||Esfahan is located on the main north-south and east-west routes crossing Iran, and was once one of the largest cities in the world. It flourished from 1050 to 1722, particularly in the 16th century under the Safavid dynasty, when it became the capital of Persia.
Even today, the city retains much of its past glory. It is famous for its Islamic architecture, with many beautiful boulevards, covered bridges, palaces, mosques, and minarets. This led to the Persian proverb Esfah'n nesf-e jah'n ast: "Esfahan is half of the world". Esfahan is Persian splendor at its very best and the city has an array of excellent sights.
Before Esfahan was selected as capital by the Safavid dynasty, Iman square or Naghsh-e-Jahan (image of the world) as it was known, existed in the vicinity of Imam square. During the reign of Shah Abbas the Great, this square was enlarged to almost its present dimensions and famous historic buildings such as the Imam mosque, Sheikh Lotfollah mosque, Ali Qapu Palace and Ghasir gateway were constructed around this square.
The square is second only to Beijing's Tiananmen Square in size. Once containing a polo field, it has four mosques in the middle of each side connected by a perimeter bazaar.
Historically a hive of activity - filled with entertainers, storytellers, preachers and silk route caravans, it has entranced travellers throughout the generations. The shops on the square's perimeter were filled with tapestries, miniature artwork, confectionaries, enameled copperware, and piles of Persian carpets.
To learn the secret of the carpets' distinctive reds, blues, and golds, you can ask a shopkeeper to lead you down a set of stone steps to a cavern-like basement room. It is here where you will find a single sunbeam shined through a hole cut in the ceiling, hitting a giant circular stone in the center of the room. A wheel is then rolled over pomegranates and other natural items to coax out their brilliant hues.
On the south side of the square is the Imam Mosque. This mosque was constructed in 1611 during the Safavid period, and with seven-colour mosaic tiles and valuable inscriptions, this mosque is an excellent example of Persian Islamic Architecture.
The portal of the mosque measures 27 meters high and is crowned with two 42 meter high minarets that open out into Naqsh-e Jahan square. On top of the entrance, among the stalactites and above the turquoise lattice window there is a frame of seven-colour mosaic tiles with two peacocks on both sides.
The inscription above the entrance being made of white mosaic tile on ultramarine background is written in Sols script and the wooden door of the mosque, covered with layers of gold and silver, is ornamented with some poems written in Nasta'liq script.
Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque:
Situated on the eastern side of Naghsh-i Jahan Square, Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque was constructed between 1602 to 1619 A.D. in Shah Abbas (I)'s era. The mosque was named after Sheikh Lotfallah, a religious leader from what is now Lebanon, who was invited to Esfahan, and was paid special attention by the Safavid king.
The diameter of the inner dome is 12m laid on walls with the thickness of 170cm. One of the unique characteristics of the mosque is the peacock at the centre of its dome. If you stand at the entrance gate of the inner hall and look at the center of the dome, a peacock whose tail is the sunrays coming in from the hole in the ceiling.
Esfahan's Bazaar is a real labyrinth of domed streets that flow into the old town. The entrance to the bazaar is through a majestic gateway which is decorated with mosaic tile work, its main motif representing Sagittarius, Esfahan's astrological sign, shown here as a chimera.
This Bazaar is one of the biggest and most lively bazaars of the Middle East, and by wandering through some 5 km of paths, one can find shops that sell almost every imaginable item. Small openings in the vaulted roof let in sufficient light and yet keep out the intense heat of summer, whilst retaining warmth in winter.
Ali Qapu Palace:
Ali Qapu Palace, in effect, is a pavilion that marks the entrance to the vast royal residential quarter of the Safavid Esfahan. The name is made of two elements: "Ali", Arabic for exalted, and "Qapu", Turkic for portal or royal threshold. The compound stands for "Exalted Porte". This name was chosen by the Safavids to rival the Ottomans' celebrated name for their court: Bab-i Ali, or the "Sublime Porte".
The building, another wonderful Safavid edifice, was built by decree of Shah Abbas the Great in the early seventeenth century. It was here that the great monarch used to entertain noble visitors, and foreign ambassadors.
A large and massive rectangular structure, the Ali Qapu is 48 meters high and has six floors, fronted with a wide terrace whose ceiling is inlaid and supported by wooden columns. Ali Qapu Palace is rich with naturalistic wall paintings, all designed by Reza Abbassi, the court painter of Shah Abbas I and his pupils.
Jame (Friday) Mosque:
This is one of the oldest mosques still standing in Iran, and is built in the "four iwan " architectural style, placing four gates face to face. It was built in the 8th century but was soon burnt to the ground. It was rebuilt in the 11th century and went through various stages of remodelling over the next 6 centuries. As a result, it features rooms built in different architectural styles, giving the mosque a condensed history of Iranian architecture.
The Bridges of Esfahan:
The bridges over the Zeyandeh river include some of the most impressive architecture in Esfahan. The oldest bridge is the 'Pol-e Shahrestan' which was built in the 12th century during the Seljuk period. Further upstream is the 'Pol-e Khaju' which was built by Shah Abbas II in 1650. It is 123 metres long with 24 arches, and it also serves as a sluice gate. The next bridge is the 'Pol-e Jubi'. It was originally built as an aqueduct to supply the palace gardens on the north bank of the river.
