Our evening glimpse of the main square in Esfahan had whet our appetites and today we were to discover its full glory. Crossing the Maydan-e Imam Square we are told that it had originally been a parade ground hosting events to entertain Shah Abbas I who watched from a terrace in the Ali Qapu Palace. It was also used as a polo field and the last vestige of this is one set of goal posts – a pair of gleaming white stone bollards.
Today, horses still inhabit the square but rather than galloping after a polo ball they charge around the square pulling carriages laden with families. Dodging the flash of the red painted wheel spokes of the carriages, we were herded towards the Ali Qapu Palace on the west side of the square. The chunky brick base of the building gives way to a wonderfully spindly constructed terrace above and the whole wooden superstructure looks to be made from matchsticks in its delicacy. Built in the 16th century during the Safavid period, the building, intended as the ‘gateway to Ali’, was the entrance to the formal palace behind.
Passing through the gateway it is hard to know where to look first. A bewildering array of different textures, warm soft colours and intricate designs draw the eye in different directions and I am, as ever, trying to absorb everything and at the same time capture the intoxicating patterns through my lens.
As we climb up through the building the simply decorated side rooms are just as striking as the ornately decorated ones and in fact provide a welcome break on the eyeballs.
We reach the terrace at the top and the view of the Maydan-e Imam square unfolds before us. The elevated view reveals just how immense it is and the wandering families appear as ant-like dots milling amongst the fountains and topiary bushes. The slender wooden columns towered above us and it is a wonder they can support the roof above.
The delicate wall paintings drew me away from the imposing view and back into the depths of the building. Portraits of Safavid peoples were framed by intricate scenes of the curls, frills and fronds of vegetation in a rather tame and domesticated view of the natural world. Inside the elegant decoration continued in soft hues of browns and blues and was punctuated by the inclusion of exotic birds with flamboyant feathers.
The domed rooms with their squinches are never endingly pleasing. We descend the spiral stairs and regroup in the square. Once again we avoid the rattle of the carriages and sift our way through the growing crowd as we cross the square to the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque – a gem of Safavid architecture with its creamy coloured dome.
The bright blue tiled facade dazzles in contrast to the warm browns, beiges and burnt red colours of the Ali Qapu Palace and the intricate moulding above the entrance replicates a design we have seen time and time again. It is like a nest of mini squinches and has a honeycomb appearance that is repeated in some of the alcoves.
The dark and gloomy narrow passages lead into the main domed sanctuary and from their depths the vast hall comes as a shock to the senses. As I move into the room the blue and yellow tiles seem to dance and the movement is enhanced by the flow of the calligraphy that appears in bands around the room like a score of music.
The turquoise spiralling cable decoration rise like sticks of candy and lead the eye upwards to the crowning glory: the dome. The effect of the decoration in the room is dynamic yet graceful and the moment you stop moving the dance comes to a halt and the tranquility is overwhelming.
There are more squinches than you can shake a stick at and the light pierces through the tracery of the ring of windows below the dome. It’s a magnificent space and the low echo of people murmuring is soft and calming. Even the locals stare up with mouth slightly open – it is not just us who look on in wonderment and marvel at its majestic grandeur.
The dome is what transfixes the gaze. The pattern of ever-decreasing motifs gently guides the viewers now squinting eyes to the central design. The detail is too distant to be appreciated but that I assume was the intention – the representation of the celestial sphere out of reach to mortals.
Back out in the bright light we pass the fluttering bunting and head towards the Masjid-I Imam mosque that dominates the southern end of the main square.
Passing through its entrance, once again dripping in mini squinches, we walk under the polished orangey stone lintel. The general push of the queue impatient to enter the mosque is almost enough to thrust you passed the metal doors but it was worth buffering the steady stream of people to linger over the intricate design.
The familiar tiled colour scheme of blues, greens and yellows, greet you on an an eye-popping scale and the curves and straight lines of the architecture work like an Escher drawing to confuse but nevertheless draw you into the building.
The group splits up and I take a fairly random route that leads me to the west ivan off the main courtyard and as my eyes adjust to the light I spy a mound of rolled up rugs piled high against the wall. There is something incredibly pleasing about the soft scrolls of the prayer rugs against the rigid tiled walls. I learn later that one of our group had returned to this room, scaled the rug pile and dozed through the early afternoon. I must say it had been a temptation for me at the time.
