9th May 2018
The last time I was in Esfahan was May 8th 1997. Remember what happened that day? Tony Blair won the first of his three elections to become the British Prime Minister. And in Iran everyone wanted to talk about it. Well, that and Manchester United's impending triumph in that year's premier league. Sitting in the town's historic main square, the Naqsh-e-Jahan, it surprised me greatly that the Iranians were so well informed and that they cared. I immediately fell in love with the place.
I was in Iran through curious circumstances. In Delhi needing to get home, a friend bet me I couldn't reach London travelling overland for the same price that he could flying. Accepting the wager enthusiastically, I set off with £229 in my pocket (the same as the cost of his single fair on Emirates) and travelled from Delhi through Pakistan - by way of Lahore, Multan and Quetta - into Iran and up to Esfahan. I had intended on staying a single night so as to save precious funds but I was so struck by the beauty of the famous blue tiles and mosaics of the Majid-e-Shah, I figured even if it meant losing the bet I simply could not rush through; when, if ever, would I be back? And so I stayed an extra day - which, incidentally, besides one night in a sleeper train between Bucarest and Budapest, was my only other night spent horizontally - and enjoyed a gorgeous day in this most mythical of towns.
And now I am back again, exactly 21 years later. Has it changed? Probably. To be honest that last journey through Iran was such a whirlwind I really don't remember that much about it. 'Half the world', was how one French traveller described the city when passing through in the 16th century and for good reason. When Shah Abbas was the king of the Persian Safadid Empire, it was said the city's economy - derived from both taxing goods passing through on the Silk Road and a large local manufacturing base - was bigger than that of France. And many of the sites, built in that golden age, are still remarkable today.
So over our two days here we have seen most of the town's main attractions. We started our tour by visiting the Palace of Forty Pillars. The palace actually only has 20 pillars, the other 20 being reflected in the pool in front, but it's inner walls are covered in fabulous mirror work and frescoes depicting scenes from Persian history. From here we walked to the enormous and exquisite Jameh Majid, a place I am sorry to say I totally overlooked on my last visit.
We then crossed the river into the Armenian Quater where we had lunch before spending time at the Armenian church. From here we visited the Khuja Bridge, famed for its duel purpose of both bridge and weir. It did serve a third purpose too, as many of the arches doubled as chaikhanas, or teahouses, but sadly they are all gone these days. As is the water in the Zayandeh River, Iran has a chronic shortage of water and diverting the river to serve Qom as well as Esfahan a few years ago means neither city now gets enough.
And then we have spent almost all of today in the town's main square. The Naqsh-e-Jahan is the second largest civic square in the world, with only Tienaman Square boasting a greater size. The central area was originally used as a polo ground but is now laid out with pretty flower beds and fountains. And this urban park is surrounded by elegant two story, arched bazaars, punctuated by the magnificent - although these days rather shabby - Majid-e-Shah at the southern end (representing religion), the entrance to the main bazaar at the north (representing the economy) the royal palace of Shah Abbas to the west (representing politics) and Majid and Madrasa of Sheik Lotfollah to the east (representing education). Having the luxury of a free afternoon we were able to take our time and enjoy all these amazing sites at our own pace.
And of course being a culinary tour we have also been eating well and under Simi's expert guidance trying out the various famed dishes of the town. Walnut, syrup and pomegranate chicken, a rich dish called beryooni made partially of sheep's lungs and a delicious saffron infused pudding made with (I kid you not) lamb's neck. I'd never have guessed.
Tomorrow we continue our journey north to Kashan, the city of roses.