Esfahān nesf-e jahān ast – Esfahan is half the world

24th-27th of Khordad 1390/June 14th-17th, 2011

First and foremost to the the handful of people (my family) who like to read this blog I apologize for being so late in posting. I’ve definitely fallen far behind in my posts. In my defense our internet wasn’t working for a bit and then I went on yet another trip. But here it is, our trip to Esfahan.

Ah Esfahan. There is a saying in Farsi which states “Esfahan is half the world.” Do I feel like I’ve seen half the world having been there? Sadly, no. But I will say that Esfahan is truly a magical, magical place that really transports you into another world. So Esfahan for me is not half the world, but rather another world all together.

Cue Music

I like to say that Esfahan is the Disney version of the Middle East. Pretty palaces and gardens, carriage rides, and men with funny mustaches. The image of flying carpets would not seem out of place here . What’s funny is out of curiosity I looked on wikipedia to see where Disney based its timeless film Aladdin on. Turns out one of the layout supervisors for Disney’s Aladdin, Rasoul Azadani, used photos of his hometown of Esfahan as inspiration for the artwork in the movie. I guess I have a good instinct when it comes to how Disney works. 😉

Esfahan has a remarkable presence. It has history, charm, culture and tradition. It is, without question, one of my favorite places in Iran so far. Esfahan is one of the Islamic world’s greatest cultural gems. Home to art, poetry, music, Islamic schools and beautiful Iranian and Islamic architecture, Esfahan is a magnificent place. In the battle between Esfahan and Istanbul for the title of cultural gem of Islam, the winner in my book is Esfahan. In all fairness, I’ve never been to Istanbul, but Esfahan has an allure that goes well beyond its architecture, which is some of the most enchanting I’ve seen.

Esfahan’s “Golden Age” took place in the 16th century under Shah Abbas the Great, who unified Persia. Shah Abbas made Esfahan his capital and its parks, libraries, palaces and mosques amazed Europeans at the time. According to my travel book, “Due to the presence at the Safavid court of a large number of foreigners – Indians, French, English and Dutch merchants from the East India Companies, European artists and diplomats hoping to secure alliances against the common Ottoman enemy – Esfahan was opened up to the outside world, and became one of the most glorious cities of its time” (301, Iran: Persia, Ancient and Modern).

Our trip to Esfahan began with business class tickets from Mashhad to Esfahan. Although it was a short flight, it was well worth the extra $30, especially considering I never, ever fly business in the States. Once I exchanged my back of the plane tickets with someone in First Class who wanted to sit next to his wife and baby (which is why when you’re flying alone you always agree to switch seats with someone. You’ll never know what you’ll get!) As I was beginning to adjust to life in First Class with game controllers, privacy curtain and seats that lie entirely flat like a bed, it was ripped straight from under me as the attendant at the gate was made aware that the person who was upgraded to First Class had decided not to use his seat. I then had to exchange my seat for someone else who was upgraded. What a cruel, cruel memory. As you can imagine, flying Business Class was somewhat exciting for me, but even more incredible for Sadra, who if you haven’t seen him is 6’7″. He was ecstatic over the legroom he was allotted. We enjoyed our hot towels and leg room and soon arrived in Esfahan.

Look at all that leg room!

So full of bliss is Sadra he can hardly contain it.

In Esfahan, we stayed at a family friend’s extra apartment. The family was so nice and the perfect hosts. They stocked the fridge full of fruit for our stay and even brought us bread, cheese, jam, milk and juice in the morning for breakfast. Persians are known for their hospitality, especially towards guests at their home. However this family really went above and beyond. Coincidentally, the family also had a cousin who was a taxi driver and would come pick us up wherever we were at whatever time. A nice luxury for sure. What made it better was that our taxi driver was super nice and he had an Esfahani accent to complete the package.

At the end of our trip we took some photos with the family and of course we had to have a picture with our own personal taxi driver. There was an element about him that reminded me of my brother-in-law Nate. Haha

So now that you know how we got around I suppose you’d like to know what we got around to seeing.

