After we arrived in Isfahan, Bahman and I did a little shopping and grabbed some dinner before taking a walk around Isfahan. Now Isfahan (pronounced (ES FA HAN and often spelled Esfahan) is said to be the jewel of Iran. The city dates back to Cyrus the Great and rose to prominence many times during Persian history. But the city really gained its fame under Shah Abbas I who moved the capital to Isfahan and set about building Isfahan into a magnificent city in the late 14th and early 15th century AD. Among the great wonders he constructed was Imam Square (more about that later). In fact, the beautiful buildings constructed under Shah Abbas I brought about major innovations in design and artisan techniques.
The city is most famous for its beauty with a myriad of parks and tree lined streets, including the expansive 5 km long Chahar Bagh (Four Gardens) boulevard build in 1597, and the many bridges that pass over the Zayandeh River, which flows through the city and gives the city its life. The only problem … the river had no water. Seriously. The entire river was gone. Bahman told me that the city is in the process of building an underground metro and the river has been damned for construction so …. no water.
It was a big disappointment, but it shouldn’t matter that much right? After all, I was told this city had so much more.
Anyway, we took a stroll along Chahar Bagh and then crossed the Si-o-Seh or 33 Arches Bridge. The stone bridge was magnificent. Construction was completed in 1602 and it did indeed have 33 soaring arches you could peer through and look at … what I could make out in the darkness was a dry riverbed. No sparking lights, no little boats…. nothing. OK. Maybe this was going to be an issue for me.
Despite the lack of water, the bridge really was incredible and we enjoyed it so much that we walked over it and then turned around and walked back. We continued our stroll back down the Chahar Bagh boulevard and then crossed traffic (which is often a life or death experience since there does not seem to be a giveway to pedestrians, even when pedestrians have the right of way) and walked back to our hotel. We reached the Abbasi Hotel in time to have a late night tea (remember as an Islamic nation, sales of alcohol are forbidden) in the magnificent garden court around which the hotel is built. It had been a lovely start to my time in Isfahan, but so far I was not wowed.
The next morning we began our action packed day with a trip to the Chehel-Sotun Palace or Forty Columns Palace as it is commonly known. The Palace was apparently completed in 1647 under Shah Abbas II and featured a wide expansive garden with reflecting pond leading to a beautiful terrace you crossed to enter the Palace. As we walked into the gardens, the first thing I noticed was … no water in the reflecting pond. It had been drained for maintenance. Uh seriously? At this point I turned to Bahman and asked him if there was any water left in Isfahan. He assured me that the pond had been full of water only a couple weeks before. OK then. Bad timing strikes again.
Despite the lack of water, the inside of the Palace turned out to be spectacular with amazing frescoes throughout. The main hall called the Great Hall featured a multitude of colourful frescoes depicting life in the Shah’s court. There were numerous party scenes featuring a variety of hedonistic activities and women in various stages of undress. My favorite fresco was of Shah Abbas I presiding over a grand banquet with people dancing and … uh how shall I put this … men enjoying the company of one another and women doing the same. I found great irony in the fresco and maybe that is what caused me to enjoy it so much.
Next up was a trip to the Khaju Bridge, another one of the famous bridges that crossed the Zayandeh River. The bridge was absolutely spectacular, although I desperately wished there was water in the river so that I could fully appreciate its beauty. Nevertheless, it was a really amazing bridge that was thought to have been completed around 1650 AD by Shah Abbas II. The bridge was a double decker bridge featuring two promenade levels with beautiful arching portals each in the shape of the dome of a mosque.
We strolled along on the lower level and as we walked, I could heard a man singing in Farsi. Bahman told me that many singers come to practice in the catacombs of the bridge because of its amazing acoustic quality. Cool. We finally reached the portion of the bridge where the man was singing and we paused to listen to him as he finished his song. The young man’s voice was simply amazing, and I did not want him to stop.
After the song was over, we continued our walk across the bridge and wandered around a park on the other side. I was coming to understand why people loved this city. The green spaces were everywhere. We eventually turned around and crossed the bridge again on the upper level. As we started to walk, the young man began to sing again. I told Bahman I wanted to walk on the lower level instead so I could hear him sing. (Since there was no water in the river, I figured I really wasn’t missing out on the view.)
