Cultural Travel, Iran, Isfahan, UNESCO WHS

Isfahan, Iran’s top tourist attraction

After two days in Shiraz, our next destination was Isfahan, Iran’s third largest city, but Iran’s top destination for tourists.

Sara and her driver drove us to the Shiraz bus station for our 6-hour long distance bus ride to Isfahan.  We expected Sara to drop us off and we would somehow fumble our way to the correct bus.  But Sara insisted on staying with us even though the bus was 30 minutes late.   She saw us into our assigned bus seat before bidding farewell.

Comfortable long distance bus

Ample leg room, entertainment, wi-fi, snacks

We were also pleasantly surprised by the overall comfort of the bus.  There was good quality free wi-fi, individual entertainment unit, ample leg room, and seats that recline fully.  There was an attendant that handed out snacks and generally assisted passengers.

We arrived in Isfahan at 3:30 pm and met Amir, our guide and driver for our time in Isfafan.  On the way to our traditional hotel, Amir gave us a brief introduction and orientation to Isfahan.

Isfahan is in central Iran, south of Tehran, and is the capital of the Esfahan province.  Four hundred years ago, Isfahan was larger than London and more cosmopolitan than Paris.

Isfahan was once one of the largest and most important cities in Central Asia, positioned as it is on the crossroads of the main north-south and east-west trade routes that cross Central Asia. The city was the splendid capital of the Seljuq and Safavid dynasties, and is renowned for its beauty, which has given rise to the Iranian saying that “Isfahan is half the world”.

Sculpture by the Zayanderud river.

Today, Isfahan produces fine carpets, textiles, steel, handicrafts, and traditional food including sweets.  Isfahan is also attracting international investment, especially in the Isfahan City Center which is the largest shopping mall in Iran and the fifth largest in the world. The city has an international airport and a metro line.

We drove by a lovely flowing river on the way to the hotel.  Amir explained that it is the Zayanderud river.  As the river is dry except for 2 months of the year, we are fortunate to be here to enjoy walks along the river containing water.

Zayanderud river walking path and green space.

Both sides of the river have pathways and green space, without obstructions, for pedestrians to enjoy.

On this first evening, after we settled into our hotel, we took Amir’s advice and walked from our hotel to Jolfa, the Armenian Quarters, for our dinner.  On our way to the Armenian Quarters, we detoured to the river walking area for some fresh air.  We saw families and couples out enjoying time together along this peaceful area.

Family enjoying the green space by the river.

New Julfa (literally Jolfa quarter of Isfahan) is the Armenian quarter of Isfahan.  Established by Armenians from Julfa, Nakhichevan in the early 17th century, it is still one of the oldest and largest Armenian quarters in the world. New Julfa was established in 1606 as an Armenian quarter by edict of Shah Abbas I, the influential shah from the Safavid dynasty. Over 150,000 Armenians were moved there from Julfa in Nakhichevan.

Julfa square

All history accounts agree that, as the residents of Julfa were famous for their silk trade, Shah Abbas treated the population well and hoped that their resettlement in Isfahan would be beneficial to Persia. New Julfa is still an Armenian-populated area with an Armenian school and sixteen churches, including Surp Amenaprgitch Vank, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and undoubtedly one of the most beautiful churches in Iran.

Vank Church

Armenians in New Julfa observe Iranian law with regard to clothing, but otherwise retain a distinct Armenian language, identity cuisine, and culture. The policy of the Safavids was very tolerant towards the Armenians as compared to other minorities, such as the Iranian Georgians and Circassians.

A street near Julfa square

As of today it is still one of the largest ethnic Armenian quarters in the world.

Dinner at one of many western food restaurant in Julfa

Popular with young people in Isfahan, it is experiencing considerable growth compared to other districts. The area was really vibrant with cars, shoppers, young people having ice creams and other sweets as it was Thursday evening (a weekend evening).  After locating the church and people watched a bit, we had dinner at a western style restaurant for a change from Iranian traditional food.

Early next morning, we arrived at Naghsh-e-Jahan square, a UNESCO World Heritage site, constructed between 1598 and 1629.  It is enormous at 160 metres wide by 560 metres long, is encircled by buildings from the Safavid era.

