Iranian cities are a far cry from what’s reported in the news. Terrorism in the Middle East, missile-testing and other international news reports have made me believe Iran is a dangerous place. But once I see Esfahan, I realise that the Persian proverb “Esfahan nesf-e jahan”, “Isfahan is half the world”, almost fits the bill.
Esfahan, the centre of Persian civilisation, is filled with gigantic mosques built 1,000 years ago, stunning palaces set among serene gardens, century-old bridges reflecting great architecture and delicate artworks dotting parks and public areas.
Located about 340km south of Iran’s capital Tehran, Esfahan was once one of the largest cities in the world. It flourished from 1050-1722, particularly in the 16th century under the Safavid dynasty, when it became the capital of Persia for the second time. Even today, the city retains much of its past glory.
“Hello, welcome to Iran. Thank you for visiting our country,” said a group of young Iranians one evening as I strolled along the picturesque Zayandeh River. It is the third greeting I have received in a day. You may find it a bit unusual, but this is a sincere greeting for foreign visitors in Iran, particularly in Esfahan.
Allahverdi Khan Bridge or Si-o-seh Pol (the bridge of 33 spans) is the longest bridge on the Zayandeh River. Built in 1602, the bridge consists of two rows of 33 arches situated on the either side. It measures 297m-long and is ranked as the most famous example of bridge designs by the Safavid dynasty. In the evening, the bridge is filled with people who come to watch the sunset.
“That is normal here,” Reza Rahimian Pour, my Iranian guide explained. “Iranian people have got used to foreigners here, more than in other places.”
Esfahan is a multiethnic city where Muslims, Jews and Christians cohabit peacefully. It is also famous for its Islamic architecture, packed with many beautiful boulevards, bridges, palaces, arcade markets, mosques and minarets.
Imam Square was built more than 400 years ago and is surrounded by significant buildings, namely two gigantic mosques with wonderful decoration. The square is an elegant palace where every inch is adorned and is a lively marketplace. Exploring the square may require an entire day, especially without the use of a magic carpet.
The Holy Savior Cathedral, also widely known as the Vank Cathedral (Vank means monastery in Armenian) was built in 1606 for Armenians who fled the Ottoman War (1603-1618) and settled in Esfahan. Situated in New Julfa, the Armenian quarter of the city since the 17th century, the cathedral showcases a variety of races and religions. Moreover, it has greatly influenced the architecture and decorative ideas of many subsequent Orthodox churches in the region. Besides its architectural style, which is different from Iranian architecture, the cathedral is famed for its stunning interiors covered in frescoes, tile work and gilded carvings. The fresco dome depicts Biblical stories, as well as the history of Iran. The cathedral also houses the Museum of Khachatur Kesaratsi, which displays Bibles and handicrafts by Armenians.
Architecture, sculpture, painting, gardens, and various art forms are widely used to beautify the city, homes and life, in general.
Chehel Sotoun is a good example of such a serene life. The palace is situated in the middle of a lush park adorned with a long pool and fountains. Besides Persian architectural design and stunning interior decoration, the palace has a roomy veranda that faces a refreshing garden.
Such places can be widely found in Esfahan. Pour leads me to beautiful hotels, restaurants, parks, bridges, even private homes. Such art-filled places change my perception about Iran. It is not a dangerous place, but a very charming destination that lures visitors with art.
I stroll by the river while taking pictures of the beautiful Si-o-seh Pol Bridge where people spend the evening. Again, Iranian people welcome and bless me with sincere smiles.
It is a beautiful life.
A musician plays the tar, a long-necked and waisted instrument. The word ‘tar’ means ‘string’ in Persian and this stringed instrument is shared by many countries in the Caucasus region. The body of the tar is a hollowed out single piece of wood and is rounded out in two bulges so that the membranecovered belly is shaped like an hourglass. It is said to be the root of the guitar.
Jame Mosque is among the oldest places in the city. Before being transformed into a mosque, it was a house of worship for Zoroastrians. A monument of the passing centuries, the mosque was rebuilt and renovated several times between 771 to the end of the 20th century, and reflects the development of mosque architecture in Iran.
Traditional Persian nougat, or gaz, is a sticky white confectionery made from honeydew mixed with pistachios, almond kernels, rosewater and egg whites. It is one of the world’s oldest confections, which originated in Esfahan. The word gaz comes from the Persian ‘gaz-angebin’, meaning ‘sap of angebin’. Angebin is a kind of wild tamarisk tree, which grows in the Zagros Mountains in Esfahan. In ancient Abrahamic texts, gaz is often referred to as manna or ‘food from heaven’.
You cannot say you have visited Esfahan without visiting Imam Square, or Naqsh-e Jahan Square. Listed as one of Unesco’s World Heritage Sites, the square is 160m wide and 560m long, with a total area of 89,600m² or a bit bigger than Bangkok’s Royal Grounds. The square is surrounded by buildings from the Safavid era namely Shah Mosque, Ali Qapu Palace, Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque and Keisaria Gate.The Esfahan Grand Bazaar surrounds the square on all sides. The shops sell the best handicrafts in the city, ranging from handwoven carpets, enamel ware and patterned cloth to copperware.
Chehel Sotoun or Forty Columns Palace dates back to the mid 17th century. Built by Shah Abbas II (1642-1666) to receive guests, the prominent architectural style is the 20 wooden columns supporting the entrance pavilion — the name ‘Forty Columns’ comes from the fact that the 20 columns become 40 once reflected in the pool. Each column is cut from single chenar trees (Platanus orientalis). A lush garden, pool and refreshing fountain make the palace a place to relax, particularly during the summer. The palace also houses stunning murals that decorate its interiors. The frescoes and ceramic paintings depict specific historical scenes such as the reception for an Uzbek king in 1646 and the battle of Chalderan against the Ottoman Sultan Selim II in 1514.
– Thai nationals require a visa to enter Iran. The Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Bangkok is on Soi Sukhumvit 49/11 and can be reached on 02-390-0871. Visa on arrival is available at Imam Khomeini International Airport.
– Mahan Air operates regular flights between Tehran and Bangkok. Visit www.mahan.aero/en.