An architectural symphony

Print edition : September 24, 2004

Esfahan, in the heart of the vast Iranian desert, abounds in examples of Islamic architecture at its most extravagant. It is truly a jewel in the Persian crown.

WHOEVER said "Esfahan nesf-e-Jahan" (Esfahan is half the world) evidently knew what he or she was talking about. Located in the heart of the vast Iranian desert, this town is truly a jewel in Persia's Islamic crown. It is an architectural symphony born out of fusion of the very best in Islamic and Persian aesthetic traditions.

The Naqsh-e-Jahan square.-

For those of us whose childhoods were enlivened by tales of Haji Baba, the very mention of Esfahan might conjure up visions of busy bazaars laden with a profusion of goods of the oriental variety, mullahs hurrying down the labyrinthine alleys, exquisite mosques, minars and sprawling gardens at every bend and corner. Indeed, Esfahan today is all this and more. It is a modern city with wide roads, frequent air, train and bus connections from major Iranian cities, and is the seat of an accomplished modern university. If you go looking for your beloved Haji Baba, you might even find one. But you will also find elegantly dressed men and women promenading the sidewalks and tucking into feludae served in polystyrene foam cups.

It is indeed a city where the old and the new blend seamlessly. Horse-drawn tourist carriages jostle for space alongside fast cars and motorbikes and touristy shops packed with every conceivable kitsch alongside genuine Persian handicrafts vie with one another for the attention of visitors.

The Khajoo bridge.-

Esfahan is 400 kilometres south of Teheran at the foot of the Zagros mountain range. Located on the banks of the Zayandeh-rud river, Esfahan is Iran's third largest city. Its history dates back to 2,700 years when a Jewish colony first settled in the area. In the mid-7th century, the Arabs made it a provincial capital. In the 11th century, it served as the capital of the Seljuk Turks. Timur, the Central Asian king, captured it in 1388 and ransacked it, but left visible traces of Mongol influence on its architecture. But Esfahan's moment of glory began in the 17th century when the town was reconstructed by the Safavid king, Shah Abbas the Great, who moved the Safavid capital from Qazvin to build a city of unsurpassed beauty and magnificence. Islamic architecture at its most extravagant can be found in the numerous mosques and madrassas and minarets that dot the city. Like St. Petersberg or Rome, the city is one gaint museum, with most of its surviving monuments a legacy of the Safavids.

The arches of the Sis-e-Pol bridge.-

In Esfahan, all roads lead to Naqsh-e-Jahan, truly the most happening place in this ancient city. In fact, it seems to have been so through 400 years of its history. Tourists as well as local people flock to this place, especially in the evenings, so much so that it sports a permanent carnival look throughout the tourist season. Its central square, also known as Maidan-e-Emam, is one of the most expansive squares in the world - local people claim it is larger than Moscow's Red Square or Venice's St. Marks. Emam square is rectangular, running the length of half a kilometre of emerald green lawn embellished with fountains, flowerbeds and shrubs and abutted on two sides by gorgeous mosques with shimmering domes and on the third by a palace. The fourth opens onto the covered bazaar, so typical of these parts. A road runs along the four sides, three of which are only for pedestrians - and of course, for elegant horse-drawn carriages for tourists craving to board a time machine to a distant past. It is here that I park myself to watch local life unfold at a rather leisurely pace. There are young girls lounging around spending the time of the day, some sitting on the steps of the fountains. Little children play ball, while tourists seem to be doing what they do best - bargaining with shopkeepers or like me, clicking away furiously in the hope of transporting some of that beauty onto bromide or microchip.

Talking of domes, there is none more dazzling than the gold-and-maroon cupola of the Sheikh Lotfulla mosque with its breathtaking blue frontage. It is one of the finest examples of Safavid art and truly the jewel of Esfahan. Built by Shah Abbas in 1619, Lotfulla is located on the western flank of the Naqsh-e-Jahan and virtually dominates the square. It is named after a highly venerated Lebanese Islamic scholar who ran a school of theology in Esfahan. Accessed through an arched portal that is richly embellished with arabesques in stalactite and blue and yellow mosaic, the dimly lit walkway gives you an illusion of leading you into some mysterious inner recess. And suddenly you are in the inner sanctum, the very womb of the perfectly proportioned cupola. Lotfulla has no artificial lighting. Sixteen trellised windows - also arched - perched high on the base of the dome let in a soft light, which enhances the sense of awe and mystery.

