Over the years we have traveled far and wide, all over Europe, Northern, Central and Eastern Africa, South America, and Central and Easter Asia, but few places have had such a profound, deep and lasting impression on us as the Middle East has…
Once the cradle of civilization, the Fertile Crescent as it once used to be known, was the scene of the start of agriculture, and, for many centuries, home to the most advanced cultures and civilizations. As Europeans we associate many cultural, scientific and especially architectural elements with the Arabs. Travelling to Iran opened a window into the past, giving us the unique opportunity to discover that actually Islamic architecture adopted elements from Persian tradition, when the Arabs had conquered Persia. Among Persia’s contributions to Mohammedan architecture are the dome, the squinches (a simple arch across the angle of two walls, to allow a dome to be placed on top of a rectangular chamber) and the iwan (an open-fronted hall). These distinctive originally Persian elements have change the face of every town in Islam, and it was pleasing to find ourselves in the lands where these ideas began.
The beauty of Esfahan steals on the mind unawares… mosques, palaces and minarets of turquoise, spring yellow and liquid violet-blue, covered bridges of toffee brick and beautiful shady tree-lined boulevards and green Persian gardens, fine carpets, textiles, copper crockery, handicrafts, traditional delicious sweets and miniature paintings…and, before you know it, Esfahan has unforgettably insinuated its image into the gallery of places which everyone privately treasures…
Esfahan, UNESCO World Heritage city of handcraft, is the third most populous metropolis in Iran, its historical roots dating back to the Elamite period more than four thousand years ago.
Esfahan‘s true golden age, when its architecture, prestige, and culture blossomed and flourished, was during the Safavid dynasty when Shah Abbas the Great moved the capital of his Persian Empire from the northwestern city of Qazvin to the more central city of Esfahan, in order to distanced the empire’s capital from any future assaults from the Ottomans. Esfahan, fertilized by the Zayandeh River, lay as an oasis of intense cultivation in the midst of a vast arid landscape. As a vital stop along the Silk Road, countless goods from all the civilized countries of the world poured into the shops of Esfahan‘s sprawling imperial bazaar. Shah Abbas resettled here Armenians so his capital could benefit from their knowledge of the silk trade, and he brought in Chinese artisans to teach the art of porcelain-making. At that time Esfahan became the largest city in the world, famous even in Europe for its prosperity, culture, craftsmanship and trade. With the Afghan invasion began the decline of Esfahan, culminating with the move of the capital to Mashhad and Shiraz.
Nowadays Esfahan still retains much of its past glory having a visual appeal unmatched by any other Iranian city, ranking among those rare places that are a living museum of traditional culture, history and architecture, unsurprisingly giving rise to the Persian proverb “Esfahan Es fa jahan” = Esfahan is half the world…
Masjed-e Jame (Jameh Mosque)
Literally laying a few steps from our hotel was Masjed-e Jame (Jameh Mosque), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the biggest and one of the oldest mosques still standing in Iran.
A silent window through the ages to a time long ago past, the grand, congregational mosque (jameh = congregation) of Esfahan is believed to be built over a Zoroastrian temple. Over the course of nine centuries it burnt down, was rebuilt and remodeled several times, resulting in a blend of different architectural and artistic styles that incorporate elements from the Seljuks, Mongols, Muzzafarids, Timurids and Safavids, and that make Jameh Mosque a veritable museum of condensed history of Persian Architecture.
Leading us to the mosque’s main gate was a labyrinth of charming small alleys, as can be found only in old, desert, dry towns that have seen much throughout history and are still standing to tell their tales. The small dusty allies open into an old, small covered bazaar as if only to pass through a time portal leading to an age when merchants of all kinds and sorts were filling the bustling covered bazaar surrounding Jameh Mosque.
Laying at the heart of the old town, much the same as Medieval cathedrals do in European towns, Jameh Mosque is fascinating even from its austere brick outer walls and gates touched by the sand of time. One cannot help but feel a sense of wonder as we step through its high wooden main gate and into its silent, dust-covered bare brick hallways.
