Over 20 years ago I visited India for the first time. Agra was on our itinerary because, well, it was nearby and our guidebook probably recommended a good place to stay. Of course we visited the Taj Mahal. We also visited the Red Fort, took a rickshaw ride, and ate lots of naan. It’s not like I went to India to see the Taj Mahal.
But one could. The Taj Mahal was simply the most beautiful building I had ever seen. And it still is. After that visit, I researched and read, learned that the Taj Mahal is a fine example of Persian architecture and that if you want to see anything similar or comparable, you must go to Samarkand or Esfahan. Both cities have been on my list of places to visit ever since.
The Taj Mahal can well be appreciated from the Persian garden at the front of the building. In Iran, however, it seems that most of the treasures and beauty are hidden — behind walls and veils. For years visitors came to Esfahan to admire the public mosque, Shah Mosque. The real treasure it turns out was just a couple hundred meters away at the Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque, a private place of worship, reserved for the Persian royalty. According to our guide Ali, Dr. Arthur Pope, whose tomb we visited in Esfahan, spent years cataloguing Persian architecture in an epic multi-volume tome and declared the dome of the Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque in Esfahan to be the pinnacle of Persian Islamic architecture. Or something like that.
The dome is stunning. The tile work designs are all made with individual small pieces of tile. It’s simply mind-boggling.
Outside on the huge square (Naqsh-e Jahan Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site) we find this mosque on one side, the royal palace (Ali Qapu) opposite it, the public mosque on another side, and opposite it, the bazaar. Thus the clergy, the royalty, the public, and the merchants are represented on each side of this large public space.
What I found crazy is after a ~30 minute walk through the covered bazaar, one comes to another huge, though older, square with another World Heritage Site, the older Friday Mosque. These squares are so similar that it seems Shah Abbas, satisfying his ego while building his capital 400 years ago, duplicated Esfahan’s main square nearby, only bigger and much more extravagant. The amount of resources — time, effort, money — that went into Naqsh-e Jahan Square is unfathomable.
With one incredible site after another I got overwhelmed in Esfahan and immune to the beauty of yet another intricately-tiled iwan. Our final day in Esfahan (and Iran) was a bit more mellow with stops at some of the historic bridges over the Zayanderud River and an Armenian church at Julfa. Our tour packed so many of Iran’s highlights into a fairly intense 11-day itinerary. Time will tell if Esfahan has such a lasting impression on me like the Taj Mahal did. What really makes me happy when I think about the trip now is how wonderfully welcoming and friendly the Iranians were to a group of US tourists.