Isfahan: Iran’s Hidden Jewel

Once the dazzling capital of ancient Persia,Isfahan fell victim to neglect, but a new generation hopes to restore its lost luster

Four hundred years ago, Isfahan was larger than London and more cosmopolitan than Paris. The city's most famous bridge, Si-o Seh Pol (Bridge of 33 Arches) is nearly 1,000 feet long and 45 feet wide. (Ghaith Abdul-Ahad)
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Four centuries ago, this square, which is also called the Maidan, was the economic and political heart of a prosperous and largely peaceful empire that drew foreigners from around the world. "Let me lead you into the Maidan," wrote Thomas Herbert, secretary of the English ambassador to the Persian court from 1627 to 1629, which is "without doubt as spacious, as pleasant and aromatic a market as any in the universe." Measuring 656 by 328 feet, it was also one of the world's largest urban plazas.

But unlike vast concrete spaces such as Tiananmen Square in Beijing or Red Square in Moscow, Naqsh-e Jahan served alternatively and sometimes simultaneously as a marketplace, polo field, social meeting point, execution ground and festival park. Fine river sand covered the plaza, and vendors peddled Venetian glass in one corner and Indian cloth or Chinese silks in another, while locals sold firewood, iron tools or melons grown with pigeon droppings collected from special towers surrounding the city. Acrobats passed their hats, hawkers called out their wares in several tongues and hucksters worked the throngs.

A mast in the middle was used for archery practice—a horseman would ride past it at full gallop, then turn to shoot down an apple, silver plate or gold cup on top. Marble goal posts that still stand at either end of the square are reminders of the fierce polo matches at which the shah on a heavily bejeweled mount often joined others dressed in fantastic colors and bold plumage.

Today the sand, merchants, hucksters and polo players are all gone, tamed by early 20th-century gardens. Yet the view around the square remains remarkably unchanged. To the north is a great arch opening into the high vaulted ceilings of a snaking, covered marketplace that stretches nearly a mile. To the south is the Imam Mosque, a mountain of brick and colored tile. Facing each other on the east and west sides of the square are the Sheikh Lotf-Allah Mosque, with its pale brown-and-blue dome, and the Ali Qapu palace. That structure—dismissed by Byron as a "brick boot box"—is topped by slender columns that turn it into a regal grandstand; bright silk curtains once hung from above to block the sun. The two mosques bend at odd angles to orient toward Mecca, saving the square from a rigid orderliness, while two-story arcades for shops define and unify the whole.

In contrast, my initial impression of the Chahar Bagh promenade, which is west of the Maidan, is tinged with panic rather than tranquillity. Unable to find a cab, I've hopped on the back of a motorcycle ridden by a middle-aged Isfahani who motioned me to get on. As we zip between cars through stop-and-go traffic, I worry that my knees will be sheared off. Construction of a new subway tunnel under the historic street has blocked a lane of traffic. The subway, preservationists say, threatens to suck in water from the river, shake delicate foundations and damage the fountains gracing the old promenade.

Frustrated by gridlock, my driver suddenly veers off the road and onto a central walking path, dodging nonplused pedestrians who stroll the park. The onyx basins filled with roses are long gone, the men are in jeans and the women are dressed uniformly in drab black. But flashes of stiletto heels and hennaed hair—and the sleek dresses for sale in the neon-lit shops that long ago replaced the elegant pavilions—speak of Isfahanis' enduring sense of fashion.

Pulling back onto the road, we speed by a giant new shopping and office complex that sports a modern skyscraper. In 2005, officials at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) warned that unless the building was downsized, the nearby Maidan could lose its status as a World Heritage site. City managers eventually lopped two stories off the offending tower, but its ungainly presence still galls many locals.

Heading north toward the Friday Mosque, we arrive at busy Atiq (Old) Square, crowded with small shops and sidewalk vendors. My motorcycle driver drops me off at the curb, and, with typical Iranian hospitality, zooms off before I can either thank or tip him.

The square is part of the Seljuk plaza built in the 11th century, but over time houses and stores have encroached on its original borders. Now city officials plan to raze what they call "unauthorized structures," restore the original trapezoidal plan and clear the area around the mosque. That proposal has split Isfahan's cultural heritage community. The plaza is "dirty now," says one city official. He wants to tear down the houses and stores and put up designer shops.

Such talk disturbs Abdollah Jabal-Ameli, a retired chairman of the city's Cultural Heritage Organization and a respected architect who helped restore the Maidan. "You have to take an organic view," he tells me. Since there is little left of the original square, Jabal-Ameli says, wiping out the houses and stores that have grown up around it in the past millennium would be a mistake. "But there are new forces at work," he notes.

About Andrew Lawler

Andrew Lawler is a contributing writer for Science magazine and author of Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Smithsonian, National Geographic, and other publications. View Andrew Lawler's website.

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