Esfahan enchanted us. It’s a city of shaded streets, elegant bridges, richly decorated palaces and magnificent blue-domed mosques. And friendly people.
We visited the Chehel Sotun Palace. ‘Chehel Sotun’ means ‘40 columns’ and refers to the slender wooden pillars at the front of the palace. There are in fact only twenty of them, but through a bit of creative arithmetic and the reflection in the ornamental pool, voilà … forty. Inside the palace itself we saw an exuberance of frescoes depicting everything from battles to banquets.
There were vibrant murals also inside the unassuming exterior of Vank cathedral in the Armenian quarter. Every available flat – or even curved – surface came alive in paint; illustrations of heaven and hell quickly persuaded us that hell really wouldn’t be a fun place to go … Is it too late for me to mend my ways? In the cathedral museum we all lined up to peer through a microscope at religious words inscribed on a human hair. I’m torn between admiring such single-minded devotion to one’s beliefs – and the irreverent thought that someone had too much time on their hands.
Inside another unassuming exterior, that of a pigeon tower, we discovered a simple rhythm of arches and perches in the unadorned brickwork – unadorned bar one or two splotches of greyish-white. Pigeons used to be an important source of guano for the local agriculture, but nowadays the use of artificial fertilisers has taken over and the towers have mostly fallen into disuse … although a few pigeons still fluttered about inside this one.
There were more arches on the Sio-Si and Khaju bridges across the Zayandeh river: graceful symmetry by day, but even more romantic at night with couples strolling between the arches and voices echoing in song and laughter on the evening air.
And then there were the mosques. We stepped from the busy streets bordering the bazaar into the enclosed calmness of the Masjed-e-Jameh, the biggest and one of the oldest mosques in Iran. It chronicles the development over the centuries of different Islamic architectural styles and designs, from exquisite sharp-edged geometry to the curves of delicate floral motifs; from the white simplicity of the winter prayer hall to intricate stucco calligraphy elsewhere; from brick pillars and vaulted brick ceilings to the intense vividness of blue tiles. Over the years, the mosque has withstood fire damage and several earthquakes but Reza pointed out to us one pillar that had been knocked out of true by a nearby bomb during the Iran/Iraq conflict.
The Masjed-e-shah mosque dominates one end of Naqsh-e-Jahan Square. We walked through the portal, jinked to the right and entered the inner courtyard … and my first reaction was a disappointed, Oh …
It was a clutter of scaffolding poles, planks and tarpaulins which had been erected to provide shelter for the pilgrims who had come to celebrate Imam Ali’s birthday a day or two before – but for us it masked much of the beauty and grandeur of the courtyard. To be fair, Reza had warned us – and had suggested that it might be a good idea to postpone our visit till the following day, by which time everything might have been cleared away … but a majority vote had decided we’d go ahead.
But inside it was beautiful: soaring arches of blue and yellow tiling and in the main sanctuary Reza demonstrated to us the famous echo – nearly 50 echoes have been measured scientifically, but most people can only hear about 12. (I didn’t count.) In another part of the mosque a panel of tiles from the main dome was laid out for repair – each small section numbered.
A corridor of deep blues led us to the prayer room of the much smaller Lotfollah mosque on the south side of Naqsh-e-Jahan Square. It’s utterly charming.
Naqsh-e-Jahan Square is the beating heart of the city and where it’s all happening. It’s the second largest square in the world – only Tiananmen is bigger – and it is surrounded by arcades of small shops, selling everything from gaz, the delicious locally produced nougat, to carpets to enamelware to miniatures to gold to souvenirs for all tastes (or even none). In one of the side alleys off the square we could hear the gentle persistent hammering of metal workers; in other side alleys, other craftsmen – potters and enamel workers – could also be seen busily at work.
Groups of schoolgirls sat on the grass sketching, but were only too eager to break off their artistic endeavours and come over and talk to us. Crocodiles of young children were being led hand in hand, some in yellow, some in turquoise matching tracksuits: a day out for them to see some of the splendours of their city. The staccato clip-clop of hooves interrupted the background low-pitched thrum of activity as people went for short carriage rides.
Steep narrow stairs with colourful tiles on each riser took us inside the Ali Qapu palace, through rooms with arched and domed ceilings that were decorated with arabesques and curlicues. We reached the music room on the top floor where the ceiling is pierced with cut-out shapes of vases and flagons, apparently to enhance the acoustics. From the wide balcony on the floor below, royal spectators would have watched polo matches. The days of polo playing are long gone, of course, but the goal posts can still be seen at each end of the square. We looked out over schoolgirls clad head to toe in black chadors as they posed for a class photograph, waving certificates in the air. Opposite us was the dome of the Lotfollah mosque, just starting to change colour in the late afternoon sunshine.
It was just as lively in the evening. Family groups picnicked on the grass, hawkers tried their luck with tourists and locals, carriage rides continued; chatter and laughter filled the air.
Esfahan: it’s a wonderful place.