Isfahan Half of the World

Saturday, June 13, 2009

French poet Renier visited Isfahan for the first time, he was amazed and called it “Half of the World”.

Isfahan flourished under the Safavid Dynasty and is renowned for its outstanding Islamic and Iranian architecture. In those times, it had a population of one million and boasted of many parks, libraries, public baths, shops and mosques that amazed domestic and foreign visitors alike.

One of the great works of Shah Abbas in that period was Naqsh-e Jahan (“Pattern of the world”) Square which is a jewel in Isfahan’s crown. This majestic complex comprises commercial, worship and aristocratic buildings designed with a view to aesthetics and visual harmony.

Tourist Spots

To the west of Imam Square, a beautiful tree-lined boulevard offers delightful hours of walking under its cool green shades. Chahar Bagh is the main street of Isfahan and traverses Zayandeh Rud. Some of the world’s most picturesque bridges have been built on this river.

Another place worth spending hours is the city’s four-mile labyrinthine bazaar, with its majestic Qeysarieh Portal in Imam Square.

Andre Malraux, the famous French author and adventurer, says, “Who can claim to have seen the most beautiful city of the world without having seen Isfahan?”

Therefore, do not hesitate to visit the Florence of Iran whose well-proportioned mosques and their turquoise blue domes and minarets rival the color of the sky.

Ali-Qapu Palace

The name Aali-Qapu, meaning “Magnificent Gate“, was given to this place as it was right at the entrance of the Safavid palaces that stretched from Naqsh-e Jahan Square to Chahar Bagh Boulevard. Built at the end of 16th century, the royal palace was used to entertain visitors and foreign ambassadors.

Aali-Qapu is 48 meters high and has five floors, with a wide terrace whose ceiling is inlaid and supported by wooden columns. It offers a wonderful panoramic view of the square and the best view of Imam Mosque. The interior of the building is decorated with paintings by Reza Abbasi, the renowned Persian miniaturist. On the upper floor, the music room is also decorated with plasterwork representing pots and vessels.

Imam Mosque

Imam Mosque, formerly called Shah Mosque, is one of the greatest architectural achievements of Shah Abbas I who built it to complete the magnificent central square of Isfahan. Work started on its outstanding entrance in 1611 and it was not until 1629, the last year of Shah Abbas’s reign when the mosque was completed, although minor decorations were added during the reign of his descendants.

The height of the entrance’s minarets is 48 meters, southern minarets 42 meters and central dome 52 meters. Due to double-layering the interior, its ceiling is 36.3 meters high, and the hollow space in between is responsible for the loud echoes heard when you stamp your foot below the dome.

The entrance faces the square as a counterpoint to the Qeysarieh portal, but the mosque is designed to point in the direction of Mecca. A short corridor leads into the inner courtyard, which has a pool and is surrounded by four corridors, each of which leads into a vaulted sanctuary. There are also two theological schools, a marble prayer niche and a pulpit at the head of stairs on which the speaker sits, which are beautifully crafted.

The mosque is completely covered, both inside and outside, with dazzling tiles. An estimated 18 million bricks and 472,500 tiles have been used in the building. The richness of its blue-tiled mosaic designs, the unity of the overall structure and its perfectly proportioned Safavid-era architecture form a visually stunning monument.

Chehel Sotoun

This building, now a veritable museum of Persian painting and ceramics, was a pleasure pavilion used for the king’s entertainments and receptions. It stands inside a vast royal park, but near the enclosure, and was built by Shah Abbas II around an earlier building erected by Shah Abbas I.

An inscription states that the decoration and frescoes were completed in 1647. Only two large historical frescoes date from the later period of the Zand dynasty.

Unfortunately, the Chehel Sotoun has been badly damaged since then, especially when the Afghans occupied the town and covered the paintings with a thick coat of whitewash. It is now being extensively restored under the aegis of the Institute Italiano Per il Medio Orient.

The pavilion opens onto the gardens through an elegant terrace, only a few steps high and supported by slender, delicate wooden pillars. In reality, there were never more than 20 columns, but their reflections can be seen in the park’s pool and, hence, Iranians call the building “pavilion with forty columns” (besides, the number 40 has a symbolic meaning in Persia and expresses respect and admiration).

Two rows of water-spouts and fountains in the shape of stone lions at the four corners carried water to the huge, elegant rectangular basin. The terrace is a marvel of elegance. The slender pillars support a light wooden ceiling with wide fretwork louvers. This clearly shows the influence of East Asian architecture. Part of the sumptuous decoration has disappeared.

Picture the back wall covered with mirrors, doors made of rare carved wood and the pillars, each cut from a single plane tree, with their fine veneer, their brightly colored paintings and studs of colored glass. The remarkable ceiling is till intact with its beams, its covering, its painted wood louvers and its carefully designed rosettes, suns, stars, stylized fruit and foliage.