Back into the harsh light of the courtyard I get accosted by a couple who want to take their photograph with me and once the mandatory smiley photo is safely stored they hand me, as way of thanks, a flyer extolling the virtues of the preachings of the Ayatollah. It makes for interesting reading and I maintain the smile courteously, thank them in return and then beat a hasty retreat before I have to engage further on a subject I’m not comfortable with.
I sit by the empty ablutions pool and watch the visitors waft in and out of the shady rooms, just taking in the building without rushing around myself. Time passes and I rejoin the group for our next appointment at the Chehel Sotoun Palace.
The name Chehel Sotoun literally means ‘forty columns’ which at first is a little confusing since there are patently only twenty columns supporting the terrace roof. This deficiency is soon remedied the moment you both step back from and in the literal sense. Viewing the Palace from afar and across the long pool that shimmers in front of it the reflection of the twenty columns of the talar suddenly and pleasingly offers the visitor forty columns in tota. This makes me smile but I wonder how many people leave feeling short-changed or wasted time looking for another set of columns elsewhere on the premises.
Like the matchstick columns of the Ali Qapu Palace, these ridiculously tapered wooden columns soar above us and prop up the most beautiful painted roof. Behind the terrace gives way to to a mirrored portico and the dazzling reflections off the Venetian glass bring light to the inner depths of the building.
Inside there are a series of frescoes of portraits which fill these otherwise empty halls with life and populate them with the graceful and elegant poses of Safavids.
In the next chamber the tempo of the frescoes changes and on one wall the crowded battle scene with elephants charging horses, horses charging people and people charging people and the flash of the sabres overwhelms the onlooker. But the scene is somewhat sanitised and the although the energy of the Battle of Karnal is present only a few heads have rolled. On the opposite wall is a depiction of the Battle of Chaldiran. Never has war looked so pristine and brightly coloured.
Outside, on a side terrace, calm is once more restored and the portraits of embassadors and dignitaries command a serene presence.
It has been a morning of visual explosions and tranquil experiences and lunch comes as a welcome break though in truth I’m not convinced I have truly absorbed everything I have seen. We drop down into the depths of a basement restaurant where an elaborate preparation of a meat soup is performed with dedication at the table.
We are left to our own devices after lunch and a group of us immerse ourselves into the frenetic activity in the bazaar. Rugs are pulled out, put back, new ones pulled out and old ones returned to. The shop keepers energy is unfailing though they begin to show the small cracks of wanting to close the deal. The shoppers meanwhile are happy to discuss, admire the purchases of others, pull out more rugs to look at and inevitably chose the ones they had originally been drawn to. I sit and watch and occasionally get covered in a slumped pile of unwanted rugs as the process continues. There is much to and fro-ing over the price and while the customers haggle the shopkeepers act out the drama by the wearing pained expressions as if they are being robbed. In the end a price is agreed and everyone feels the theatre of the sale has been rewarded. But the shop keepers are experts and are well versed in giving the customer the sense of satisfaction at no loss to themselves. It’s a performance well worth being in the audience for.
I meet one of the group a little later to capture the evening light in the main squarethrough my lens. I admit that my companion makes more of an effort than I do – borrowing a plastic stool from a shop in the bazaar, he heads to the centre of the square and stands on it in order to get an elevated view much to the bewilderment of the locals. I remain content to use the height afforded to me by my own legs and happily catch the evening light as it hits the dome of the mosque. When he later mounts the metal frame of a dustbin I relent and pass him up my camera and gladly reap the benefit of his shot without the need to cause ripples of laughter from the onlookers.
As the sun sets, we find a tea house, order the local delicacy and sit in a small, dimly lit courtyard awaiting our beverage. It arrives. Now, I’m not an habitual drinker of tea but the contents of my cup look anything but like a cup of tea and resemble a spring meadow with what looked like a cherry tomato bobbing in the centre. A sugar stick is provided but even after dunking it I can safely say it tasted like chomping on flowers rather than tea leaves. Maybe I should stick to coffee…