As I mentioned in my first post (Welcome to Iran, a country of mosques…), Iran is a country that has always fascinated me. And of course, nothing tickled my imagination as much as Esfahan, often called, the jewel of Iran.
Esfahan (or Isfahan) is the third largest city in Iran and was one of the largest cities in the world in its heyday during the 16th century. This led to the Persian proverb “Esfahān nesf-e- jahān ast” (Esfahan is half of the world). Its main square, the Naqsh-e-Jahan Square is the world’s second largest square, only the sadly famous Tiananmen Square in Beijing is bigger. Naghash-e-Square is said to be 3 times the size of St-Mark Square in Venice.
A lot has been said about Esfahan’s size. But it is also quite simply a magnificent city. Famous for its Persian-Islamic architecture, the square itself is visually breathtaking. Around it are two of the most beautiful mosques in Iran, the Sheik Loftallah and the Imam (formerly Shah) mosque, a the Ali Qapu which is a charming palace, and of course, an immense bazaar. The elegance of the square is only rivaled by the picturesque historic bridges one can take to cross the Zayandeh River, particularly the Khaju Bridge and the Se-o-se-Pol Bridge (the name refers to its 33 arches). And, let’s not forget the Vank Cathedral, an Armenian church with walls covered with frescoes and gilded carvings.
But of course its people, not only its buildings, defines a city and I was struck by the way the Esfahan citizens seem to thoroughly enjoy their city. The square is full of people all day, and particularly so in late afternoon. Of course, many people come to do their shopping in the bazaar, but others come merely to enjoy the atmosphere of the square. I met young people there after school, some rollerblading around the square carefully avoiding the horse-drawn carriages available to provide a tour around the square. A group of older men holds court there every day, gladly chatting with anyone willing to engage (as I was) and singing the occasional song.
The Vank cathedral is also a popular destination for tourists and locals. After seeing the colorful frescoes, an older lady was resting waiting for her grandchildren to join her–one of them already a stunning young woman. A group of young Kurdish men were also there to enjoy the church’s fineries.
On Fridays, which is a day of rest, everyone is out for a stroll or a picnic along the Zayandeh River, crossing back and forth on the historic bridges. Entire families are sitting on a rug or a blanket with elaborate baskets of food that they are always willing to share. Some men are singing and dancing under the bridge, (dancing in public is not allowed for women.) Time and time again, I am invited to sit down and partake into whatever is being consumed, be it a full meal, a slice of fresh fruit or the inevitable cup of tea. And who would not want to share a cup of tea looking at the water falling from the imposing Khaju Bridge.
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