Laidback, graceful Esfahan is centred on Imam Square, one of the world's great ensembles of Islamic architecture. Brian Johnston takes a stroll through history.
In the cool of evening, the last sun dusts the top of shimmering domes with gold as pigeons coo and flutter under glorious blue porticoes. Locals clip-clop in horse-drawn carriages and lick mounds of ice-cream as they admire dancing fountains and the great historic buildings around them. Imam Square is one of the world's largest urban spaces and the monumental epicentre of the Safavid dynasty, but at night becomes a beautiful, intimate living room in which to gossip, giggle and relax.
Imam Square is the living room of Esfahan, a city once at the heart of a grand empire. Sitting astride diplomatic and trade routes across Iran, Esfahan's history goes back 2500 years, but reached its zenith in the early 17th century, when Shah Abbas the Great made it his capital. As well as instigating a grand building spree, Abbas encouraged international artisans, traders and theologians to the city. At his death in 1629, Esfahan was one of the world's most populous cities, and rivalled Constantinople in splendour.
These days, the entire centre of Iran's second-largest city is World Heritage-listed, but nearly all its best monuments surround Imam Square. Topping the list is elegant Imam Mosque (previously called Shah Mosque) to the south, covered in sumptuous pale blue and yellow tiles in complex patterns. The grand portal entrance is flanked by soaring minarets 40 metres tall, while the main dome is covered in Persian floral mosaics.
Imam Mosque is often cited as one of the world's most beautiful religious buildings, but Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque on the square's east side is exquisite, and on a more intimate scale. A mighty dome with high windows lets in a filtered light on white arabesques and tiles of rich dark blue, making you feel as if you've stumbled on a little corner of paradise. Such a sight elsewhere would be jammed with tourists, but in Iran you might enjoy it all to yourself.
Bad PR discourages tourism to Iran, and hotels with rooms resembling 1970s motels fall short of international standards. Still, there's little else to deter you from a visit, as a steady trickle of foreign travellers and tour groups have already discovered. Iran is full of surprises, and nothing like its portrayal on television news. It's a safe travelling destination, and the people you encounter are little bothered by religion, and eager to offer assistance. You only have to loiter in Imam Square of an evening to strike up conversations with friendly university students.
You should certainly have no qualms plunging into the crowded, shadowy world of the Bazaar-e Bozorg, which collides with Imam Square along its northern edge. This splendid piece of venerable Islamic architecture has a maze of dome-topped, covered passageways occasionally illuminated by shafts of sunlight. Though some sections date back a millennium, the bazaar remains a vibrant part of daily Esfahan life.
Dim carpet shops sit beside silk-shimmering scarf stalls, the battered junk of ages fills every corner, and busy shoppers buy peaches, dried fruit and freshly-flipped rounds of flatbread. Craftsmen tap with hammers on brass, paint miniatures with squirrel-hair brushes or work on twisted candlesticks, which are offered as a wedding present in Iran. Traders sit in dim corners, muttering into their mobile phones behind piles of paperwork.
Palaces are Imam Square's last architectural wonder. Along the square's western side, Ali Qapu Palace was both a residence for Shah Abbas and a soaring, monumental gateway leading from Imam Square to parklands and Chehel Sotun pleasure pavilion beyond. It has tight little rooms gleaming with murals, mosaics and multicoloured Islamic stuccowork, but the highlight when you clamber up through its six storeys is the tremendous view over the elegance of Imam Square.
Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Dubai (14½ hours) with onward connections to Esfahan on Fly Dubai (2hr). Phone 1300 303 777, see emirates.com/au
Small budget Iran Hotel (iranhotel.biz) in a quiet backstreet has English-speaking management, good rooms and a smattering of style. Dibai Heritage House (dibaihouse.com) inhabits a blue-painted historic courtyard mansion.
Brian Johnston travelled at his own expense but flew courtesy Emirates Airlines.