Iran > Enchanting Esfahan

Esfahan, Iran

In our recent trip to Iran, we arrived in Tehran (1) from Kuala Lumpur, then flew to Shiraz (2), where we hired a car plus driver. Then, by road, we visited Persepolis and Yazd (3), before heading for Esfahan (4). We eventually returned to Tehran by road.

This current story in on Esfahan. For previous stories in this series please go to:

The Splendour of Shiraz in Southern Iran
The Ruins of Persepolis and a Desert Crossing, Iran
The Ancient City of Yazd and the Caravanserai, Iran

As we find the way to our Esfahan hotel, some very light snow is falling, it’s just 1°C. We stay less than 500m from the famed Meidan Emam square, hence it is a very convenient spot indeed.

This is the trusty car which took us almost 1000km from Shiraz, right through the desert, to Esfahan via Yazd. From here we have another 400km on the road to get back to Tehran.

I like their car plates, nice and systematic, and this one is on our Peugeot 405. It reads ‘IRAN 93 | 531 S 85’.

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We promptly checked in and strolled over to this Naqsh-e Jahan Square (aka Meidan Emam), said to be the second largest public square in the world after Beijing’s Tiananmen. Well, this one does look more elegant and serene, and it has an excellent ambience to it.

Built at the start of the 17th century by Shah Abbas I when Esfahan became capital of Persia, it’s now a Unesco World Heritage Site. Shah Abbas I moved the capital of Persia from Qazvin to Esfahan in 1598.

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A chilly day in Esfahan today, and tonight we are going for -7°C. And it’s only November!

The jewel here is the very photogenic Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque. It was built in the early 17th century by Shah Abbas I of the Safavid Dynasty, but was only meant for his court’s private use. The design is a fine example of the Safavid period (16th-18th century). In 1598, he moved the capital of Persia from Qazvin (near present-day Tehran) to Esfahan. Before Qazvin the capital was Tabriz in northern Persia.

The blue iwan faces the square, but since the kiblat is skewed, the iwan’s entrance leads to a corridor which curves around the prayer hall to get to its back entrance. Since the mosque was exclusively for the sultan’s and his court’s use (including the ladies of his harem), the entrance was designed to discreetly hide the door to the basement, where a tunnel dug underneath the square led to his palace located right on the opposite side of the square. Ingenious.

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The elegant mosque is located on the eastern side of Meidan Emam. It was a private mosque meant for the royal court, whose family lived in a palace right opposite it, across the square — hence it is small and does not have a minaret, it was not for public use.

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The intricate tile-works are exquisite, the floral patterns most mesmerising. On a bright afternoon it is a great place to chill (even on a bitterly cold day).

We do likewise, but sometimes we do attract people’s attention — well Sabariah always does, curious strangers can’t place her.

We enter the mosque, and find ourselves in a most glorious passageway, leading from the entrance at the Meidan Emam square to the main prayer hall entrance at the back, under the dome. Tile mosaics are everywhere, and we are having stiff necks for gawking too much.

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The prayer hall itself makes us speechless — just look at those tile mosaics adorning the walls and the ceiling. There are no pillars inside the hall.

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I go into the mihrab — the semi-circular niche in the wall which faces Mecca, where the imam leads the prayer. I look up to see … the blue muqarnas-laden ceiling of the mihrab, in stark contrast to the orange ceiling of the dome above it. I need to bend my body backwards quite a bit to capture this interesting juxtaposition. Note the peacock pattern at the zenith of the dome ceiling.

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Beautiful tile mosaics are everywhere in the interior of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque. Excellent example of early 17th century style of the Safavids.

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The mesmerising ceiling of the dome. The patterns at the edge kind of induce you to slowly gaze towards the middle of the circular design, where the flowery peacock is.

The mosque is named Lotfollah, after the imam of the royal court, a personal favourite of Shah Abbas I.

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We then explore the basement of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque where the ladies of the court would appear after crossing the square via a secure tunnel from the palace about 180m away. That’s a good plan, privacy for the ladies, especially from the harem.

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We decide to leave this gorgeous mosque and say good-bye to the pleasant lady at the counter of the main entrance.

Even at night the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque is stunning.

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The grand bazaar of Esfahan is attached to the northern end of the Meidan Emam square, so we take a walk along its myriad of corridors. Just full of the usual stuff, not of real interest to us.

