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Published: January 20th 2019
South Iwan Of The Masjed-e Shah
The stunning portal into the main sanctuary of the Masjed-e Shah.
It was a hectic scramble getting to the bus station and having arrived at the huge Terminal e-Jonub back in Tehran, I had no idea what was going on. All the signage was Persian-only which I cannot for the life of me decipher, so I just approached the man yelling “Esfahan, Esfahan!” who took me to the ticket office and put me on the bus. At least in China I could at least recognise characters, even if I didn’t know what they meant. I'm not sure if the bus was sticking to a timetable but I knew that buses left for Isfahan pretty frequently from here and would probably just leave when it had picked up enough passengers.
While I was buying the ticket, I was pestered the whole way by some dude trying to tell (sell) me something, probably wanting to change money. As a conspicuous tourist I do feel a bit like a walking wad of euros. No doubt the recently and preposterously enforced sanctions by the US on Iran has shot down the value of the rial, increasing inflation and making locals desperate for foreign currency that will hold its value.
The constant barrage of sellers and
The old bridge under which locals gather to sing.
beggars continued on the bus during the half-hour wait for it to leave. One guy even asked if we could swap shoes! However the current situation was caused, things are a little desperate here; if it was in part caused by the US sanctions then given what the US has also done to the country in the past, there is absolutely no doubt as to why Iran hates the US so much. Obama’s nuclear deal had kept the Iranians in check - verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency - and Donald Trump pulling out of it and re-enforcing sanctions has real life consequences to many ordinary, innocent Iranians, which seems to be in evidence here.
It wasn’t an enjoyable bus ride as it took place against the backdrop of constant exhaust fumes. The countryside was as I imagined it would be; dry, arid and rocky, like Mars, or Cappadocia
without the awesome rock formations.
Arriving in Esfahan, I managed to get a friendly taxi driver who drove me the twenty minutes from the bus station to the hostel for the princely sum of just 3€. I would later find out that I was actually ripped off as I
Kakh-e Ali Qapu
This old royal palace provides fantastic views over Naqsh-e Jahan Square.
should paid about 50c! Just goes to show how cheap things are in Iran right now.
My hostel was well located but it was farkin' cold - the bathrooms were outside so you had to brave temperatures of -5 degrees to go for a pee in the middle of the night. It was very tempting just to hold it in until morning.
The next morning (after the most satisfying of pees) I decided to join the free walking tour offered by the hostel.
The first places we stopped at were a couple of workshops where they made traditional copper ornaments. The first one specialised in firoozeh koobi
which involves plates, vases, trays, pots and jugs made of copper being decorated with small chips of turquoise, mosaic-style. The ornaments are then usually glazed. The second workshop specialised in ghalamzani
which is the art of hand-engraving similar ornaments. A man who had been doing it for decades demonstrated his craft, using a hammer and a sharp tool to create the most detailed and intricate designs, hammering the tool into a plate backed by a huge slab of malleable tar.
Both of these art forms are synonymous with Isfahan and there are
Inside The Masjed-e Sheik Lotfallah
The smaller of the two mosques in Naqsh-e Jahan Sqaure but the more atmospheric of the two.
loads of workshops just south of Naqsh-e Jahan Square...
...which was where the tour took us next.
Esfahan's main attraction, the city's crown jewel, I found that I was...a little underwhelmed. I was expecting a bit more colour and the sun was unfortunately behind the square’s showpiece mosque, the Masjed-e Shah. I ended up spending four days in Esfahan however and it eventually grew on me, as I came to appreciate the square’s history, size and elegance. I’ve now been to both of the world’s two largest squares - Naqsh-e Jahan is the world's second biggest; Tiananmen
Symmetry and proportion are two of the square's most discernible characteristics, characteristics that can also be applied to the Masjed-e Shah, among the grandest of mosques that I have visited.
It was then time for one of my favourite times of the day in Iran so far; lunch.
