Half the world – Isfahan, Iran

The bus from Ramsar reached Isfahan early in the morning. It was almost freezing when I got out, the temperatures dropped to as low as 4 degrees Celsius just before dawn, then quickly climbed back up to twenty during the day. Walking to a cab and pointing at a random hotel in the Lonely Planet didn’t work as well as it usually does. The hotel was full, as were the next eight hotels.

Naqsh-e Jahan Square, Lotfollah MosqueIt was busy in Isfahan, and this was due to a celebration. The so-called Twelver branch of Shiah Islam believe in the Twelve Imams, the spiritual and political successors of the prophet Muhammad. They were celebrating the first successor that Muhammad appointed hundreds and hundreds of years ago, Ali. And when I say celebrate, I mean they drank more tea.

The twelfth of the twelve imams is missing. Nobody knows what happened to him, he’s turned into some ethereal ghost and Shia muslims eagerly await his return so that everything will change. It is eerily similar to the Jesus and the rapture story. Khomeini, of course, became the thirteenth imam.

Lotfollah Mosque entranceIsfahan itself is a gorgeous city and the most easily liked of the Iranian cities I went to. The streets are wide and there’s green everywhere. The people too seem to be more friendly and chipper than they are elsewhere, though in general you will find warmth and friendliness from Iranians all over this country.

In the center of Isafahan lies the Nagsh-e Jahan square, one of the biggest squares in the world right after Tianaman Square in China and the Red Square in Russia. It would be easy to joke about regimes loving their squares but this one was built by Shah Abbas and it’s construction started back in 1598 after he made Isfahan the capital of the Persian empire.

Shah Mosque entranceShah Abbas had a dream and he managed to realize it for the most part. The square would hold the largest mosque at the time, the biggest bazaar and his own palace. By bringing them all together in one place he effectively centralized all the power-structures of the Persian empire in one place, bringing an end to Persia’s decentralized power-structures it had before. Abbas turned Isfahan into a metropolitan city and in it housed people from all over the world, including Turks, Georgians, Armenians, Indians, Chinese and a growing number of Europeans. It makes it easy to understand the Persian proverb “Esfahān nesf-e jahān ast” (Isfahan is half the world).

Naqsh-e Jahan Square at night, Lotfollah Mosque entranceWondering this magnificent square today one can easily imagine how much greater it must have been more than four hundred years ago, something truly splendid for its time, especially given Isfahan’s barren surroundings. Today though, the face of Khomeini is pictured on several of the historical buildings and non-Persian visitors were few, a stark reminder of how what was once half the world has become a dream long lost in an isolated country.

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