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As we wander along the complicated network of bazaar corridors, we come to open courtyard. Maybe the residence of a very wealthy merchant?

Okay so we found a burget joint, ordered our meals and got handed this slip. Figured out that our number (to collect our food) is 230, and the price for the meals is 25000 toman or 250k rials. No problem.

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Not bad, our first ever Persian burgers!

At the Meidan Emam square, there’s another spectacular mosque I have not spoken about. This is the Shah Mosque, located on the south side of Meidan Emam, also built in early 16th century by Shah Abbas I of the Safavid Dynasty. It has four iwans (facing the main courtyard), and the Persians were the first to introduce iwans and domes into mosque architecture.

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The main iwan faces the square. Shah Abbas I built Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque for his private use, but he also built this one for the general public, the hoi polloi. Hence it has minarets while Lotfollah has none.

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Enormous muqarnas design fills up the niche of the iwan.

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Close-up of the intricate muqarnas.

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Night view of the Shah Mosque with the two huge iwans, and the dome is being renovated — sort of reminds me of the Star Wars Deathstar under construction!

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In Esfahan there is another grand mosque, the Jameh Mosque which predates anything at the 17th century Meidan Emam square. It was started in the 8th century under the Umayyads rule. It’s located some 30min walk north of Meidan Emam. Shah Abbas I built the Shah Mosque above to replace the Jameh Mosque as a focal point for Friday prayer.

It’s another Persian mosque with a huge courtyard surrounded by four iwans. Although it was started by the Umayyads in the 8th century, the Persian dynasties that came after the Arabs added more features to the original mosque. Now it’s a totally Persian design, but it is still one of the oldest mosques in Iran.

Beautiful kufi khat from the early 12th century can be found here, This one says: “La ila ha illallah, Muhammad rasulullah, Ali waliullah.” [There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is the messenger of Allah, Ali is the friend of Allah.]

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A guide explaning some aspects of the ancient mosaic tiles.

Trying to figure out how to read the kufi is quite tricky. It’s all over the place!

More kufi art on this iwan, from a thousand years ago, and this is very fascinating.

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Another iwan, which looks more Persian.

A popular spot for domestic visitors, no doubt.

We explore every nook and cranny of this amazing complex.

Which leads us to this cool and pleasant prayer hall, with a rather interesting tent-like design.

A really old kufi art, easily a thousand years old.

Another beautifully-decorated iwan.

And more kufi art.

And yes, the precious Unesco World Heritage Site plaque. This Jameh Mosque is truly overwhelming!

Bazaars and mosques seem to be inseparable, so here’s one appropriate shop just outside the main gate of the Jameh Mosque.

Esfahan also has a sizeable Armenian Christian population. Shah Abbas I transported them from a town in northern Persia close to the present Armenian border. It is said 150,000 Armenian came to Esfahan, ostensibly to escape Ottoman Empire’s persecution.

The sultan valued their skills as merchants and artists and placed them in an area south of the Zayandeh river. That means the Armenians have been here for about 500 years. Now there are about 10,000 Armenians still living here.

Vank Cathedral is the spiritual centre of the Armenian Christians, built in the early 1600s.

Another Esfahan icon is the 450-year-old Siosepol Bridge. It seemed a bit odd, having a bridge on the dry Zayandeh river. I think it looks like an aqueduct. From the hip Armenian quarter you can just stroll to this bridge.

The water is supposed to be flowing from the left. The Zayandeh river now is waterless due to indiscrimate extraction of water upstream. That’s a sad situation. It’s a major river and important source of water for the country. Decreasing rainfall does not help either.

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It is a huge pity there’s no water. It looks kind of weird with people strolling all over the place, including me.

The bridge is still a hive of activity as the sun sets. People are just walking and milling around, probably yearning for the old days when water was still flowing below the bridge.

It’s also known as the ‘Bridge of 33 Arches’, built 1599-1602, so it is about as old as the Meidan Emam square. Built by Shah Abbas I, that prolific constructor.

As the sun sets, we drop by a colourful shop at the Meidan Emam bazaar for some Persian tidbits.

Final night for dinner, and to end our memorable Esfahan visit, I’m trying a local Esfahan delicacy called ‘beriani’ (not the rice type). Just finely minced mutton patty stewed and grilled with spices and nuts. Strong mutton odour and taste, but frankly not at the top of my list. Nice to try though.

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~ THE END (11/16) ~

#iranseries

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