Our tour guide initially ordered a sweet yellow pudding topped with barberries called koresht maast
that was rather nice, for starters. It was sweet but had another recognisable flavour to it, that I couldn't quite put my finger on. The tour guide asked us to guess what the special ingredient of
A delicious lamb and yoghurt stew.
this "yogurt stew" was but none of us could do it. It turns out it was lamb
! Say what?! The cooked lamb has been ground down so much before being mixed with yoghurt and saffron, that you could barely detect it's texture until you realise that that was why the pudding was so stringy. It is perfect for slowly chewing on while waiting for your main course because it is salty enough, but also perfect for finishing off as it is sweet enough. Iranian food is pretty meat-heavy and even with dessert you can't escape it!
We all ordered the local dish beryani
(not to be confused with Indian biryani
, which is very different) which was mincemeat ground into a texture somewhere between meatloaf and pate
. It was also nice but I'd say I probably prefer its Indian namesake. Nevertheless, the food has been one of the highlights of this trip so far, which was why I was astonished to see half the restaurant taken up by a Chinese tour group eating a Chinese hotpot in an Iranian restaurant. Seriously? Did they even bring their own equipment?
The last stop of the tour was at a saffron shop where
Spectacular Domed Ceiling
The domed ceiling of the main sanctuary in the Masjed-e Shah.
I learnt about one of the world's most alluring and expensive spices.
The reason it is so expensive is because the individual strands of saffron are actually individual stems from a saffron flower, which all have to be hand-picked. The man in the shop made us some saffron tea, simply by adding a few strands to a small glass of hot water. The reaction of the water brings out a yellow colouring, making the tea look like a fragrant cup of piss. I finally learned how saffron turns the rice in a paella
yellow. Apparently, the darker and the redder the saffron, the higher the quality (also the longer the strands, the higher the quality). It costs about half the price to buy saffron in Iran than it does in Europe and having fallen in love with the spice while over here, I bought a gram of it. It might've been cheaper than Europe, but it still cost me 6€!
It was good to have Amin, our walking tour guide, on-hand. It’s always good to have a local around to ask all sorts of honest questions about the local culture in order to learn about the place you are
The entrance to the showpiece mosque in the Naqsh-e Jahan Square.
in. He reminded me a lot of Alon, the guy who took me on what was quite possibly the best walking tour I have ever been on in Jerusalem
. Apart form also having a four-letter name starting with "A" and ending with "n", Amin also had the same sort of nerdy, slightly clingy, but ultimately sweet naivety when dealing with foreigners and the same willingness to really share his city and culture with you.
After the tour, I decided to head back in Naqsh-e Jahan Square to take a few more photographs. It is the most obvious place to find tourists and as a result I was approached by many locals for a conversations. They were all very friendly and welcoming, a couple of them being carpet salesmen wanting to warmly invite me into their shops (like in Morocco
) to show me their art and tell me more about Iran and Iranian culture...in the hope that I would buy a carpet. I politely declined.
It was also while I was in the square that I managed to bump into Jasir and Kristina, who I met in Tehran
. I ended up going over to their hostel for dinner that night,
Esfahan's main bazaar that leads off the Naqsh-e Jahan Square.
where the dinner was disappointing but the conversation was not. Accompanying me from my hostel was Chinese guy Yang, who I had hung out with for most of the twenty-four hours I had spent in Esfahan so far. I also met French girl Julie, who very interestingly was working for the French consulate in New Delhi.
The next day, I decided to do my own walking tour of Isfahan which started out again at the square. There are actually two mosques that sit on Naqsh-e Jahan; the aforementioned Masjed-e Shah and the more humble Masjed-e Sheik Lotfallah, which I think I liked better as it was far more atmospheric inside.
