Esfahan is like a fabled town straight out of a medieval story with its ethereal mosques, opulent palaces, picturesque bridges and fabulous bazaars, all set around the most beautiful square in the world, the Maidaan Naqsh-e Jahan.
Naqsh-e Jahan meaning ‘pattern of the world’ owes its splendour to the vision of Shah Abbas the Great. Began in 1602 as the centerpiece of the Shah’s new capital, the square was designed to house the finest architectural jewels of the Safavid empire. Measuring 512 meters long and 163 meters wide, it is the second largest square in the world after Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Royal equestrian arts and polo games were once put on show here for the Shah and his court.
Dotted with gardens, fountains, pools and ringed by arcades, the massive square is flanked by various monuments on its four sides, each monument out-vying the other in its sheer magnificence and beauty. The Imam mosque is one of the most beautiful mosques in the world with its blue-tiled mosaic designs and perfectly proportioned Safavid-era architecture. The cream tiled Sheikh Lotfollah mosque is an exquisite study in grace and harmony and is unusual in that it has neither a minaret nor courtyard. The six-storey Ali Qapu Palace was the residence of Shah Abbas I himself. And the Bazaar-e Bozorg at the northern end is one of the highlights of Esfahan linking the square with the Jameh mosque about two kilometers away.
The square is best visited in the late afternoon and early evening when the fountains are turned on and the architecture is illuminated against the lilac skies. I got myself an ice cream, seated myself on the steps of the pools and marveled at how beautiful the world I lived in really was.
Naqsh-e Jahan is, however, not just a collection of edifices. It is just as much a people’s place. I met laughing school children out on picnics, philosophical art students carrying out their assignments, teenage boys with dark shades who sang bollwood songs for me once they knew I was from ‘Hindustan’, young clergy who shyly touched their hearts in greeting, and the famous Zizou from Jason Elliot’s Mirrors of the Unseen who appears on page 302 of the book.
Luckily the charms of Esfahan don’t end at the square. But rather begin here to spread further into the city. The Jameh mosque is a virtual museum of Islamic architecture, displaying 800 years of Islamic design, and is the biggest mosque in the country. The Chehel Sotun Palace has a wonderful series of frescoes illustrating the riches of palace life and horrors of war.
And then there are Esfahan’s bridges. The 33 arched Si-o-Seh bridge. Chubi bridge. Khaju bridge. There are few better ways to spend an afternoon than by strolling along the Zayandeh river, crossing back and forth over the fairytale bridges, having chai at the cozy tea houses, and relaxing with the locals in the green landscaped gardens hemming the river on both sides.
Esfahan nesf-e Jahan (Esfahan is Half the World), the famous half rhyme that was coined in the 16th Century to express the grandeur of the city was well deserved 500 years ago, and even today. The city and its people still resonate with wonderful beauty and grace. Esfahan is Iran, and all that is Persian, at its very finest. There is only one way to be in Esfahan. And that is to fall in love with it.
Rows of romantic medieval bridges linking verdant banks …
… mystical, magical, ethereal mosques draped in shimmering stone mosaics …
… palaces decorated with art so luxurious …
… and bazaars a veritable Aladdin’s trove … Esfahan—half the world in every sense