The splendor of Isfahan came during its reconstruction by the Safavid monarch Shah Abbas I, who moved his capital here at the end of the 16th century. Monuments from the Safavid era include palaces, mosques, minarets, churches, gardens, bridges, and caravanserais, many of which are considered masterpieces of Islamic art today. Naqsh-e Yahán (Mirror of the World) square, as well as the Aljama Mosque of Isfahan have been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The city of Isfahan, called “the Middle of the World”, is the third most populous city in Iran, located in the heart of the country. Among the Christian churches dating back to the 17th century, Vank Cathedral and St. Mary’s Church are dazzling. Also, Ali Qapu Mansion, Menar Jonban, Khaju Bridge and Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque are other historical works of this city.
Isfahan has a long tradition of making high-quality carpets and silver jewelry.
Antiquities of Isfahan
Naqsh-e Jahan Square
Naqsh-e Jahan Square (image of the world), also known as Plaza Real, with an area of 80,000 m2 – 512 meters long and 163 meters wide – is the second largest square in the world. This square, which over time became the commercial center of Isfahan, is surrounded by historical monuments of the Safavid era: to the north is the Portico of Qeysarieh, to the south the Imam Mosque, to the west the Palace of Ali Qapu and to the east is the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque. At the bottom are two hundred shops where most Iranian handicrafts are produced and sold, such as miniatures, turquoise work, enamels and traditional tablecloths. In this square, there are still the polo poles that were built in order to limit the polo field 400 years ago.
Sheikh Lotfaollah Mosque
The delicate pale pink dome blends seamlessly with the sumptuous Imam Mosque, also built during the reign of Shah Abbas I in the early 17th century and named after a famous Shiite preacher of that era. This mosque served as a private chapel for the shah and his harem throughout the Safavid reign. Contrary to common practice, the mosque has neither minarets nor an inner courtyard. The dome of the mosque is 32 meters high. The peculiar architectural style along with the amazing religious structure makes this mosque the most splendid of all.
Today called the Imam Mosque, it is a masterpiece of Persian-Islamic architecture, whose construction began in 1611 and lasted 18 years. Completed in 1629, the last year of Shah Abbas’s reign, the decoration of the building continued even after his death. Its rich blue mosaic domes and minarets are fascinating and noted for their floral and geometric designs and their delicate calligraphy of the names Muhammad and Ali. The inner courtyard, decorated with an ablution basin, is surrounded by four majestic porticoes (iwans). Its interior is worthy of moments of silent contemplation.
Ali Qapu Palace
The unmistakable silhouette of this residential and ceremonial palace of the Safavid kings, towers dominating the western side of the great square of Naqsh-e Jahan and is considered a masterpiece of the Safavid period. The palace, founded in 1597, was established on the site of a garden pavilion that most historians attribute to the Timurid period. This 38-meter-high palace consists of four floors, a hypostyle veranda and a music chamber, prized for reflecting sounds. During Shah Abbas’s reign, the sector called Bastkhaneh was the place where convicts and perpetrators were kept unleashed and unpunished until they could pay the penalty for their crimes.
Chehel Sotun Palace
“Palace of Forty Columns” was built by Shah Abbas I as a small pavilion for private ceremonies. A few meters from the Naqsh-e Jahan square, there is another magnificent Persian garden in the courtyard of this pavilion with an area of 67,000 m2. The Persian miniature paintings in this palace open a door of historical tales to visitors.
Located south of Isfahan, with a height of 2257 meters, it offers athletes the possibility of climbing and hiking for all fans, who want to walk through the ruins of ancient castles. Also, there is a small zoo, restaurants and a cable car that takes you directly to the top, which offers a magnificent and exceptional view of the city.
Haj Mirza Cafe
A cafe whose walls are completely covered with photographs, paintings, lamps or other decorations. Azadegan teahouse looks like a real cave of wonders where older men are the regulars and tell entertaining anecdotes to tourists and give them a clearer picture of Isfahan. It is recommended to try dough, an Iranian yogurt drink, saffron ice cream, herbal teas and even traditional dishes such as Babaganush or Ash-e reshteh (vegetable soup).
Where the combination of black and white colors and its modernist lamps creates an elegant and futuristic atmosphere. The menu of this cafe satisfies the needs of the western clientele with a wide range of salads, pastas, pizzas and hamburgers. Their catchphrase is: fresh food and good coffee.
