Iran, once the land of the ancient Persians, nowadays is home to a wealthy legacy of culture and history that has endured time and again through many turmoiled centuries. And Esfahan, or Isfahan as Westerners call it, once an imperial capital, impresses with its iconic architecture, culture, craft and history, as one of Iran’s most remarkable cities.
NAQSH-E JAHAN SQUARE
Nowadays, Esfahan resonates as homeplace to the finest handicrafts and the most delicious sweets in all of Iran. Iranians visiting this famous city, make sure not to leave it before stocking up with “sweet memories” for their loved ones back home. Equally famous, this time delighting for the eyes and soul is the city’s iconic imperial square: Naqsh-e Jahan Square. Lying at the heart of the historical city of Esfahan, Naqsh-e Jahan Square, literally meaning “Image of the World Square”, is still one of the largest squares in the world. Nowadays listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the square was built by Shah Abbas the Great of the Safavid Dynasty to signal the importance of Esfahan as the new capital of his powerful Persian empire. To sustain his initiative of centralizing power in the state, the shah ingeniously had this square built to gather together the three main powers in Persia: the power of the clergy, represented by the mosque (Masjed-e Shah), the power of the merchants, represented by the Imperial Bazaar (Bazar-e Bozorg), and the power of the shah himself, residing in the Imperial Palace (Kakh-e Ali Qapu).
Naqsh-e Jahan Square
Naqsh-e Jahan Square is a vast open green square, enclosed on all four sides by the finest Safavid architectural buildings that embrace a fountain and large pool at their center, creating a wondrous space and a real spectacle of the grandeur of the Persian Empire. This was the place that brought together the shah and his people in formal and informal gatherings from polo games, and Friday prayers to royal manifestations.
The square has changed little since it was built. A row of two story arched arcades housing fine souvenir and craft shops encloses the green open space in the middle. When stepping in the vast Naqsh-e Jahan Square, as high walls give way to wide and open surroundings, a series of architectural jewels catch our eye rising from the middle of the arcades that hem Esfahan‘s largest square: on the east side lays Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah (Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque) with its elegant flowered dome and lavishly decorated interiors, next follows on the south side Masjed-e Shah (the Shah’s Mosque), with its blue portal, dome, iwans, and minarets, while on the west side lies Kakh-e Ali Qapu (the Imperial Palace) with its impressively tall elevate terrace, and last but not least on the northern side the Qeysarieh Gate opens into Bazar-e Bozorg (the Imperial Bazaar).
BAZAR-E BOZORG – IMPERIAL BAZAAR
The beauty of this square lies in the fusion of the splendid formal architecture blended with the romantic uses of its space. And we must say it is a genius wonder! Not only for its stunning architecture, but also for its amazing practicality. Summer time out in the sun, especially in the Middle East, can be unpleasant, that is why during the day there’s practically no one in the square’s open space. Rather the cool, shady covered arcades and Imperial Bazaar are more inviting, allowing people to move and shop freely and comfortably away from the sun’s relentless gaze. The row of shops lining the square opens both into the covered walkway as well as into the square, while shading their shop-windows with wide white marquises, opened during the day to offer an inviting protection from the sun. And we must say Esfahan‘s bazaar is all too inviting 🙂
Qeysarieh Gate, adorning the northern end of Naqsh-e Jahan Square, marks the entrance into the fascinating world of the Middle Eastern bazaars. A two-kilometer long maze of vaulted alleys, shops, madrasahs and caravanserais links Naqsh-e Jahan Square with the Masjed-e Jameh. Bazar-e Bozorg, Esfahan‘s Imperial Bazaar, dating back more than a thousand years, is one of the oldest and largest bazaars of the Middle East. Covered arched passageways lined with shops provide a cool escape from the summer sun, inviting passers-by to get lost and wander through the countless bustling lanes of the bazaar, sniffing the heaps of layered colorful spices, tasting from the famous delicious sweets and dried fruits, admiring countless shops overflowing with vividly colored lengths of materials, carpets and cushions, or with endless rows of painted glazed tiles, or copper and enamel crockery… Here we found some of the finest products in all of the cities we have visited in Iran, and we recommend Esfahan for souvenir shopping in the bazaar overflowing with goods that catch your eye and are worth to shop for while in Esfahan.
