Paradise Found: Uncovering the Layers of Iran’s Most Elusive City

As a writer goes about unearthing Isfahan’s past, he finds himself equally consumed by both, its cultural intrigue and complex cosmopolitanism.  
Isfahan mosque, Iran
Isfahan is a city of architectural marvels; its many historic mosques are a testament to the place’s centuries-old dynastic influences and culture. Photo by Siddharth Dasgupta.

Damascus lies decimated, Baghdad is a crippled shadow of its once regal self; Kabul stands stripped of the flavours that made it one of the most distinguishable cities in the world. Clearly, the world’s oldest cities, through a combination of war, invasion, despotic rulers and extremist factions, are an endangered species. In this cultural and political milieu, cities such as Isfahan assume even greater significance. But shrouded in a veil of mystique and its mother country’s often-isolated status, the city remains an enigma. Not many travellers know about this most poetic of destinations; the few that do often have to wade through reams of misinformation to find their way. It’s time to sift through the myths and the truths in this exploration of a bona fide classic.

 

Myth: A mosque is a mosque is a mosque

The truth is, mosques can be varied in shape, form, size, and even the strength of their piety. Isfahan is a treasure-trove of these predominantly blue-tiled religious wonders. Aside from their religious significance, these mosques also serve as monumental canvasses for many of Isfahan’s fabled artistic forms—miniature paintings, coloured tiles and intricate ceramic work included. As constant reminders of the city’s many pasts, with Seljuk, Safavid, and Sassanian signatures exerting their distinct influence over individual mosques, they remain the throbbing heart of the city’s original gene pool.

Masjid-e Jameh, or The Great Mosque (Majlesi Street), is Isfahan’s primary congregation mosque, and has been an evolving work of wonder for over a thousand years. The architectural document is a picture of urban integration; the structure is located in the midst of the old city and shares wall space with other buildings that brush its perimeter. With the Grand Bazaar literally at its doorstep, Masjid-e Jameh doubles as a pedestrian focal point through which traffic, people, and business is happily facilitated. Its four-courtyard layout and double-shelled ribbed domes are architectural rarities. At the endless maze of wonders that is Naqsh-e Jahan Square, meanwhile, Masjede Sheikh Lotfollah welcomes you to a single prayer chamber kissed by the sun’s cross-hatched rays, filtering in through windows that can only be described as exquisite. And just a few steps away, Masjed-e Shah preens and pouts in its drop-dead gorgeousness, its blue-half domed portal of enameled faience mosaics, seven-coloured ceramics, and painstaking calligraphic renditions offering stunning evidence of Persian artistry and chief designer Riza-I Abbasi’s enduring legacy.

Isfahan, Iran

Isfahan is an outdoor city like few else, its people constantly strolling past its ancient monuments, through its parks, and across its iconic bridges. Photo by Siddharth Dasgupta.

 

Truth: Isfahan is famous for its bridges

It’s hard to walk a few steps in Isfahan without knocking into a bridge. Though the moniker of “City of a Thousand Bridges” might today express itself in 11 such structures, every experience in this city is either accessed through, facilitated by, or begun from a bridge. Certain stylistic elements are common to all the bridges: the brick and ceramic essence; the mellow earth tone with a hint of red that is also the city’s official colour, decreed on to the facade of every home and commercial structure; the archways that curve in regal fashion before uniting at a silent apex; and naturally, the eras from which they’ve been birthed. The most striking point of cohesion between them is Zayandeh Rud, the river that flows through Isfahan. The Zayandeh has been a melancholic creature of late, disappearing at will and without warning, often revealing a stark vastness of riverbed for much of the year; it has proved to be a source of poetic sorrow and recollection for many of this city’s residents.

