Isfahan, the third biggest city in Iran, has the sense of magnificence and drama travelers love.
For this, it can thank Shah Abbas, the greatest ruler during the Safavid dynasty that lasted from 1502 to 1736. Put on the throne as a 16-year-old puppet shah in 1587, he seized power, reformed the army and went to war with the Ottomans and Uzbeks to win back Iran’s lost provinces. By 1598, he was in a position to transfer the capital from Qazvin to the more central Isfahan and build a city to match his massive ambition.
My journey of discovery starts in the 3km maze of alleys that is the Qaisariyeh Bazaar, dark and silent on a Friday morning. After a dozen or so wrong turnings, I emerge onto the massive expanse of Naghsh-e Jahan, one of the largest squares in the world. Opposite me, the exquisite blue and turquoise dome of the Iman Mosque, the masterpiece in Abbas’s grand design, glitters in wintry sunshine. It is almost as familiar as the Acropolis from endless travel posters and photographs, yet the dazzling reality brings me to a gobsmacked halt.
I join the stream of pedestrians approaching the massive entrance, only to find that it is closed to infidels during Friday prayer. Instead, I cross another of Abbas’s creations, the imposing two-tier Bridge of 33 Arches over the Zayandeh River. From a vantage point in the 16th-century teahouse at one end, I watch family groups picnicking on the riverbank and couples, greatly daring, kissing in the brown grass. A prisoner in leg shackles passing by under armed escort does not merit a second glance.
In the evening, I climb onto a high-carpeted double bed in the Western Banqueting Hall, a restaurant on the main square that conjures up nomads eating sheep’s eyes in the desert. Sitting cross-legged on cushions is creaky, but I do not let that stand in the way of feasting on mutton biryani and aubergine stew, with bastani, Iranian ice cream flavored with saffron, pistachio and rosewater, for dessert.
Afterwards, rows of bearded men jabbering cheerfully over qaylan (shisha pipes) in a torpedo-shaped bar in a narrow alley view the large foreigner imperfectly concealed under a slipping veil with understandable doubt. The noise and the concentration suggest a den of iniquity – or at least opium. Wrong. The tobacco is peach or orange, the pale golden liquid is tea and the doors slam shut at 10pm sharp. Outside Tehran, that counts as quality party time, but my hotel is a refuge for Scrabble under the stars and an early night.
You can now earn a commission on every travel booking. Sign up or learn more now.