What to see in Isfahan
10 and 11 November 2018
Isfahan, also called Esfahan, is one of the most beautiful cities in Middle East and is the ideal place to appreciate Islamic and Persian art and architecture, among traditional palaces and numerous mosques dating back to different ages.
ESFAHAN: THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO THE THINGS NOT TO BE MISSED
If you are planning a trip to Iran, Isfahan is a city that shouldn't be missed in your itinerary. Isfahan has a vary long history, well preserved in its mosques and old palaces, where Islamic and Persian architects have given way to all their artistic talent and where visitors breathe the air of ancient civilizations with rich traditions at every corner.
Things not to be missed in Isfahan:
- Naqsh-e Jahan Square - Isfahan's main square is one of the largest and oldest squares in the world and is surrounded by mosques, traditional buildings and numerous local handicraft shops.
- Ali Qapu Palace - dating back to the seventeenth century, the Ali Qapu Palace was used by the Shah of Persia and one of the most notable features are the rooms with precious frescoes very well preserved.
- Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque - relatively small and without the characteristic courtyard, this mosque will fascinate visitors for the decorations obtained by millions of colored tiles, where the architects gave their best.
- Shah Mosque - considered the main mosque of Isfahan, this large structure with a wide courtyard and 4 iwan, has elaborate decorations obtained with mosaics of colored tiles as well as various stunning curiosities.
- Isfahan Grand Bazaar - one of the largest covered markets in the Middle East, where thousands of shops and small handicraft businesses welcome customers in a chaotic maze of alleyways.
- Chehel Sotoun Palace - a beautiful traditional Persian palace, surrounded by pools and lush gardens, decorated by beautiful paintings that illustrate the most important chapters in the history of this region.
- Jameh Mosque of Isfahan - structure of ancient origins where the oldest buildings date back to over a millennium. Enriched and modified over the centuries by various architects, Isfahan Jameh Mosque shows an interesting mix of various styles.
- Vank Cathedral and Museum - in the Armenian district of Isfahan we find the Vank cathedral and the Vank museum, sites preserving paintings and historical artifacts of inestimable value.
- Isfahan pigeon towers - important to produce guano (a fertilizer) and to transport the mail, the pigeons were hosted inside large towers where the birds could find shelter and protection from predators.
- Isfahan bridges - some historical bridges built over the river that crosses the city, tell interesting stories and are the ideal place for pleasant walks.
- Mt. Sofeh - surrounded by a vast park, this is a destination also for local people during free time. The area at the foot of Mount Sofeh offers lot of green and beautiful panoramic views of the whole city. Who has more time available and sufficient energy, can walk a trail that leads to the top of the mountain, for even more beautiful views.
- Isfahan city center - with endless commercial activities, traditional restaurants and mosques among maze of narrow alleys, a walk in Isfahan city center is always a pleasant way to spend some time.
How long stay in Isfahan? For a complete visit of the main tourist attractions in Isfahan, we recommend a stay of 2 days and 3 nights. We suggest to choose a traditional hotel in the city center close to Naqsh-e Jahan Square, from where you can walk to lot of mosques, historic buildings and museums. The most distant attractions, such as the old bridges, can be reached by taxi or by car if you have chosen a travel package with a local guide (recommended).
But now it's time to travel among the beauties of Isfahan, at least virtually, with the many photos we were able to take during our visit to the city.
Our tour in Isfahan starts from the central Naqsh-e Jahan Square
, also called Meidan-e Shah Square
or, more recently, Meidan-e Emam Square
. This square has a significant historical importance for Isfahan and from here people can access mosques, old palaces, endless shops and the immense Grand Bazaar. It was built between the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the next, while in 1979 it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The square is one of the largest in the world and is 160 meters wide by 560 meters in length, with a total area of almost 90,000 square meters. The square is also depicted on the Iranian 20,000 Rial banknote.
On the western side of Naqsh-e Jahan Square there is Ali Qapu Palace
, a historic 17th-century palace used by the Shah of Persia (starting from Abbas I of Persia) for meetings with representatives of other countries and to receive important people.
The visit to the Ali Qapu
Palace starts from the royal balcony, covered by a wonderful roof supported by 18 columns, each consisting of a single piece of wood. The detailed and elegant pattern that can be observed under the ceiling, was obtained by inlaying woods from different trees and therefore of different colors, like a giant mosaic.
