What would be a trip in Iran without a stay in Isfahan? One can find this gigantic city on the Iranian plateau, set deeply in the middle of a desert at 1500m high. Wandering in the heart of town, we will discover all the breathtaking elegance and sophistication of exceptional Persian art…
Si-O-Se Pol, a mythical bridge
The dark water of zayandeh river rushes past the famous Si-O-Se Pol Bridge (سی وسه پل). This is quite a rare sight, considering the river can be dry up to ten months a year… Water is so precious in this arid land that it is used to its last drop to answer to human needs. As a consequence, it doesn’t often reach the great Isfahan anymore and the river bed sits sadly and dry under the blazing desert sun.
We are definitely lucky to be able to admire the flowing river passing under the remarkable thirty-three arches of this 17th century-old bridge. But what reaches for us even more is the happy buzzing of this surprising bridge. Isfahani people come and go on and under the bridge in a constant stream. They are deeply attached to this bridge which numerous pathways and alcoves made the most perfect place to rest a bit, meet up with friends or enjoy a picnic.
All kind of people gather on the bridge in a big cultural and generational mix. Strolling slowly on the bridge, we meet happy groups of young students, old men sitting on benches and enjoying a talk, strict women in black chadors then colourful ladies wearing bright veils, Dior sunglasses and lipstick. We meet families with small children staring at us with deep brown eyes, fashion young boys playing in the water or cute sweethearts looking together at the flowing water. This bridge really seems to be part of the everyday life of many Isfahani people with which they seem to cultivate a strong connection. It is so nice to be there that we could have stayed all day!
Naghsh-e Jahan square
6 a.m. Dawn is just peering through the night as we already wander in the streets, burning our fingers on the oven-hot Iranian bread we just bought for breakfast. So perfectly crispy on the outside yet so soft in the inside, this bread called sangak is sprinkled with sesame seeds and just tastes like heaven.
We are so focused on our breakfast that we don’t pay the slightest attention to where we are heading until we suddenly realise that we just set foot in Naghsh-e Jahan (میدان نقش جهان) square. There we stand stricken with amazement for a few minutes, jaws open, eyes wide as saucers. The early sun has already lit up the great resplendent plaza in a hot white glow, and the blue tiles of the mosaics glitter playfully under the sky. The scenery is absolutely magnificent!
Massive blue fountain pools are lined in the middle of the gigantic plaza, throwing impressive amounts of water to the sky. On each sides of the square stand one emblematic monument: the Shah mosque, the Sheikh Lotfollah mosque, the Prince Ali Qapu’s palace and the entrance of the bazar.
Sheikh Lotfollah mosque
If we really had to make a choice, the Sheikh Lotfollah mosque (مسجد شیخ لطف الله) would probably stand as our favourite mosque in Isfahan. It is quite a small place but its beauty is so sticking that it is usually considered as the architectural jewel of the plaza. The refinement of its mosaics is highly prized around the world, and far superior in quality than the ones adorning the impressive Shah mosque sitting nearby.
Built in the beginning of the 17th century, this wondrous mosque intended to be used by the royal family only and nobody else would be authorized to enter it, thus its wonders remained secret for centuries. It was originally built for the women of the harem, who had to use a secret underground corridor from the palace of Prince Ali Qapu to get there.
We have not entered the Shah mosque (مسجد شاه) yet but are already amazed by its incredible portal at the entrance. We spend some time there admiring the intricate blue patterns and tiny alcoves as well as the Iranian life happening around it. Young people play soccer in an alley, kids are biking in the shallow pools, art students try to fix on paper the wonders of the plaza, some men are sleeping peacefully on benches, some others drive little red horse carts for tourists. And of course, there are also many families enjoying a picnic of dates and pistachios while drinking large quantities of Iranian tea. It doesn’t take long before we get invited to share a cup!
Yesterday was the last day of a half-week ceremony dedicated to prophet Ali and as we start visiting the mosque, we discover that the scaffoldings that were holding the draperies protecting faithful people from the sun haven’t been completely dismembered yet. Walking in the courtyard, we have the strange feeling of being in a cage, prisoners of the sacred walls. Disturbing political analogies start to unravel in our mind, some of which seem to be shared by fellow Iranians visiting the place alongside us, looking quite ill-at-ease.
Even if the mosaics don’t stand a chance against Sheik Lotfollah mosque’s, we still have to admit that the corridors of the Shah mosque are very impressive and beautiful! We spend our time walking and watching up, admiring blue cupolas and arches as we go.
Carpets, carpets, carpets… Here is the place to buy the best of Iranian quality in term of silky Persian rugs. They are all marvellous and we would certainly have bought one if the budget allowed it. Which it unfortunately doesn’t… This place is also a good place to meet people and we even get guided by a young Iranian to a hidden underground cafeteria used by the merchants. Of course, there are not only carpets in the bazar but lots of other handicrafts and also… Chador shops! And for you what would it be? Would you like a black chador or a black chador? Or maybe you’d like it black?
The Jameh mosque (مسجد جامع اصفهان) is one place you can’t miss in Isfahan as it is one of the oldest mosque in Iran. Its most ancient rooms are filled with a still museum atmosphere. Buildings were added along the centuries so visiting this mosque is like traveling into Persian history of religious art.
We feel like the mosque has been reorganized recently. Books are all well lined in the shelves, praying carpets have been carefully rolled along the walls. Once again, the mosaic work and dome constructions are truly stunning!
But as always, even if we enjoy the magnificence of the architecture thoroughly, we inevitably turn our camera lenses toward the life inhabiting the place: pigeons taking a fly across the square, an old man praying, a student drawing alone in a corner, people sleeping or reading, rolled carpets along a wall still warm from the pious moments that happened here…
We didn’t spent enough time here, for sure, but our schedule is tight and, as the sun starts its course down the horizon, it is now time for us to leave the wonders of Isfahan to head to Yazd. We met with a young guy earlier in the streets who is willing to take us there through the desert. The plan is easy: we will spend a night in the heart of the dunes and visit historical sites!