MASJED-E SHEIKH LOTFOLLAH – SHEIKH LOTFOLLAH MOSQUE
Occasionally, as to allow for pause from shopping, the vaulted arcade hemming Naqsh-e Jahan Square opens into the entrance to an exquisite architectural marvel. The first to come in our way was Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah (Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque). Often referred to as the mosque of great purity and beauty, Sheikh Mosque is a fabulous Persian architectural masterpiece, as precious in its decorations as it is small. Built by Shah Abbas the Great for the private use of the royal court, the mosque was dedicated to the shah’s father-in-law, Sheikh Lotfollah, a revered Lebanese scholar of Islam who was invited to Esfahan to oversee the Shah’s Mosque and theological school. Due to its private use, the mosque has an unusual design, quite simple and small: there are no courtyards, no interior iwans, no minarets, just a low hallway and a rather small sanctuary topped by a flattened dome. However, in contrast to the mosque’s simple structure, the decoration of both its interior and exterior is exceedingly complex, making use of the finest materials and the most talented craftsmen of its time.
The entrance portal is richly decorated with some of the best surviving Safavid-era mosaics made in glazed tiles of deep blue with highlights of fresh yellow forming panels of wonderful arabesques with intricate floral designs, and particularly intricate muqarnas (stalactite-looking carvings). The vivid colors of the portal stand in contrast to the pale tones of the dome above. Unlike any other dome in Persia, Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque‘s dome is lyric, making extensive use of delicate soft golden pink tiles inlaid with a bold black and white branching rose-tree, and ornaments of ochre, dark blue and faint light blue, which come together in perfect harmony. The genius of the dome lays in the play of glazed and unglazed surfaces, making the sunlight strike the dome with a broken highlight, which changes in color throughout the day glittering blue and pink and yellow.
A wooden door opens into a low twisting hallway where our eyes become accustomed to darkness as subtle shafts of light play across deep blue tilework. Walking along this L-shaped passageway gives a sense of heightened anticipation culminating when entering the dome chamber where lowness gives way to soaring height. No photograph, nor any description, can convey the splendid mirage of color and pattern unfolding before our eyes, or the intricate convolutions that make it so deep and luminous. The interior is a masterpiece of Persian decorative art, which exceeds, in both beauty and quality, anything previously created in the Islamic world.
The walls are covered in superior exquisite tile-work inlaid with twirling arabesques of dark blue and light greenish blue on deep ochre background. From the floor to be base of the dome rise eight main arches, framed in turquoise corkscrews. The mihrab carved out in the west wall, enameled with tiny flowers on a deep blue meadow, is one of the finest in Iran. Above the walls lies a ring of sixteen latticed windows, filtering shafts of sunlight that produce a constantly changing interplay of light and shadow enriching the space. On top of the ring of windows swims the shallow dome inset with a network of lemon-shaped compartments, filled with a foliage pattern, diminishing in size until they meet in a central sunburst patterned with a tracery of arabesque at the apex. The decoration seems to lead the eye upwards toward its center, where sunrays coming in through the hole in top of the ceiling, produce the shape of a glittering peacock with a long shining tail – one of the unique characteristics of this mosques. Each pattern, each repetition, each separate branch or blossom has its own delicate beauty. But the beauty of the whole comes as you move, as the highlights are broken by the play of glazed and unglazed surfaces, so that with every step they rearrange themselves in countless shining patterns. The design, suggesting both movement and stillness, has a powerful symbolism, speaking of the harmony of the Universe… The splendor of Sheikh Lotfullah Mosque comes from the richness of light and surface, of pattern and color, astonishing Europeans who had previously no idea that abstract pattern was capable of so profound a splendor.
