Nobody I know back home will believe me when I say this. But I just discovered a city that rivals Paris in its blend of history, importance in its country, culture, sophistication, architectural wonders and night time beauty. It is unfair to compare, but that’s the feeling that Isfahan has stirred in me. Sure, there’s no alcohol. But here one would be overwhelmed by the warmth and spontaneity of its wonderful people!
I am pleasantly surprised by Isfahan. Prior to this visit, there has been much hype about it so I was expecting throngs of tourists. But most tourists we met were mostly Iranian and sprinklings of middle easterners and Asians. Westerners are rare and rarer still are those who travel around like us without a guide.
Another pleasant surprise is the climate. Summer is late so we got to enjoy spring at its most glorious. Decided to give Tabriz a miss and stay here for a longer time.
The first evening (and a few other evenings) was spent at Naghsh-e Jahan square: family picnics scattered across the world’s second largest square (the largest is Tiananmen which has a whole lot less communal purpose and probably no picnics allowed there). I love large communal spaces in a city because that’s what large spaces should be for – a venue for the general population to relax and bond! Arrived at around dusk, my favourite time of the day, as the setting sun splashes out in persimmon across the crisp blue sky, changing hues at every minute. By night fall, the entire courtyard is beautifully lit up with Imam Mosque anchoring the majestic scene beyond the fountain. Again, like most days in urban Iran, the evening was spent chatting, ayxe (which is Farsi for photo-taking) with new friends, whether they are English-speaking or Farsi-speaking only. Picnicking with local Esfahanis, eating delicious homemade dolmehs, sipping tea while chatting away into the sunset – what a way to spend the evening!
Many have been enamoured with Isfahan. After a visit by Malaysia’s then PM Mahathir Mohammad, Kuala Lumpur became a sister city. Some of Putrajaya‘s buildings were designed by Persian architects or partially inspired by Esfahani/Safavid-era architecture. But the atmosphere here is wholly different. From our guesthouse (and what a lovely guesthouse it is, parts of it from Safavid times, parts it from the Qajar era) in the old part of the city, we slipped into the myriad of bazaars, sampling food, chatting with friendly locals, emerging from mazes of alleys to find historical gems. My favourite would have to be Jameh Mosque that was built and added upon throughout the Seljuk and Safavid dynasties. It doesn’t look like much from outside, but the interior is very complex. Oh what an enjoyable morning it was to wander from iwan to iwan, sanctuary to sanctuary, bedazzled by a swirl of geometry and intricate patterns in every nook and cranny.
On Naghsh-e Jahan square is the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque the interior of which is simply resplendent. The photos just don’t do the richness and splendour justice. One could easily spend two hours just inside the small dome, taking in the intricacy of the patterns which doesn’t remain static with the changing light seeping in.
Strolled the cobbled stone streets of the old Armenian quarter in Jolfa to visit a few churches. In one, we escaped the afternoon heat, sat alone with the guard as choral music played, surrounded by biblical frescoes in the cavernous cathedral. Nearby are litters of cafes and restaurants with a more modern, yuppie social atmosphere.
Walked along the Zayendah river from Siosepol to Khaju bridge in treelined parks, where locals hang out for tea, picnic and some chess, enjoying the beautiful weather. Did I already say I love communal spaces where people can interact and bond? It was a most enjoyable walk. Straddled by historic bridges, the river flanked by green parks is an elegant diversion from the traffic.
We visited many other historical sites but I have just listed my favourite ones.
Isfahan is not just the jewel of central Iran, but the world. I genuinely believe so. For now, it will just remain as the gem that is off the global radar.