Among the bridges, Khaju takes bragging rights as the prettiest. Its archways are embellished with blue tile work and stories from the long-ago, while its warm yellow glow facade at night is a beacon of sorts for poets, wanderers, and lovers alike. But it is Si-o-Seh Pol, (Enghelab Square Chahar Bagh-e Abbasi Street), she of the 33 arches, that is the most revered. One can almost sense the presence of Shah Abbas the Great (the famed 16th-century ruler from the Safavid dynasty) in its brooding spaces. One can almost feel the Zayandeh’s fragility as one looks out on to a dry riverbed. Within its lower-level grottos, including one that houses a teahouse filled with chatter and laughter whenever the river is alive, one can almost reach out and touch this city’s tangible old secrets.

 

Myth: Food in Isfahan is bland and predictable

If someone ever tells you that Iranian food is all about rice and dry meat, fling a kebab straight at their face. While it’s true that rice and grilled meat sans the slightest hint of gravy forms the fulcrum of the land’s culinary heritage, it would be foolish not to venture beyond the banal. Even the meat, at nearly every restaurant and café you step into, is grilled to perfection and marinated with little spice but much affection. The fish, always freshly-birthed from the Caspian Sea, is a persistent delight.

Khoresht, Iran stew

Khoresht is a popular Iranian stew comprising lentils, eggplant, vegetables and meat. Photo by: HLPhoto/Shutterstock

The Iranians are particular about using only fresh, seasonal produce in their cooking. In Isfahan, you’ll come across mounds of dry and dried fruit being sold at shops and markets, with the aromatic melange of dates, berries, cashew nuts, almonds, apricots, figs, and mangoes often proving irresistible. Dizi wins you over immediately. The hearty lamb, chickpea, and potato stew dish, slow cooked in a clay oven for hours, has been perfected over centuries. The fesenjan is another meaty delight, with a rustic walnut-and-pomegranate sauce infused within poached chicken and usually served with tahdig—golden saffron-accented rice crust. Khoresht, or Iranian stew, is a robust coming together of lentils, beans, and eggplant, blended with a selection of meat or vegetables and made in different variants. While vegetarians might want to choke themselves at this point, solace arrives in the form of bademjan, a shimmering eggplant and tomato stew brimming with accents of turmeric and the tang of tomatoes and unripe grapes (meat only optional). The baghali polo (sans lamb) is another option, its medley of rice, dill, fava beans, nuts, and dried fruit kissed with a hint of saffron. To round things off, take your romance with saffron a step further by tucking into bastani akbar mashti–custard ice-cream flecked with smoky pistachios, imbued with the lyrical subtlety of saffron and rosewater.

 

Myth: Iran, and Isfahan, in turn, is a deeply conservative society

While the ever-present hijab and the preponderance of black is an inescapable facet of life here, keep the usually paranoid travel advisories at bay. A simple grasp of current affairs, an occasional dip into the news, and that oft overlooked weapon in one’s travel armoury, common sense, should be your primary factors when considering a trip to Isfahan. Yes, the country’s political predilections often veer towards the extreme, but the current regime is moderate, and this reflects tangibly on social life.

Naqshe-e Jahan, Iran

At the central courtyard in Naqshe-e Jahan, tourists mingle with local shoppers around quaint cafés, souvenir shops and markets. Photo by Siddharth Dasgupta.

Everywhere you go in Isfahan, people are out on the roads and in the courtyards and among the monuments. This is an ‘outdoor’ city like very few, with seemingly the entire populace congregating on Isfahan’s bridges, in its markets, in the large urban public square of Naqsh-e Jahan, or in the seemingly endless collection of gardens and parks that this city boasts of. Early morning, especially during winter, sees the locals flocking to Sofeh Mountain—a strangely-shaped peak with a national park at its base that is the city’s favourite picnicking spot. Unimaginable even a few years ago, you’ll find men and women walking together, engaged in conversation, smiling and laughing with abandon, and even, within the city’s confluence of romance and nostalgia, flirting with shy restraint.

