Isfahan.. The Safavid Crown Jewel

Isfahan.. The Safavid Crown Jewel

Photos: Ibrahim Al-Mulaifi

How many beautiful things can combine at a time: fresh air, a bowl full of pistachio, a plate of fresh fruit, Muhammadi rose water, a worn out book of the poetry of Omar Alkhayyam, Hafiz and Alshirazi, a smiling face with golden hair falling over her forehead singing some verses in Persian extolling Isfahan s beauty, the translation of which into English is: "Isfahan which they call half the world, We found a hundred years in Isfahan"

A little while before sunset, the sun s blue reflected on walls and faces, a sign of the end of sun time and the start of moon time. We moved in zigzag lines to avoid the crowd in Naqsh Jahan or Alimam Square, a rectangular square with fountains and gardens in the middle, one of the largest open squares in the world after Tiananmen Square in Beijng. It is 512m long, 163m wide and is now under UNESCO supervision to preserve its unique archaeological value.

Naqsh Jahan has many meanings, such as the drawing of the world , because it looks like the world, and a philosophical one task , i.e. man s task in life. Building the square started at the beginning of the 17th century during the reign of the Safavid Sultan Abbas I. The square includes a number of prominent landmarks: Alimam Mosque, Aali Qabu building, Imam Lutfallah Alamili Mosque and the market gate known as Qaisariya . Safavid kings used to watch military parades and games from the balconies of Aali Qabu palace. Each of these places has a distinct conception. The school is a symbol of the importance of learning and the power of religion; the government s offices are a sign of its importance in people s life; the mosque is the house of God and of people; the last point is the economy. The square is a good starting point for the exploration of Isfahan and its history.

Isfahan s Description

Nasser Khosro (1004-1088), the author of Travels , and a famous Persian traveller and philosopher, described Isfahan as Persia s most beautiful and urbanized city. It is the cultural capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran. A few years ago it was chosen as the capital of Islamic culture in view of its many Islamic architectural monuments and the ruins of past civilizations through which the people assimilated foreign cultures and adopted whatever was fit to maintain their civilization which they boast of being Islamic for all Muslims and the entire world and not just Persian.

Isfahan, a large governorate whose capital has the same name, lies in central Iran. It is 107 km2 in area, 1500m above sea level, 340 km to the south of the capital city Tehran. It has a mild climate all year round; the city s south and south west are mountainous, its east a wide plain. This diversity made me confused, for before touchdown I looked through the window for its promised beauty among the snow-covered Zagras Mountins, but I found nothing but dark dust. Even after going out of the airport I didn t find the green I visualized as I was influenced by the French writer André Malraux who praised Isfahan s beauty, Who ever claims to have seen the world s most beautiful cities without looking at Isfahan?" But, why the hurry? The journey has just started.

Isfahan s and Zaydaneh s locations have played a major role in making up its character. Its location on the Silk Road allowed it to engage in commerce and interact with foreign cultures. Zayandeh River crosses the city after a 405 km course east from its source on the Yellow Mountain and has a number of branches. It has given life to all parts of the bustling city. The city s population is estimated at two million. But four Zayandeh River, Isfahan wouldn t have been.

An Islamic base

Islam entered Isfahan in AD 680 in the context of the conquest of Persia and it has established itself there since then. Before that major transformation, Salman of Persia, the eminent companion of the Prophet, left Isfahan, his birthplace, and abandoned the worship of fire. He headed for the desert in search of the new religion and thus became the first Persian to adopt Islam, taking up quite a great spiritual struggle. Over the centuries his land become a key base for the spread of the new religion up to the borders of China, a leading player in its political history, especially during the Abbasid era and a leading partner in Islamic civiliation in the areas of science, literature and arts. So we embarked on a journey to Isfahan, but in the opposite direction that Salman took, to see half Jahan , or half the world, as the people of Isfahan fondly describe their city.

The wealth of a city

In earlier periods Isfahan was chosen four times to be the country s capital, the latest in the Safavid era, because it was safe from Ottoman danger. When Shah Abbas I (1588-1629) made Isfahan his political capital, he decided to make it a model city. To this end, he recruited the best architects, experts and scholars and gave them awards for their creativity. It is rare to find a building in Safavid Isfahan without reference to this fact.