Jameh Mosque is a masterpiece of Persian aestheticism and architecture with its structural clarity, geometric elegance, florid refinements, and perfect balance and proportion. It is an apparition of pure cubic form with finely carved columns, delicate mosaics, perfect brickwork, elaborately carved stucco, and decorative glazed tilework.
Long and wide hallways supported by tall brick pillars take us deep into the mosque’s core, as well as deep into its past. This enchanting place with its mystery filled shapes, corners and colors is nowadays a favorite of young photographers exploring and developing their keen eye and talent. The brickwork, painted tiles, rolled-up carpets, seemingly untouched book-shelves, all invite the visitor to contemplation and reverie. Entering deeper into the complex, the hallways open into the wide inner courtyard surrounded on all four sides by beautiful iwans (open-fronted halls) covered in fine brickwork, colorful and elaborated painted tilework and geometrical motifs. The Jameh Mosque complex is built in the four-iwan architectural style, with a central, large, open courtyard, surrounded by four contrasting iwans, each built in a different architectural style. In the center of the courtyard lays an ablutions fountain designed to imitate the Kaaba at Mecca. Here pilgrims used to perform their rituals before leaving on the hajji to Mecca.
As we step out into the cool morning sun we begin to grasp the astounding grandeur of this religious complex. Lost in time we wonder off in amazement through the courtyard and all the halls admiring the beauty and the charm of the old mosque. We start with the south iwan, which is highly elaborate, with stalactite brick moldings inlaid with splendid geometric mosaics on the side walls, sparkling turquoise-blue glazed tilework covering its façade and two tall minarets, and an imposing, grand, bare brick dome, Nezam al-Molk, rising behind it above the prayer hall. A double row of superimposed arches covered in colorful geometrical and floral painted tiles leads to the next iwan. The west iwan contrasts with its starker stalactite moldings and façade covered in green geometrical mosaics and tilework. A small adjutant room houses the mosque’s greatest treasures – an exquisite stucco mihrab with dense Quranic inscriptions and floral designs. The mihrab is a niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the qibla, which is the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca, indicating the direction that Muslims should face during prayer. From this room a narrow passageway leads into the winter hall, a low prayer hall lit by alabaster skylights. Continuing clockwise, the north iwan, increasingly austere, has a monumental porch with Kufic inscriptions, and honeycombed walls that allow light to gently peep into the large prayer hall behind and illuminate the forest of austere brick pillars leading to the exquisite Taj al-Molk dome, considered to be mathematically perfect and the finest brick dome in Persia. Last but not least, the eastern iwan is the barest of them all covered in toffee brickwork interrupted with geometrical patterns.
The architecture and shape of Persian mosques is quite different and distinct from those in other Muslim countries. Wondering lost in reverie through the silent halls of Jameh Mosque is a wonderful way to spend a mellow morning in Esfahan. Curiously exploring each corner one by one, somehow we found ourselves back at the entrance. It was time to move on…
New Jolfa (the Armenian Quarter)
and Kelisa-ye Vank (Vank Catherdral)
Across the Zayandeh River and at a distance from the city’s old Islamic center lays another part of Esfahan with its altogether different culture and history: the Christian Armenian Quarter “New Jolfa”, named after the older Armenian city of Jolfa. One of the oldest and largest Armenian quarters in the world, New Jolfa was established over 500 years ago when Shah Abbas the Great resettled a colony of Armenians fleeing Ottoman persecution from the unstable Safavid-Ottoman border. Mainly coming from the very wealthy town of Jolfa, one of the most important settlements in medieval Armenia, they were sought for their skill as silk merchants, entrepreneurs and artists. Ensuring their religious freedom was respected, the Shah was aiming that the Armenians’ resettlement in Esfahan prove beneficial to the empire’s prosperity. Ever since then, the Armenian community has continued to be an integral part of Esfahan‘s unique landscape.