 

Truth: Everyone in Isfahan owns a copy of the 13th-century celebrated poet Hafez

While the eternal poet might not be as revered in Isfahan as he is a few hours further down south in Shiraz (where his tomb rests and a garden commemorates his verses that have endured over time), his is still a presence that is hard to pass by. Isfahan infuses a certain rare romance into your soul, and Hafez lies at the heart of this amorous conspiracy. The people here are polite to a fault, their courtesy and hospitality sometimes expressed in shy overtures, often conveyed through impromptu invitations to their homes, a meal, and the obligatory cups of chai. Even in the midst of its frequent traffic jams and beneath the sway of haze and pollution emanating from the city’s industry-thick fringes, there is a cadence to life here. And often, it seems as though it is Hafez who is chief instigator in Isfahan’s distinguishable air.

Most homes, cafés, and restaurants here carry a few volumes of his poetry. At Café Narvan (9 Qeysarieh Bazaar, North Square, Naqsh-e Jahan), the frozen in time simplicity merges with a bohemian atmosphere that results in note-perfect spinach pasta and cosmopolitan coffee residing snugly beside flower and spice infused teas that can only ever be old world. As the exotic petals imbue their creations with sudden magical floods of turquoise and cerise, Hafez stares down at you from seven beautifully etched volumes perched on a shelf. In another example, Firouz Sherbet (Hakim Nezami Street, Jolfa Quarter)—the tiniest of chai khanehs or teahouses, with every inch of its decor and walls embellished with art and blue-kissed beauty—welcomes you with a few of his volumes. Hafez’s verses are known to be a marker of the future in Isfahan; you silently express a desire, someone intimate with the craft turns to a random page and a specific line from one of his volumes, and the words either confirm or deny the destiny of that particular desire.

Sofreh Khaneh Sonnati, Isfahan

Sofreh Khaneh Sonnati, one of Isfahan’s finest restaurants, doubles as a stained-glass palace of wonders. Photo by Siddharth Dasgupta.

 

Myth: There is much beauty here, but not much style

Amidst all the days-gone-by essence and a vibe that appears frozen in the past, Isfahan surprises you with its own interpretations of contemporary. The young are restless here, as they are anywhere in the world. And creative expression is rife, using Isfahan’s celebrated art forms of miniatures, ceramics, and vividly coloured tiles.

At Hermes Café, for instance (Jolfa Alley, Nazar Street), modernist chandeliers and a plush black-and-white palette create a somewhat cubist dining environment, serving pastas, pizzas and burgers. It also houses the ultimate nod to modern playfulness—a built-in Instagram machine. The Abbasi Hotel’s Courtyard Teahouse (Amadegah Street) is a prime example of old-world artistry meeting modern-day flair. It provides a collage of atmosphere, history, fountains, excellent Continental and Persian fare, and front-row seats to Isfahan’s stylish set. Your firmest proof of the city’s sophisticated accents can be found in the people though, especially some of the young women, their increasingly nonconforming hijabs, their clothes hinting at an elegance closer to that found in Tehran, their minds increasingly gravitating towards cultural examinations, creative pursuits, and even political emergence.

 

Truth: Tourists are few and far between

And such a giddily happy truth it is, too. While Iran may be opening up slowly and tourist arrivals might only increase in the days to come, this is still a land some way off the usual radar. Paranoid global media and preconceived notions having cemented their influence over the years, tourists in particular are loathe to veer too far from the established roadmap; it’s the intrepid traveller who usually has Iran, and in turn, Isfahan, on his or her mind. In a way, you hope that Iran’s cloistered status remains intact, to an extent, thus protecting it from influx and globalisation’s usual formulaic ways. There’s a particular charm in exploring a canvas relatively untainted by the usual tourist traps, in viewing and immersing yourself in images gathered from an untainted prism, in getting to the heart and soul of whatever constitutes place.

