While traveling, you arrive in many cities and leave again. But a certain number of them stays. Some for the experiences made there and a certain smaller number just for the place they are.
Esfahan is one of those rare latter places. The sheer grandeur of Iran’s masterpiece city will let you vanish in a modern day 1001 night fantasy. At the same time it is probably – and for a reason – the most touristic city you will find in Iran. But fortunately we talk about Iran, which means it is lightyears away from the tumult you would encounter in cities of comparable splendor like Rome or Istanbul.
The significant difference to other Iranian cities of high reputation is that you won’t have to search scattered sights in between crowded highways and ugly modern architectural failures. No – you can just wander along the river, admire the old elegant bridges of which the Si-O-Se bridge and the Khajou bridge further east could clearly be called the highlights. Along the river the bridges are connected by green parks and walking paths, the odd kiosk selling chai and most importantly many Esfahanis enjoying the relaxed riverside flair.
It needs to be said that this mostly goes for a very limited time in winter, when the river actually carries water. Most days in a year the stream is unfortunately nothing but a dusty, dead riverbed – thanks to a damn site further upstream for industrial use and agricultural irrigation. It goes without saying that this naturally takes away a lot from an otherwise beautiful scenery.
Visit the riverscape on weekends and find dozens of Iranians sitting in the grass for a picnic, letting their legs hang down the bridges or gather under the poles of the foundation for spontaneous singing session or quoting Hafez, Rumi or any other great Persian poet.
From Si-O-Se bridge northwards you will find a collection of fine gardens, partly on the UNESCO world heritage list, surrounding palaces like the Hasht Behesht and the Chehel Sotun palace. Walking the tree lined paths you will eventually leave the green and get back to the street, move into a few smaller streets before your jaw drops down in awe with the first foot set onto the incredible Nagh-e jahan square (Pattern of the world square) – today sometimes alternatively called Meydan-e Shar or Meydan-e Emam. The latter is an unpopular description though, as many Esfahanis seem to firmly remember Shah Abbas who provided much of the cities beauty as he designated Esfahan as his capital around 1600. Emam Square was the name introduced after the Islamic revolution under Khomenei and as we once asked on the street for directions to “Emam Square” a lady replied friendly but firm: “It is the Shar’s square. The Meydan-e Shar! Never the Emam’s!”
An incredible place surrounded by two magnificent mosques, with the Masjid-e Shar surely the masterpiece, the Ali Qapu palace and the entrance to Esfahan’s old bazar. As a hint, enter the Masjid-e Shar and search for the “echo spot” on the floor of one of the main domes. Clap, speak, laugh, sing and experience your voice like never before. On clear days you’ll see the dusty planes stretching towards massive mountainscapes behind the Masjid-e Shar.
What adds immensely to the atmosphere is the simple fact that traffic has been mostly banned from the square, resulting in an ambiance very unusual in most Iranian cities but pleasant for everyone’s soul. Have a coffee or a chai in one of the nice coffeehouses at the eastern side of the square, indulge saffron ice cream or watch live the delicate enamel painting art.
Wander further into the lanes of the extensive bazaar, full of surprising pockets hiding solemn courtyards with fountains or ancient ruins of former storage buildings. Sooner or later daylight will adjoin you again and you might stand in front of the Jameh Mosque, that carries a more subtle beauty and calming, peaceful ambiance – a harsh but welcome contrast after the buzzle of the bazaar.
In the evenings a great place to go lies southwards of the river. The old Armenian quarter is full of cozy coffee houses, people enjoying the evening air on benches around the old churches and the famous Vank cathedral.
On top of all that it is a bunch of smaller things forming the cherry on the cake of this Persian delight. For example public plugs to charge electrical devices, a park-like pedestrian area in the middle of some boulevards and first and foremost bicycle stations! Leave your passport and explore the city on two wheels. Free of charge or maybe for a tiny fee.
While Esfahan is described as half the world – it definitely is double of these words here. May the photographs carry some more of what we experienced, but best is to pay this place a visit yourself!