ISFAHAN – PICTURE OF PARADISE
“Finally, at sunrise, leaving for Isfahan! On the road for an hour through a dull little desert of brown clay hills, - which have been placed there, without a doubt, to prepare one for the apparition of a blue enameled city and its cooling oasis. It is then, as two desolate hills part and separate, like the slow, seductive raising of a theatre curtain, the revelation of a tantalizing view of the Eden that was hidden behind.”
Pierre Loti (1900)
The Friday mosque , 11th-12th century
The oasis of Isfahan has been inhabited since time immemorial but the story of its ancient past has been lost or at best reduced to hypothesis; to mere fragments of legends and a few solitary ruins. From its centralized position, the city played an important role in the Arab conquest of the 7th century. Despite some troubled periods, (notably under the 10th century Bouyids) for its first few centuries, the city continued to grow and prosper thanks to the silk and textile trades. When the Seljuks conquered Iran in the 11th century, Tughril the 1st chose Isfahan as his capital from 1050 onwards and built many monuments there.
From 1120, however, Isfahan lost its importance little by little, as the Sultan Sandjar moved the centre of power to Khorasan. More or less preserved by the Mongolians, the city went through unstable times under Tamerlane (who was to massacre 70,000 people in 1387) and during the Timurid era. It was under the Safavids (16th century) that it would regain its place as a political, administrative, commercial and cultural centre. As the third capital under the Safavids, Isfahan was to be transformed starting from 1598 by Shah Abbas the 1st, who designed an innovative urban plan for the city that was unfortunately, never fully implemented.
In the 17th century, the city became a centre of philosophy, the home of an academy of painting and a thriving colony of Armenian immigrants. According to a Chardin, French traveler of the 17th century, the city boasted 162 mosques, 48 Madrasas, 182 caravanserais and 273 hammams. In this oasis of palaces and gardens, designed as a reflection of paradise, kings organized festivals that could last for weeks at a time.
The end of the Safavid era signaled an immediate decline in the fortunes of the city, which was held under siege by the Afghans (1722), retaken by Nader Shah (1729), was decimated by epidemics and famines and pillaged by bandits. Depopulated and dilapidated, it would only find its feet again at the end of the 18th century. Even if it would again become an important trading centre, it had forever lost its position as a political and cultural centre to Shiraz (under the Zands) and then to Tehran (under the Qajars)
Vank Church, 1658-62
The Royal Palace or the Imam or the Naqsh-e Djahan, with the Royal Mosque or the Imam, the Ali Qapu Palace, the Lotfallah Mosque, the bazaar portal, the Friday Mosque ; the Chehel Sotoun and Hasht Behesht pleasure palaces ; the Chahar Bagh Madrasa or the Mother of the Shah ; the Armenian quarter ; the historic bridges.
Sites registered to the UNESCO world heritage list: the Royal Palace or the Imam (1979) and the Friday Mosque (2012)
Chehel Sotun Palace, 17th century
Two days are sufficient to see the main monuments. Three days would allow you to visit other sites in the city such as mausoleums, minarets, traditional houses “fire temples”, etc. Four of five days would permit time to follow excursions to the surrounding areas such as Pir Bakran, Oshtorjan and Seljuk minarets.