Once one of the worlds largest cities, Isfahan was a centre for Islamic art and culture, the style here is probably reminiscent of what many people would consider classic Persia. In fact so famous and influential was Isfahan during this time that there was a saying proclaiming “Isfahan is half the world” a title now claimed by Las Vegas.
A city of magnificent architecture, mosques and palaces, Isfahan was my Hollywood style idea of olden Persia, which admittedly was drawn mostly from a Nintendo game called Prince of Persia starring a dude jumping from rooftops and swinging on wall hangings. This was later made into a film starring Jake Gyllenhaal and probably had the real princes of Persia spinning in their graves.
Centrepiece of the old town is the Naqhsh-e Jahan square, said to be the world’s second largest after Beijing’s Tiananmen. It’s a bustling hub with horse drawn carriages clopping by, a thriving bazaar ringing the square, towering aquamarine domes, and me, sitting on the grass eating ice cream. A bunch of kids came up to us one evening to tell us how much they hated America. Right on cue. Thankfully none of us were american – not fully anyway. And why did they hate America so much? “Cos Obama invaded Iraq!” When we pointed out that Bush invaded Iraq instead we were met with “Oh….well Obama is still a very bad man!” See, Iran and the US share much more in common than they think. The “Thanks Obama!” meme where Barack Obama is blamed for everything, even the stuff he didn’t do, had arrived in Iran with gusto. (Bear in mind though this was before the Iran nuclear deal – although he has since probably been blamed for Trump ripping it up)
On the southern side of the square the Shah Mosque is a masterpiece of Islamic architecture. Built as the original royal mosque it is a domed mountain of soothing blue and green. Also, it’s unusual in that it’s main court does not lie on the same axis as Mecca, probably because of how impressive the dome is the designers wanted it to be visible from anywhere in the square.
I’ll tell you what was also visible.
Lots and lots of scaffolding.
The Shah Mosque is arguably the most impressive example of Persian design, one of the world’s most beautiful buildings and here it was almost completely obstructed by scaffolding. We had arrived at the end of a Muslim festival and the mosque courtyard was host to a feast during the previous days which was now being cleaned up. You can’t win them all, but then again some defeats sting more than others, like when United were beaten by Burnley. Thanks Obama!
What was available to see was just as stunning to view as I had been led to believe. Through the entrance Iwan you take a right turn into a courtyard flanked on each cardinal point by towering blue archways, each surface inlaid with intricate tiled mosaics. I also found a makeshift throne here which I quickly hopped up on to live out my Jake Gyllenhaal fantasies (no ladies not those kind of Jake Gyllenhaal fantasies) The immersion of pretending to be the long lost prince of Persia was kinda ruined by the cling wrap still attached to it.
Just across the square is another example of this style of artwork in the Sheikh Lotfollah mosque, probably the most beautiful building I’ve ever set foot in. Designed as the sheikhs private mosque (the Shah mosque was a public building) the interior is very simple design wise. An entrance corridor takes a turn and opens up into a small-ish circular room. While this may not sound too impressive on the face of it, you are walking into a very literal work of art. The calligraphy, colours, and mosaics here have to be seen to be believed. So intricate and vibrant is it that pictures really don’t do it justice. There must be something in the simple design of the space too that allows your mind to rest and focus on the dome overhead. After a few minutes of gasps and oohs-and-ahhs everyone tended to end up just sitting quietly in the corner gazing up at the ceiling like the end of a Grateful Dead concert.
Surrounding the square is a interesting bazaar full of retro goodies. Years of trade embargoes have left the Iranian people reusing older equipment and cars, a bit like a middle eastern Cuba. Particularly popular seem to be old cameras and Polaroids, each model covered in an authentic layer of dust. Take an extra suitcase when you visit if this is the kind of stuff that interests you. You also have your standard selection of lamps and carpets each one more tempting than the last.
During my fruitless search for a magic carpet and/or lamp I got the feeling I was being followed. Sure enough I was, but unlike the Revenue Commissioners back home, this time it was a teenage girl. It turns out she was just about to start college but was wanting to study biology abroad, preferably in Europe and was looking for advice. After chatting on the steps of the Lotfollah mosque for a while about all things from college to religion I rejoined my group for dinner. Looking back I sometimes think of her and the rest of the people we talked to in Iran when I see the country appear ominously on the news. Many, especially the young women, look forward to a more open and less religiously oppressive country. So, like I said at the start people are not their governments. It’s something I try to keep in mind every time something face palmingly stupid happens in the world.
Except Trump. You can blame Americans for that.
On the way back to Tehran we stopped at a traditional mud village called Abyaneh. One of the oldest and most picturesque villages in Iran it is characterized by it’s small red-mud buildings and narrow winding streets. There was a guy here who seemed to be a local chief of some sorts (I’m basing this on the simple fact he carried a huge stick) He wanted several pictures taken with me, showing them off to his friends like we were best friends. I’m not sure what was happening to be honest, maybe we are married now.
With the ancient complexes of Persepolis and Isfahan behind me I found myself, bag in hand, on a flight bound for Amman, capital of Jordan. It was time to live out my Indiana Jones fantasies at the new wonder of the World at Petra, and see if I could survive a visit into the legendary Arabic entrance to hell at Wadi Rum.