Sam, the owner of the hotel in Isfahan where I was staying spoke perfect English; a result of moving abroad in the 70’s to study in Canada. Like most of the youth prior to the revolution in 1979, he had opted to study at a university in North America as it was strangely enough, a more affordable option than moving to Tehran.
He was the only person in the family run business who could speak fluent english, so his afternoon shifts at the hotel were always busy, handling the guest check-ins along with the flood of questions which he happily respond to as though it was his pleasure in doing so. Despite this, he would always find time to sit down in the common area where I would be using the WiFi, and ask me about my day and share his travelling stories.
As I told him all of my accomplishments for the day, he would recall his own personal experiences as a young man growing up in Isfahan. I could tell by the gleam in his eye that he was digging deep and he recited those stories in a manner that drew me in, as though I was there experiencing it alongside him. Despite the revolution and the subsequent changes to the social structure in Iran, he like most Iranians living abroad, still chose to return to Isfahan to be reunited with family and his home city. By the end of my visit in Isfahan, I had somehow managed to extend my stay there by an extra two days, and realised that it wasn’t so much of a surprise as to why people do return.
Once the former Persian capital, Isfahan was one of the largest cities in the world and known for it’s Islamic architecture, skilled craftsmanship, tree lined boulevards and exquisite mosques. It was all built by Shah Abbas as a showcase to the world, his vision for Persia and to impress all of the incoming dignitaries to what had become a significant location along the world’s trade route. One of the main reasons as to why I came to Iran was to see the mosques, and despite not visiting any in Tehran, I knew that my appetite would be satisfied in Isfahan.
Mesmerising architectural detail
Naqsh-e Jahan Square, also known as Imam Square is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and at 160 meters wide by 560 meters long, is the second largest square in the world, behind Tiananmen Square in Beijing. On each side are the Ali Qapu Palace, Imam Mosque, Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque and the entrance to the grand bazar. The best times to visit here were in the mornings and afternoons to experience the contrast in scenery: quiet and peaceful in the mornings, and then an influx in locals in the late afternoon, where hundreds of groups would descend on the park, with blankets and containers of food and tea to enjoy an afternoon of each others company and a cool relief from the heat.
My day would normally start here quite early in an attempt to cram as much as I could before the midday heat would slow things down considerably. Within the walls of the square, handicraft and rug stores would dominate the retail space, selling their wares to tourists that come for a bargain. It’s difficult to not notice the tapping sounds that could be heard from the artisans shaping and moulding the handicrafts made from silver. Those sounds would echo throughout the corridors that gradually fill with tourists throughout the morning.
While Isfahan is famous for its Islamic architecture, there is also a Jewish, Zoroastrian and Christian community. It is an important area for the Armenians who settled there after fleeing from the Ottomans and were granted refuge by the Persians. They had a detailed knowledge of the trade routes and the Shah used this and their influence to make Isfahan an important stop along that route. They are also the only group who are exempt from the countrywide alcohol ban, as long as it is consumed privately at home. One of the more visually stunning buildings that I visited was the Vank Cathedral in the Armenian Quarter, built in the 1600’s when they settled in Isfahan. Resembling a mosque from the outside, the interior is covered in artworks depicting biblical stories as well as torture scenes of Armenian martyrs by the Ottoman empire.
Despite the beautiful architectural features of these structures, what seemed to be a common theme not just in Isfahan, but also most of Iran, was that everything was under restoration. I wasn’t sure if it was regular upkeep or things were just starting to crumble and fall apart. I guess there would be some sort of maintenance required on buildings that were hundreds of years old – I just wouldn’t expect it to be happening all at once.
I made several visits to the mosques as well as the Bazaar to explore its labyrinth of covered lanes and absorb the vibrant energy while seeking much needed relief from the hotter periods of the day. Each lane would specialise in a specific type of product. Down one lane would be the familiar sound of metal workers tapping away in the handicraft shops. Then further along, my senses would be ignited from the scent of cardamom, cloves and cinnamon emanating from the multi layered mounds of spices. These were the busiest areas of the market where I would try to weave my way through the group of women, buying their supply of spices and other dried herbs and fruits.
It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of bridges, and there are a couple of bridges that Isfahan is famous for. Siosepol is probably the most accessible of the eleven bridges in Isfahan as it starts from the end of the main road that runs through the centre of the city. It is also the longest bridge in the city, with 33 arches that run across both sides from one end to the other. I was told that it is a popular spot for marriage proposals.
A thirty minute walk from Siosepol bridge is the Khaju bridge which I found myself visiting several times. There was something about the arches beneath the bridge that would form a symmetrical tunnel allowing unobstructed views from one end of the bridge to the middle sections of the bridge. In the days when the Shah still ruled, he would sit in the centre tea house in the middle of the bridge and enjoy the views of the Zayandeh River. Nowadays, the bridge is used as a public meeting space, where every afternoon, locals would congregate both on upper and under sections of the structure which serves both as a bridge and as a dam.
On the lower level, under the archways men would gather in groups and sing and recite poetry by Hafez in what I’ve been told is a tradition that extends back hundreds of years. On one particular occasion, there were two older men taking turns in singing whilst group of men would look on with admiration. It’s one thing to see a beautiful place like this but that afternoon was one of those goose bump inducing moments. To hear and feel it through the songs and poetry, echoing throughout the structure, it will be forever etched into my memory.
A river runs dry
Despite the beauty of bridges that connect the northern side of the city to the south, I was quite disappointed to see the Zayandeh river now reduced to dust and stone. The source of the river originates 300 kilometres to the west, from the Zagros Mountains where the melting winter snow would feed the river. However, it’s only been within the past few years where a number of factors including the of an increase in population, reduction in water supply from the mountains as well as the diversion of the water flow to the southern regions of Iran to be used for industrial farming, has resulted in the river drying up.
A local introduction
While I was exiting the Imam Mosque one afternoon, I ran into a local gentleman who was also a tour guide. It wasn’t the first time that I had met somebody who claimed to be a tour guide. However, somehow, I trusted my instincts and gave him a call to arrange a tour the following day.
While I try to do everything solo, the tour proved to be incredibly valuable, as we covered plenty of territory and it also gave me an opportunity to ask and learn more about the Iran/Iraq war and religious freedoms for the other religious minorities in Iran. It was also through my guide that I was introduced to Afsaneh, another local from Isfahan.
Afsaneh was studying I.T and a family friend of my guide, who thought that it would be a good idea to meet so that she could practice her english. Having nothing to lose, we met the following day at Imam square for some ice cream, followed by a tour of the bazaar and finished up with a late afternoon picnic in Imam square with her friend who seemed to be quite a skilled fisherman based on the photos that he proudly showed off.
I was bowled over by the hospitality shown by my new friends. After the picnic, Afsaneh asked if I would be interested in being treated to a home cooked lunch at the base of Mount Sofeh just outside of town. I decided to take her up on the offer for the local experience and extend my stay in Isfahan by another day . We would also follow-up the lunch by hiking up the mountain; something she does every week.
Despite what I would consider a slow start to my stay in Isfahan, I thoroughly enjoyed it by the end. Again, like it was with Tehran, it was the personal connections that I made with people from the area that contributed to my overall experience there. I was also enjoying the different approach to socialising, such as the simple act of drinking tea and absorbing as much as I could about a culture that I barely knew about.
I will definitely have to return to Isfahan one day. I felt like whenever particular questions that I had about the city, history and culture were answered, more questions would spawn from those answers; ones that probably cannot be answered or comprehended by spending only a couple of weeks in the country.
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