Iran Odyssey Day 13: Esfahan


Waking to another day in Esfahan is like waking into a dream, though I’ll admit the fact that we got driven to a dank underpass in the middle of nowhere where we had to leave the bus was a little shy of dream-like. We got ushered through some less than desirable narrow streets towards the Masjid-I Jameh Mosque, one of the oldest in Iran.

We pass through an entrance of cool coloured hues and plunge into a world of earth-coloured brick architecture. The space is a dizzying array of pillars and vaults and each pillar is lovingly decorated by perforations in the brickwork. The space has an eerie atmosphere as the repetition of the architectural elements help to disorientate and the voices echo around the cavernous underbelly of this vast space.



The history of this building is complex and I soon understand that we are seeing a microcosm of the entire architectural history of Iranian mosques in one place. My eye is caught by a solitary figure standing motionless and serene at the back of the building just staring through a narrow recess at an inscription. Her poise and gaze are uninterrupted and as the rest of the group move to the next room and the echoes die away it is just me and her in the room. I cannot help but be struck by her grace and feel as if I am intruding by taking photographs of her but she doesn’t flinch even though the whir and click of my camera shutter now echoed as loudly as the voices had. I moved away slowly and never discovered what the inscription was that she had been reading so intently.


I joined the others in an imposing room and lift my eyes to the brick dome high above us. There was little decoration other than the play of brick formations and as light shafted in from windows the dust dancing in the air was spotlit.


This is the earlier part of the mosque dating to the 11th century and is in sharp contrast to the brightly glazed tiles decorating the later parts of the mosque that greet us in full sunshine as we pass through a door. As the group’s eyes adjust to the harsh light the more familiar architectural layout of soaring facades of the iwans around a courtyard with their minarets pronging the sky, come into view.


I’m not quite mosque weary because each one we have visited has differed so greatly from the one before but I content myself with wandering away from the history lesson being given by our guide and saunter through the rooms by myself. Instead, I test myself on what I have remembered of mosque architecture. I check off the list the main elements that have been a wonderful recurring theme throughout this trip: mihrab, squinches, minbar, hypostyles… check. I obviously pass my own test with flying colours.



While I wait for our group to assemble I wander the little bazaar at the entrance to the mosque and soon discover that this is the place to buy a chador. I would think one dressed mannequin would be sufficient to demonstrate the garment but evidently I’m no marketing expert as apparently rows of identical mannequins are required, each with a descriptive label. There is more to buying a chador than meets the eye. I, however, am not tempted.

Our next destination was an Armenian cathedral. Vank Cathedral, is a surprise to the uninitiated and I was very much uninitiated. Wandering through the portico outside the Cathedral I discover the most beautiful soft and delicate wall paintings.



In contrast, the rich colour of the paintings inside the cathedral is the first thing that grabs you. The second thing grabs you pretty swiftly after that. Having been in numerous mosques with decorative glazed tiles it was quite a shock to be suddenly reminded of the Biblical concepts of heaven and hell. Hell, particularly. The gory scenes of what awaits those in the queue for hell were quite something – a world of ravenous blood-thirsty monsters and their human prey being eaten and dismembered. Give me the serene and calming bluey-green tiles of a mosque any day.


After that experience the last thing I expected was that I was going to fall quite so in love with Armenian art in the museum opposite the cathedral. But I did. The depictions of wide-eyed Armenians in various 13th and 14th century Gospel manuscripts were just glorious and the perfect antidote to the Technicolor hellish scenes in the church. The courtyard of the complex was punctuated with relief carvings on a very distinctive grey stone and up close the artwork had some lovely child-like naivety about it that made me smile and made me warm to these settlers.


I later learnt that the Armenian deportees had started to build the cathedral in 1606 and the architecture resembled that of a mosque but it was ‘Archbishop David’ who was responsible for later additions including the traumatising scenes of the underworld. My sympathy for these poor displaced people grew.

Grabbing a coffee in the shop opposite Vank Cathedral was a delight. The Armenians know what they are doing with coffee and frankly, the sight of a fresh espresso convinced me that I could quite happily live in Esfahan and not want for anything (except alcohol, obviously).

Our lunch stop was a little drama-filled as one of the group was suddenly and quite violently taken ill but we were assured they would be cared for back in the hotel and so on we went with our afternoon trip.

Events at lunch had distracted me from eating much, which was just as well since our next site, a Fire Temple, lay on top of a hill and climbing up on foot on a full stomach would have been nauseating to say the least. The path started out just fine – a gradual zig-zag up the slope was within all the group’s means.


Atashgah Fire Temple complex from the foot of the hill

Half way up was still fine but some of the group were feeling a little challenged and the number of people ascending, declined. Then suddenly the gentle path gave way into what I can only and perhaps over-dramtically, call a ‘death shute’. The outcrop of rock at the top of the hill had been worn smooth by the millions of feet that had made it that far and the steep angle of the rock face was now sprinkled in a light dusting of crumbled stone that practically speaking, acted like marbles on the surface of a mirror. I might as well have been wearing rollerskates. Balance was paramount and suddenly any slight movement of my bag, and camera, which had been casually slung over my shoulder, could be the contributory factor that unbalanced me and send me hurtling to my death.  The only way up to the top, I decided was to grapple along the ground on all fours and lunge out to reach any nodule of rock in a small gully that could act as leverage. Thing is, as I was wishing I had packed crampons and was writhing around on the floor, Iranian women in completely inappropriate footwear, namely slip on high heels, seemed to be getting better purchase than I on this death shute. They were having to step over me. It was humiliating. As I looked downwards (big mistake) I noticed that luckily some of my group had not made it up this far so I was sure I could regale them with the dramatic story of my ascent without them ever knowing I had basically been a doormat to the locals. Unfortunately, by the time I had scrambled up to the fortress I found many of my group already up there admiring the view and I appeared to be the only member with dust all over my knees. I took in the view, snapped a photograph and decided to make a hasty retreat fearing that if the death shute had been perilous on the way up then going down was going to be terrifying. I was right and elected to ride it out on my bum. Safety first.


View from the top of Atashgah (post death-shute ascent)

At the bottom of the hill I needed a stiff whisky but a glug of water had to suffice. Somewhat shakily the group all clamber back into our vehicle and we were transported along the river Zayandeh-Rood (translates as ‘life giver’). Famous for its bridges we cruise past a few and are eventually dropped off at one end of the Khaju Bridge.


The Khaju Bridge

Not only did this bridge serve as a link between the Zoroastrian quarter and the Khaju quarter, it’s architecture lent itself to being a place where public meetings could be held. Today, a road takes pedestrians across the river on the upper level but this once would have served wheeled traffic.


A group of Iranians on the bridge

On the lower level, above the the various sluices that help regulate the flow of the river, is an area for the pedestrian to wander and enjoy the shade. A pavilion in the centre of the bridge juts out over the water and it is from here Shah Abbas II would have taken tea and enjoyed the view. It teemed with people today and the lower level was bustling with families having picnics to the sound of rushing water below them.


Lower level of the Khaju Bridge

The early evening was spent wandering the stalls in the bazaar watching a member of our group delight in trying on local outfits and causing much mirth amongst the shop owners. We then sit at the entrance to the bazaar as the evening light turns to orange, shelling monkey nuts and reliving some of our favourite moments from the trip. Tomorrow we complete our circuit and return to Tehran and sadly it already feels as though our Iranian adventure is over.


Dusk in Esfahan

4 thoughts on “Iran Odyssey Day 13: Esfahan

    1. pompei79 Post author

      Thank you so much. I love that image too because it was such an intense moment with us both being transfixed: her by the inscription and me by her.


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