Before I begin, I shall say that I am not an Isfahani. I introduce myself as Shirazi, my allegiances are to Shiraz, my fondest memories of childhood are from Shiraz and its abundant gardens and groves, that I will go back to Shiraz again and again, whether asleep or awake, as I have all my life. All that said, the Shirazis of today — the current inhabitants of the city and not those abroad — feel a conspicuous sense of inferiority towards Isfahan. The two cities have always been in something of a competition; as Iran's capital during various dynasties, as the source of the two sweetest and most recognizable accents in Iran, as centers of culture, as tourist destinations, as wombs of beauty and grace, and as places of rest and respite on the spice and silk routes.
But today, Shirazis consider themselves the red-headed stepchildren of the Islamic Republic. Perhaps, they say, we are forgotten by the central government of the Islamic Republic because we were so favored by the Shah. Maybe, they say, it is all the work of the brilliant Ghoalmhossein Karbaschi, who before becoming the celebrated and controversial mayor of Tehran — opening parks, establishing cultural centers and enlivening the capital — was the provincial governor of Isfahan. Perhaps, the Shirazis say, the Islamic regime favors Isfahan because the main attraction of Isfahan is a mosque — the utterly magnificent Masjed-e-Shah, or Masjed-e-Imam as it called today — and Shiraz' pride and joy is Persepolis, the absolute symbol of nationalist pride — and nationalism has been frowned upon by the Islamic Republic for the last two decades. No matter!
Isfahan and Shiraz are, after all is said and done, the most amazing cities in Iran. But the Isfahan of today is far more sophisticated than Shiraz. It has numerous new parks, built beautifully and strategically scattered all around the city. It feels and looks cleaner than Shiraz. Its river-side parks are vast, well-kept and boast of one amenity I have seen nowhere else in Iran: wheelchair ramps — or are they, even more stunningly, bicycle ramps? The city is exquisitely well-planned, it actually restores rather than destroys its old neighborhoods, seems to rush headlong towards being the host city for tourists and most importantly, has the most progressive Friday Prayer leader (Ayatollah Taheri) in the country, in marked contrast to Shiraz, where the Friday Prayer leader (Ayatollah Haeri Shirazi) had once spoken of segregating taxis, television stations, shops and even sidewalks along gender lines!
Shiraz has maintained much of its charm, and its people are amazingly kind, open, and hospitable, but in a rampant desire to “develop” it is fast losing some of those old and simple aspects which have made it so famous. Unfortunately, in Iran, development means bull-dozing gorgeous old neighborhoods, destroying the old fabric of the city, in order to build cement groves and steel gardens, uniform in their ugliness, with an ever-present hamburger joint or pizza place somewhere nearby. Isfahan has taken so many of its ancient buildings and made them into something to behold in awe, with meticulously observant guards preventing destruction of any bit of it. Shiraz has taken the exquisite 19th century Bagh-e Eram mansion and turned it into the sloppy administrative offices for the Shiraz University School of Law. Isfahan has taken an old carvanserai in the center of the city and lovingly turned it into the Shah Abbas Hotel, where one is left breathless by the beauty of every single detail. Shiraz enjoys the presence of the indistinguishable modern monstrosity of Homa Hotel far from the center of city, which now suffers the further indignity of additional construction – which as we all know, in Iran lasts for centuries and destroys the sum, before it rebuilds some.
Shiraz boasts of Arg-e-Vakil fort, mausoleums to Hafez and Sadi, both built this century and in admittedly divine garden settings, and a few shrines notable for the abundant use of all that glitters — gold and silver and mirrors — and Isfahan has, if nothing else, Naghsh-e-Jahan Square. This was my first trip to Isfahan since childhood, and I was left breathless and weepy by the grace of this miracle of city planning. The massive square — 512 meters by 160 meters — was once the administrative center of Safavid rule in Iran, the heart of the city, the gathering place of generations of Isfahanis, the center of the Safavid royal court, and polo grounds for Shah Abbas (of some 400 years ago) who restored Iran to Persians after nearly a millennium of foreign rule. The square revels in the glory of Masjed-e-Shah in its southern side, and of Ali Qapu palace and the intimate and extraordinary Sheik Lotfollah mosque (or the Women's Mosque connected to the palace via tunnels used by the women of the harem) on the western and eastern sides of the square. The distances between these three anchors are filled with small traditional shops now selling wares to tourists.
The square itself is expansive and serene, its long promenades invite leisurely strolls, the reflecting pool and fountains at the center is delightful, and at night, the entire square is so lit as to recreate a land of fairy-tales and imagination, but what makes the square so extraordinary — so far superior to any other tourist attraction in Iran and frankly much of the world — is the Masjed-e-Shah to which I returned again and again as many times as I could during my stay. The ease with which a woman can enter the mosque is very inviting: no chador is required and a simple head-scarf and loose clothing suffice. Far more important is the paradisical serenity of the mosque which invites the visitor. On several of my visits, I was the only visitor in this vast space, a marked contrast to the comparably magnificent cathedrals of Europe.
When you enter the mosque, you have to pass a winding dark corridor with low ceilings adorned in green and yellow and blue tiles set in flowery patterns in the darkness, and when you cross the portal into the main courtyard of the mosque, you are left breathless by its spaciousness, by the blinding sunlight, by the cool blue tiles which generously cover every surface of this space, which is so completely, unapologetically extravagant in its beauty as to leave any visitor humbled. Entering this magnificent place with its dark interior Eivans (interior courts flanking three sides of the courtyard) in utter solitude and awesome silence, broken only by chirping of finches and sparrows in the smaller side courtyards, you find god, even if you don't believe in it. You find a beauty so utter and whole, so encompassing, so generous and warm and human that you want to weep, you want to laugh, you want to bow or kneel in gratitude, in prayer or love.
In the semidarkness of the inner spaces, this mosque still breathes, persistently alive. Though empty, it stirs with memory and myth. After it closes at noon and sunset, people actually still pray here. In one of the far rooms, a middle-aged artisan is reconstructing the tiles of a slice of the dome upon a curved surface imitating the curvature of the dome itself. The reconstructed tiles are then raised to the roof piece by piece to restore it to complete glory during regular maintenance. And you think of all those thousands of artists and artisans who lovingly and painstakingly cut colored tiles in blue and green and yellow and blue and blue again and again and placed them into intricate patterns one against another, one by one, to recreate this ceramic and enamel version of paradise in the color of sky, so brilliantly blue and unforgiving in its withholding of water, and the color of water, so precious in these places which have learned to defy the parched scorched desert to sing in glorious silence of paradise on earth, of a paradise too often abandoned, transgressed, or more curelly, forgotten…