Our time in Esfahan was short, but we did manage to see a lot of places. We started at Naqsh-e Jahan Square or The Royal Square of Esfahan, whose scenery is an illustration straight out of 1001 nights. Again, we are talking fairy-tale like quality here. The Royal Square is one of the largest squares in the world and has everything a King might want, a garden, a fountain, a palace, two mosques, bazaars. What more could you ask for? Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Royal Square is in a word enchanting. People hang out in the park throughout the day, but everyone it seems comes out at nights to sit in the square and have a little picnic or some tea. It should be noted that Persian families own several hot water flasks to distribute tea at any hour of the day. Horse driven carriages take people out for rides around the square. Others rent bikes and peddle around and around the square checking out the action. The square of course has four sides, each with long walls and their own arcades. The walls of arcades are interrupted by the main monuments. To the east is the Ali Qapu Palace, to the west Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, to the south the Royal Mosque.

The Royal Mosque at night. Horse carriages outlined in front.

The Royal Mosque in daylight.

The Royal Mosque and I from Ali Qapu Palace.

The Royal Square, Esfahan.

We weren’t able to see the Royal Mosque from the inside unfortunately, but we did get to see Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, which is by far my favorite mosque. Named after a famous theologian, the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque is quite modest in size compared to the Royal Mosque. It’s design is peculiar as it has no courtyard, nor minarets, just a single domed prayer room. As soon as you enter the dome, one is overwhelmed by the flawless detail put into every square inch of the room. Absolutely glorious. I really can’t describe the beautiful detail, so I will let Robert Byron tell you from an excerpt of The Road to Oxiana.

“The Mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah is Persian in the fabulous sense…Colour and pattern are a commonplace in Persian architecture. But here they have a quality which most astonish the European, not because they infringe what he thought was his own monopoly, but because he can previously have had no idea that abstract pattern was capable of so profound a splendour…the outside of the mosque is careless of symmetry to a grotesque degree. Only the dome and portal are seen from the front. Yet such is the character of the dome, so unlike it is to any other dome in Persia or elsewhere, that this deformity is hardly noticeable.

….

Each part of the design, each plane, each repetition, each separate branch or blossom has its own sombre beauty. But the beauty of the whole comes as you move. Again the highlights are broken by the play of glazed and unglazed surfaces; so that with every step they rearrange themselves in countless shining patterns….

I have never encountered splendour of this kind before. Other interiors came into my mind as I stood there, to compare with: Versailles, or the porcelain rooms at Schonbrunn, or the Doge’s Palace, or St. Peter’s. All are rich; but none so rich. Their richness is three dimensional; it is attended by all the effort of shadow. In the mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah, it is a richness of light and surface, of pattern and coulour only. The architectural form is unimportant. It is not smothered, as in rococo; it is simply the instrument of a spectacle, as earth is the instrument of a garden. And then I suddenly thought of that unfortunate species, modern interior decorators, who imagine that they can make a restaurant, or a cinema, or a plutocrat’s drawing-room look rich if given money enough for gold leaf and looking glass. They little know what amateurs they are.”

The dome inside Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque

A window which peaked light from the side.

Another view of the dome.

A funny thing happened as we were inside the mosque by ourselves. A group of tourists entered with an English speaking guide. I assumed they were German, or perhaps French. I became curious and asked a young couple where they were from. They explained they were from Colorado, to which I said, “No way! Me too! Where?” They told me the group was from different parts of Colorado, but they were from Boulder. To top it off they were from an alpine mountain climbing group that had sponsored a group of Iranian mountain climbers to come to the States to climb, and this was their part of the exchange. So in Esfahan, thousands of miles away from my home in Boulder, I meet mountain climbers wearing plaid shirts and bandannas. How typically Boulder in a 400 year old mosque in the Islamic Republic. I had a good laugh running into them and felt good that they had all enjoyed their trip to Iran very much.

Outside the mosque.

Across from the mosque lies Ali Qapu Palace or “Exalted Gateway.” The building was used by Shah Abbas to become the monumental entrance to the palaces located in the huge park behind the square. It also served as a reception pavilion for foreign dignitaries and embassies and the talar (an unbelievably large balcony) was added to overlook the square, watch polo matches and review troops. The palace has six floors reached through a series of tiny twisting staircases. The acoustics are such on the talar that music could be played and heard throughout the square. Incredible.

Clever acoustic work inside the palace.

Alas there’s so much to talk about in regards to Esfahan, but to keep from boring you I’ll just tell you the rest there is to see there in pictures.