A caravanserai belonging to the seventeenth century which has been transformed into a hotel complex and an exquisite building that is worth visiting, even a stay. The rooftop restaurant offers a particularly pleasant view (open in summer), and the courtyard teahouse is not without charm.
Located on the north side of the Plaza del Imán, next to the bazaar where tea and infusions are served with a fantastic view of the square. Contrary to the interior featuring colorful photos and decorations, the terrace provides a more serene atmosphere. It is worth visiting at different times of the day to observe the various states of the largest square in Iran.
Julfa Armenian Quarter
This area dates back to the time of Shah Abbas I, who moved the Armenian community from Julfa in Azerbaijan (on the northern border of Iran) due to their skills as merchants and artists to promote the economic prosperity of their capital. Jolfa is one of the most visited neighborhoods in Iran for housing a dozen religious monuments such as the famous Cadetral Vank, built in the 17th century decorated with a mixture of Islamic and Christian imagery. The religious freedom of the Armenians was assured, even though they were confined in this neighborhood. In a short time, non-Iranian merchants, industrialists, Christian missionaries, and Armenians contributed to the prosperity of Isfahan, making Julfa a showcase for Shah Abbas’s achievements.
The cathedral and its adjacent museum chronicle the Armenian diaspora who have lived outside their homeland for more than 300 years. This church is considered the most important architectural and artistic treasure of the Armenians in Isfahan. Iran not only knew how to welcome its guests, but more importantly, it protected them from the social conflicts that threatened them. Today, in the courtyard of the Vank Cathedral, the Armenians have inaugurated an anthropology museum with such precision and care that you can immerse yourself in real culture thanks to the information displayed in the galleries of these historical exhibits of the Armenian people. But it does not end here, since the Vank Cathedral is not the only church in Isfahan that invites the Armenian community to religious celebrations and, most importantly, to commemorations of the genocide.
In fact, every year on April 24, Armenians gather at Vank Cathedral to commemorate the deportation of approximately 1.5 million of their compatriots. As you enter the beautiful courtyard of the Vank Church, you see one of the most important Armenian historical monuments, dedicated to those who lost their lives in this tragedy. The construction of the cathedral began during the reign of Shah Abbas II and the Armenian community covered the costs, while the interior paintings were carried out with funding from Khajeh Avadich Stepanusian. The portal inscription, inscribed in Armenian, contains the name of Shah Abbas II and the dates 1692 and 1701 AD. C. as the beginning and ending of the church.
It is the largest mosque in Iran belonging to the Safavid era. This place is believed to be sacred to Zoroastrians and the first mosque was built at this place in the 11th century. Two of the domes from this period survived the 12th century fire, which destroyed most of the structure. The building has a complex plasterwork composition with special materials, consisting of three-dimensional inscriptions mixed with carved and geometric floral patterns. The mosque has two completely distinguishable spaces; the interior and the exterior. The admiration of the monochrome bricks on the inside and the turquoise blue on the outside is inevitable. The transition from one space to another allows us to travel back in time, especially when we are under the magnificent dome of Taj al-Muluk which is the most beautiful brick dome among the ancient monuments of Iran. This mosque has been repeatedly rebuilt and enlarged by successive rulers.
Established in the 70s, it is a large aviary with more than 5000 species of birds, mainly from Iran, but also from Asian and African countries. The different areas are arranged according to the characteristics of each species, such as a pond for flamingos and ducks. In addition, the area is home to multi-colored parrots. Many vendors offer visitors cheap food to feed the birds.
(Bridge of 33 arches) one of the exemplary bridges of the city, notable for its two-level structure. The bridge also serves to regulate the water level of the river it crosses, and therefore acts both a cultural role and an infrastructure role. The 33 arch bridge is the most famous one that crosses the Zayandeh Rud River and has always been a great option to visit. This river is one of the longest in Iran and is about 480 kilometers long.
Built during the reign of Shah Abbas II around 1650 AD., the bridge consists of two floors, the corridor and the recreation area. This wonderful structure is 132 meters long and 12 meters wide. The original paintings and terracotta tiles are still visible in parts, as well as stone benches where the court and its dignitaries sat to enjoy picturesque shows and acoustic competitions during the Safavid period.