The Hall (Palace) of Forty Pillars is an architectural wonder which was all but lost during the Afghan invasion except for some stones and mirrors stolen from its walls which revealed red pomegranate wood behind it. Work on the palace began during the reign of the Safavid Shah Abbas I on an area of 67,000 m2, with some additions during the reign of the Qajar dynasty. It is used for the reception of ambassadors and official guests and delegations. It is fitted with all signs of grandeur. Its walls are decorated with oil painting by the artist Reda Alabbasi. It is surrounded by water ducts making it an island amid green gardens.

We stood in front of the palace to count its pillars which looked at a distance less than the stated number. We counted only twenty pillars. Where have the others gone? We were told to look behind us. The reflection of the twenty pillars on water made them look forty. The next question was: why this number in particular? Does engineering have anything to do in this connection? The number was chosen because of the considerable significance attached to it: Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was forty when he was ordered by Allah to convey His message; man is said to reach maturity at age 40. Numbers in the east, not only in Iran, have special significance. The builders of the palace devised a method for identifying the date of its building from the verses written on its walls, as each letter represents a particular number.

From Naqsh Jahan square we entered the seven-floor Aali Qabu palace, which was the seat of government during the Safavid era. The wonder of this beautiful palace is the echo sent back from one corner to another like a phone call when two persons stand opposite each other in the lobby leading to the main door. No interference is caused even if more than two speakers are involved. Floor 6 is one of the most famous as it includes the musicians room, which is insulated so as not to disturb prayers in nearby mosques.

Fank Church in Gulfa area reflects Iran s religious tolerance. Shah Abbas I had allowed a number of Armenians to settle in Isfahan and guaranteed their freedom of worship. There are other churches in Iran, but Fank Church is the most famous and beautiful as its architecture combines Iranian and European styles. Mulla Yaqub Synangogue is for Iranian and European Jews, a number of whom still live in Isfahan.

Ashraf Gallery

Built 400 years ago, this magnificent gallery is in the so-called Safavid palaces area, exactly behind Aali Qabu palace. The gallery has now been added to Isfahan governorate and the governor receives official guests there. The gallery houses rare architectural and decorative styles with philosophical and mathematical backrounds, as well as a carefully selected collection of the rarest Iranian carpet with beautiful drawings and 24-carat gold wall decorations and traditional handicrafts.

When we met Isfahan s Governor Dr. Ali Reda Zaker in this gallery we asked him about the budget for the restoration of archaeological sites. He answered it was limited, but this year the President suggested that the budget be increased. He pointed out that all of Isfahan s beautiful buildings date back to Safavid, Seljuk and other ancient periods. As far as the effect of Natanz nuclear reactor in Isfahan governorate on tourists, particularly foreigners and the fear that that would reduce their number, he said, There is no problem, and it is the West that fabricated it because they, through their media, want to discourage their citizens from coming, but on the contrary many foreign tourists come and admire our stability and social activity. Earlier, they thought they would be killed when they come here.

In and around Kashan

We left Isfahan on a two-day trip to another big city Kashan, which is synonymous with handmade Kashani carpet, which accounts for a large part if not most of Iran s reputation abroad. The towns around Kashan are also famous for special industries, such as Muhammadi rose water with which the venerable Kaaba is washed every year. It is also used in medicine and perfume making. There are ninety kinds of this rose water mostly prepared using traditional methods: distillation and condensation. The town of Barzak is famous for local perfumes.

We asked Kashan s Deputy Governor Mr Muhammad Hajji why Kashan in particular is famous for the production of carpet. He answered that the city desert climate made its people look for a livelihood that, through art and creativity, guaranteed a decent life namely carpet. Interestingly, he said China is competing with Iran in the carpet industry, and sell imitation Kashani carpet. They have also founded a town they named Kashan for the production of synthetic carpet.

Before arriving in Kashan we stopped for a few hours at the town of Natanz, which houses Iran s nuclear reactor, the source of controversy at international level. The town also includes 1,800 archaeological sites, two of which are UNESCO registered. It is 153 km from Isfahan and includes 52 villages with a population of 46,000, the most famous of which is the touristic Abiana, which I called Marrakesh Abiana because of all its red-brick buildings.

Manar Janban and Hasht Bahasht

On our penultimate day in Isfahan we went on three trips which were not less important than the previous ones. In the morning we visited Hasht Bahasht , or Eight Gardens, the most beautiful Safavid palace, which was built during the reign of Sultan Sulaiman in the 16th century on a stone and marble base. It consists of two 8-room floors. One of its main features is its southern part, which includes a marble basin, an artificial waterfall and its external walls are covered with faience, in addition to basins and fountains all of which make the place a park for Isfahan s inhaitants.