When we reached the man he was once again just wrapping up his song. As he finished singing, I ended up wandering over to where the young man was standing now chatting with some other folks who had stopped to listen. Bahman translated for me and told me that the people were making requests for songs. I immediately hopped up onto the stone seats under the archway and took a spot for the next song. After some discussion, the young man began to sing again. I had no idea what he was saying, but similar to opera, the inflection and intonations of his voice told me all I needed to know. The song was clearly about some kind of heartbreak. The young man’s voice moved me to tears and touched my soul as I listened. It was simply exquisite.
By the end of the song, there was quite a little gathering and we all applauded as the song came to an end. I did not want to leave. It was one of those lifetime moments that I knew could never be repeated. As Bahman and I walked on, I could not stop talking about the music. Bahman told me that my reaction was far different to most tourists who listen to Iranian music. He has even had some tourists comment that the singing was akin to animal noises. I have heard people say the same thing about opera. For me it was all about the passion of the voice and the fact that this fellow was just putting himself out there for everyone to judge. It is why I love musicians so much … they have the courage to follow their heart and hope that someone finds inspiration in and appreciation for their art. I hoped the young man I listened to knew how much he inspired me and how much I appreciated his performance.
I told Bahman that it was going to be hard to top what I had just experienced, but he promised me that there was still plenty of good things in store for me. So we found our faithful driver Hamid and we headed off to our next stop in the Armenian Quarter for a visit to the Cathedral of Vank or the Vank Cathedral, which dates to 1655 AD. The Armenian Christians have been a mainstay in Isfahan since the days of Shah Abbas I when he brought them to the city because of their skills as artists, entrepreneurs and craftsman. And like the Jews who came en mass to Persia when Cyrus the Great liberated them from Babylon, the Armenian Christians religious beliefs are respected to this day in Iran.
Anyway, the Armenian quarter was comprised of narrow alleys and streets, with lots of small shops and restaurants everywhere. Bahman suggested we stop for coffee in a tiny little coffee shop that could have passed for a bar. In fact I jokingly told the young man behind the counter, “I’ll have a beer please” when I sat down. That got a laugh from the guys behind the counter. Bahman ended up ordering a very thick cup of hot chocolate, while I opted for a latte …. and sorry Starbucks, but it was the very best latte I have ever had.
Once we finished our drinks, we walked the short distance to the Vank Cathedral and adjacent Armenian Museum. Neither site allowed guides inside, so Bahman gave me a brief history of the site and sent me on my way with instructions to meet him outside at 12:30.
I decided to visit the cathedral first and found the interior quite impressive with a number of rather graphic frescoes depicting the persecution of Christians. It seemed odd to be in a church in the middle of an Islamic country.
I moved on from the Church to the museum, which housed a historical tribute to Armenian history. The interesting artifacts included the world’s smallest book (it was about the size of a baby’s fingernail), a writing on a single strand of hair, the original Armenian land grant signed by the Shah and an original Rembrandt. However, the best part of the visit to the museum was meeting two charming medical students, Mahshid (which means moonlight) and Razieh (which means happy). The two women were from Yazd (which I had just visited the day before) and approached me as I was looking at the world’s smallest book. They asked me where I was from, introduced themselves and asked me how I was enjoying Iran. I told them about my trip to date and that I absolutely loved Iran. The ladies were genuinely happy that I was enjoying myself so much. I then proceeded to have the most fascinating discussion with them about the world’s perception of Iran. They were articulate and bright and implored me to tell everyone I knew that Iran and its people are not anything like they are portrayed in the media. I told them about my blog and that I had been saying exactly that in my trip reports. The conversation was another one of those spontaneous events that was making my trip better than I could have ever imagined.
The three of us must have stood and talked for at least a half hour. Just as I was saying goodbye to the ladies, Bahman came looking for me. I was supposed to meet him at 12:30 and it was already past our meet-up time. We left the cathedral and wandered down the street to lunch. After lunch, Bahman insisted that we stop in a pastry shop for some delicate little layers of pastry goodness. This guy was killing me with sweets!