The Ali Qapu Palace is also known for its elegant frescoes
that cover ceilings and walls of the rooms used to receive guests. These frescoes are largely original and are in excellent condition. Observing them closely we can notice that it is not just a simple fresco intended as color on the wall, but the subjects are slightly raised.
On the fifth floor of the Ali Qapu Palace we find The Music Hall
, with its walls and ceilings designed to improve the acoustics and to soundproof the environment. The Music Hall is accessible through a vertiginous spiral staircase.
On the eastern side of the most important square of Isfahan, there is the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque
, considered a true architectural masterpiece, and soon we will see why. This mosque dates back to the early seventeenth century and its construction took just over 15 years.
One of the problems that the architect Mohammad-Reza Isfahani
had to face, was the direction of the entrance to the mosque compared to that of Mecca, a corner that could not match because of the orientation of Naqsh-e Jahan Square based instead on the 4 cardinal points. The issue was solved by creating an angled entrance with a corridor that bends about 45 degrees immediately after the door, thus restoring the correct orientation of the structure to match that of Mecca.
Compared to the other mosques we visited in Isfahan, the mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah
does not have an inner courtyard with the various iwan, but the only sanctuary consists of a large room covered by a magnificent dome. The light enters through numerous windows along the perimeter of the dome and a large skylight.
The great peculiarity of the dome in Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, is the peacock tail
in the center of the structure, visible from an area close to the entrance door but invisible from the center of the room. The peacock's tail is formed by the rays of the sun coming from a small hole in the dome and reflected by the tiles that cover the ceiling. It resembles a three-dimensional hologram, skilfully obtained by the architect over three centuries ago.
The walls of the central hall has a series of arches that symbolize the spiral of life
, starting from when we are born, continuing upwards as we grow and mature, until we reach the highest point. Then everything degenerates, going down at the same speed.
The decorations are made with millions of colored tiles and ceramic inlays, where we can see lot of calligraphic inscriptions
surrounding arches and main structures.
On the southern side of Isfahan main square, the great Imam Mosque
is found. The Imam Mosque is also known as Masjed-e Jadid-e Abbasi
(New Abbasi Mosque), Royal Mosque
, or Shah Mosque
and is the most important mosque of Isfahan. The complex of buildings date back to the 17th-century and has been included in the list of World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The outer portal of the mosque is 30 meters high and has two minarets of 42 meters, all decorated with thousands and thousands of ceramic tiles making up a huge mosaic displaying also lot of calligraphic inscriptions.
Unlike the Mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah previously visited, the main portal of Imam Mosque
leads to the classic courtyard, which is surrounded by 4 iwans, one for each side (iwan
generic term used in Islamic architecture to indicate a closed and covered building positioned at the end of a larger structure). In the middle of the courtyard there is an ablution pool.
From the southernmost iwan, visitors can access the main sanctuary covered by a large dome showing a peacock tail (optical effect produced by sunlight coming in through a small hole in the ceiling and reflecting on the tiles). This sanctuary is known for the incredible acoustic effect
that is achieved by speaking exactly at the center of the structure (the exact point where to stand is indicated by a particular tile on the floor). The audio effect consists in a strong amplification of the voice and an echo, with tourists having fun experimenting everything.
The absolutely marvelous decorations
of the Imam Mosque in Isfahan, obtained with millions of ceramic tiles making up immense mosaics on walls, ceilings and domes. In the last photo, a detail of a dome, we can observe a traditional window
made up of a single stone slab carved to create holes for light and air, while the elaborate white lines are calligraphic inscriptions
Instead, the northern side of Naqsh-e Jahan Square is one of the many accesses to the immense Isfahan Grand Bazaar
, a dense maze of alleyways with or without ceiling, housing thousands of shops and small handicraft businesses, where people can buy everything. The oldest parts of the Grand Bazaar of Esfahan date back to the 11th century, but sections were continuously added as the city expanded. Sometimes the covered alleys open into picturesque courtyards where there are offices or businesses that require more silence and discretion, such as trading gold and jewelry.
Leaving Naqsh-e Jahan Square and all its attractions, the tour to Esfahan continues by visiting the ancient palace of Chehel Sotoun, a Persian pavilion surrounded by a lush garden and large swimming pools. The building dates back to the early 17th century, but was rebuilt a few years later, as it was destroyed by fire.
The entrance to the pavilion and the ceiling under the large portico, has decorations made with mirrors, typical of traditional Persian architecture, while the interior rooms are decorated with frescoes that illustrate the most important chapters in the history of this region and beyond.
