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Monday, February 6th, 2023

Spellbinding sights in Iran’s city of picnickers

Isfahan’s population of close to two million people makes it the third largest city in Iran behind Tehran, 450 kilometres to the north with a population of nine million people, and Mashad in the north-east of the country, which has a population of three million.

Mesgarha Bazaar in Isfahan.Credit:Donya Hassani Nezhad

The warm, dry climate in May (while vacationing there this year) meant the temperature was not uncomfortable, as long as you take advantage of shade when and where it becomes available.

One of the best places to keep out of the sun is the bustling, magnificent Naghsh-e Jahan Square, a World Heritage Site which, at 560 metres by 160 metres, is one of the oldest and largest public squares anywhere in the world.

The entire perimeter of Naghsh-e Jahan Square is lined with the many shops that make up the Imperial Bazaar, where you can by anything from jewellery to hand made Persian carpets, antiques and exquisite termeh, the handwoven decorative cloth that’s found in so many Iranian homes.

Walking through the bazaar, particularly the area known as Mesgarha, there’s a constant ‘tink, tink, tink’ sound ringing out as craftsmen shape copper pots, jugs, plates and bowls with their hammers. Walk a little further and you come across yet more craftsmen, this time moulding iron into decorative pieces, often used for Shia religious ceremonies.

At the south end of the bazaar is the Shah Mosque, also known as the Emam Mosque and it is a must see for anybody fortunate enough to visit Isfahan. Inside, the eye-popping, glorious colour of the thousands of tiles decorating every inch of the the walls and ceilings have an enormously calming effect.

Shah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran.Credit:Donya Hassani Nezhad

On one side of Naghsh-e Jahan Square with it’s wide verandah overlooking the entire area below, is Aali Qapu Palace, first built in 1519 during the Safavid dynasty. Today its six levels are a reminder of where Isfahan’s monarchs once entertained visitors from far and wide across the Middle East, its many rooms still attracting hundreds of sightseers, like myself, each day.

As the hot sun lowers in the sky, it’s a beautiful time of day to wander out of the Imperial Bazaar and take a stroll through one of Isfahan’s many glorious parks, or catch a Snap (the local version of Uber) towards the Zayanderud.

Si-o-se-pol is the largest of the 11 bridges crossing the river and one of the cities most popular with tourists and locals. As day turns to night the lights on Si-o-se-pol shimmer in a golden glow on the vast river, which this year stopped flowing for many months as Isfahan and the surrounding area had a prolonged dry spell.

Shah Abassi Hotel in Isfahan.Credit:Donya Hassani Nezhad

On this part of my trip through the interior of Iran, venturing from Tehran to Shiraz, I’ve treated myself to a night in Isfahan’s celebrated Shah Abassi Hotel, an ornately decorated 400-year-old building, most recently renovated in 1950.

First built as a caravansary to provide lodgings for those travelling vast distances across the unforgiving Persian plateau, Shah Abassi is now a modern, upmarket oasis for travellers to this extraordinary part of the world.

The lush, expansive garden features a grand fountain, ideal for relaxing by while enjoying some faloodeh, a traditional Persian dessert, similar to a sorbet with rose water.

Martin Boulton is EG Editor at The Age and Shortlist Editor at the Sydney Morning Herald