We finally hopped back in the van and drove through the tree lined streets to our next stop: Naqsh-e Jahan Square or as it is commonly known, Imam Square. The square was built at the direction of Shah Abbas the Great (Abbas I) and includes the Imam Mosque, the very delicate and beautiful Sheik Lotfallah Mosque, the Ali Qapu Palace and the Bazar-e Bozorg. The square is second in size only to Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
As we entered the square, Bahman made me look down as we walked and told me not look up until he said ok. When it was time, I looked up to see one of the most amazing sites: an enormous square filled with water fountains and trees surrounded by small buildings making up the square’s bazaar. The Square was dominated to my right by the blue hued Imam Mosque and to my center right by the Sheik Lotfallah Mosque. Beside me stood the entrance to the Ali Qapu Palace. It was “stupendous”. When I told Bahman as much, he looked at me strangely and I realized “stupendous” may not be in his lexicon so I translated for him (for a change). He immediately grinned and said he was hoping that the square would help me to love Isfahan. I told him it definitely helped, but my first love was still Shiraz. Since this was also Bahman’s favorite city, he understood where I was coming from. What I could say, though, is that when comparing Imam Square to Tiananmen Square, which I have also seen, Imam Square was in a league of its own.
Anyway, our first stop was the Ali Qapu Palace, which was built in the late 16th century. We entered the palace, and I immediately looked up to see a gorgeous mosaic designed ceiling in blues and gold. We moved on to a very narrow stairwell and walked the winding stairway all the way up six stories to the top of the palace and its highlight, an expansive terrace that provided a stunning view of the square. It was absolutely beautiful.
We went back inside and wandered up one more flight to a gorgeous set of rooms that included a lovely terrace facing the backside of the square overlooking trees and the domed school of architecture. (In fact, there were students standing on the balcony drawing their school when we arrived.) The interior of the rooms on the upper floor featured amazing honeycombed wood ceilings in reds, and browns and golds. The palace really made points for Isfahan.
Bahman and I then wandered out of the palace and through the square to the Imam Mosque, which was completed in 1629 (when the dominate high dome was completed). We entered the mosque through an enormous wooden door and immediately came face to face with the stunning azure blue coloured dome that is the highlight of the mosque. However, since the mosque is a working mosque, tent like structures had been permanently erected in the courtyard in front of us making it a little difficult to visualize the expansiveness of the square in front of the magnificent blue and turquoise mosaic tiled high dome. But the colour and tile work on the mosque’s dome was not hidden and it was exquisite.
We walked between the various structures surrounding the courtyard and what was amazing to me was the intricate tile work that dominated every building. We also walked into the main sanctuary and stood on the stone directly beneath the high dome ceiling, and I did as everyone else was doing: stamped my feet to hear the echo. We counted 11, but apparently the record is measured at 49, although most of that was inaudible to the human ear. After spending about an hour in the mosque we moved on to the next site: a walk through the bazaar that surrounds the square. The bazaar was typical of many bazaars in the middle east with arched passageways and narrow alleys with many of the same shops concentrated in the same areas of the bazaar.
The bazaar was very nice, but as we walked I had to tell Bahman that I preferred the Nomads Bazaar in Shiraz over this bazaar. Nevertheless, I ended up buying a stamped mosaic bedspread and table cloth (all hand made – stamping is an ancient artform in Iran) as well as a beautiful enamel tea pot from Mr. Esmaeili, who Bahman advised was one of the finest enamel designers in Iran. (I even saw a book of his works.) Excellent.
Next stop was the Sheik Lotfollah Mosque, which was on the opposite side of the square from the palace. And quite frankly, this mosque proved to be my favorite of the two in the square. (I know always going against convention.) However, this mosque was understated in the use of its muted blue, cream, gold and pink hued colours in comparison to the bright blue and turquoise of the Imam Mosque and was much better suited to my tastes. In addition, it was much smaller and really featured only the single stone room dominated by the gorgeous dome.
