Isfahan Is Half The World
Any man in Isfahan will boast proudly that his city is 'nesf-e jahan', ‘half the world’. A famous idiom of ancient travellers, the city has been a crowning jewel in the decadence of the medieval Middle East. Famed for its icon of architecture, the Nasq e Jahan square. Lined with characteristically intricate testimonies of Persian design, housing shops and markets brimming with golden trinkets.
In the evenings, the square is a hub for life in the city. Kitschy horse drawn carriage rides take merrymakers around the square, while friends and families picnic on the grass. In Iran, when you go for a picnic you bring a large and elaborate tea set, because having fresh tea at all times is crucial here. Children play and music blares, illuminated by the bold lights of the mosques and madrasas that line Nasq e Jahan.
Things to do
1. The Square
Just in case I hadn’t mentioned it enough already. Built by the Safavids in the 16th century, the square is the central meeting point for the people of Isfahan, and the easiest place to orientate yourself around. Many of the other features on this list are the remarkable buildings that face onto the square, and it’s one of the most impressive spots you’ll visit in Iran. Equal in scale and grandeur to the outdoor prayer spaces in Mashhad, Nasq e Jahan serves a very different purpose, being a hub of family and day to day life in Iran, rather than solely dedicated to religious worship. These kinds of sites are rarer on the ‘big list of tourist traps in Iran’, but a little bit more special for it.
2. The Bazaar
Step through Qeysarie Gate from Nasq e Jahan to enter the labyrinthine Grand Bazaar of Isfahan. Meander through market stalls teaming with traditional artisans, and shops selling anything you could possibly imagine- as long you’re imagining it being made of gold. It’s arched ceilings and domes have housed tradesmen travelling the silk road since the 11th century, and many of the textile and spices on offer would have been the same 1000 years before.
3. Jameh Mosque
It’s no secret or surprise that Iran is home to some of the most beautiful mosques in the world. The precision of Islamic design is perfected in Iran, and the Jameh Mosque is another classic example. The quiet revelry that the mosque lives in has hung since its construction in the 8th century, only a century after the birth of the religion itself.
4. Sheikh Loftollah Mosque
One of the architectural marvels situated around the edge of Nasq e Jahan, this mosque was the first of the square’s iconic monuments to be built. It’s largely famed for its spectacular ceiling, the painted dome being equally impressive inside and out. Although be careful, whilst trying to take a picture of the painted ceiling inside, my hijab slipped off, just for a moment. The young Iranians around thought this was pretty entertaining, but the older women were shocked. Better to keep a hand on it and make sure not to offend anybody.
The mosque was never intended for public use, built as a private worship spot for the Shah’s harem. The beautiful art and architectural design on display inside the mosque is, I suppose, a testament to how much the Shah appreciated the women in his harem.
5. Ālī Qāpū
Opposite Sheikh Loftollah, you’ll find Ālī Qāpū palace. The palace is famous for its elaborate music room, with some of the most creatively designed acoustics in the world. A place for the shah to host parties, the room was designed to maximise guests’ listening experience. I’m not a very technical person, but for those of you that are the low-tech acoustic technology is explained more deeply here.
The palace is also the best place to stand in and take in elevated views of the square. You can step out onto the open-air upper floor for some great views.
6. Chehel Sotoun
The name of this palace, meaning ‘40 columns’, may be a bit of an exaggeration. However, the beautiful palace faces onto a classic feature of any Iranian palace- the pairi-daeza. Origin of ‘paradise’, ‘paradíso’, ‘paradis’, ‘paraíso’. The heavenly worlds we explore in the west found their etymological routes in the gardens of ancient Persia, the archetypal paradise. The building itself is worth seeing, and houses some interesting artworks.
7. Khaju Bridge
A very different site from season to season, when I visited Iran (early August) the river that runs through Isfahan was dry. During other seasons, the bridge is actually a functioning bridge. During the dry season, it’s home to locals that use its arches for their acoustic benefits, gathering to sing songs together in the bridge. It’s considered to be one of the most ancient and most beautiful bridges in the Eastern world.
8. Jolfa & the Vank Church
Jolfa is the Armenian district of Iran. As a result of centuries of mistreatment, most recently as the victims of a genocide, widespread Armenian diaspora has led to the founding of Armenian neighbourhoods all over the world. The community in Isfahan was established in the early 17th century, famous in Iran for having built the elaborate Vank church. This church was actually fairly surprising to me- it’s very, very heavily decorated and elaborate. Though beautiful, it seemed like the polar opposite of the churches I visited whilst in Armenia. Read about that here.
Isfahan is one of the most beautiful cities in Iran, a place that Iranians will always ask after, and a place that the locals that its residents are incredibly proud of. Twice made the Persian capital, the city in brimming with history and with beauty. Spend a few days taking in the sites, but also make sure to spend time stirring tea with sugar sticks in the smokey shisha cafes. Try, as always in Iran, any food that you can get your hands on. It is, of course, as incredible as any site in Persia.