Isfahan: A picturesque living museum

Chehel Sotoun Palace
Chehel Sotoun Palace

With its UNESCO-listed wonders including mosques, gardens, squares and scenic bridges, Isfahan is one of Iran's top tourist destinations and a living museum that reflects the country's traditional culture

A message sent to my phone in Farsi was probably warning me that I was about to run out of my internet package. It was an unfortunate situation because the bus had almost arrived at Isfahan's bus terminal, but neither me nor my friend could clearly remember the name of hotel or how to go to it at night.

Luckily, a few taxi drivers were waiting for customers and my friend had printed information about the hotel. On the road, the city's characteristically low-rise buildings caught my eye. I was trying to single out one of the famous buildings or places that I planned to visit, but I couldn't.

Isfahan flourished under Safavid ruler Shah Abbas I, especially after he designated it as the capital of the empire in 1598. Most of the masterpieces that greatly contribute to the city's tourism today and will be mentioned in this article were erected during Abbas I's rule. He undoubtedly turned Isfahan into one of the most beautiful cities of the 17th century.

Historic bazaars in Naqsh-e Jahan Square contain hundreds of shops that sell products ranging from copper pots, pans, carpets, spices and confectionaries.

Naqsh-e Jahan Square, a UNESCO World Heritage site built in the 17th century, is an ideal place to start your trip. The Royal Square covers an area of nearly 90 square meters and was used by Iranian Shahs to meet with their people during the imperial era. It is not only an important historical site by itself, but is surrounded by the wonders of the Safavid-era on all sides: Keiseria gate in the north opens into the grand bazaar of Isfahan, Ali Qapu Palace is on the west side, Shah Mosque is situated on the south side and Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque is standing on the eastern side of this square.

Despite its spectacular architecture and being surrounded by masterpieces, Naqsh-e Jahan Square is plainy decorated. People were enjoying their meals with their friends on the grass accompanied by murmurs of fountain waters, while tourists were strolling and taking photos. It was hard to determine a starting point as there were places to see were on all four sides. We decided to make a circle in the columns flanked around the square, wherein the bazaars are located.

It was time for Friday prayer and we headed toward Shah Mosque, which is listed, along with Naghsh-e Jahan Square, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Made up of tiny pieces of colored ceramic tiles, the entry portal of the mosque, which opened to small corridors, had a stunning view. Although the mosque's yard was under construction and prohibited to enter, there was still a little space in the basement for prayer. But unlike other Muslim countries, Iranians do not perform Friday prayer at every mosque in the country. It was unfortunate for us to learn that at that moment.

We decided to enter Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque next. Like many other mosques of its kind, it was built by Shah Abbas I in 1619 after 16 years of construction, and rebuilt and repaired in the 1920s. Iranian touristic spots generally have introductory plaques in English and Farsi at the entrance. This iconic building claims to be the "most beautiful mosque in the world" in its introduction. Even at a glance from the outside, it was an assertive claim, but it was enough to galvanize our desire to explore it immediately. We entered the mosque, which now functions as a touristic spot, like many other glorious historical mosques around the country. The details of the interior design of the walls, ceiling and interior dome were captivating. Its mihrab and tiles on the lower wall were a favorite place for taking artistic photos. However, I have seen better mosques. (Nevertheless, the "most beautiful mosque" was an assertive claim).

After spending a considerable time at Naqsh-e Jahan Square and its surroundings, we left the western gate in order to visit Chehel Sotoun, another Iranian building listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Safavid-era pavilion is located in the center of a big park at the far end of a pool, a familiar design for Iranian palaces. The walls are ornamented with paintings and frescoes, which depicts important historical moments from different eras of Iranian history. We singled out the painting depicting the Battle of Chaldiran, a war between Iranian Safavids and Ottomans that resulted in the latter's decisive victory. "Here are cannons," I said after examined it carefully. "That must be our side." Historians say that a large number of Ottoman cannons provided a great advantage for them against the Safavids, who intentionally refused to use them in the battle and thought firearms were cowardly.

One of the most interesting parts of visiting a new place is eating new foods that give you opportunities to discover new flavors. Resorting to today's most popular method of finding a restaurant in a foreign location, we decided to go to a restaurant the received the highest rates and best comments on various review websites. The place we chose had an oriental atmosphere with its interior design and its customers, who took off their shoes and sat cross-legged on the cedar floor. The food was not that distant from Turkish cuisine: The restaurant offers various kinds of meat and chicken kebabs broiled in different styles, as well as some special Iranian dishes such as "dizi,"a type of Persian stew.

Besides its spectacular mosques and palaces, Isfahan has two bridges that attract tourists, which are Khaju and Si-o-Seh Pol, built in the 17th century on the Zayanderud River that divides the city into two parts. We went to the Khaju Bridge first, which seemed perfect at night when their arches were illuminated. It is made of bricks and stones and is nearly 10 meters long, and visitors were wandering among the arches to catch a frame for a photograph.

The distance between Khaju and Si-o-Seh Pol is about 2 kilometers but we preferred to walk alongside the Zayanderud River. Unluckily, the river does not flow at all times of the year, and it was ebbed at that time. Still, the walk was favorable as many people were drinking tea and walking on the parks near the river, while some youth were playing instruments and singing near the bridges between between Khaju and Si-o-Seh Pol.

Even though the architecture of Si-o-Seh Pol, which is another Safavid-era structure built during Shah Abbas I's rule at the beginning of the 17th century, resembles Khaju, it is much longer with a total length of nearly 300 meters. Like Khaju, Si-o-Seh Pol is a car-free zone, which not only enables tourists to wander about vthe historical site but also allows locals to gather and socialize on the bridge. I thought the only thing that was lacking on the beautiful bridge was a place to drink tea while watching the river as it flows. I am sure that most Turkish people have the same thought if they were to visit this bridge.

The next day we went to New Julfa, the Armenian quarter of Isfahan located in the south bank of the Zayanderud River, where the city's nearly 30,000 strong Armenian population lives. The quarter has two religious spot to visit: Vank Cathedral and Bedhkem Church. Both are open for touristic purposes like historical mosques around Iran. Their walls are ornamented with wonderful decorations and paintings depicting the life of Jesus. But compared to Bedhkem, Vank Cathedral resembles a complex or kind of center for the Armenian community in the city. Besides a museum about the life and traditions of Armenians in the city, a monument commemorating the people who died in the 1915 events, what is called a genocide by the Armenians, also stands in the corner of Vank Cathedral's yard.

Our journey came to an end where it began, at the historic bazaars in Naqsh-e Jahan Square. It contains hundreds of shops that sell products ranging from copper pots and pans and carpets to stickers and confectioneries. Most of the shop owners are also artisans as they craft their own products inside their shops. Once we bought souvenirs for our loved ones, it was time to leave this living museum, surely, grudgingly.

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