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To Isfahan

Fifty kilometres out of Hamadan is the Iron Age mound of Tepe hush-i-Jan. In the middle of a vast plain, it’s a stiff climb up to the settlement, which has been excavated to reveal a Medean fort (700 BC) with a superb fire temple and chambers constructed of mud brick. We’d hardly seen a car on the way from Hamadan, and John (archaeologist) and Ruin (our guide) had to convince the gatehouse to let us into the site, but the fact that this beauty is in the middle of nowhere didn’t stop a busload of dour Germans elbowing their way into our exploratory visit.

We finally arrived in Isfahan around 6pm, but it took more than an hour to reach our home for three nights, the Abbasi hotel. Originally a major caravanserai on the silk route, the hotel is beautiful, with the arms of the hotel enclosing a stunning and enormous axial water garden peppered with pomegranate, orange and quince trees, providing an oasis of calm. We dined in the garden, cleverly lit for maximum exotic effect. Next morning we strolled around to the Hasht Beshesht Palace. Isfahan originally had a number of glorious small palaces, but the Afghans put paid to that, destroying all the Safavid era beauties except for a couple, which a rich local merchant saved by paying the vandals a king’s ransom. This palace has twenty-four rooms, but not in any familiar western configuration. Each corner is divided into smaller rooms – each with lovely frescoes – it’s more like a small and interesting maze than a formal palace, and the towering columns that surround the building are carved trunks of sycamore, reflecting the mighty trees in the garden. Lovely. And the palace has roofline open vents so that birdies can fly in and chomp on the wood-eating termites. The water gardens were supplied by water ducted from the river. We headed for the Armenian Quarter for lunch and then on to the Armenian Christian church and museum. The church had the most amazing frescoes, many specialising in various means of torture, including pouring boiling oil via funnel into the nether regions of chaps, or dragging an unwilling fellow across a carpet of knives. But the museum was a tiny gem, full of interesting history and tiny bibles. But then one comes across the horrific order that initiated the genocide of 1.3million innocent Armenians: “As informed earlier than this, per orders of Jamiat, the Government has decided to exterminate the entire population of Armenians in Turkey. Those opposing the orders will not be considered Government servants. Children, women and the sick are not to be spared. The modes of extermination are not to be differentiated. Without listening to the voice of conscience remove them all and put an end to their existence.” 29 September 1915 to the Governor of Aleppo.

(Random House recently published “An Inconvenient Genocide”, by human rights lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson)

Our nagging finally worked and we were directed to the utterly superb, incomparable, exquisite Naqsh-e Jahan square. Also known as “pattern of the world”, at the centre of the city known as “half the world” courtesy of its silk road centrality, entering its portals is a ‘make you weep’ moment. Within the square, our last ‘tour’ stop of the day was the Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah; aka ‘the most beautiful mosque in the world’. The dome is tiled in gentle pinky ochres and soft turquoise and blue toward the summit. Inside, the cupola is tiled in peacock tail motifs in blues and yellows. The entire interior is simultaneously opulent and harmonious, and the shafts of sunlight through the latticed vents add to the delight of the space. The architect was justly proud of his work (the mosque was built between 1602 and 1619) and signed his name on the tile in an alcove – a rarity for this shy breed of artists. The mosque is unusual in that it has neither a minaret nor courtyard, and was dedicated to Sheikh Lotfollah, the contemporaneous ruler’s father-in-law, who was a revered Lebanese scholar of Islam.

Across the square, around the wonderful fountains, past the horses and little cartouches for touring the square. We scooted away from the rest of the group to take tea at a genuine ancient tea house, located somewhere in the bowels of the bazaar, crowded with locals smoking hookahs – such fun. We then cased the bazaar, which is a good afternoon’s work. With the ‘square’ being 512m long and 163m wide, all sides are lined with double rows of shops. By my reckoning, taking a couple of mosques and palaces out of the equation, and popping in a few side streets and extra covered passages, that makes for about 3 kms of shopping through marvellous cool arcades. We had a few items on our list – saffron (€2/gram), turquoise jewellery and anything else we fancied. The great thing about this bazaar is that there’s only the occasional chap attempting a hard sell. We finally decided on a jeweller whose window appealed, but I didn’t like any of the turquoise earrings, so our man brought out trays of gems. Nup. So he then went back in the store and re-emerged with a fistful of what looked like barbeque matches topped with gems – perfect, as I was able to select a couple of stones of gorgeous colour and agreeable depth. Yes, you can return this time tomorrow and they’ll be ready. We spotted a stone in a pendant, so Yes, it will be made into a brooch, collect tomorrow. Not being a bead person didn’t stop me from buying a gorgeous string of turquoise embedded with gold leaves. Mission accomplished.

Next morning, we started with a tour of three of the famed Isfahan bridges – Sharestan (the earliest, probably C12), Khaju (1650) and Sio-si – the most romantic bridge, and the longest at 295m. All good stuff, but we didn’t need to walk them all. But then we headed to Chehel Sotun – the palace of forty columns. It’s a beauty. Built as a reception palace for Shah Abbas II, the interior is covered in gorgeous frescoes of the Shah receiving dignitaries, and banquets, battles and romantic scenes from the great poetry of the Safavid era. The ‘forty columns’ title has two meanings: the outer portico has twenty columns set before a pond to double the number in reflection; the second is a symbolic reference to abundance in paradise. Chetel Sotun is located in the old royal park between Ali Qapu and Chatar Bagh Avenue, designed literally to be a beautiful palace in the middle of paradise. It’s the composition of the monuments within the overall plan of Shah Abbas I’s Isfahan that’s the key to the city’s beauty and outstanding urban design. The architectural corpus consists of seven principle elements – gardens, mosques, shrines, arcades, pavilions, caravanserais and bridges; often built as a complementary set.

Our hotel, originally the Shah Sultan Husain Caravanserai, was part of a waqf, which included a religious school, mosque, caravanserai all-in-one. The gardens of the palaces are equal in design, grand scale, balance and appeal to the opulence of the palaces. Similarly, the ‘Portrait of the World’ square is an ensemble of public space (the original polo goalposts at either end testify its spectacle-hosting capabilities) viewable by the Shah from the terrace of the Ali Qapu palace, plus the Imam Mosque and the Grand Bazaar. (The Ali Qapu palace has, on its top floor, an exquisite music room, with a ceiling of punched metal.) When Shah Abbas I (1587-1629) ruled the city that was ‘half the world’, Isfahan was a crossroads – from Europe to China – of international trade and diplomacy, hosting a tolerant kaleidoscope of languages, religions and customs. It was also one of the largest cities in the Asia Minor with a population of one million, 163 mosques, 48 religious schools, 1801 shops and 263 public baths. At the end of the Safavid dynasty (1722) the Afghanis besieged the city for six months before taking over and moving the capital to Shiraz.

Visiting in 1943, Freya Stark wrote “Isfahan is like a pale turquoise, its tree stems white, its sky light blue, a lovely skiey light about it all…The whole of Isfahan gives the feeling of a great deal of labour and loveliness and thought spent on the light, airy, evanescent side of things.” It’s a gem.

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