At the heart of the Armenian Quarter lays Kelisa-ye Vank (Vank Catherdral), a Christian Armenian church built with the encouragement of the Safavid rulers to accommodate the newly resettled Armenian community, which is still standing today as a reminder of the Armenians tumultuous history and heritage. New Jolfa‘s packed neighborhood doesn’t give any hint of what lays hidden among its narrow streets. Kelisa-ye Vank can only be discovered once inside its quiet courtyard, secluded from the outside world behind tall brick walls. Inside we find a basilica and a museum dedicated to keeping alive the memory and story of the Armenian people. The basilica is a small island of Christianity in an ocean of Islam, combining contrasting architectural styles in its external and internal combination of Armenian Christian and Persian Islamic elements. At first glance, with its brick domed sanctuary, it resembles more a Mohammedan shrine than a Christian church. Only when inside does its true Christian nature become apparent, as we recognize in the lavish and extensive paintings the all too familiar Christian biblical scenes that we are used to seeing from our own churches back home.
The cathedral’s exteriors of exceptionally plain brickwork contrast to its sumptuously decorated interiors. Fine frescos and gilded carvings full of life and color richly decorate the inner walls, combing traditional Christian depictions of Biblical scenes with delicate floral motifs in the style of Persian miniature. It feels both familiar and yet odd to find such a place in the middle of a Muslim country, and it stands as proof that mutual tolerance is possible.
Facing the church’s entrance lays a large freestanding bell tower, while across the courtyard awaits a museum, displaying numerous artifacts from the history of the Armenian community in Esfahan, including a historic printing press and a fabulous collection of miniature illustrated Bibles.
Si-o-se-pol and Pol-e Khaju
Sunset, with its cooling atmosphere, finds the city more alive than ever, with people coming out to socialize, meet friends, chat or have a pick-nick in the green gardens along the Zayandeh River, literally meaning “The life-giving river”. 11 bridges of toffee brick, tier on tier of arches, span the river, out of which the most remarkably architecturally elaborate are Si-o-se-pol and Pol-e Khaju. Both architecturally functioning as bridges and as dams, now serves as pedestrian walkways across the river. Especially pleasant to admire at sunset and in the early evening when these bridges come alive both with brilliant amber lights, as well as with joyful people, as these bridges are a favorite meeting place for Esfahanis who gather to catch a romantic moment under their arches.
Si-o-se-pol, literally meaning “the bridge of 33 arches”, is the longest bridge on the Zayandeh River, consisting of two superimposed long rows of 33 arches.
While Pol-e Khaju is described as being the finest monument of Persian bridge architecture, with traces of the original artistic paintings and tilework that decorated its double arcade still visible today. Fine octagonal pavilions adorn the center of the bridge, exclusively built for the pleasure of Shah Abbas, who would come here to admire the sunset and remarkable views.
As you walk completely absorbed by the magic these places, the bridges warm lights cast enchanting dark shadows that delight our eye, while our ears are bewitched by young men reciting mystical poetry or singing soulful songs, or simply by the laughter of the youth enjoying a lively evening out. The lit bridges’ image became even more powerful and enduring as we realized there is no water onto which the bridges and their brilliant lights to create a reflection on. The river bed is all dried up and has apparently been so for tens of years. It is a unusual feeling to step onto and walk where once use to run a mighty river and where no one knows when or if it will wash its life bringing water again. This brings new awareness both into the way climate has changed through time, as well as into how fortunate we are to live in a country still blessed with running rivers and lush vegetation.
As dusk deepened into night and the stars came out of hiding, we retraced our tired steps back to our cozy hotel. Nightfall brought a welcomed closer to a culturally enriching day exploring Esfahan… the following morning, another day of discovering more of Esfahan’s treasures awaited us…
Keep close, there’s more of Esfahan to come 😉
Tags: architecture, armenian, brick, bridge, christian, esfahan, islam, iwan, jameh, jolfa, mihrab, minaret, Mohammedan, mosaic, mosque, muslim, old, persian, tile, vank, zayandeh