DECIPHERING THE BLUE (Pt. 1) | Isfahan
When it comes to Iran’s most elusive city, there are layers of cultural intrigue to wade through. Siddharth Dasgupta goes unearthing the city’s past, and finds himself equally consumed by its complex cosmopolitanism.
Damascus lies decimated; Baghdad is a crippled shadow of its once regal self; Kabul stands stripped of the flavours that once made it one of the most distinguishable cities in the world. Clearly, the world’s oldest cities, through a mixture of war, invasion, despotic rulers, and extremist factions, are an endangered species. In this cultural and political milieu, cities such as Isfahan assume even greater significance. But shrouded in a veil of mystique and its mother country’s often-isolated status, the city remains an enigma. Not many travellers know about this most poetic of destinations; the few that do often have to wade through reams of misinformation to find their way. It’s time to sift through the myths and the truths in this exploration of a bona fide classic.
A Mosque is a mosque is a mosque | Myth
The truth is, mosques can be vastly varied in shape, form, size, and even the strength of their piety. Isfahan is a treasure-trove of these predominantly blue-tiled religious wonders, unfurling them at will across every neighbourhood. Aside from their religious significance, these mosques also serve as monumental canvasses for many of Isfahan’s fabled artistic forms – miniature paintings, coloured tiles, and intricate ceramic work included. As constant reminders of the city’s many pasts, with Seljuk, Safavid, and Sassanian signatures exerting their distinct influence over individual mosques, they remain the throbbing heart of the city’s original gene pool.
Masjid-e Jameh, or The Great Mosque (Majlesi St.), is Isfahan’s primary congregation mosque, and has been an evolving work of wonder for over a thousand years. The architectural document is a picture of urban integration, located in the midst of the old city and sharing wall space with other buildings that brush its perimeter. With the Grand Bazaar literally at its doorstep, Masjid-e Jameh doubles up as a pedestrian focal point through which traffic, people, and business is happily facilitated. Its four-courtyard layout and double-shelled ribbed domes are architectural rarities. At the endless maze of wonders that is Naqsh-e Jahan Square, meanwhile, Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah welcomes you to a single prayer chamber kissed by the sun’s cross-hatched rays, filtering in through windows that can only be described as exquisite. And just a few steps away, Masjed-e Shah preens and pouts in its drop-dead gorgeousness, its blue-half domed portal of enameled faience mosaics, seven-coloured ceramics, and painstaking calligraphic renditions offering stunning evidence of Persian artistry and chief designer Riza-I Abbasi’s enduring legacy.
Isfahan is famous for its bridges | Truth
It’s hard to walk a few steps in Isfahan without knocking into a bridge. Though the moniker of ‘City of a Thousand Bridges’ might today express itself in eleven such structures, every experience in this city is either accessed through, facilitated by, or begun from a bridge. Certain stylistic elements are common to all the bridges: the brick and ceramic essence; the mellow earth tone with a hint of red that is actually the city’s official colour, decreed on to the façade of every home and commercial structure; the archways that curve in regal fashion before uniting at a silent apex; and naturally, the eras from which they’ve been birthed. The most striking point of cohesion between them is Zayandeh Rud, the river that flows through Isfahan, slicing through eras, customs, and neighbourhoods. But the Zayandeh has been a melancholic creature of late, disappearing at will and without warning, often revealing a stark vastness of riverbed for much of the year; it has proved to be a source of poetic sorrow and recollection for many of this city’s residents.
Among the bridges, Khaju takes bragging rights as the prettiest. Its archways are embellished with blue tile work and stories from the long-ago, while its warm yellow glow façade at night is a beacon of sorts for poets, wanderers, and lovers alike. But it is Si-o-Seh Pol (Enghelab Sq. Chahar Bagh-e Abbasi St.), she of the thirty-three arches, that is the most revered. One can almost sense Shah Abbas the Great’s presence in its brooding spaces, one can almost feel the Zayandeh’s fragility as one looks out on to a dry riverbed… and within its lower-level grottos that reside on the same level as the river, including one that houses a teahouse filled with chatter and laughter whenever the river is alive, one can almost reach out and touch this city’s tangible old secrets.
Part 1 of a 3-Part Series. First appeared as the Cover Feature in National Geographic Traveller, India (August, 2017) ~ http://www.natgeotraveller.in/paradise-found-uncovering-the-layers-of-irans-most-elusive-city/*