Once your eyes adjust to the dim light, the splendour of Lotfulla unfolds in all its unrestrained glory. The mural mosaics of the inner vault come alive in myriad designs and colours. A glazed aquamarine tile background brilliantly sets off the gilt and blue geometric and floral patterns. As in all mosques, the cove facing Mecca is distinguished by its ornamentation. The roof itself is a symphony in colours - with lotus-petal motifs radiating from the sides to a stunning crescendo at the centre. The vaults of the cupola are a study in symmetry, harmony and grace. The walls and arches are richly adorned with Koranic calligraphy. Lotfulla appears to be a favourite hangout for art students - mostly young women. Today there are several of them, craning their necks to study the intricate patterns, some sprawled on the cool tiled floor sketching and others simply mesmerised by the patterns on tiles crafted hundreds of years ago without the aid of digital design tools.

True to oriental style, Esfahan is one endless bazaar. Apart from the dedicated covered plaza, there are shops galore on all four sides of the Naqsh, which is canopied to shut out the sun. Hawkers sell everything from carpets, rugs and kilims to embossed copper plates and intricately embellished clocks studded with gold inlay or mirror work. It is truly a window-shopper's delight. In fact, a chronicler Knight Jean Chardin, who lived in Esfahan between 1673 and 1677, wrote: "The city of Esfahan, including its outskirts, is one of the largest towns in the world... . The bazaars are always so crowded that those riding on horseback send their footmen to clear the way." The covered bazaar hawks everything from saffron and spices to precious gems such as veined turquoise in various shapes and sizes.

At the portal of the Loftulla Mosque.-

MY next destination is the Emam mosque. Since I am veiled like the local women, the attendant at the ticket counter mistakes me for an Iranian and tears out a ticket saying something in Persian. When I respond in English, he quickly puts back the torn ticket and pulls out a book meant for foreign visitors. Like most tourist destinations around the world, there is a dual entrance fee for monuments and foreigners end up paying rather steep rates. My peregrinations through the various sites in Iran have truly burnt a hole in my wallet, but I am not complaining - the sites are excellent value for money, and I am grateful for the opportunity to see them.

Minar-e-Jonban, or the Shaking Minaret.-

The Emam mosque, also known as Masjid-e-Shah, is an architectural extravaganza built in the early part of the 17th century. The outer courtyard gives me a feeling of deja vu - it has an uncanny resemblance to the outer courtyard of the Humayun's Tomb complex in Delhi. As I enter its gigantic portals, I feel hopelessly dwarfed by the sheer height of the arches. The cupola is 170 feet high (51 m) and towers over the Esfahan skyline. The construction is characteristic of the Seljuk period with four ivans each leading to a domed hall and flanked by double-storeyed arcades with pointed niches. Every inch of the panels is intricately decorated with kaleidoscopic patterns, largely of the floral archetype. Every piece of brick, mortar and lime is covered with tiles - well over four lakhs, I am told. As if to relieve me of the tedium of seeing too much splendour and colour in one day, the main dome of the Emam mosque is being restored today - it has an ugly scaffolding scarring its gorgeous blue sides. There are two spacious courtyards, one with a huge square pond that reflects the panels, porches and minarets in faithful detail. There is a party of raucous Iranian schoolboys visiting the Emam mosque today and they pose for endless photographs in front of every arch and nave.

At the ornate entrance to Jame Masjid, the oldest mosque in Esfahan.-

RELUCTANTLY I leave the Emam mosque and head towards the Ali Qapu palace. At first glance, Ali Qapu looks more like a pavilion and less like a palace. It is one of the many palaces of Shah Abbas and is located on the eastern side of the square, just opposite the Lotfulla. There was even a secret underground passage from the palace to the Lotfulla for the women of the harem to pass unobserved. Unfortunately for me, today, the palace is also being renovated. But one is allowed to go up and enjoy the view from the top gallery located on the sixth floor. One gains access to it through dark, steep and narrow winding stairs, which smell strongly of bat droppings. The gallery overlooks the square and resembles a VIP stand in a stadium. Later, I learn that it was indeed a gallery for the Safavid royal family to watch polo. Apparently, the manicured lawn below was once a polo ground. The most striking feature of the palace is the `Musicians' Room' with its elaborate plaster cut-out of vases, flowers and birds. The 18 columns that support the roof of the gallery are embellished with mirrors while the roof itself is decorated with paintings. The use of natural dyes has ensured that the paintings are still intact.

The courtyard of the Emam Mosque.-

A stroll through the lovely gardens takes me to yet another palace not far from Naqsh-e-Jahan. The Hasht Behesht palace (The Eight Paradise palace) is octagonal in shape and has been designed in such a way that the gardens are visible from any part of the palace. Imaginatively embedded mirrors give an illusion of a floating roof and the evening sun lends a magical charm to the palace. Not far from here is the famous Chahar Bagh Madrassa, which is enclosed in a shaded and serene garden.

