Nesf-e Jahān

The bus to Esfahan came to a grinding halt 40k outside the city in a long line of traffic. Sick of being cooped up I decided to get proactive after 30 minutes of imperceptible progress and got the driver to let me out. Bike retrieved I headed towards the city via the Kesheh and dry crunchy hills feeling ever so pleased with myself.

Rolling into a new city after dark would usually be my idea of hell but following the arrow straight and well lit Kaveh central boulevard was a doddle. Iranian city navigation can be especially confusing due to what I consider an especially dull and repetitive naming system. Everywhere you look seems to be a Taleqani street bisecting Kabir Road at Khomeini Junction. If your lucky you might get a Hafez or Saadi place but at times it feels like the revolution is still being fought on the streets such is the dominance of a handful of Mullahs on the naming conventions. I was therefore quite relieved to have nothing but 'straight on' to remember as I closed in on my host Abbas's house.

Naturally that would be far too easy and his location indicated on (a bicycle tourist hosting website) proved to be a wild fiction. A quick phone call convinced me that finding his actual location would be an all night job. I changed tack and found the cheapest guesthouse I could and in the interest of financial solvency resolved to reduce my stay to two nights.

With a newly ambitious timeline in which to explore Nesf-e Jahān (Half the World) as Esfahan is called I set off before dawn the next morning to get my fill.

Esfahan is Iran's number one destination for foreign and Iranian tourism and its easy to see why. I began with a restful early morning wander through one-end of the still sleepy main bazaar which vomited me out into the Masjed-e Jameh; A mosque in continually used since 771.

Sunlight dappling the distinctive arches it was easy to believe that this was Iran's largest Mosque.

Founded just 120 years after the Arab conquest of Persia it's architecture reflects the changing face of Islam in Iran

I'd timed my arrival well and had the echoing Iwans almost to myself and could take my time trying to learn the difference between Mongol era stalactite mouldings and the more baroque stylings of the Safavids.

I can't claim to be a quick study but just wandering around was a perfectly pleasant mornings work for a pleb like me.

Indeed it was pleasingly tough to remain entirely ignorant in the face of such glittering examples of Islamic architecture added side-by-side over millennia.

I was edified to find near the back what I was assured is the finest dome ever built in Persia. The Seljuk Taj al -Molk is small but apparently mathematically perfect and having withstood 900 years of earthquakes, invasions and use who am I to disagree. 

**At this point I should warn you that if this seems like more than enough pictures of mosques then the rest of this post will be nothing short of a tedious procession which should be skipped post haste.**

The distinctive blue, gold and white of the decoration was particularly vivid and beautiful here.

All sweeping calligraphy and floral flourishes 

Contrasting and complimenting the characteristic geometric precision.

I saved the best for last with Room of Sultan Muhammad Khodabandeh Uljeitu and its imposing stucco mihrab

Made in the early fourteenth century and awash with Quaranic inscriptions it was pretty awe inspiring.

On the other hand the two carved wooden high chairs to either side were basically the most awesome lifeguard seats ever.

Mosqued out for at least half an hour I wandered back into the now awake Bazaar-e Bazorg and the thriving artisan quarter.

I couldn't discern the fashionable differences between Chadors; glimpsing old men working seriously and skillfully was no less mystifying but rather more impressive.

Next it was off to the main event: Naqsh-e Jahan - Image/pattern of the world - square.

At 160m by 508m Lonely Planet claims this is the second largest square. Wikipedia disagrees.

But it is undoubtedly beautiful.

Constructed at the turn of the 16th Century it is a showcase for the glories of the Safavid era's greatest leader Shah Abas I's at his most elegant and ambitious.

At the southern end lies Masjed-e Shah.

With the largest dome in the city and imposing Iwans it makes an impression. The mosque itself is angled towards Mecca while the frontage maintains the symmetry of the square necessitating an angled corridor from the entrance to the mosque itself.

If the Masjed-e Jameh is the epitome of blended styles and contrasting ideas the Masjed-e Shah is an aesthetically unified triumph.

Rich blue mosaic tiles drip from the walls in glorious excess under the vast echoing vaults.

Even these spectacular examples of Islamic architecture risked becoming a touch monotonous as the barrage of blue and yellow dulled my senses and so I went and soaked up the sunshine in the square as a lazy hubbub flowed around me.

