“He who has seen Isfahan has seen half the world.” This saying can often be heard not only in the city itself, but all over Iran. No city in Iran, including Tehran and Mashhad with a population of millions, can compete with Isfahan in its beauty and the number of monuments of antiquity. It is truly the most beautiful city in the entire Middle Eastern world. You can reach Isfahan from Tehran by car, bus, train or local airlines.
This is a city with a history which goes back to prehistoric times, was exposed to invasions and destruction by Arabs, Mongols, troops of Alexander the Great and Afghans, each time it rose from the ruins and became more beautiful and richer than before. This city was the capital of the state in the XI and XVI – XVIII centuries, where the famous philosopher, scientist and healer Avicenna (Ibn Sina) lived and worked and today is respected by Iranians as the second capital of the state.
The sights of Isfahan
The main attraction of the city is the Imam Square including the Imam Mosque, the Mosque of Sheikh Lotfallah, Ali Kapu Palace and the Grand Bazaar. Connected to each other on the perimeter of the two-tiered galleries, these buildings form a rare beauty of the majestic architectural complex, causing surprise and delight to everyone who came here for the first time.
Green thuas and functioning fountains liven up the enclosed space of the square and give their shade and coolness to the visiting tourists and faithful Muslims who rest here after prayers. There are stalls in galleries all around the square, offering everything your heart desires and more, from fine Iranian perfumes and fragrances, to furniture and famous handmade carpets. A day would not be enough time to explore every stall or store.
To describe the architectural features and the beauty of the interior of each mosque and the palace of Ali Kapu (the former residence of the Shah) could take hours. Even a camera cannot capture everything that the eyes can see, so we can only say one thing: “It must be seen! Each building, built in XVI-XVII centuries, has its own feature, its own zest, which can safely be inscribed in the list of “wonders of the world”, to unravel and repeat that no one, even at the present level of science, could not.
Imam Mosque (before 1979 Shah Mosque) is the tallest building in Isfahan. Visitors are amazed by everything here: the size of the mosque, and the unique painting of the walls with oriental ornaments, drawings and mosaics. There is also an “acoustic miracle” of its own. Its essence is that if one stands on the black square directly under the dome and says something out loud, a loud echo will repeat everything that was said, increasing the volume, but only those standing in the square can hear it, while the rest cannot.
Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque is located on the eastern side of Imam Square. The mosque was built on the personal orders of Shah Abbas, in honor of his favorite father-in-law, Sheikh Lotfallah. There is an underground passage from the palace of Ali Kapu through which women from the shah’s harems used to come and pray in the mosque. That’s why they call it Lotfallah Mosque – the Women’s Mosque. Here you can see a miraculous phenomenon called the “tail of the peacock”. In the center of the dome of the mosque a small-sized peacock with a huge loose tail is drawn. Passing through the small hole in the dome, the sunlight spreading inside it, creates a very beautiful effect of overflowing colors of the peacock’s tail.
The famous palace of Shah Ali Kapu, built in the early 17th century, is located on the west of Imam Square. The palace has a large terrace, the roof of which rests on 18 carved wooden columns. Behind the external architectural simplicity hides one of the main attractions of Iran. There is no other place you could see such a rich decoration, carved walls and ceilings, lots of frescos with different images. And its magnificence increases from the lower floor to the upper one, which used to receive ambassadors and guests of the Shah. The unsolved mystery of the palace is the acoustic phenomenon, which is called the “ancient telephone”. If two people stand in two “magic” opposite corners of the hall facing the corner, one may even whisper to each other, while numerous other visitors in the space between the corners will not hear anything and will not disturb the conversation. And the other two corners do not have this effect.
You should not plan to visit the Imam Square on a day off – Friday or a religious holiday. On such days, many local Muslims in buses, cars and on foot rush there for the prayer service, creating traffic jams on the roads, occupying almost the entire space of the square.
Imam Square is a favorite resting place for locals, who come here on weekends with their families, and not just for prayers. Although the Iranians are friendly to tourists, but with so many people you cannot easily see all the sights, choose the right angle and take good pictures.
Undoubtedly, Imam Square is the main attraction of Isfahan, but this is only the beginning of a fascinating excursion into the world of history, beauty and wonders that are concentrated in large numbers in this amazing city.
The Friday Atig Mosque (Jami – Friday), is located in the center of the city, just north of Imam Square. The mosque can accommodate up to several thousand worshippers during collective prayer. It is the largest mosque in the city and one of the oldest in Iran. And for its beauty Jami surpasses all the mosques in the city. The mosque has four arched vaulted entrances oriented along the sides of the world. The most beautiful one is the southern aivan that has two minarets. Your guide will tell you the history of the construction of this mosque, which dates back to the 8th century, and the innovations introduced by creators and architects of subsequent centuries, which made it a model for the builders not only Muslim but also Christian temples.
