During some of the dynasties of the Persian Empire, the area it governed was so large that its capitals were located in cities that are now outside of present-day Iran. During other times, the region was ruled from foreign lands, such as by Arab caliphates in Damascus or the Uzbek Timurids from Samarkand. It wasn’t until the Safavid dynasty re-established the Persian Empire in 1502 that the capital cities were henceforth located within present-day Iran. And it was under the Safavids that Persian art and culture again flourished, and most of all within their capital city, Esfahan.
Serving as a polo field in the past, today it is chock full of hundreds of intergenerational families setting out a blanket or rug for an evening’s picnic and delighting in the cooling air. Alice gets out her camera; she has become an expert at finding joy in children’s faces, and their mothers always seem pleased to have their child’s picture taken. This interaction inevitably leads to an invitation to sit down, and we share a family’s melon, cheese, and bread. I marvel at the generosity of Iranians who are so quick to share a meal with a complete stranger, one who speaks no Farsi beyond Salaam, and who is from a countrythat is at this very moment, contemplating bombing them.We arrived at night, and after dinner our guide Bahman conducted us on a pleasant walk through the city. He then insisted we close our eyes for a moment. I was nervous and excited, thinking to myself, this must be great, if it was going to top the amazing palaces, gardens, and other sights upon which we had already feasted our eyes. Then he gives the word, and immediately my senses are treated to the most gorgeous sight I have ever witnessed. Imam Square by night is an ethereal rectangle of archways, anchored on two sides by infinitely gorgeous mosques, and on another by the Ali Qapu palace. The square is second in size only to Tienanmen.
The next day we visit the Congregational Mosque, considered a museum of nearly a thousand years of Persian religious architecture, due to the fact that, after having been first built by the Seljuks in the 11th century, it was added to, rather than destroyed and rebuilt, by subsequent dynasties. This includes the Mongol Il-Khanids in the 14th century, the Timurids in the 15th, and the Safavids in the 17thcentury. It was one of the first mosques that included two iwans, built facing each other within the inner courtyard that contains the ablutions fountain. The religious center of any mosque is its mihrab, or prayer niche, and the famous Uljaitu Mihrab of the Il-Khanid period, in finely detailed stucco, is exquisite.
We return to Imam Square that afternoon, and it becomes easy to see how the square has earned its name, Nesf-e-Jahan, or Half of the World. We behold two of the Islamic world’s greatest architectural masterpieces – the incomparable Sheikh Lotfollah and Shah mosques. To enter the latter, we have to throw light cotton chadors over our heads. First, we walk through a brilliantly tiled iwan, or perfect ly proportioned arched gate. These are richly decorated in mosaic tiles featuring geometric motifs, floral designs, and kufic calligraphy from the Qu’ran. They even have muqarnas, the sumptuously decorated stalactite-like patterned archways that are one of Persia’s gifts to the Islamic architecture. We pass through a hallway – every square inch is covered in tiled designs – and enter the courtyard with the ablutions fountain that is the center of any mosque complex.
From there we make our way to the masterpiece – the interior dome. The Shah mosque, boasting a dome covered in tiles made from Iranian turquoise, has an equally stunning interior floral and arabesque pattern dominated by lapis lazuli blue and turquoise tiling. The mosque of Sheik Lotfollah, which is crowned with a unique and striking cream-colored dome, reveals an interior graced with an almost imperceptibly tiny peacock, ringed by wispy arabesques, surrounded by a field of the most exquisite tiles in the shape of peacock feathers. My breath is taken away; I truly cannot find words to describe the sublime beauty in front of me.
We see so much more in Isfahan, starting with the famous arched bridges which link the city divided by the Zayandeh River, many of which are gathering places for families and young people to walk and enjoy the sunset. We revisit the Ali Qapu palace on the main square, and meander through the Qeisarieh Bazaar with hundreds of shops displaying the handmade carpets, silver housewares, gold jewelry, tiles, inlaid woodwork, block print and woven fabric, miniature paintings, and other divine crafts for which Esfahan is famous around the world. We visit a synagogue, as well as the Christian Armenian quarter and the Vank Cathedral; the Chehel Sotun Palace with its mind-bogglingly beautiful paintings, built in the 17th century; as well as the Hasht Behesht (Eight Paradises) house built in 1670 for another shah’s harem.
And we are constantly pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of the Iranian people. While visiting the Shaking Minarets, a young girl approaches us and asks (through hand-motions) if she can take her picture with us. Alice and I are happy to oblige! Then her friend comes up with the same request. Of course! Suddenly their entire school class is upon us, giggling and edging in to the photo! They all want to know where we are from. When we say the United States, they are always curious! All of a sudden paper is produced. They want us to write a note! A note, any note, from the American women they have just met. I wish them each a bright future, and one in which our two countries can be friends and not threaten each other.
We do not want to leave Isfahan. We contemplate ways to come back.
By Deborah James