“You are now going to see half of the world,” says guide Arsalan as we drive inside Esfahan, one of Iran’s most visited destinations. Obviously an overstatement now, but was absolutely befitting to French poet Renier when he stepped in there five centuries ago.
Renier was so awestruck by the sight of the grand ensemble of palaces, mosques, libraries, markets, public baths, parks, gardens and bridges, all spectacularly spread over a riverfront landscape he felt roving through half of the globe. So he dubbed Esfahan “half of the world”.
Subsequent western visitors, who had not seen anything clustered like that back home, shared similar sentiments. With over a million people living there, Esfahan was then one of the largest metropolis in the world.
I learned about all of these and more of Iran’s history, which dates back over three millennium, when I visited the National Museum in capital Tehran. Displayed in chronological order, the exhibits eloquently narrated the stories of this cradle of civilisation which since foundation in the BC period passed through several phases of imperialism, until becoming an Islamic Republic in 1979.
Located around 420km south of Tehran, Esfahan came into prominence in the 11th century when it became the political and cultural capital of the region, then called Persia. Over the centuries, the Persian rulers from Seljuk and Safavid dynasties filled the tapestry of Esfahan with architectural marvels, many of which still stand to mesmerise the modern generation.
“That’s why people visit Esfahan, to see that extraordinary urban set up through their own eyes and moreover, to get engulfed by the locale’s thriving ambiance which time hasn’t taken away,” comments Arsalan while an inspiring line up of blue-tiled domes and towers, rising above tree-lined avenues, crowded promenades and manicured gardens welcomes me into the nation’s third largest city.
Treading into Esfahan is like zooming into a regal domain. In every corner lies a piece of history, a royal residence resembling the richness of the time, an old mosque beaming out evocative calls to prayer, a timeworn “chaikhane” or teahouse depicting a traditional social scene or a bustling bazaar standing out as symbol of Islamic civilisation.
Crown of Iran
If Esfahan is the crown of Iran, then its Naqsh-e-Jahan Square is the crown-jewel.
“Wow” is the only word I utter at first sight. It’s actually not a square but a sprawling rectangular area, where four imposing edifices linked by a series of two-storied arched arcades surround a huge parkland ornamented with paved roads, blooming flowerbeds and a marble pool with fountains in the middle.
Currently known as Imam Square, it was built 400 years ago as an arena of royalty, religion, entertainment and business. “It was then the largest public space in the world, now only second to Tiananmen Square in Beijing,” comments Arsalan as we wander around.
Like the past royals we jump on a horse drawn carriage to move around and visit the grand Ali Qapu Palace, Imam Mosque, Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque and Portico of Qaysariyyeh, the four icons of the domain.
The portals, domes and interior of the two mosques are profusely adorned with blue and green tilework, calligraphy and enamelled mosaics, coining them as the most stunning examples of Persian architecture of all times.
City within a city
The adjacent Grand Bazaar is like a city within a city.
Thousands of shops there are selling almost everything, from clothes, shoes, trinkets and household items to tobacco, saffron, dates and rose water.
The quality of retail therapy is nothing special, but losing yourself in the ocean of people and learning about many of their traditional practices like how to make Persian tea, their most favourite drink, mix spices or weave carpets is an experience by itself.
After sundown the illuminated square becomes an unrehearsed venue for socialising and picnic dinners. I find hospitality redefined after meeting locals there. They generally break the ice asking two questions – “Where are you from?” followed by “How do you like our country?”. Genuine eagerness to be friends display their effort to change the stereotype image of Iran as pariah state.
It will be wrong to think there is nothing much beyond this square in Esfahan. In fact, the cityscape is sprinkled with several other attractions, most significant being the two storied Hasht Behesht Palace, the 800-year-old Jameh Mosque and Chehel Sotoun, a former palace now converted into a museum of Persian art.
However, a surprise greets me when Arsalan takes me to the Vank Cathedral which was established in 1664 for the Christian deportees from Armenian. It’s still functioning without any issues, perhaps proclaiming Islamic Iran’s respect for other faiths.