And this is a place where saffron farms collude with pomegranate orchards and rosewater carnivals; a place where mounds of crumbly, doughy nan-lavash and nan-sangak form the heartbeat of every breakfast; a place where the kiss of saffron and the playfulness of unprocessed sugar swizzle sticks greet you in elaborate tea ceremonies; a place complex in nature, its mother country sometimes teetering on the edge of authoritarianism before finding a way towards something resembling moderation; a place where a large nuclear research facility lives hand in hand with artistry and poetry that can be hard to shake; a place where filtering the truths from the myths is a continually rewarding process. In Isfahan, as it turns out, yesterday and today are fluid, and ultimately, interchangeable concepts.

Baker in Isfahan

On the road to Isfahan, a baker depends on his trusty kiln to whip up the morning’s bounty of bread. Photo by Siddharth Dasgupta.


 

Essentials

Getting There

There are regular flights from major Indian cities to Tehran with one or more stops at a Middle Eastern city. From Iran’s capital, you can take a domestic flight to Isfahan. A pocket-friendly option is to get one of the many intercity taxis available at the airport, which will cost you roughly $60-80/`3,859-`5,146 for the ride. There are also VIP buses leaving from any of Tehran’s bus terminals (Iran Peyma and Hamsafar are two of the best operators). Seating around 25 and stocked with air conditioners, fridges, monitors, films, and refreshments, these buses are worth their roughly $25/`1,608 fare.

Stay

Bekhradi’s Historical House—Isfahan’s first (and possibly only) 17th-century Safavid mansion restored and open to guests, gives you a museum-like experience with the warmth and comfort of home (Sonbolestan, www.bekhradi-house.com); Abbasi Hotel—an old Safavid address moulded into a modern luxury marvel, Abbasi spoils you with a sumptuous selection of suites and a bevy of dining options, including the rooftop Cheshm Andaz and an old caravanserai courtyard transformed into a garden restaurant. This diner is dotted with fountains and a central stream (Chahar Bagh, abbasihotel.ir).

Eat

Sofreh Khaneh Sonnati—Step into this stained-glass palace of wonders for lunch, and be surrounded by traditional Persian cuisine laid out on individual divans, the sun’s streaming rays, and a largely Isfahani clientele tucking into lamb shank stew and redolent biryani (Naqsh-e Jahan); Shahrzad—an Isfahani staple that pulls off the Qajar aesthetic well, its intricate mirror-work is a worthy complement to the full-bodied joojeh kebab and a surprisingly generous presence of vegetarian fare (Abbas Abad Street, shahrzad-restaurant.com)

See

Chehel Sotun—the pleasure pavilion and ‘Palace of Forty Pillars’ offers you a plush, grandly-executed assortment of ceramics, miniatures, and frescoes, snuggled within the Bagh-e Chehel Sotun, the UNESCO World Heritage anointed royal gardens (5 min from Naqsh-e Jahan).

Shop

If your baggage allowances (and your pockets) are deep enough, an original Persian carpet is an unarguable must. The motifs and colours are region specific, and a proud Isfahan specimen could go up to anywhere near $7,000/`4,50,275, with antique varieties in silk and wool only available at select stores. Keramatian Carpet is a good place with which to commence (Hezar Jirib Street).

The minakari or enamelling metal work of Isfahan puts the city’s craftsmanship front and centre, as does khatam-kari —the art of inlaying gold, silver, brass, and ivory within different kinds of wood using a process where the rudimentary nature of metal wires comes face-to-face with artistry that flows like poetry. While souvenir shops dotted all over will sell you decor and items from these two schools, you should simply head into Naqsh-e Jahan square yet again, and browse through a cornucopia of shops, boutiques, and family-owned empires embedded within its mysteries.

Minakari artists in Isfahan, Iran

The city’s craftsmen are eloquent ambassadors of Iran’s artistry, their best work often showcased in intricate minakari and khatam-kari artefacts. Photo by Siddharth Dasgupta.

  • Siddharth Dasgupta is a poet and novelist. Consumed by a proportionate passion for horizons and words, he also articulates travel and culture for some of the world’s best. His book ‘The Sacred Sorrow of Sparrows’ was released this year, and his latest release – the Poetry Collection ‘The Wanderlust Conspiracy’ – will be out soon.

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?