Lost in enchantment with the magical mirage of light and color, as are most visitors who step into the mosque’s majestic sanctuary, we took seat directly on the floor in a quiet corner, gazing up to the infinite ceiling, and we would have been lost in awe for hours admiring the interplay of pattern and color, if it weren’t for the guards kindly asking visitors to leave before prayer starts. Grateful for the unique opportunity of entering in this once private mosque, with great difficulty we brought ourselves to leave Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque. There was more to Naqsh-e Jahan Square waiting for us to discover…
MASJED-E SHAH – SHAH’S MOSQUE
Literally just around the corner, a short walk away through the alluring covered walkway, lies the great mosque of Esfahan: Masjed-e Shah (the Shah’s Mosque). If Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque is mesmerizing in its play of colors and pattern in intricately fine detailed interiors, the Shah’s Mosque is spectacular in size and in the overwhelming richness of its iconic blue-tiled mosaics and perfect proportions. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this elegant mosque stands out like a crown jewel, visually stunning at the head of Esfahan‘s main square. Regarded as one of the magnificent masterpieces of Persian architecture in the Islamic era, the Shah’s Mosque‘s splendor is mainly due to the beauty of its predominantly blue mosaic tiles finely decorated in a full palette of seven colors style: dark Persian blue, light Turkish blue, white, black, yellow, green and biscuit. Unblemished since its construction 400 years ago, it stands as a monument to the vision of grandeur of Shah Abbas the Great, who ordered the building of this grand mosque to replace the much older Masjed-e Jameh (Jameh Mosque) in conducting the public Friday prayers. The Shah’s Mosque, unlike Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, was meant for public use, having the tallest and largest dome in the city, two madrasahs (religious schools) and a winter mosque. Covered in colorful tiles, its tall dome glitters in the sunlight like a turquoise gem, once long ago attracting from a distance travelers following the Silk Road through Persia. With the rise of Islamic mysticism, Persians, already having a rich architectural legacy, were looking for a new type of architectural design that emphasized their Persian identity. With the building of the Shah’s Mosque in Esfahan, Islamic architecture witnessed the emergence of a new style taking form in the shape of the four-iwan arrangement mosque, that was unlike earlier Arab mosques’ architectural style.
The mosque’s tall blue portal glitters with an extraordinary blue light. Decorated by the most skilled artists of the age, it is covered in magnificent mosaics featuring geometric designs, floral motifs and calligraphy arranged in panels, each with its own intricate design, and in a splendid ceiling with stalactite moldings in a honeycomb pattern – a distinct feature of Persian Islamic architecture. At the sides of the portal rise two turquoise minarets, each encircled by white geometric calligraphy inscribed with verses praising Muhammad and Ali, and topped by beautifully carved, wooden balconies with stalactites running down the sides. This portal was meant to provide a visual counterpoint to the Qeysarieh Portal, across the square at the entrance to the Imperial Bazaar (Bazar-e Bozorg).
Once through the portal, the twisting hallway opens into a vast open courtyard centered around a large pool for ritual ablutions and four imposing iwans. A large marble basin set on a pedestal standing for four hundred years, used to be filled with fresh water or lemonade to refresh the worshipers. The walls of the courtyard contain the most exquisite sunken porches, framed by painted tiles of deep blue and yellow. Each iwan leads into a vaulted sanctuary jeweled with yellow, white, olive green and cream mingled with the two blues in a maze of floral motifs, arabesques and calligraphy as fine as the patterns on a Chinese tea-cup. Muslim mosques, unlike Christian churches, are not covered with anthropomorphic images of the divinity or holy figures and scenes. Since Islam forbids the use of images of sentient beings, mosques are covered with intricate abstract motifs having a hidden spiritual message. Favored abstract forms are geometric patterns, calligraphy, floral and foliage patterns of the arabesque. For a non-Muslim it takes a knowing eye to point out where and for what to look, and what its hidden symbolism is…
The Shah’s Mosque with its soothing shaded courtyards invites to take a moment to contemplate its beauty which symbolically mirrors our own inner beauty. To the east and west of the main sanctuary are the courtyards of two madrasahs (religious schools). Young painters come here to practice their hand and skill under the inspirational influence of one of the most enchanting architectural masterpieces painted by some of the best craftsmen of their age under the supervision of the famous royal calligrapher Reza Abbasi.
Lying beneath the mosque’s huge turquoise-shaded dome is the main sanctuary chamber, entered through an immense open iwan. The immensity of this space invites to find a quiet corner from where to contemplate the richness of the domed ceiling, covered in arabesques so liquid and so delicately interlaced with golden rose patterns surrounded by concentric circles of busy mosaics on a deep blue background. Deliberate mismatches in its apparent symmetry of the design reflect the artist’s humility in the face of Allah. All throughout Iran while visiting religious sites, be them Muslim or Zoroastrian, we found a mysterious silence all embracing, only enhanced by the silence of the dry lands and deserts shaping the out of town surroundings. Occasionally this silence would be temporarily enriched by echoing footsteps or a young scholar practicing his voice reciting religious texts. A black paving stone laying at the central point under the dome marks a spot with special acoustic properties, as the ingenuity of the architects, when creating the dome, enables who sits on the marked spot to speak and their voice to be carried up, echoed clearly by the dome’s shape throughout the entire mosque and even into the square beyond. Scientists have measured up to 49 echoes, but only about 12 are audible to the human ear. The Shah’s Mosque‘s dome, glazed in a glorious profusion of turquoise-shaded tiles, is the mark of a renaissance in Persian dome building. A distinct feature of Persian domes is that they are covered in painted tiles. Reflecting the sunlight, these domes glittered like precious gems and could be seen from miles away by travelers passing through Persia. The low humidity in the air in Persia made the colors so much more vivid and the contrasts between the different patterns so much stronger than what could be achieved in Europe, where the colors of tiles turned dull and lost their appearance.
