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November 17, 2017

Why The Iranian City Of Isfahan Is A Delectable Treat For History Aficionados

Text by Huzan Tata. Illustration by Rutuja Patil

Its resplendent mosques replete with Islamic artworks and architecture lends it a royal charm….

There are many impressions first-time visitors would have of this country. But contrary to what you see on the news and learn through hearsay, Iran — that was once home to one of the world’s oldest civilisations — will make you feel at home the minute you arrive. Language may be a problem, you realise right at the outset, but a bit of miming and a friendly smile will take you a long way — in Iran, the guest is a VIP, and locals will go out of their way to make sure you feel special. As I journey to Isfahan, just a short flight from the capital, Tehran, I’m transported into the pages of history, to architectural marvels that hypnotise me for hours, with their opulent decor.

Home Of Heritage

As a student of history, I have always been fascinated by all things from the past, learning about the dynasties and politics of the world through the years. But nothing compares to actually walking through places you have only read about. As I enter the Naqsh-e-Jahan square — a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Iran’s greatest wonders — I am instantly transported to the medieval era. Ceramic tiles and paintings adorn all the buildings around, with mosaic designs that are so arresting, you’ll find it hard to look away. Walk along the stone-paved square, and take in all the grandeur of the Safavid architecture that the city is known for.

One of Iran’s greatest periods of social and cultural progress, the Safavid era (named after the rulers of that time) lives on in the many monuments that find a home in this square. I walk through the Portico of Qaysariyyeh and head towards the Sheikh Lotfollah mosque, built during the time of the fifth Safavid Shah. My eyes still taking in the beauty of its striking floral dome, I enter the palatial structure and am left gaping in awe. Hues of blue, green and yellow abound, and the sunlight that enters through the geometrically carved windows lends a glorious sheen to the interiors. Again, the floral designs and Quranic verses inscribed in calligraphic patterns on the intricate tiling take me to a world bygone. No minarets or courtyards accompany this mosque — it’s simply the one building with its ceramic works that can capture the visitors’ attention. Just opposite this mosque is the Ali Qapu Palace that was built during the age of the Timurids in the 1500s, with further construction carried out by the Safavid Shah in the 1700s. What was once the tallest building in the 17th century, today houses miniature paintings in its many rooms, and provides a panoramic view of the square (and a glimpse of the city in the distance) from the third-floor verandah. As I walk up the tiny staircase — so narrow, that not more than one person can use it at a time — I am glancing at the ceiling that’s adorned with paintings by medieval artists, each one more eye-catching than the last. North from the Meidan Imam, as the square is also called, are the many bazaars and caravanserais selling artworks, artefacts, food items and traditional Persian carpets. As I leave to explore the city’s other sites, I take a few minutes to stop by the pond with its fountains — if you get lucky, you’ll get a great photo op with the mosque reflected in the water at sunset. Don’t forget to take out time to explore the environs of the Chehel Sotoun Palace (Palace of Forty Columns) that mirrors royal Persian splendour in all its glory.

Christian Charisma

It’s no secret that Iran (erstwhile Persia — the home of Zoroastrianism and where today’s Parsis trace their ancestry to) has fire temples and Zoroastrian monuments in major cities. But that you can find churches here too, may come as a surprise. Isfahan’s Vank Cathedral — completed in 1664 — situated in the Armenian Quarter of the city, is a striking example of Persian architecture and artistry. Its Safavid-style domes and high arches give the Christian place of worship a Persian touch. It takes me a while to remember that I am in Iran and not a Western country when I admire the frescoes, the most striking one depicting heaven, earth and hell on a single wall. Explore the museum next door and learn about the Armenian Christians of Iran, through the clothes, artefacts, photographs and maps housed within.

Bridge The Gap

One of the best ways to pass time while travelling in Iran is to attempt to learn the language. Farsi (or Persian, as the locals would like you to call it) is soft on the ears and one can pick up a few words on hearing them often. Apart from everyday phrases, I learn how to say numbers from 1 to 100 in the matter of a few days (while my brother practises the more complicated “I will poison you,” much to my amusement). And when I reach the Si-o-Seh Pol, I’m proud that I don’t need anyone to translate its meaning for me. Si-o-Seh is 33 in Persian, and indicates the number of arches this stone bridge has. Situated on the Zayandeh Rud (river), Isfahan’s longest bridge has a teahouse on one end and divides the northern and southern ends of the city. Visit at night and you’re treated to a resplendent view of the arches reflected in amber light in the Zayandeh below. Smaller but equally magnificent in its architecture is the Pol-e-Khaju (Khaju Bridge), built on the same river. It links the Zoroastrian quarter to the north bank of the river. Made of bricks and stones, this bridge’s octagonal centre is today home to a teahouse and an art gallery. Sip on black tea as the wind blows through your hair, or take a walk along the bridge admiring its Islamic carvings and inscriptions — spending time at the river’s 11 bridges is a perfect way to bring in the evening.

If Tehran is the city of skyscrapers and highways — like many a metropolis — Isfahan is the historical centre, where the design of the buildings and bridges lends the city an age-old vibe. There’s no mistaking an architectural marvel when you see one, and I’ve now crossed Isfahan off my medieval-wonders-of-the-world-to-see bucket list. As a Persian proverb goes, Esfahān nesf-e jahān ast — Isfahan is half the world.

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