The mosque was also different in another regard: it had neither minarets nor a courtyard. I found this design unique and learned that it was probably because the mosque was never intended to be used by the public, but instead was used by the Shah’s harem. The mosaic and wood work on the ceilings and the walls was beautiful and as the sun was setting outside, the colours inside the mosque were changing. This was by far my favorite building of the day.
I could have spent a lot more time in this mosque, but unfortunatley, they were closing for the day and setting up for a wedding. Bahman and I lingered for a bit in hopes of seeing the bride and groom, but no luck today. So we finally turned and walked out the stone passageway to the exit.
As we were leaving, we ran into a group of young girls who asked Bahman in Farsi if they could take my picture. I still had no idea most of the time what was said around me, but when it comes to asking for my picture I understand that question. So I went into my “hey look at the strange looking lady” pose, Bahman took the picture and the girls thanked me with “mercis” (short form Farsi for thank you and yes it is derived from the French language). I took a look at the picture and said to Bahman that after looking at the picture, I finally see how different I look from everyone else. I really stood out like the proverbial sore thumb!
Anyway, we left the mosque as the sun was setting and Bahman suggested we go for tea and qalyān (the water pipe) so he led me down a twisting turning narrow alley, a quick right and we were inside a very funky tea house. Unfortunately, for Bahman the only qalyān that was being smoked was on the men’s side of the tea house so no water pipe for Bahman. As we sat there, Bahman couldn’t figure out why we couldn’t smoke since there were remnants of ash on our table indicating there had been recent smoking, but the owner was insistent that no smoking was allowed on the “family” side. Oh well, we could still enjoy our tea and accompanying sweets.
After our tea, we took a walk around the square and Bahman suggested we go visit a famous miniaturist, Mostafa Fotowat. Persian miniature painting dates to the 13th century and features incredibly intricate water colour paintings on tiny canvases, including bone and tile. A brush of cat hair is often used. The finer the detail in the artwork, the finer the piece. We walked into Mr. Fotowat’s shop and introductions were made. Mr. Fotowat immediately set about showing me his craft and it was absolutely stunning to see the intricate detail he was able to create on these tiny pieces of art. It was clear why Mr. Fotowat has regular shows in Milan and New York and is world renowned. He was incredible.
I walked around his shop and was taken upstairs to look at some special pieces. After a series of no thank yous, I finally saw a piece that was perfect. Just as we were about to walk downstairs, Mr. Fotowat presented me with another piece: a tiny box that had the most intricate scene painted. As I lifted the top of the box open, there was a tiny lid inside that matched the remainder of the box giving the appearance that the box had not even even been opened. It was beautiful. I wagged my finger at Mr. Fotowat and told him he was a bad man for showing this to me … after some contemplation, I bought the miniature box as well.
With purchases made and nightfall, Bahman and I headed back to the hotel. I was exhausted, but decided to accompany Bahman to a rug shop to see some rugs that Bahman was thinking of purchasing. A half hour and much tea later, Bahman and I left the shop after no sale.
We got back to the hotel and went to dinner where I made my first faux pas of the trip. I was introduced to the general manager of the hotel and immediately shook his hand. WRONG! I didn’t realize my mistake until later when I commented to Bahman that the gentleman seemed a little surprised when I shook his hand. Bahman told me that women generally do not shake mens’ hands. Uh Bahman … I have been shaking everyone’s hand that I meet regardless of whether they are men or women. He told me that those circumstances had been fine because those meetings were informal settings between “friends”, but when a woman meets a man in an official capacity a woman does not shake his hand. I was mortified and felt horrible. Bahman told me it was fine, but it bothered me for hours. I pride myself on being in tune to the customs and practices of the countries I travel in, and this was a major mistake. I wanted to apologize, but Bahman essentially told me to let it go.
Anyway, but for my last minute gaff, it had been a good day. At dinner Bahman and I discussed Isfahan. I told Bahman again, Isfahan is nice, but Shiraz, that glorious city of gardens, friendly shop owners, nearby historical sites, wonderful food and a happening vibe will always have my heart. Isfahan, I am afraid, is only going to be the bridesmaid.