In addition to Islamic mosques, there are several Christian temples in the city. This is the Vank Cathedral, the most famous of them, the main temple of the Apostolic Church in the country. Although the inner courtyard of the temple is simple and unassuming and cannot compete in size with the Atig Mosque and the mosques of Imam Square, here you can always find many tourists attracted by the rich decoration and beauty of its interior. The cathedral was built in 1664 in the Armenian quarter of Isfahan – New Julfa. The walls and dome of the cathedral are decorated with frescoes on Biblical themes, gilded carvings and ceramics. When you visit the Vancouver Cathedral, you can take pictures of everything and everywhere, but without using a flashlight.
In the courtyard of the cathedral there is a monument to Khachatur Kesaratsi, the Armenian archbishop-principal printer, who founded the first printing house and printed the first book in Iran on a machine of his own design in 1638 in the Armenian language. The first book in Farsi was printed only 192 years later. This printing press and some of the first books are preserved in the museum of Armenian art located in the same courtyard of the temple. However, after the splendor seen in the cathedral itself, the exhibits of the museum do not make much impression. Moreover, almost all worthy samples and pictures of great people are behind glass, which makes it impossible to take good pictures.
The Ateshgah (House of Fire) temple of fire-worshippers – Zoroastrians is another temple worth mentioning. The remains of the temple are located on the high hill of the same name ten kilometers west of the center of Isfahan. The temple was built during pre-Islamic Persia in the 3rd-7th centuries. You won’t see much beauty in this unpretentious construction, but this place is symbolic and from the height of the hill you can see the city well. It is certainly possible to go there, but only if all the attractions of Isfahan have been seen already and you have strong legs. If you do go, don’t forget to take water with you. After a steep ascent it will come in handy.
If you want to look at the city from above, to rest and take good pictures, you should climb the mountain Sofeh. Here you will get a real pleasure. This is one of the favorite vacation spots for residents of the city. You can take the funicular almost two-thirds of the height, make the ascent along the shady groomed paths, sit in a cozy restaurant before the final stage. Everything here breathes calm coolness and purity, disposes to unhurried reflection.
The swaying minarets of the Manar jonban are one of the strangest sights in Isfahan, which can also be classified as one of the “wonders of the world” and which invariably attracts a large number of tourists. And what is amazing is that this amazing structure was built over the tomb of the famous Sufi mystic Amu Abdullah. In the beginning, has been constructed mausoleum-mosque (in 1316), the square shape, height of 12 meters, and the 5-meter minarets were completed in XVI – XVII centuries, during the reign of Shah Abbas the Great. In a cozy courtyard constantly crowds of tourists, the number of which increases as the time of the demonstration of a unique phenomenon approaches. Several times a day (after 60 minutes), a stout man, a mausoleum attendant, climbs into one of the minarets and, taking hold of a special lever, begins to swing the minaret in which he is. As the angle of sway of the first minaret increases, the second minaret gradually begins to sway in rhythm with the first. At first its swaying is imperceptible, then it is possible to identify it by the ringing of bells, fixed on horizontal wooden bars, located under the upper tower, but in a few minutes the amplitude of the swaying of both minarets is almost equal, reaching the size of 25-30 centimeters, well noticeable to the eye.
By the way, it is not so surprising the effect of the resonance of both minarets, on this account it is possible to assume a lot of different technical tricks hidden in the masonry of the construction. The real miracle is that the brickwork, the minarets, not only does not fall apart, but does not have even small cracks, despite the repeated forced swaying of the minarets for five centuries. This is what modern builders need to learn from the ancient masters!
Chehel Sotun Palace is the former residence of the Shah, also known as the Palace of Forty Columns. The palace is located in the middle of a huge, magnificent garden planted in the 16th century. The palace itself was built by Shah Abbas II in 1647 for recreation and reception of distinguished guests. Naturally, everything was built with great imagination, fine taste and splendor, with the purpose to impress the diplomats and ambassadors of foreign countries. To give the palace an exquisite and rich appearance, several kilograms of real gold were used in the painting. The painting of the palace is striking with the depth of colors and their saturation. The ceiling of the palace is decorated with mirrors in the form of leaves, flowers and stars. In front of the palace is a large man-made pond, in which are reflected 20 cedar columns that support the gallery and the arch of the palace, as if doubling in number. Hence the name “Palace of Forty Columns. It is famous for its frescoes, paintings and the surrounding garden. The palace and its garden are a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.
What else can I see in Isfahan?
