. The bazaar covers an enormous area with shops that sell almost every imaginable item, as well as mosques, tea-houses, and banks. Like most Iranian bazaars, it is loosely divided into several interconnecting corridors, each specialising in a particular trade or product.
Bazaar Qaisarieh, Isfahan
(Photo by Henri Stierlin)