Naghsh-e-Jahan square

We started with the Imam Mosque on the south side.  The blue-tiled mosaic designs and stunningly attractive and perfectly proportioned architecture of the Safavid era is a feast for the eyes.  Construction of this masterpiece started in 1611 and terminated in 1629, the last year of Shah Abbas’s reign, when its high dome was finished. Its portal was constructed to face the square, but the mosque’s orientation is toward Mecca and the square is connected to the inner courtyard through a short corridor at 45 degrees, with a pool for ritual ceremonies of absolution and four iwans.

Imam Mosque entrance

Intricate Blue tiled mosaic design

One of the four iwans

It is impossible to describe this majestic creation.

As we exited Imam Mosque, the square was busier with tourists.  There were now horses with carriages taking tourist for rides around the square, to imitate the time of the Safavid era when the king or other important nobles would be seen in their carriages.  Some of the shops around the monuments were starting to open but as this was Friday, most were closed.

Carriage rides around the square

Water is one of the essential elements in Islamic Culture

Next we visited the Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque, on the east side of the Naqshe Jahan Square.  This mosque, unlike Imam Mosque which was built for the public, was built for the private life of the royal court.  It is much smaller in size with no minarets.  The exterior of its single 13 m in diameter dome is richly ornamented with exquisitely made and beautiful tiles.

Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque, the private mosque

Although, in comparison with Imam Mosque, Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque is very simple in design, it is actually quite complex.  When standing under the dome of interlacing golds and blues, your eyes will just keep darting in all directions to try and capture every piece of beauty. When the light hits inside and you are standing before the Mihrab (which indicates the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca), it is amazing how the colors seem to glow inside. When the sun are in the right direction the shine on the ceiling looks like a peacock.

Ceiling of mosque, sunshine illuminating a peacock

We left this amazing place and walked over to the Ali Qapu Palace. Built at the very end of the 16th century as a residence for Shah Abbas I, this six-storey palace also served as a gateway to the royal palaces that lay in the parklands beyond.  Successive Safavid rulers have added to the palace, and restored the place after Afghans invasion.

Ali Qapu Palace

Shah Abbas II added the third floor to the hall. 18 columns are decorated with mirrors and the ceiling is covered with great paintings. But we found the music room and the terrace overlooking the square to be the most impressive part of the palace.

Ali Qapu Palace music room

We had expressed interest in learning more about Saffron so Amir introduced us to a shop where we sampled some saffron infused tea, learned about the health properties of Saffron.  Iran currently produces 80% of the world’s saffron.

Saffron shop

At lunch time we sampled the most famous unique specialty food in Isfahan, Beryani, cooked and sold in special unique restaurants.  The food has a history going back 400 years, has become known around the world and has many fans among Iranians.

The ingredients are lamb meat, tail fat, sheep lungs, onions, cinnamon, saffron, walnut, pistachio, and almond.  It is served like a burger patty on Iranian bread.  You eat it by tearing pieces of bread, place some burger meat on it, and eat it with some basil, parley and mint leaves.

We also tried the popular drink, Doogh, a cold savory yogurt-based drink mixed with mint and salt.

Beryani, an Isfahan specialty, for lunch

After the heavy lunch, it was time to walk off the food at the 132 meter long, 20 meter wide, Khaju Bridge.  This bridge has 23 arches, 26 and 21 smaller and large inlets.

Khaju Bridge

The bridge is supposed to connect areas of Isfahan to Shiraz.  In the 17th century, the upper level of bridge was used for horse-carts and pedestrians. The Octagonal Pavilions, at centre, is used for art gallery and tea house. While most of the lower level is also used for pedestrians, it was a shady place to people to rest, socialize, and play music. In 2008, Khaju Bridge made the list of as one of the most amazing bridges of world.

Weekend day so many people enjoying Khaju bridge

As this was a non-working day, and the river had water, there were many people out enjoying the sunshine, the bridge and the river.  There were even people singing to the public on the bridge.

Khaju bridge has always been a social gathering place

After so many sights, there was one more place to see, the Chehel Sotun, or the palace of forty columns.  The Palace is in a Persian garden, behind a long pool.  The palace has 20 columns which reflects onto the long pool, adding up to the forty columns for its name.

Chehel Sotun, the palace of forty columns

Ceiling of the palace

Inside the palace are many vivid painting with their own stories.  The ceilings of the palace were also well preserved and attractive.

Vivid painting with stories

When we emerged from the palace, it started to rain.  Although rain does not last too long in Isfahan, it was a signal to us to end our touring day in Isfahan.



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