Article Published in THE HINDUSTAN TIMES

Half of every thing

Navtej Sarna

Isfahan, to the locals, is half the world. In reality, however, it has the best of two worlds. Those of constructed and seismic architecture

Isfahan-nesf-e-jahan. Or Isfahan is half the world. Driving the 400km from Tehran to Isfahan, on a road as smooth as a billiard table, this pithy proverb drummed in my head as anticipation built up at the prospect of visiting a city whose name has always me spelt a strange magic. It was certainly true that this famous half of the world lay across some of the most dramatic countryside that I have ever seen. The road arcs gently down from Tehran leaving on its left the central salt desert of Iran with its endless arid distances and white salt lakes. Outcrops of rock strewn without any plan or method heighten the desolation and jagged peaks rear the clear morning sky. The land is one of barren beauty, splendid in its masculine grandeur.

The mellow light of late afternoon with a hint of impending rain lights up Isfahan as we drive through the wide boulevard with its rows of trees, past the ancient houses and crowded streets until there is the first view of the turquoise dome of a mosque. It is only natural that any visit to this city must start from the Imam square, known in earlier times as Naqsh-e-Jahan (plan of the world). It’s a huge square, magnificent in its symmetry and scale, awe-inspiring in its sweep. At one end is the ancient, labyrinthine bazaar of Isfahan. Across the square is the huge Imam Khomeini mosque, a masterpiece of architecture, tile work and stone carrying from the Shah Abbas period of the early 17th century. Inside the mosque is sweeping collection of courtyards and minarets and huge domes. The yellow light of the afternoon sun brings to life the azure tiles. On the two lateral sides of the square are two other architectural masterpieces. One is the Ali Qapu palace with its stalactite work of the music room and its towering verandah of wooden pillars on the third floor from where the entire city can be viewed. From this verandah, the eye cannot look further than to the pearl of architecture across the square, the Sheykh Lotfollah mosque, its dome lit up by the rosy light rivaling the peaks beyond for a place in the sky.

The Zayendeh rud flows lazily through Isfahan in the languid manner of all great rivers that flow through great cities. In the chill of the evening, it reflects many things and many lights. But the place to be is where it reflects the lights of the ancient bridges of Isfahan. That evening I walked three of them, each with its own peculiar architecture and character. The Pol-e-Khaju with its footpaths on three levels, small chambers decorated with paintings, covered galleries cut through the sides and heavy foundations which serve to dam the river. The Allahverdi Khan bridge or Sioseh pol with its 33 arches built earlier in 1602 by Allahverdi khan at the time of Shah Abbas I. The third is the smaller, compact pedestrian bridge. There are many teahouses on these bridges - the small crowded cosy teahouse under the pedestrian bridge where one can sit for hours in an alcove, sipping black tea and watching those who do, puff away at hubble-bubbles or the hookah. This teahouse is crowded with bric-a-brac; endless numbers of things hang from the wall and the ceiling among the paintings and the photographs of famous wrestlers. But it is the teahouses on either end of the Sioseh pol that really attract me. The tables are set on the arches of the bridge and the waiters carrying the tea trays and the refreshed hubble bubbles jumps across the flowing water of the river.

But there are other things that beckon in this city. The Armenian quarter of Jolfa also established during the reign of Shah Abbas I, who transported Armenian artisans and craftsmen to Isfahan from the Jolfa on the Araxes river. Here, there is the ancient and beautiful church of Vank with its rich museum, sunlit courtyard, gentle pine trees and priests in black robes. There is the Chehel Sotun (or 40 pillars) Palace. It only has 18 pillars but their reflection in the waterway of the palace gives the illusion of 40. The walls of the palace are covered with precious paintings marking various events of Shah Abbas’ reign. One of them shows the reception of Humayun in the Persian court and another one, probably a later addition, shows Nadir Shah engaged in battle.

But two days are not enough for a city which is supposed to encompass half the world. It is the kind of city where one has to walk around for days, watch the light make silhouettes, see the sun set and rise and, all the time, drink endless cups of tea in the tea houses. And we have left the bazaar for the last. I take only a quick look at the long lanes full of carpets, shoes, and brass work. Lit by the sunlight filtering through the domed roof. Leaving the others to wander the lanes, I buy two old coins of British India from an old coin seller for a song and retire joyfully to a sunlit balcony of a teahouse near the entrance to the bazaar.