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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)

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

Jabal-Ameli's new forces include not only city officials but developers who want to build a 54-floor skyscraper hotel and shopping center just outside the historic district. Isfahan's deputy mayor, Hussein Jafari, says foreign tourists want modern hotels and points out that this one would be sited far enough from the city's core to escape Unesco's ire. At the same time, he says, the city government intends to rescue the thousands of decaying houses. "We can do both," Jafari insists.

"We're ready to invite investors from abroad to convert these houses into hotels, traditional restaurants and teahouses for tourists," says Farhad Soltanian, a cultural heritage official who works in the Armenian quarter. Soltanian takes me across the newly cobbled alley to a century-old Catholic church, now being restored through an unlikely alliance of the Vatican and the Iranian government. On the next street, workers are putting finishing touches on a grand mansion once home to Armenian clergy and now being restored with private funds. The owners hope the mansion, with its 30 freshly painted rooms, will draw foreign tourists and pay off their investment.

The day I'm to depart, Mazaheri and Moslemzadeh invite me to be their guest at a traditional dining hall on the Maidan. Isfahanis themselves joke about their reputation for being clever but stingy. But they also are famed for their fabulous banquets. As long ago as 1330, Ibn Battuta noted they were "always trying to outdo one another in procuring luxurious viands...in preparation of which they display all their resources."

Little appears to have changed. In the shadow of the Imam Mosque and bathed in the soothing sounds of traditional music, we sit cross-legged on wide benches and feast on dizi—an intricate Persian dish consisting of soup, bread, lamb and vegetables and served with a sizable mallet used to crush the contents. Stained-glass windows filter red and blue light across the room. Despite economic hardship, intractable politics and even the threat of war, something of Isfahan's ability to hold stubbornly to its traditions also shines through.

Andrew Lawler lives in Maine and writes frequently about archaeology for Smithsonian. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is an Iraqi-born, award-winning photographer based in Beirut.

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