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 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 three 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, the Ali Qapu, which is a charming palace, and of course, a huge bazaar. The elegance of the square is only rivaled by the picturesque historic bridges one can take to cross the Zayandeh River, notably 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, it is people, not only buildings, which define a city, and I was struck by the way the Esfahan citizens seem to enjoy their city thoroughly. The square is full of people all day, particularly so in the 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 was also there to enjoy the church’s fineries.
On Fridays, 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 sit on a rug or a blanket with elaborate baskets of food they are always willing to share. Some men sing and dance under the bridge (dancing in public is not allowed for women.) Time and time again, I am invited to sit down and partake in 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?