In the afternoon we visited Isfahan s architectural wonder: Manar Janban , or Two Shaking Minarets, built during the Mongol era. One minaret shakes when the other does, as if both were made of rubber. The maker of this wonder died and its secret was buried with him. There is disagreement on the scientific explanation of how this wonder works. Some say this is due to the wood and plaster between bricks; others say the minarets are built on a metal piece; others still say shaking travels in the air, as the minarets resemble a tuning fork. There is a very popular hourly show for a few mintues.

We concluded our visit to Isfahan by visiting Abbasi Palace, built during the reign of Safavid Shah Sultan Habib (1694-1723) to be a large caravanserai hotel for merchants and Isfahan s visitors. Its hotel and tourist services and capacity attract guests and conference organizers, but these are offered by hotels worldwide. What distinguishes the palace is its historical value which has earned it the status of great museums. It was renovated several times during he last fifty years, and the last shah in the Pahlavi dynasty was keen to sty in it whenever he visited Isfahan.

In the garden in the centre of the hotel where camels and other animals were made to kneel down near their owners rooms hundreds of years ago, we entered a kitchen where tea is made in a ceremonial way, as the tea maker in traditional dress strikes tea cups on the marble board and shakes them rapidly, then gives them to the waiter who rings a bell in front of the tea maker. Some regard this process as annoying, but some foreign tourists enjoy watching it. Each member of the Kuwaiti press delegation, including myself, had his share of the dark tea in the Abbasi hotel garden, where we said goodbye to our companions for the duration of our visit, particularly Ibrahim Mahamandos, our history reference whose interesting explanations are included in this Exploration. We are also grateful to our courteous companion Smir Arshadi, author of Isfahan, the Carnation of Islamic Civilization . Finally, thanks are due to our host, Isfahan s Governor Dr. Ali Reda Zaker Isfahani who provided all conditions for the success of this journey.

The charm of flowers

As we leave Isfahan I must say that the picture I saw through the plane window disappeared quickly on the city s outskits and was replaced with Isfahan s beautiful image I frequently read about. Between Khago and Thirty Three Arch Bridge there is the lasting beauty of lovely gardens, and in the Eight Garden Palace there are flowers which exude charm and gladden hearts and minds.


Ibrahim Al-Mulaifi


Zayandeh River gives Isfahan life and beauty. Hundreds of the city’s inhabitants enjoy spending some time on its banks. Pictured are a group of people in a daily scene at Thirty Three Arch Bridge to see the river

The wide Naqsh Jahan square at the side of which is Aliman Mosque built by Architect Ali Akbar of Isfahan during the reign of Shah Abbas I

Intertwined trees give passers-by shade in the city’s streets in summer

Khago Bridge, one of the largest and most impressive of Isfahan’s old bridges. Its foundation stone was laid in the Mongol era and was completed during the reign of Shah Abbas I

A statue of Shah Abas I, to whom credit is given for Isfahan’s glory and reputation among Muslim cities

A Safavid palace in Kashan converted into a museum and hotel which attracts guests to experience living days in the atmosphere of the past

A girl from the village of Qansor plucks Muhammadi roses of which rose water which Kashan is famous for is made

Nothing can stop women’s love of fashion even in the presence of laws which regulate clothes. However, girls have managed to cater for their beauty and observe the law at the same time

Girls enjoying some time near Zayandeh River with mobiles their favourite plaything

A girl from the town of Natanz in traditional clothes on a picnic at an archaeological site with hot drink thermos flasks behind

Examples of valuable items such as rare carpet, painting and pottery which the Institute of Fine Arts in Isfahan houses

Examples of valuable items such as rare carpet, painting and pottery which the Institute of Fine Arts in Isfahan houses

A carpet merchant in Kashan showing a hand-made piece to customers

Examples of valuable items such as rare carpet, painting and pottery which the Institute of Fine Arts in Isfahan houses

The Governor of Kashan Dr. Ali Akbar Zaker

A corner in Ashraf Gallery, famous for architectural and decorative styles with philosophical and mathematical

As time goes by, some places still give its old visitors the same warm as they did when they were young. Pictured are an old man and a woman from he village of Niaser

Walking never stops on Thirty Three Arch Bridge. It is 14m wide, parts of which are for crossing Zayandeh River, looking at it from different directions and exercise. A lower part of the bridge is widely used when it rains

The "Manar Janban”, or Two Shaking Minarets miracle. One minaret shakes when the other does, as if both were made of rubber

The Eight Garden Palace, which has been converted into a public park. It was built on a stone and marble base during the reign of the Safavid Sultan Sulaiman

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