Shah Mosque

My First Visit to Iran – Esfahan

My limited preparatory reading told me that although Esfahan’s roots go back more than 4,500 years, it was really during the Safavid Era that Esfahan came to prominence for which it is still famous. It was Shah Abbas who moved the capital of Iran from Qazvin to Esfahan, invested heavily in his new capital, and encouraged bazaaris to set up shop on favourable terms.

I travelled to Esfahan (also spelled and pronounced Isfahan) from Tehran on an overnight train. Although the train departed late at night, I didn’t know it was an overnight train so I hadn’t made any preparations. I’m not sure what I would have prepared anyway – perhaps I would have brought some nibbles. I had my map to look at, and my copy of John Mace’s Persian Grammar.

On boarding I found myself in a sleeper carriage with two other people. The guard came along and handed us some bottles of water.

My fellow passengers spoke to me in Persian. After a few repetitions I realised they were asking me how I was. At Dehkhoda several years later I learned what they were doing is called احوال پرسی /ah’vāl por’si/. In short, it is asking about how you are in a polite way and without being فضول /fo’zul/ – nosy.

My conversational ability in Persian was very stilted. I could say where I was going: به اصفهان می روم /be es’fa’han mi’ra’vam/, where I am from من انگلیسی هستم‌ /man in’gli’si has’tam/, and some other short sentences, but not with any fluency. I felt very self-conscious, rather as though I was wearing a pair of jeans and everyone was watching me.

After a time we all settled down to sleep. I took a top bunk. It was basic and a bit hot but clean. In the morning we arrived at Esfahan.


اصفهان نصفِ جهان است

Esfahan is half the world

Iranian pun

I took a taxi from the railway station in the south of the city. We crossed over a bridge and alas I saw the river was completely dry. Let’s hold that observation in abeyance for a moment…

We arrived at the Hotel Abbasi, located north of the Zayandeh (life-giving) River. This is probably the most famous and best hotel in Esfahan. Why not travel in style from time to time? It was built in the last few years of the Safavid era as a caravanserai. Since then it has been thoughtfully and sympathetically restored and modernised. Today it serves as a very well appointed hotel.

I checked in, the staff spoke English and said they were expecting me the previous night, and I explained I didn’t know the train was overnight. No matter, I had arrived. A porter came and carried my luggage to my room. We passed a huge and impressive, even majestic, courtyard where I could see many tables set up for dining. My room was in a modern extension to the building, so didn’t overlook this square. I rested for half an hour, did my ablutions, and headed out into Esfahan.

Naqsh’e Jahan Square

‘Image of The World’. This square, actually a rectangle measuring 175 by 612 yards, is huge and very impressive. It is registered as a World Heritage Site. One wonders that people at the time it was built thought the same, and with good reasons. It is impressive not only for its size, but also for the architecture, the layout, and the general appearance. The square is unequally bisected by a road which brings the noise of the traffic to the end near the decorated bazaar entrance.

There are three main buildings on the square: the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, the Shah Mosque, and Ali Qapu. There is also a decorated doorway into the bazaar which is less prominent and not on the same scale as the three buildings just mentioned, but still worth seeing.

The Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque is by every measure a masterpiece. By itself it should be considered a World Heritage Site. It was built from 1603 to 1619 as a mosque for Shah Abbas and his entourage. Despite the huge appearance of the dome the mosque is not very large inside. It’s not small either.

The Shah Mosque, also referred to as the Imam Mosque, is another masterpiece. It is bigger than the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, and in perhaps more impressive from the outside. It dominates the square.

In the photograph below the horse-drawn carriages are evident, which carry tourists around the square. One didn’t expect to see this in Iran, or indeed even associate this with Iran. I think this is the first time that I was really awakened to the fact that Iran did not fit my perception of Iran. Or rather my perception was wrong. One has to state it in those terms, because Iran exists as it does. So one’s lack of knowledge and non-existent experience of Iran is where the fault lays. For my opinion on translating the word ‘perception’ please refer to the first post in this series about Tehran.

The building below is Āli Qāpu, meaning Great Gate. It is a tall beautifully decorated palace with six floors. The large balcony offers splendid views over the square. It was built and developed in several stages. Originally designed as a gate, it became eventually a palace. Again, the horses and carts are visible in the foreground.

The Bazaar

The bazaar is located behind the walls of every face of Naqsh’e Jahan Square. It has the typical bazaar shops that one finds in every bazaar, as well as some souvenir shops. There was no hassling either – something I had experienced in Morocco, and more recently in Tunisia. Perhaps Iranian bazaaris just don’t hassle. Certainly I have never been hassled on any of my trips to Iranian bazaars. Despite the age of the buildings, the shops themselves sell all kinds of modern goods.


There are something like eleven bridges in Esfahan over the Zayandeh River. Some of them are very picturesque as well as functional. Perhaps the most interesting are the Si o Se (Thirty Three) Bridge, so named for the number of its arches, and the Khāju Bridge.

One can see in the photographs below that the river bed is totally dry. There is not a drop of water in sight. This inevitably detracts from the appearance of all the bridges. One can see people crossing the river bed, as I did. But it’s not the best experience.

Something else notable are the pedal boats. Further to my comment about the horses and carts above, this is something I was not expecting. One simply didn’t associate Iran with pedal boats for leisure on a river.

Khāju Bridge is another exquisite example of Iranian architecture, and it is reminiscent of Naqsh’e Jahan Square. Without flowing water it almost looks like a museum piece rather than a functional bridge. But it is both functional and beautiful.

Esfahan at night

Esfahan at night takes on a different and magical appearance: the great and beautiful buildings and bridges are illuminated. One must make apologies for the appearance of the photographs. This was at limit of my ability, and that of the camera (a Sony DSC HX7V) for night time photography.

In the early evening the square starts to fill with people. They go there and set up small picnics, relaxing and chatting, congregating near the three large buildings more than the gateway to the bazaar. Meanwhile the sound of sound of bells fixed to the horses’ harnesses rings in the background.


Esfahan is a very beautiful city which is well worth seeing. Indeed without the menace of traffic it would probably be the beautiful city in the world. The air and noise pollution that traffic brings with it is a stain on cities like Esfahan. One can easily imagine Chahar Bagh Street without a single car, and it would be better for it.

I will write more exhaustively about Esfahan later. I visited in later years when the river was in full flow, and the experience and the photographs when the river is dry are nothing in comparison.

My uninformed view about Iran really changed on my visit to Esfahan. This was the not the Iran that is so often depicted in British newspapers – far from it. Iran has a broad and deep history, and it’s impossible to summarise Iran in a few newspaper columns. I have a feeling that most of the British newspaper reporters have never actually been to Iran.

You can read more about Esfahan in William Blunt’s Isfahan – Pearl of Persia book mentioned on the Learning Persian in London page.

About the author: Sadface