Samples of the famous Persian carpets

I AM drawn back to Emam Square where I next explore the covered market. Nothing transports you back in time as the covered bazaar with its arched vaults and profusion of ethnic merchandise. Skylights offer natural lighting and the bazaar is a beehive of activity. The arches are slung about with the ubiquitous Persian carpets and kilims and brightly patterned scarves. Black chadors hanging from the roof look somewhat eerie. At every arch, there lurks an eager salesman waiting to ensnare you into buying his exquisite wares. Not that the tourists need any enticing, nor do they seem to mind being ensnared, but I, on a shoestring budget, need all my will power to resist their persuasive salesmanship. When I think I have shaken off one particularly persistent merchant, I am assailed by another wanting me to taste his dry fruits. His shop displays sacks full of delicious Rafsanjani pistachios, prunes, dried apricots and figs and he offers me fistfuls to taste. It is hopeless. My resistance evaporates even as the apricots melt in my mouth and soon I find myself lugging a couple of kilos of dry fruits all around Esfahan for the rest of the evening.

While beautifully decorated mosques, minars and madrassas abound all over the Islamic world, what sets Esfahan apart from the rest are perhaps the gorgeous bridges across the Zayandeh-rud. My last stop for the evening is Sio-se-Pol - the bridge of 33 arches, perhaps the most photographed monument in Esfahan. The bridge itself is truly an imaginative piece of art built, once again, by Shah Abbas. Standing at either end of the bridge, one can see a concentric parade of arches forming an enchanting pattern and extending right up to the other bank. Being Thursday evening (Friday is the weekly holiday), there is virtually a sea of humanity on the banks of the river. The chai-khana located under the bridge in an alcove resembles a museum - its walls are chock-a-block with antique memorabilia. I am told it is a must-see for tourists. It is also a favourite hangout for local people, who come there especially for the green tea and the hookah. As dusk envelops the city, the lights come on and the bridge sports a festive look.

NEXT morning I rise early and head for the Khajoo bridge, about which I had heard so much and whose breath-taking pictures I had seen on web sites. Khajoo is beautiful to behold. That something as commonplace as a bridge should have commanded such meticulous attention to aesthetic detail is truly an ode to the Safavid sense of beauty. With its two stories of arcades with intersecting arches and the two richly ornamented pavilions in the centre, the bridge is a study in harmony and balance. The foamy waters cascading over the stone steps give it a dreamy painting-like quality. The bridge and the banks of the river are full of early morning joggers who seem to take the extraordinary beauty of their city in their stride.

Later, I hire a cab and head towards the Fire Temple on the outskirts of the town. It is located right on top of a rugged hillock and there are no steps. The sun is high up above the horizon and I am already perspiring. The sides seem slippery and it might take an hour of ascent to reach the top. Seeing a family scrambling on all fours to descend from the top, my resolve to scale the hillock weakens considerably. After a moment of vacillation, I turn back and settle for a photograph against the backdrop taken by my obliging driver. All I can see from the foot of the hill are the ruined walls of what once must have been a Parsi temple.

SOON we are on our way to the Shaking Minaret or the Minar-e-Jonban. At first sight, it looks nondescript and rather small, although just as painstakingly decorated as any other monument in Esfahan. There is a huge crowd of tourists gathered in front of the structure, all of them gazing intently at it. Soon a man ascends the winding stairway up one of the minarets and begins to shake it. And believe it or not, the minaret first begins to shake and soon sways like a palm in a typhoon. In a few minutes, the other minaret also begins to sway as if in sympathy. The two minarets sway in symphony while the audience watches spellbound. As the man descends from the minaret, a chorus of voices goes up, asking for an encore. He smiles indulgently and obliges the crowd. The man has been appointed just to shake the minaret every hour for the amusement of visitors. There are several stories about the shaking minaret - how feldspar used in its construction has since melted away and hence there is a gap in the support structure, which makes the minaret shake. Whatever the scientific explanation, the spectacle does not cease to awe.

At Esfahan's bazaar with its arched vaults and profusion of ethnic merchandise.-

I AM about to wrap up my trip to Esfahan to catch my bus back to Teheran when my taxi driver insists that I see Jame Masjid, the oldest mosque in Esfahan believed to have been built a thousand years ago on the site of a Zoroastrian temple. Jame Masjid reminds me of our very own Juma Masjid in Delhi. Like the latter, it is located in a congested area and is surrounded by stalls selling cheap clothing, incense and such things. We weave our way through the crowded gullies and enter the mosque through a nondescript gate. Then unfolds a symphony of pillars, arches and gateways so perfectly proportioned, so symmetrically arranged and so minimally decorated that their stark beauty takes one's breath away. There is a vast sun-bathed quadrangle in the centre with richly decorated shrines on all sides. Each one leads to seemingly unending vaults carpeted, cool and ready for Friday prayers.

As I board the bus back to Teheran, I promise myself that I would visit again. Esfahan is so special an architectural treat that once is just not enough.

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