Vank Cathedral. I know. I know. You’re probably thinking, there are churches in Iran???!!! Believe it or not Iran may be an Islamic Republic, however there are openly practicing Jews and Christians who live in Iran. Outside of Israel, Iran has the second largest number of Jewish people in the Middle East. The Christians here tend to be of Orthodox origin as they come from an Armenian background. This church was built by the Armenians and is one of the prettiest churches I’ve seen on the inside. I’m including Notre Dame and Westminster Abby in this assertion (I can’t include the Vatican, as I haven’t seen it for myself). Unfortunately they don’t let you take pictures on the inside, but if you go here (http://www.flickr.com/photos/damonlynch/2850080029/), you get an idea of how gorgeous it really is.

For more pictures just google image search. I’m not your personal researcher! haha

But seriously Vank Cathedral has the perfect blend of Western, Armenian and Persian art and architecture. Absolutely beautiful.

Outside Vank Cathedral.

Outside one of the many palaces in Esfahan. So many in fact I forget the name of this particular one and I’m too lazy to look it up.

Behind said palace.

Esfahan has several beautiful bridges that cross the river, which dissects the city into two. This one was one of my favorites, Pol-e Khajoo or Khaju Bridge. While we were here they were filming some kind of movie or tourism video. Not sure which, but that’s just how cool this bridge is 😉

Khaju Bridge built around 1650.

Me on Khaju Bridge.

Sadra on Khaju Bridge.

One of the oldest, finest hotel in Iran. I’m told it’s still the most expensive hotel in Iran. Over 300 years old and still looking good. We came here for chai and dinner. Unfortunately the male version of Snooki sat next to us, pulling the atmosphere down a little bit.

And for those of you who made it to the end of this blog post a story to express how horrible a person Sadra is. Throughout my trip here, Sadra thinks it’s funny to make up stories about places, things we’re eating, etc. It’s all hogwash, but I can’t help to believe him half the time. I’m so naive. He once told me that a sign in a park in Tehran told visitors that the fruit found inside it was forbidden to eat as they were the Supreme Leader’s fruits. Now although this does sound strange, there are stranger things about Iran so I went with it. I made a comment regarding the Supreme Leader’s fruits two weeks later and he broke out in laughter, “You actually believed that???!!!???!” *sigh*

So on that tangent, while we were in Esfahan, our taxi driver suggested a local food place where the working man gets his lunch. We sat down and ordered the one thing on the menu, which was frankly unidentifiable. I felt like I was on Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern (My second favorite show on the Travel Channel. Sorry Andrew, but you can’t beat out Bourdain). So I began eating the dish which consisted of three parts. Bread, some kind of ground meat (but imagine very tiny tiny balls of meat), and a meat/veggie/starch patty, kind of like falafel, but in the shape of a hamburger. I asked several times what I was eating, but Sadra kindly ignored my requests. After eating a significant portion, Sadra informs me I just ate sheep lung and brains. The lungs didn’t upset me, but the brain part did. It’s not good for humans to eat brain. However, I thought for a second believing that Sadra is yet again lying to me. So I said, “sure it is.” To which Sadra said cooly, “Believe what you want, but this is what people eat here.” Then an exchange back and forth of “Yes it is brain… No actually I was lying it wasn’t brain…You know i was just kidding when I said it wasn’t brain. You just ate brain!” See the kind of mental torture I have to endure with him? In the end, I found out he had no idea what it was, but we both agreed it whatever it was, we didn’t enjoy it much.

I know this was a long post, so thanks again to any and all who read this.

Next post, YAZD!

3 thoughts on “Esfahān nesf-e jahān ast – Esfahan is half the world

  1. Perhaps what you ate for lunch was the Supreme Leader’s “fruits.” They probably would taste pretty bad, but at least it’s not his brains or lungs.

    (Top that one, Sadra).
    This is Dad, of course.

    1. Lovely post. Laura I think you expected a lot by hearing this sentence “Esfahan is the half world” that’s why you didn’t see it 😉 😀
      The food that you ate was BIRYANI and there was no brain in it. It was beef and yes the small circle was lung I never eat that part. there is alot of fat in it I wish you had better experience with the food 😦
      Keep us update I love reading your post no matter how long it is 🙂 Enjoy your trip !

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