Why Isfahan is Half the World – Exploring the Magic of Iran

Iran was once a popular travel destination for Westerners. Many people will be surprised to learn that the travellers who still visit the country, return safely having had a fantastic time.

Yes, there have been demonstrations and, at government level hostile words, but the average Iranian that you’ll meet in your travels is warm, open and very friendly. Iran is the birthplace of much of our culture and today still offers some amazing cultural and personal experiences.

Yes, you will need a visa but for most nationalities these can be obtained at the airport upon arrival. For those travelling on a UK or USA passport, the requirement is that you must be booked on a group tour or at least have your visa application made via one of the local tour companies. Independent travel by people from non UK/USA countries is possible for the brave.

Iran is well served with a bus network and both train and internal air travel is possible. Little English is spoken outside of Tehran and Isfahan, so hiring a guide makes a lot of sense. They are relatively inexpensive. Having said this, taking a group tour also has a lot to offer.

Iran is an Islamic country and has a strict dress code that visitors are required to follow. This is particularly difficult for females who are required to have headgear, arms and legs fully covered while in public. For men, long-sleeves and trousers, are required. Westerners are welcome in most cities but care should be exercised in the very conservative religious cities of Qom and Mashhad.

Tehran has little to offer except the Grand Bazaar and the amazing Jewellery Museum but this is made up for in the cities of Isfahan (also spelled Esfahan), Shiraz, and Yazd.

Shiraz, and Yazd are both worth a day or more and the ruins of the ancient city of Persepolis, 70 kilometres from Shiraz is one of world’s most dramatic ruins. Shiraz has wonderful gardens and an interesting mosque tiled with mirrors. Yazd has its winding lanes, wind towers and mud-brick homes. This is the best place to explore the Zoroastrian culture. Check out the impressive three storey high Amir Chakhmaq Complex – with its rows of perfectly proportioned decorated alcoves. If you have the time, the Yazd Water Museum has a most interesting display of the underground water canals called quanats.

Isfahan is a relatively compact city with most of the main attractions within walking distance. It is indeed impressive and some say that it is the most beautiful city in the world. The main attractions: the Imam Mosque, Ali Qapu Palace, the Sheikh Lotf Alah Mosque and the entrance to the Grand Bazaar, are clustered around the huge Imam (Naghsh-j Jahan) Square. Once a military parade ground, polo field and horse race track, the central area is now a water feature and dozens of shops surround the square.

Construction of the Palace started in 1611. It is a fine example of Islamic architecture at its peak. Its splendour comes from the seven-colour mosaic tiles that cover the dome and the beautiful calligraphic inscriptions in various locations. The front portal of the mosque is 27 meters high and it is flanked by two minarets 42 meters tall. Together with the 52 meter high dome, the late afternoon view of the mosque with its tiles glistening in the late afternoon sun, is a scene that you’ll long remember.

If you find the exterior impressive, the beauty of the interior will take your breath away. Amazing tiles, plasterwork and more calligraphy together with dramatic patterns adorns the ceiling. Standing under the centre of the dome you can experience the most amazing acoustic properties of the dome’s design.

On the left side of the square from the Imam Mosque is the majestic six storey Ali Qapu Palace. Built as a monumental gateway, it also served as the residence of the Shahs.

You’ll need a good guidebook to fully understand this building but undoubtedly the highlight is the elevated terrace with its 18 slender columns. The view across the square for the Shah and his guests must have been a wonderful sight. Shah Abbas I and II reigned at the height of Persian culture.

On the other side of the square is the smaller Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, sometimes referred to as the Ladies Mosque because it may have been built to serve as a place of worship for the Shah’s harem. Built between 1602 and 1619 during the reign of Shah Abbas I, it is marked different from the Imam Mosque with its pale tones and quiet harmony. The colours change during the day from cream to pink at sunset. The arabesque patterns and floral designs of the exterior panels are remarkable. The portal is an example of the fine stalactite work with a rich concentration of blue and golden motifs. This honey-comb-like plasterwork form little niches bracketed one above the other in geometric patterns, is very pleasing to the eye. Again the interior is superb and the unusual design of the mihab is the finest in Iran.

Flash photography is not allowed inside so bring a tripod for your camera.

Entrance fees apply to all of the above. A number of companies offer walking tours. Check these out as these may offer good value. Take water and have good walking shoes.

The Qeysarieh Portal gate leads off the square directly into the Grand Bazaar. These are best visited in the mornings while trade is the most brisk. The variety, smell, colour and sounds of the bazaar will astound you. The cheerful shop-keepers love to show off their wares. Bargaining is the go. Small items like the one-hair painted miniatures and the hand-printed tablecloths called qalamkar textiles are inexpensive and easy to carry however the shopkeepers will pack and ship larger items. If you use a credit card, check out the charges.

Take a little time out to try one of the rooftop tea houses. Sample the variety of teas while trying out a hubbly bubbly (smoking flavoured tobacco through a water pipe). Explore some of the shops and tea houses that are converted caravanserais. These are a throwback from the old Silk Road when trade was at its height.

Other Isfahan attractions include the impressive Jamah Mosque that dates back to 771, the Chehelsotun Palace and the Khaju and Si-o-Se-Pol bridges. Check the bridges out late afternoon or early evening when they are illuminated.

Money can be a problem in Iran. Very few ATMs take western cards. The local currency is the Rial but the term tomans is sometimes used. A toman is 10 rials. Always ask or carry USA dollars or Euros instead. The best way of getting local currency is to use the private money change offices (not the black market touts). A conversion chart or calculator helps if you are serious about your shopping.

Isfahan has a variety of tourist hotels varying from hostels to the up-market Abbasi Hotel. Shop around for the best prices. This hotel has a variety of different room types and rates. It has a wonderful courtyard setting and worth checking out.

So is Isfahan “half the word”? Well, you’ll have to go there for yourself before you can decide.

We thought that it was when we passed through on our grand trans-Central Asian journey written up in the book Following Marco Polo’s Silk Road.