I then went for a walk through Isfahan's bazaar, the Bazar-e Bozorg. The bazaar is beautifully housed and pleasant to walk through; more so than Tehran's and much more so than Marrakesh
! Through the maze of arched alleys and labyrinthine lanes, you encounter many a madraseh
(Islamic school), khan
(courtyards surrounded by shops or accommodation for traders and merchants also known as caravanserais
) and timcheh
(domed centres or courtyards where all shops sell the same thing) before coming out at the vast Imam Ali Square. Going back into the
Hasht Behesht Palace
The elaborate ceiling of the Hasht Behesht Palace.
relative madness for a little bit, the bazaar ends at the Masjed-e Jameh.
The Masjed-e Jameh is the biggest mosque in Iran and has some immaculate details but again, any would-be decent photographs were spoiled by poor lighting and long shadows. It was here at the mosque, that I bumped into Niccolo, the Italian I had also met at the hostel in Tehran. It was almost inevitable that I'd be bumping into all of these guys again.
Walking back through the bazaar, I end up back at Naqsh-e Jahan before I made my way to a couple of old palaces a couple of blocks behind it. The rather handsome Kakh-e Chehel Sotun is royal pleasure palace with a neat, peaceful garden that dates back to the 17th century. The palace interior is plastered in colourful frescoes. The Hasht Behesht Palace sits in the middle of a public park and is more like a very lavishly adorned park pavilion or rotunda. I ended my walking tour atop the Kakh-e Ali Qapu Palace, back on Naqsh-e Jahan that lorded it over the square with some fabulous views. The details on all three buildings were so intricate; the architecture in Isfahan has been
Singer Under The Bridge
A singer tests the acoustics of the Khaju Bridge which is appreciated by the gathered audience.
stunning. Definitely best Islamic architecture I have seen.
I met up with Niccolo that evening for dinner at a traditional restaurant near the square. The restaurant was laid out like a Persian palace! It was like I was visiting the set of Aladdin or something.
In terms of food, I ordered what is regarded as a sometimes rare Persian speciality; fesenjun
, chicken served in a walnut and pomegranate stew. It was unsurprisingly sweet and nice enough although I swear I have tried something very similar before.
Alcohol is if course considered contraband in the Islamic Republic, so Iran isn't exactly buzzing with nightlife as Westerners know it. Niccolo however, had been tipped off that there would be singing under the Pol-e Khaju, or Khaju Bridge.
Due to a recently built dam, the Zayandeh River over which the Khaju Bridge crossed, has unfortunately been completely dried up and what would have added even more character to this city instead lends something rather more eerie. The eeriness however increased as Niccolo and I approached the wonderfully illuminated Pol-e Khaju. The wailing that we could hear from beneath the bridge told us that we were in the right place.
Masjed-e Sheik Lotfallah
The exterior of the smaller of the two mosques on the Naqsh-e Jahan Square.
long been done here due to the bridge's fantastic acoustics and people of all ages had gathered to hear some of Esfahan's best crooners. Rather than Crosby or Sinatra however, the tunes were all local and traditional and everyone was getting into it! The good singers draw quite the crowd - the songs sound sort of like call to prayers although I don't know if the songs are actually religious in nature at all. But the singing style is rather distinctive where long notes are often held while being punctuated by a "ho-ho-ho-ho" singing technique that you imagine an Islamic Santa Claus might employ. The crowd really loved it when the singers did this. The singers were almost exclusively male, although there was one middle-aged lady singing and an old man angrily shooed me away when I took a picture of her. People are encouraged to sing though and Niccolo was asked to give it a go by an old man standing next to us. It was like an Iranian open mic night!
The funny thing about what happened to Niccolo however was that the local man thought that my Italian friend was in fact Persian and that he
Inside The Masjed-e Shah
Looking through a couple of portals into the madraseh (theological school) inside the Masjed-e Shah.
was my guide! And Niccolo wasn't even the first Italian I had met who had been consistently mistaken for a local.
