The last time I was there, I was very young. I barely remember it. Shiraz was always the city of my dreams and what fond memories I have from that fabulous city. It was also where I spent almost a month with my father, just the two of us. He had just become the Governor of Fars, the first to resign, during the most decisive months of the revolutionary Iran. My father is known in many respects but most of all that during his governorship, he saved Persepolis.
But then they say, Isfahan is half of the world—which is, perhaps, a bit of an exaggeration because there are many beautiful cities around the world as stunning as Isfahan.
But Isfahan is truly a gem, to the writers, Iranologists, scholars of Iran and tourists who visit this city. Arthur Pope, the great Persian art historian and his wife, Phylis Ackerman, who are buried along the Zayandeh Rud river close to the Khaju bridge, thought so. And so did the late Richard Frye, Harvard professor and Iran specialist who had wanted to a similar resting place but whose last wish was never granted.
The city, whose origins date back to the pre-Islamic period, holds some of Iran’s most gorgeous mosques, shrines, many of them grouped around the world-famous Royal Square, which, like most of the city’s surviving monuments, was designed by the Safavid dynasty in the early 17thcentury. There are also the two magnificent bridges that span the Zayandeh Rud, the river that runs through the city. One is the sio-se-pol, the bridge with thirty three arches, and the other is the Khaju bridge. Sometimes the river is full and sometimes it is dry, bone dry.
We were lucky when we visited for the river was flowing ferociously through it. I even took off my shoes, lifted my trousers, to a point, and put my feet into the water. No one really cared as many young men were doing the same, even though I was the only woman!
A young brother and sister who thought we were foreigners, called upon us from the bridge, “Hello people.” I said to them, “I am Iranian and speak Persian.” They giggled. Later, I saw the two of them in a nearby park, we all laughed and I took their photos.
There is something to be said about the young, the old and everyone in Iran who pour out their heart.
Isfahan is a city of beautiful bazaars, age-old monuments, nice warm people who have a reputation for being stingy (something I never experienced) and a great many restaurants. And then there is the famous Shah Abbas Hotel, a former religious seminary dating back to the Safavid period, and without a doubt one of the most beautiful hotels in the world, with a courtyard that is truly breathtaking.
In the grand bazaar of Isfahan, you can find almost everything, from herbs, to hand-made tablecloth, a famous trademark of the city, to Khatam kari. In a small little shop, three young women were hand-painting the famous mina kari of Isfahan which is another special artwork of Isfahan.
After a bit of haggling, I bought two small bowls from the owner, a very nice old guy.
It was an enchanting day and evening which we spent with some of the students and two professors of the University of Isfahan.
Walking through the old Armenian section of Isfahan, the Julfa quarter, we came upon the famous All Savior’s Church, which was built under the patronage of Shah Abbas in the early 17th century. The Church has many beautiful frescoes depicting biblical scenes that fascinated the Safavid shahs. The adjacent museum houses a rich collection of images and artifacts that allow one to get an idea of the town’s history and society. Like at large, Julfa is spotlessly clean, reflecting the pride its people take in their city.
Isfahan is also home to several synagogues. But you needed a special permission to visit them. The Jews and Christians still have a presence in the city, though much less so than before the revolution.
Together with the Ali Qapu Palace, the Shah Mosque and the Mosque of Shaykh Lotf Allah are the main architectural treasures around the royal square. The square itself is the central meeting point, for tourist and locals alike, who come by the hundreds each afternoon, to sit by the emerald-colored basin, to picnic, to mingle and talk, enjoying the breeze of the early evenings and the magic that envelops the city at dusk. This square is arguably the most beautiful site in the city and has been designated by UNESCO as a world heritage site.
There are many parks alongside the river as well as now a famous garden called Baghe-gol which has some creatively designed gardens. There are water fountains, flower beds of very unusual color flowers and a children’s park.
Here too, everything was spotless.
Then of course you drive through the famous Chahar Bagh Boulevard with its grand trees. Unfortunately and to everyone’ s dismay, since there is a metro project underway, many of the trees have been cut to pave the way for the metro. In fact, Isfahan’s citizens mounted a protest against this action but to no avail.
The University of Isfahan, in whose guest house we stayed, was also clean and well appointed, providing large comfortable rooms for out of town guests associated with the University. From the balcony, you could see the city and get a sense of its tremendous growth in the last few decades.
Our guide, a most gracious young man, a Kurd who studies Safavid history, took us everywhere. The most delightful moment came during our visit to the Royal Mosque when, standing under its immense dome, he sang a beautiful song, his baritone voice echoing throughout the hall. The caretaker, a young man, politely asked him not to continue as it is a holy place. Of course this came after he had already finished his song. Later, I asked him to sing another famous song and he sang Morgeh Sahar. What an amazing site it was. It brought tears to my eyes.
We spent the days and nights with amazing women professors, of course all veiled but also students who were half veiled, fully veiled and sometimes just barely veiled. Even though Isfahan counts as a very religious city, things are changing there too.
At the lecture at the University of Isfahan, almost ninety percent of the audience were women. Seventy percent of the student population is female; yet in terms of employment, there is very little future for them, especially for those who are in the humanities. A very bright young woman who studies in Qom and is interested in the Safavid period, was accordingly pessimistic about her chances of finding employment. Our guide did say that he might go back to Kurdistan to help his family in agricultural field in Sanandaj if he does not find a job.
The last place we saw, just before closing, was Isfahan’s Friday Mosque, the Masjid Jameh, which, architecturally speaking, is the city’s most important mosque. I must say that for all the grandeur and magnificence of the Shah Mosque, Masjid Jameh was a site out of history books. The tiles, the arches, the writings were of a different kind. It was splendid. I had to charge my phone and asked an attendee who was busy getting the court yard ready for the early evening prayer and food, to help me out. I just sat there for a while looking at this most exquisite mosque in Isfahan and all of Iran.
Isfahan is truly a gem, a place to love, to cherish the history of its past and feel what Richard Byron, the British poet and traveler, said of the city, “Among those rarer places, like Athens or Rome, which are the common refreshment of humanity.”
Let the photos speak for Isfahan and the people we met.
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