From this vantage you can imagine how perfect watching polo played in the square would have been

I struck up a conversation with a friendly Iranian of impressive vintage who, after the usual where/why chit-chat, joined me on my bench and regaled me with tales of his own fantastical motorbike trip from Iran to Europe in his youth. It turned out he had followed almost the exact same route as I had which was an amazing coincidence. After more friendly back and forth he kindly invited me to join him at a sporting event that evening. In his words it was an ancient combination of fighting and poetry without which a trip to Iran would not be complete. I was interested but dislike being tied to plans on principle and so compromised that I would try to meet him there but wouldn't promise to do so. I had to disappoint him further as, despite digging around for some left over Lari, I didn't have any foreign coins or notes for his grandson's burgeoning collection.

Refreshed I wandered over to the Ali Qapu Palace. Alas, the delicate elegance of Shah Abas's residence has been mistreated both before and since the '79 revolution.

It's soft, naturalistic and frankly feminine aesthetic doesn't sit comfortably with the theocracy. Mosaics and paintings have been destroyed down the years and now much needed renovations (see scaffolding above) are dragging on-and-on interminably.

But even neglect can't dim the delicate beauty of the intricate domes.

of the subtle palette and oh so pretty patterns.

It really was very lovely and the music room behind the raised platform with its epic views across the square was a magnificent final flourish.

The depictions of human forms is rare in Islamic art was and all the more compelling for its taboo busting daring.

With the sun dropping and the Palace closing I emerged back into the newly softened square.

As I wandered I noticed my friend from earlier chatting with a Canadian couple and I couldn't help over hearing a remarkably similar speil I had heard. Except rather than a motorbike journey across Eurasia it was five years working in Toronto. I was impossible not to be impressed by the sales skill on show. Establishing trust A+ Effective questioning A+ Establishing need/Desire A+ Urgency A+

I was then approached by an art salesman and rug salesman in quick succession both of whose patter was as subtle as the surrounding architecture and clearly well honed.

Gentle rebuffs delivered I remembered the outline of Iranian regional stereotypes that had been outlined to me in Tehran. Esfahani's were described to me as the Scot's of Iran. That is to say a bit tight. Just like the with UK version; it is undoubtedly offensive if taken seriously but it was nonetheless interesting to see the jocular regional teasing that takes place. I couldn't say whether the miser reputation was undeserved but certainly it appeared that there was a number of consummate businessmen in Esfahan.

I had heard that Shirazi's were very friendly and well liked but laid backed to the point of laziness.
An Azari explained that they are often teased for being a little backward. the Red Necks of Iran perhaps. Most shockingly the Rashti from the far north of Iran near the Caspian are known for letting their wives do anything. The unsaid inference being that they are often cuckolded.

Many and more exist but despite the obvious silliness of such generalisations it does speak to the wide regional differences that exist within Iran even though they are undoubtedly unified under a strong Iranian identity. I'd guess most Europeans would guess that Iranian = ethnically Persian but in fact the country is much more diverse than that:

 60% Persian 16% Azeri 10% Kudish 6% Lor 2% Turkmen

Fun facts: More Azeri live in Iran than in Azerbaijan and the current supreme leader in Azeri!

With the last of the sun I rushed around to get a closer look at the cream dome of the Lotfollah Mosque.

Unlike the grandiose mosques I'd wandered previously this was built to be the private place of prayer for the Royal family especially the ladies of the Shah's harem. This means it has no minarets but does boast a hidden underground passage from the Qapu palace opposite.

The final glory the square had reserved for me was the portal at the north end leading to the Bazaar.

 With a lush painting of Persian victory over the Afghans in pride of place.

I was pleased to be able to reignite my love affair with doors begun in Armenia in Esfahan

Which is unsurprising as Esfahan boasts a sizable Armenian quarter known as Jolfa after Shah Abas relocated Armenian artisans to construct his new capital.

The walk home led me past some interesting public service announcements.

The former being rather more comprehensible than the later...

... And that was Esfahan

Apologies for descending into tourist mode in the last couple of posts. I've no doubt that as the quantity of cycling covered diminishes and the amount of inexpert pictures and even more inexpert verbiage increase the enjoyment and interest diminishes.

I can promise that from here on there is a welcome return to bum on saddle.


  1. Give us more Tom - blog on! M xx

  2. Sounds great to us. So glad you didn't lose these excellent photos! D x