The Jameh Mosque
of Isfahan is an ancient mosque whose construction began in the 11th century, to be later expanded in various stages during the following centuries. The iwans around the large courtyard have different styles and different use of blue and yellow, just because they were not designed by the same architect. The southern iwan is the largest and most important and has two minarets (this structure should have been added to the rest of the mosque around the 15th century).
But the real surprise of the Jameh Mosque is this very ancient sanctuary, built towards the end of the 11th century and known as Nezam at Molk dome
. The size of the room is just under 15 meters per side, while the height is almost 27 meters. Absolutely admirable is the construction work by millions of bricks, especially for what concerns the dome: apparently fragile and unstable, has been here for a millennium.
Another treasure of the Jameh Mosque is the Uljetu mihrab
, dating back to year 1310. The structure, made of stucco, has incredible details of three-dimensional calligraphic inscriptions intertwined with more or less stylized floral figures. In Islamic architecture, a mihrab
is the niche that, in a mosque, indicates the direction of Mecca.
The Jameh Mosque has also an underground room known as the Winter Hall
(Beit al-Shata) so called because used to pray during the cold season, when the other rooms would be uncomfortable. The structure dates back to the 15th century and is illuminated by skylights that bring the light from the room on the top, through semi transparent alabaster slabs.
The city center of Isfahan is a continuous succession of mosques
: in addition to the most important ones already visited, such as the Jameh Mosque, the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque and the Shah Mosque, there are many more smaller structures among the narrow streets of the city.
An ancient mosque
with a facade covered by bricks, in the city center of Isfahan.
Our tour in Esfahan continues by visiting the 17th-century Armenian quarter
called New Julfa
, which hosts a large community of Armenians who are obliged to respect the Iranian laws concerning clothing, but free to practice their own religion, to follow their traditions and to speak their language. The Armenian culture and community is in fact protected by the Iranian government.
The excursion to the Armenian community of Isfahan starts at the Vank Cathedral
, also known as Holy Savior Cathedral
or as Church of the Saintly Sisters
. The building dates back to the beginning of the 17th-century and has a rather singular architecture combining together symbols and styles of both Islamic and Christian religions. For example, it is not difficult to spot crosses appearing on the facade of an iwan or on top of a dome.
The interior of the Vank Cathedral is completely covered with frescoes in all its parts, depicting mainly the most important events in the life of Jesus and the persecution of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire.
In the second picture of this sequence we can observe the ascension from hell to heaven, while other frescoes depict the creation of Adam and Eve, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion and other events.
More photos illustrating the precious frescoes
in Vank Cathedral of Isfahan, with a detail on the beautiful blue dome decorated in gold, representing the creation of the world.
The Vank museum
, near the cathedral, house more than 700 very rare books written in Armenian and other European languages of the Middle Ages. Some of them date back to the 12th century and are in surprising excellent state of conservation. The Vank museum also houses an invaluable collection of ancient finds related to the culture of Armenians and their lives, including rare coins dating back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries b.C.
Isfahan is also known for its old pigeon towers
, structures not always included in the various tourist itineraries, but very interesting. In the past the pigeons were very important for Isfahan, as the guano was used as fertilizer, while the birds were used to send the mail. To attract the pigeons, facilitate their reproduction and to protect them from predators, these huge pigeon towers were built. The inside walls were completely covered by niches which were used as nest by the birds. Each pigeon tower
could accommodate thousands of birds.
Another photo of the interior of a pigeon tower in Isfahan, with numerous niches where pigeons nested. The best place to observe the pigeon towers in Isfahan is along the Zayandeh River south of the Temple of Fire.
Other popular destinations in Isfahan are the old bridges
. Currently, since the water is massively used for irrigation, the river bed is dry for most of the year, but once these structures were reflected in the water in all their splendor. One of the most beautiful old bridge in Isfahan is Khayu bridge
, used in the past also by the royal family as a place of leisure and rest, who had at their disposal a luxury hall with a decorated roof, along the central part of the bridge.
A curiosity observed on the walls of the historical bridges, are the bricks signed by those who have cut and placed them: at the end of the day they were counted and the worker was paid according to the labor done.
Another old bridge with a beautiful architecture is Si-o-se Pol
, once used mainly by ordinary citizens and not by the royal family.
Our tour in Isfahan ends with a visit to a large green area just outside the city, often frequented by local people during their free time.
This vast green area is located at the foot of Mount Sofeh, where people can get to the summit by a funicular or by a few hours trekking. In the park there is also a mosque built according to the most modern architecture.
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