Further upstream again is probably the most impressive bridge - 'Si-o-Seh Po' (or bridge of 33 arches). Built during the rule of Shah Abbas the Great, it linked Esfahan with the Armenian suburb of Jolfa. It is by far the longest bridge in Esfahan at 295m.
The Khaju bridge, yet another impressive bridge is located about 1.5 kilometers downstream to the east of 'Sio-seh-Pol'. The Khaju Bridge is slightly smaller than Sio-seh-Pol and has two levels of terraces overlooking the river. Built on the foundation of an earlier structure, this bridge too, has been constructed for two purposes - a roadway and a dam.
To really get a true taste of Eshafan, a good idea is to rise early for a sunrise walk along the Zeyandeh River. Set in a beautiful location, the river is lined with manicured gardens and spanned by the famous arched bridges. You'll see hoards of locals out jogging or just strolling along the river at this hour. Another thing you'll see, as you relax under one of the bridge porticos below are elderly men singing old love songs in a haunting, melodious voice.
At the Zurkhaneh, or the 'house of strength' as the Iranians call it, boys and men gather together for a sort of 'religious gymnastics' designed to keep up sound mind and body. This is certainly one of the more bizarre sports you'll ever see.
To begin proceedings, a drummer and chanter both seated on an elevated platform, ring a large bell to signal to the participants to descend into the sunken ring - the central to the day's activities. The drummer begins with slow drum beats, encouraging the men to start their pushups, apparently essential for one's preparation!
Over a few hours the pace escalated until the men begin tossing heavy clubs made from tree trunks high into the air and spinning around in a blur, interspersed with recitation and chants calling out for peace and goodwill among peoples and nations.
The Shaking Minarets or 'Manar Jonban' is one of the most impressive historical buildings in Esfahan. What makes these building so unique is the fact that if you climb up the very narrow stairway to the top of one of these two minarets and lean hard against the wall, it will sway back and forth the other minaret. Experts have explained the situation as something that has occurred gradually with the passage of time. The building is the mausoleum of Amoo Abdollah Garladani, a 14th century Iranian mystic.
A fine place to relax after a day's sightseeing is in a traditional Iranian restaurant Here you'll enjoy fine Iranian cuisine; Fesunjun (pomegranate, walnut and meat stew), Khoresht-e-sabsi (lamb stew with fenugreek and herbs) and the local favorite - Musamma Bademjar (camel with aubergine, tomatoes and spices)
Some say that the restaurants in Esfahan are just as amazing as the cuisine. Many are housed in ancient merchant houses or caravanserais and are adorned with wall paintings, mirror work, and stained glass windows.
Chahar Bagh is an avenue constructed during the highly industrial Safavid era. Famously, Shah Abbas I was the king who moved his capital from Qazvin to Esfahan and decided to pour all the countries artistic wealth into that central spot which has been dubbed for centuries Esfah'n nesf-e jah'n ast or "Half the World". The avenue is the most historically famous in all of Persia, so famous that the famous Champs-Élysées boulevard in Paris was designed after this beautiful inner-city lane. It connects north of city to south and is about 10 kilometers long.
Chehel Sotoun is a pavilion that was built by Shah Abbas II, purely to be used for the Shah's personal entertainment. In this palace, Shah Abbas II and his successors would receive dignitaries and ambassadors, either on the terrace or in one of the stately reception halls.
The name, "forty columns," was inspired by the twenty slender wooden columns supporting the entrance pavilion, which, when reflected in the waters of the fountain, are said to appear to be forty.
The paintings here are quite impressive, both for their artistry and for their depictions of musicians, dancing girls, lavish feasts, and parties. These paintings had been covered with whitewash by invading Afghans in the 18th century, and that they only survived the 1979 revolution because diligent caretakers stood ground between the artwork and the fundamentalists keen on destruction.
Iran-Iraq War Cemetery:
Although a sobering sight, it's worth paying a visit the Esfahan Cemetery. Known as the Garden of Martyrs, it commemorates those Iranians who lost their lives in Iran-Iraq war. 22,000 died from this city alone. Between 1980 and 1988, over one million Iranians were killed. They were almost entirely young men, staggeringly, there were significant numbers of teenage boys, some aged just 13. Wearing keys of martyrdom around their necks, these boys were brainwashed into running ahead of the armed troops to detonate land mines. Others fastened bombs to themselves and dived underneath enemy tanks.
The construction of this church commenced in 1606 at the time of arrival of Armenians immigrants to Esfahan and was completed between 1655 and 1664 under the supervision of Archbishop David.
Though the exterior of the church is unexciting, the interior is richly decorated with oil paintings of Jesus Christ and people sacred to the Armenians. Oil paintings and gilded carving, in the representation of God's revelation throughout the Old and New Testaments, cover the walls from the tiled lower portions of the ceiling.