September 19, 2015

Isfahan. So much more to see than Nuclear enrichment facilities.

Evening prayer at the Jameh Mosque
Isfahan, also spelt Esfahan, is one of the great cities of the world. Once the capital of Persia, it was compared to Rome and Athens by the writer Robert Byron in the classic Silk Road travelogue 'The Road to Oxiana'. Today it is in the news for having the site of Iran's nuclear research facility nearby, and causing the resulting global sanctions against the country (which are now being lifted), but is really should be known for its stunning treasures.

The Meidan Imam square is the centre of Isfahan. An old polo venue from 400 hundred years ago, you can still see the goalposts at either end, it was designed as a place of entertainment and business and was constantly full of traders from around the world who travelled here along the Silk road. Despite the hordes, it is still a great place to sit, people watch, and admire the dome and minarets of the Masjed-e Shah Mosque rising over the southern end of the square. 

Dusk at the Meidan Imam square
Visit the Imam square in the day and see the frenetic activity all around you, waving away the postcard and t-shirt sellers, and then come again at dusk, when the locals reclaim it. The horse drawn buggies that race round the square have stopped, the tour leaders and their groups are back in their hotels, and all you can hear is talk and laughter.

You can spend a day wandering through the square, visiting the Ali Qapu palace, and the gazing upwards at the exquisite designs of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, which took Byron's breath away as he commented "I have never encountered splendour of this kind before". Before diving into the Bazaar which surrounds the square and then leads off to the north of Isfahan. Not surprisingly the shops near the square are more expensive, and full of tourist products, from the multitude of carpet sellers to the shops whose windows are packed full of painted miniatures on camel bone.

The Ceiling of Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque

Keep walking down the covered lane ways and you will come across the more interesting shops selling spices, hijabs and locally made Gaz (a very tasty sweet of nougat and pistachios, and, not unlike expensive chocolate which is priced based on its cacao content, the Gaz price is based on the percentage of pistachios). This is the part of the Bazaar you can spend hours wandering in, prices are cheap and the shop owners are genuinely pleased to see you.

There is much more to Isfahan than the Meidan Immam Square and the surrounding mosques and palaces. There are the Zayandeh bridges, which do tend to get a fair bit of publicity as they are often used as the face of Isfahan for publicity, which is really quite bizarre as they are, well, just bridges. Old bridges for sure (400 to 500 years old), and there are many of them, and functionally they work well, but they are not that photogenic and having walked over one I was more than satisfied. What I did find much more interesting were the parties and picnics being held under the bridges, a great place to hang out at the weekend.

Under the Bridge
For me though, the jewel of Isfahan was the Jameh Mosque in the north of the city. It is both architecturally beautiful in its Islamic architecture, and just so relaxing to sit in the courtyard and read a book. It is the largest mosque in Iran, and building began 800 years ago, with many additions and enhancements constructed over the years. Although it was hit by an Iraqi missile during the war, it luckily sustained only limited damage.

It is still used as a place of worship, and comes alive as dusk gathers and the call to prayer is broadcast from its minarets. People start to run to make it in time for the the evening prayer, and then afterwards gather in the courtyard to catch up with friends and relatives. Isfahan for me will always be associated with the Jameh Mosque, a place of beauty, and incredible calmness. I spent two evenings just sitting in the courtyard reading, observing, and just taking in the beauty of my surroundings, before wandering back to my hotel in darkness.

I did drive past the Nuclear facilities, about an hour outside of the city, and the squat ugly white buildings were pretty unmemorable, except for the impressive array of military hardware surrounding them, particularly the many sets of camouflaged and manned anti aircraft emplacements. In a hundred years though, these will be forgotten, while the beauty of the Jameh Mosque and Median Imam square will be still pulling in tourists from around the world.

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