48 hours in Isfahan – Empire of the Mind

 

Once a seat of power, the Iranian city is an epitome of architectural and artistic elegance.
Once the seat of the great Persian Empire and long considered to be Iran’s most beautiful city with its stunning collection of historic architecture, tree-lined boulevards, flower gardens and parks, Isfahan is a fascinating place to visit. Shah Abbas I, the most famous of the Safavid emperors (1587-1629) made the city his capital in 1598, an adroit strategic move as it lies at the junction of ancient trade routes on the high plateau in the centre of the country. Even the great English explorer and eccentric Robert Byron on setting eyes on Isfahan in 1933, ranked it as being “among those rarer places like Athens and Rome, which are the common refreshment of humanity.”

Entrance portal to the Masjed-e- Shah, also know The Royal Mosque
Day 1: Morning

Isfahan is a city built for walking and you can cover many of its sights on foot. Start with the immense Naqsh-e-Jahan “pattern of the world” square at the heart of Isfahan built by Shah Abbas as a showcase to the might of his empire and its position in the world. Covering an expanse of 20 acres, this giant open space is the second-largest one of its kind after Tiananmen Square in Beijing.​Afternoon

Masjed-e Shah, also known as The Royal Mosque and enter through its imposing entrance portal. Although the portal was built to face the square, the mosque is oriented towards Mecca. With its pool for ritual ablutions and four imposing
iwans, this mosque is a stunning testament to the vision of Shah Abbas and the extraordinary abilities of his Safavid architects. ​Pause to admire the profusion of lapis lazuli and turquoise tiles featuring flowers and twisting tendrils as well as the exquisite calligraphy done by Reza Abbasy covering the walls and ceilings of the interior sanctuaries. Stamp your feet under the centre point of the great dome and the echoes can be heard from every corner — such is the exact calculation of the acoustics required. The mosque is the perfect exemplar of how Abbas used visual arts as a tool of power.

Cross the grassy maidan towards the Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah, an exquisite smaller mosque dedicated by Abbas to his father-in-law who was a prominent Lebanese scholar of Islam. This mosque stands out because the dome is covered with delicate cream-coloured tiles that take on darker hues of pink as sunset approaches and because of the absence of minarets and a courtyard since it was never intended for public use but rather served as a worship place for the royalty. Admire the subtle interplay of light and shadow across the deep blue tile work as you walk through the twisting hallway which leads to the sanctuary.

Evening

Finish your visit to Imam Square with a visit to the last of its three monuments Kakh-e Ali Qapu (Ali Qapu means the ‘Gate of Ali’) directly opposite the Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah. Built as a residence for Abbas, this six-storey palace also served as a monumental gateway to the royal palaces that lay in the parklands beyond. The highlight of the palace is its elevated terrace, which features 18 slender columns and affords a wonderful perspective over the square. Worth visiting are the throne room which has a few of the remaining paintings and mosaics that were not destroyed after the 1979 revolution and the music room with its impressive stucco ceiling that reflects sound perfectly.


Ali Qapu – a grand palace in Isfahan, located on the western side of the Naqsh-e-Jahan Square

Day 2: Morning“Isfahan is half the world” according to a famous Persian proverb and our trip to Isfahan is half over! Take a stroll along Chahar Bagh, the Champs-Elysees of the city and spend some time in the shops along the way. The avenue is six km long and on the way you can take in two more historic sights, the beautiful Chehel Sotoun Palace and gardens and the Hasht Behesht palace. The former is a pleasure pavilion in the middle of a park at the far end of a long pool built by Shah Abbas II to be used for the emperor’s entertainment and receptions. Chehel Sotoun means “Forty Columns,” derived from the 20 slender, ribbed wooden pillars supporting the immense portico, which when reflected in the waters of the fountain, are said to appear to be forty. Step inside and look out for the six superb frescoes which decorate the upper walls of the Throne Room – of particular interest to Indian visitors is the one depicting Shah Tahmasp receiving Humayun, the Mughal emperor who fled to Persia in 1543.


Vank Cathedral is the most famous cathedral of the Armenians in the Isfahan

Afternoon

After lunch and for a change of scene and style, cross the Zayandeh river to the Armenian quarter of New Jolfa. Here you will find the unique Vank (monastery) Cathedral built by the Armenian community who were given sanctuary by Shah Abbas I during the Ottoman-Persian Wars at the beginning of the 17th century. The exterior of the cathedral is quite drab and austere compared with the Safavid mosques you saw on day one but its interiors are lavishly decorated with gilded paintings and murals depicting famous Biblical scenes. Islamic influences are clearly to be seen in the domed sanctuary and high arches and the extensive use of delicate floral motifs and blue tile work on the ceilings and walls.

Evening

Isfahan is famous for the five ancient bridges across the Zayandeh river that bisects the city. Make your way back to the Chahar Bagh Avenue via the Si-o-seh pol bridge which crosses the river at its widest point. At the centre of the bridge is a pleasure pavilion where you can relax while the sun goes down and the lights come on, giving a spectacular view of the illuminated bridges and city by night.

Si-o-se Pol Bridge: A stone double-deck arch bridge, built over Zayandeh River.

Ranjan Pal

Ranjan Pal is a Gurgaon-based blogger, photographer and world traveler. His travel stories and photographs have appeared in a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, Condé Nest Traveller, Sommelier India, and Outlook Traveler.

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