I checked in the very famous Abbasi Hotel – the interior is stunning and it has a beautiful large courtyard, with trees, roses and of course a water feature.
I first went to visit the Hasht Behesht Palace, situated in a park round the corner from the hotel. Once the most luxuriously decorated palace is Esfahan, the interior of the small Hasht Behesht Palace has been extensively damaged over the years, but it remains some spectacular details, including a superb stalactite ceiling with delicate paintings. This changed from all the mirrors that I had seen so far! A popular meeting place for retired men to relax or play chess, the place offers peace and quietness in the centre of Isfahan.
I walked through the park and decided to go to the Kakh-e Chechel Sotun complex. Built as a pleasure pavilion and reception hall, this palace is entered via an elegant terrace that bridges the transition between the Persian love of gardens and ornate interiors. The 20 wooden pillars on the palace support the main roof. Chehel Sotun means ’40 pillars’ and that is due to the number of pillars reflected in the long pool facing the palace. The original palace, dating back to 1614, was badly damaged in a devastating fire and the palace on the site today was rebuilt after 1706.
The Great Hall is decorated with frescoes, miniatures and ceramics. The main fresco depicts one of the most important battles of the Safavid era, between Shah Ismail and the Uzbeks. The Persians were only equipped with bow and arrows on order of the Shah who believed that God would protect them, whilst the Uzbeks had firearms. Inevitably this ended up in a massacre and a defeat for the Shah. The other frescos depict more cheerful events such as Shah Abbas II welcoming King Nader Khan of Turkestan with musicians and dancing girls. These works survived the 18th century invasion by the Afghans, who whitewashed the paintings to show their disapproval of such extravagance.
The palace’s garden is an excellent example of the classic Persian garden form and was recently added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. It is a very popular spot for a photograph of the garden’s perfect symmetry. I was impressed by the size and fragrance of the roses!
I then headed over to the Bazaar, located around possibly the most famous square, Naqsh-e Jahan Square, and stretching North over to the Masjed-e Jameh mosque. The bazaar’s arched passageways are topped by a series of small perforated domes, each shining shafts of light on the commerces below. Whilst the oldest part of the bazaar is over a thousand years old (those around the mosque), most of what can be see today was built during Shah Abbas’ ambitious expansions of the early 1600s. I was accosted several times by very persistent carpet sellers but resisted buying one. Instead I went on the hunt for an electric samovar – after asking in dozens of shops I quickly realised it would be a difficult purchase as the vast majority are gas. Added to this would be the slight issue of taking it back home…!
Time for some culture! I went to the Masjed-e Jameh mosque. This complex is a veritable museum of Islamic architecture while still functioning as a place of worship. Covering more than 20, 000 square metres, this is the biggest mosque in Iran. Religious activity on this site is believed to date back to the Sassanid Zoroastrians, with the first sizeable mosque being build over the temple in the 11th century. The two large domes have survived from this era but the rest of the mosque was destroyed in a fire in the 12th century and rebuilt in 1121.
In the centre of the main courtyard is an ablutions fountain designed to imitate the Kaaba at Mecca. Would-be pilgrims once used the fountain to practice the approximate rituals prior to undertaking the ‘hajj’. At the north the Taj al-Molk Dome is widely considered to be the finest brick dome in Persia. While relatively small, it is said to be mathematically perfect and has survived dozens of earthquakes without any damage for more than 900 years.
I wondered back slowly in the narrow streets and eventually ended up back at the Naqsh-e Jahan Square. It was late afternoon by then and I was hoping to catch the sunset on the Si-o-Seh Pol, a lovely Bridge on the Zayandeh Roud. Built by a favourite general of Shah Abbas I, between 1599 and 1602, it served both as a bridge and a dam, and is still used to hold water today. It is also a very popular spot to take photos with a great view! Unfortunately, it was a bit too cloudy for me to see the sunset but I still got to admire the bridge and the view of Isfahan.
Back to the hotel for supper! The Abbasi has a signature dish called ‘ash-e reshte’, a noodle soup with beans and vegetables. It was very fragrant and filling, probably why it is one of the most popular dishes during Ramadan after a day of fasting, and exactly what I needed after a long day! It is clearly very popular as the queue to order was getting longer and bowls of soup were flying out. Time for bed!
The next morning I had breakfast at the hotel. The selection was huge and I decided to have a date and walnut omelette, some fruit and some bread and cheese. I needed to stock up as I wouldn’t be able to eat during the day because of most restaurants being closed for Ramadan! I then went back to the main square and went to visit the Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah, situated between the bazaar’s arcades. It is unusual because it has neither a minaret nor a courtyard, and because steps lead up to the entrance. This was probably because the mosque was never intended for public use, but rather as the worship place for the women of the shah’s harem.
I crossed the square over to the Ali Qapu Palace. Built at the very end of the 16th century as a residence for the Shah Abbas I, this six-floor 38 metre tall palace was built to make an impression, and its elevated terrace not only dominates the square but also provides one of the best views over the Masjed-e Shah and the mountains beyond. Unfortunately, many of the paintings and mosaics were destroyed during the Qajar era and after the 1979 revolution, but there are extensive renovations taking place.
I stopped for a cold drink in the Bastani tea house, located in the arcades. I was amused by their translation for ‘tip’ as ‘pourbpire’, Google translate must have let them down this time! I needed to refuel before my next stop: the Masjed-e Shah, the unmissable mosque at the head of the square. Unblemished since its construction 400 years ago, it stands as a monument to the vision of Shah Abbas I and the accomplishments of the Safavid dynasty. The positioning of the entrance portal is interesting as it as built to face the square (not Mecca), however the mosque is oriented towards Mecca, so a short angled corridor was built to connect the portal to the courtyard for realignment.
On some of the tiles are inscribed decrees, for instance one stating the public baths were exempt from taxes, probably to encourage hygiene throughout the kingdom! Another one states that farmers were also exempt, again most likely with the aim to encourage food production and avoid a potential famine. Another interesting feature is the block of stone used to tell time: when the shadow is on the left it is before noon, and on the right after noon. This was essentially an ancient sundial.
On the picture below you can see a set of staircase that seems to go nowhere – in fact it is a ‘minbar” where the Imam preaches and it represents the Fourteen Innocents: the Twelve Imams, Fatima and Mohammed.
Time to drop off my bags at the hotel and think about a place for dinner! I found a traditional restaurant and on the way took some pictures of Isfahan by night. By then the square was packed will people having picnics and eating as the sun was down. Isfahan really is a beautiful city! Tomorrow I will visit the Armenian quarter and I will tell you about it in my next post!