As the sun casts its golden rays, the mosque’s richly decorated walls come alive with color, leading our imagination to a time long ago when the mosque’s courtyards were alive with worshipers. Within the symmetrical arched porches and the balanced iwans, we feel drowned by the endless waves of intricate arabesque in golden yellow and dark blue, which create a space prone to internal serenity. Although each of the mosque’s parts is a masterpiece, it is the unity of the overall design that leaves a lasting impression.
The splendid magic “oriental” sceneries covering the Shah’s Mosque’s walls, seam reminiscent of Omar Khayam’s work, and stand in stark contrast to the parched eternities of the desert stretching outside the city boundaries.
KAKH-E ALI QAPU – ALI QAPU PALACE
The dimming afternoon light was telling us it was time to move on to the last Safavid monument of Naqsh-e Jahan Square. Outside the grand mosque and a little further away, but still close, lies the imperial palace Kakh-e Ali Qapu (Ali Qapu Palace) with its impressive elevated terrace that dominates the square, inescapably hypnotizing all who come in sight of it. This must have been exactly the effect Shah Abbas the Great was aiming for when he commissioned the building of his imperial palace.
The name “Ali Qapu”, meaning “Exalted Porte”, was chosen by the Safavids to rival the Ottomans’ celebrated Bab-i Ali, or more widely known as the “Sublime Porte”. This six-story pavilion initially was built as a monumental gateway to the royal palaces that lay in the parklands beyond it, and through several building stages gradually developed into its existing shape.
Once through the palace gates, a dimly-lit staircase decked in colorful glazed tiles takes us to the upper stories and halls, eventually opening into what revealed itself to be the real highlight of the palace: the elevated terrace featuring 18 slender wooden columns that hold up the roof. From here Naqsh-e Jahan Square can be admired in all its splendor, the terrace offering a stunning perspective and impressive views of the adjacent Shah’s Mosque with its blue-tiled minarets and dome glittering in the golden blush of sunset, while the mountains beyond begin to turn red.
Passing through richly decorated halls with wall paintings displaying naturalistic floral, animal, and bird motifs, and with highly ornamented doors and windows, we continue up a narrow staircase leading to a unique chamber to this palace. The upper floor houses a Music Hall whose stucco ceiling and walls are stenciled with deep niches in the shapes of vases and rose-water shakers. This distinctive craftsmanship, one of the finest examples of Persian art, creates a mosaic of shadows, while also enhancing the acoustics of the room. It was here that the great shah used to entertain noble visitors, and foreign ambassadors. Walking through the many chambers of the imperial palace fills our imagination with images of a time long ago when only the royal family, high-ranking noblemen and ambassadors were allowed entrance into this wondrous palace that we are nowadays so blessed to explore freely, independent of our social status.
By the time we exited the palace, the cooling afternoon shade had completely taken over the central square. The fountains in the middle of the pool were alive with splashing water, refreshing the heavy air. As dusk cast highlights of pale gold onto the tall minarets and domes, the entire space of the square came to life with people strolling along its pathways, families enjoying pick-nick on the ground and children splashing and joyfully playing in the pool’s warm waters. What a cheerful and lively atmosphere!
Naqsh-e Jahan Square
The darkness of the coming night brought an end to our exploration of Esfahan and new meaning to the Persian saying “Esfahan – Es fa jahan” – you have seen Esfahan, you have seen half the world… Esfahan rightfully claiming a long-lasting place in our book of cherished memories…
The following day we would be heading deep into the desert lands of Iran, to find the last remaining traces of the ancient Zoroastrian religion…
Keep close 😉