Which perhaps tells you something about what a typical Iranian looks like although like in neighbouring Turkey
, Iranians come in many different shades. Many have very light eyes, which are very distinctive; others have much darker complexions and look very much like Indians; and then you have those who look typically like someone from the Middle East. It was quite fascinating to observe.
There weren't any locals that looked like me however, which naturally got me a lot of stares. Although I had got used to it during my trip around the world
, it really isn't something that I particularly like. Especially while youngsters snigger at me while doing it.
While I never felt it was hostile in any way - it was mostly of curiosity, I'm sure - I do unfortunately think that such sniggers are often of mockery. Now I’m sure that those who pointed at me and laughed have done the same to most foreigners - and maybe my initial reaction to it is because the sniggers bring back horrible memories of being laughed at at school - but
Inside The Vank Cathedral
About as impressive as the interiors of the main mosques in the city.
because I've been sniggered at with racist undertones many times before, it is difficult to make that separation mentally, at the time it happens. Just like how if it was to happen to a tourist who was overweight or someone else who has some sort of other irregularity with their appearance, it would be difficult to know what people are laughing at you for. I’ve matured enough for this kind of thing to affect me much less than it used to but it still nevertheless leaves me seething sometimes.
Now the last thing you might expect to find in the Islamic Republic Of Iran is a church; but after a riverside stroll along the Zayandeh, I ended up in the Armenian Quarter of Jolfa and there standing in front of me was the Vank Cathedral.
Back in the early 17th century, Shah Abbas I of the Safavid dynasty imported a colony of Armenians to Esfahan for their business and artistic expertise. In return were allowed to freely practice their religion and settled in a village outside of the old city centre named after the city they came from back in Armenia.
The cathedral itself had quite the magnificent interior,
Under the Si-o-Seh Bridge.
full of frescoes (even if those frescoes were of grisly scenes of people getting excruciatingly martyred). I was a refreshing change from all the mosques I was seeing and felt for half an hour as if I was back in Russia
The rest of Jolfa - and in fact, much of the area south of the river - looked a bit more well off and was quite pleasant to walk around. It was nice to go somewhere in the city that was a bit different.
I stayed for lunch in Jolfa where I had tahchin
- basically a saffron sticky rice cake. Yum. Iranians must have very high dental bills though, because everything is either sweet (sugary) or sour (acidic). Iranian restaurants are also super-quick at bringing out food - almost too quick, like a Chinese restaurant. Also like a Chinese restaurant, it seems that fast turnover is the name of the game and they do try and get you in and outta there pretty quick. They often don’t give you knives with your cutlery either.
Sticking to the culinary theme, I tried two other specialities while I was in Esfahan; ash-e reshte
which is an Iranian
Some beautiful interior features of the Bazar-e Bozorg.
noodle soup (it was OK) and gaz
, a chewy nougat from the city (I liked it).
I have pretty much eaten my way all over Esfahan and for my final dinner in the city, I decided to push the boat out by dining at Isfahan’s finest restaurant. The lamb chops at Shahzard’s (incidentally I had a classmate at high school called Shahzard who I now presume was of Persian descent) were the second best I have ever had (first place still goes to Tayyab’s in London) and I also made sure I made the most of my last opportunity eat koresht maast
. I could probably have done without the soup starter and the rice; 26yr-old me would've finished everything including all the bread but 36yr-old me knows that there is little point in doing so. I was absolutely stuffed. The locals were just starting their banquets as I left the restaurant at about 9.45pm - they eat dinner pretty late here.
And that was my time up in Esfahan; a much more pleasant city to walk around and enjoy than Tehran, there are some proper blockbuster sights here and some interesting pockets of the city - as well
Streets Of Esfahan
With a few long pedestrian paths like this, Esfahan is a pleasant city to walk around.
as some fantastic food. My favourite place so far.
Will Yazd, my next Iranian destination beat it? Let's find out.
زود میبینمت (zood mibinamet),
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