As you enter Isfahan, you feel as if you have entered a wonderful green oasis. This feeling is particularly acute after the bleak, monotonous landscapes, almost devoid of vegetation, seen on both sides of the highway leading from Tehran to Isfahan. However, this oasis is man-made and has continued to amaze visitors for centuries, thanks to the astounding diligence of Iranians, the genius of their architects, and a very careful attitude toward every tree, every shrub and every blade of grass. The parks of the city are kept exceptionally clean. Even a small crack or a scratch on the bark of a tree is covered with special paint. For a broken branch you can pay a decent fine. Trees and bushes are watered daily, before sunrise, so that the moisture does not evaporate.
After the bombing of Iraq by the Western Coalition in 1991, there was a disturbance of the top dense layers of soil, which affected the purity of the atmosphere not only in Iraq itself, but also in neighboring countries. After windy weather in Isfahan, streets are cleaned and crowns of trees and bushes are cleaned from dust by special vacuum machines. Iranians are very careful about water and cannot afford to spend a lot of it to wash away the dust, and the rains here are very rare.
The small river Zayende flows through the city, feeding its parks and gardens with its waters. The river banks are connected by six modern and five ancient bridges, which are of historical value and continue to serve the people and delight the eye with their beauty and uniqueness.
Each of the old bridges was built at different times by different architects, but all of them are both bridges and dams (except for the bridge of Shahristan), which allows to keep the water level in the city area, when its level in the river is low, and it happens most of the year. All the ancient bridges are purely pedestrian and closed to the passage of cars.
Shahristan Bridge, the oldest of them, is located five kilometers downstream from the city center. It is said to be one of the oldest bridges in Iran, its foundations were laid in III – V centuries, and the upper spans were rebuilt in XI – XII centuries.
Haju Bridge is the most beautiful and majestic of all the bridges. It is located in the center of the city, has two levels, consists of 24 arches, with a length of 133 meters and a width of 12 meters. The bridge was built in 1650 by order of Shah Abbas the Second, and like many other constructions built during his reign, became a pearl making Isfahan, as well as Iran, famous. In the middle part of the bridge there is an octagonal pavilion, decorated with tiles and ceramics, which was intended for the rest of the Shah and his entourage. On the edges of the bridge are two pavilions, where you can eat, eat delicious ice cream or go down the steps from the upper to the lower level. Along the bridge are two galleries, each of the spans of which is isolated from the other, forming a kind of room overlooking the river and its banks, which is so enjoyed by young couples and older people who crave solitude and quiet contemplation.
The bridge of thirty-three arches C-o-Se Paul – the second famous bridge, located in the city center, is the longest (298 m) and in beauty is slightly inferior to the Hajj Bridge. The bridge is two-tiered, built in 1602, is 298 meters long and 13.5 meters wide. Like Haju Bridge, C-o-Se Paul has two longitudinal galleries with separate rooms, but more modest in its decoration and paintings.
The Shahristan, Paul-e-Jui, and Marnan bridges are single-level, simpler, and not particularly impressive, especially if you have already been to the C-o-Se Paul and Haju bridges.
All the bridges and shores in their area are always filled with holidaymakers. The banks, decorated with flower beds and soft grass, pleasing to the eye, emphasizing the beauty of the bridges, disposing to an unhurried conversation with family or friends, bringing peace of mind and peace of mind. Especially crowded here in the evening. Lighting bridges performed so skillfully that in the dark, the bridges look even more beautiful than during the day and people flock to them as moths to the light.
If you are traveling with children, be sure to visit the bird park, where you can admire more than 130 species of different representatives of the bird family, from pink flamingos and peacocks to the formidable predators of the Persian mountains.
The main feature of the park is that both visitors and birds are in one huge enclosed space, created by a grid stretched on poles, which gives a sense of accessibility and complete immersion in their environment. The exception is the large raptors housed in spacious cages, and it’s easy to see why.
The Garden of Flowers is located on the Zayende River embankment, a mile and a half east of the Haju Bridge. It is a very beautifully decorated park, with ponds, fountains, and flower beds, where you can have a nice time and have a good rest.
The ancient pigeon-houses are brick cylindrical structures, which are 15-17 meters high and 10 to 20 meters in diameter, differing in appearance, but having similar cellular walls, resembling a beehive honeycomb. They housed pigeons, the number of which reached up to 15,000. The slope of the walls allowed pigeon droppings to fall freely and accumulate below, where it was convenient to collect them. Pigeon houses were built on the outskirts of Isfahan in the XIII-XVII centuries to address the issue of increasing land productivity. Pigeon manure was used as fertilizer for growing melons, watermelons and other crops. It is said that about 3,000 such towers were built, but with the advent of artificial fertilizers, the need for pigeon manure gradually disappeared, and the towers began to fall into disrepair and decay. Today, some 300 such towers remain, most of them unused for their intended purpose and in an unsightly state. At a distance of ten kilometers from Isfahan is the village of Gawart, where one can see the well-preserved pigeon-houses.