The great wooden ceilings--a rare luxury in a country so lacking in treesÑare guarded by four lions that support the central columns.

Shahrestan  Bridge

It is one of the oldest bridges of Isfahan on Zayandeh Rud.

Most of the 11-arched stone and brick structure is believed to date from Sassanid period prior to Islam and have been repaired and completed under the Dailamites and the Seljukids. The name Shahrestan comes from the village located to the east of Isfahan, which is now a part of the city.

Vank Cathedral

Vank Cathedral, built between 1606 and 1655 with the encouragement of Shah Abbas, is the historical focal point of Armenian Church in Iran. It is located in Jolfa, the Armenian quarter south of Si-o-Seh Pol. The church’s interior unlike its exterior is richly decorated with beautiful paintings and miniatures that represent biblical traditions and images of angels and apostles.

It shows the curious mixture of styles, Islamic tiles and designs alongside Christian imagery. The attached Vank Cathedral’s museum displays historical records and relics, and the edicts of Iranian kings dating back to the time of Shah Abbas I. It also contains an interesting collection of artworks.

Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar of Isfahan, the heritage of the Seljuk and Safavid eras is one of the oldest and largest bazaars of the Middle East. It stretches from Imam Square to Jame’ Mosque several kilometers away.

The bazaar can be entered at dozens of points along its winding route, but the main entrance is via the Qeysarieh Portal at the northern end of Imam Square. The high gateway is decorated with tiles and, higher up, frescoes by Reza Abbasi depicting Shah Abbas’s war with the Uzbeks.

Like most Iranian bazaars, Grand Bazaar is loosely divided into several interconnected corridors, each specializing in a particular trade or product, with carpet dealers, goldsmiths, samovar-makers, shoemakers and dyers, all having their own quarters.

You can also find several mosques, tea shops, bathhouses and even gardens. Small apertures in the vaulted roof let in sufficient light yet kept out the intense heat of summer and retained warmth in winter.

Hash Behesht Palace

Hasht Behesht, a two-story palace, is located in the middle of Bagh-e Bolbol.

Built about 1669 by Shah Sulieman’s commission, it was once surrounded by a vast garden and similar buildings, of which nothing remains except this interesting and beautiful palace. It consists of an octagonal base on which four corridors and four smaller sets of chambers are raised, while the center is surmounted by a spectacular ceiling.

The domed ceiling of the main reception room is painted in purple on a glittering gold base. Painted tile designs of birds, animals and hunting scenes, found on the spandrels of the outer blind arches, enliven the facades of Hasht Behesht. The palace owes its fame, apart from its architectural and decorative merits, to the lavish use of marble slabs, vault decorations and excellent tilework dotted with scenes of animals (birds, beasts of prey and reptiles) covering the building on the outside.

Si-o-se Pol

Allahverdi Khan Bridge, built on a section of Zayandeh Rud, is a continuation of Chahar Bagh, the principal street in Isfahan.

Built at the beginning of 17th century on the order of Shah Abbas, it is named after a famous general. It is also called Si-o-Se Pol (Bridge of 33 Arches). It is said that the bridge originally comprised 40 arches, but this number gradually reduced to 33. It is the longest bridge in the city and is 45 feet wide and 175 yards long. Although it looks impressive, it does not have the same archeological or aesthetic interest as the two other bridges farther downstream.

Hammam-e Sheikh Bahai

The bath of Sheikh Bahai is located in a small street named after him in the southern section of the old bazaar close to Masjed-e-Jam’e. It derives its fame mainly from the story that it was warmed by a single candle placed in a closed space, which never needed a replacement.

The candle was larger than the ones normally placed on tables and the clay pipes, which supplied the water, became unusable many years ago. According to his own instructions, the candle would not work once it is dismantled. Unfortunately, this happened during the repair of the building and no one could make the system work again.

Monar Jonban (Shaking Minaret)

It is a mausoleum built over the grave of Abu Abdollah and dates back to Safavid period. Minarets on both sides of the mausoleum and its porch are the main attractions of this place. Because of the ratio between the height and width of the minarets, any movement produced in one of the minarets is automatically replicated by the other minaret.

The corridor of the mausoleum has been decorated with polygonal azure tiles, and the inscription on the tombstone reads as follows:

“This is the tomb of the virtuous, god-fearing Sheikh Abu Abdullah ibn Muhammad ibn Mahmud Saqla, my God bless his soul. Dated (17th Zil-Hijja, 716 AH).”

As Iran’s artistic and historical center, Isfahan offers a wide range of charming choices to tourists keen on visiting monuments and picturesque landscapes. They can also purchase Isfahan’s fine carpets, handicrafts, souvenirs and sweets.

Source: Iran Daily