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  • Shelley Dark

#14 Imam Square and Ali Qapu Palace

Today was a two palace day! First the Chehel Sotoun Palace. Shah Abbas II was the seventh Safavid Shah of Iran, ruling from 1642 to 1666. He finished the pavilion in 1647 basing the design on the Achaemenid idea of a porch with columns to bridge the gap between garden and interior. It was rebuilt after a fire in 1706.

On the porch the twenty slender ribbed wooden pillars sit on stone plinths. Above is a superb wooden ceiling with crossbeams and exquisite inlay work as you can see below.

Detail of inlay work under the ceiling and the eaves.

Chehel Sotun means ‘40 pillars’ – because when the twenty pillars are reflected in the pool in front, they appear as 40. Interestingly not all the pillars are guarded by lions like this one. Perhaps they've disappeared over the centuries.

side view of Chehel Sotoun porch

Forty is also a number which in Persian is used to represent any large number, as in Ali Barber and the Forty Thieves.

The Great Hall has some delightful frescoes portraying court life and some of the great battles of the Safavid era.

There's an impressive mirror glass iwan at the entrance to the Great Hall.

The detail and patina in this mirror mosaic work is stunning.

A couple of workers were hosing the gardens - what great water pressure.

Carving on a stone fountain head very similar to the lions under the porch.

Imam Square Isfahan By Arad Mojtahedi under creative commons licence wikimedia commons

From there we moved on to the centre of life in Isfahan. It has one of the biggest city squares in the world, nicknamed Imam Square. On the left is the Sheik Lotfollah mosque, the dome at the end is the Jame Abbasi Mosque and on the right the Ali Qapu Palace. Let's visit them all!

The square was once used for marching displays, ceremonies and polo. The Ali Qapu Palace facade facing the square is a viewing platform and spectators could also use the second floor alcoves as well. Enclosed within the square is a geometrically designed garden with a central axis and long pool, lawns, and the jingling bells of horse-drawn buggies for the tourist trade. Red tasselled horses waiting for customers stand with their noses in feedbags. People sit and lie in every square inch of shade. On this hot day some were even lying in the full sun.

That's the dome of the Sheik Lotfollah mosque taken from the viewing balcony at the Ali Qapu palace. Shah Abbas II finished the mosque in 1619 for the private use of the women of his harem, and there's an underground tunnel joining the two so that they could go to prayers without having to be seen in public. There is an offset entry portal (I wonder why a portal at all when the public couldn't access it) but no minarets. It was never seen by the public and only opened to westerners centuries later. The tile work is more exquisite than the beautiful Jame mosque on the southern side of the square.

The blue and green entry portal or muqarna with its turquoise barley twist ceramic decoration.

The barley twist is continued inside. There is no courtyard, just one simple corridor leading to the soaring open prayer hall under the dome. The architect's signature is on a tile inside. The size of the mosaic pieces in this mosque are very tiny - in other mosques tiles have been about 6 inches square.

The dome is covered with beautiful tile work.

Time for tea! We took a circuitous route through a junk yard to arrive at a very quaint narrow tea shop which felt like a railway carriage, jam-packed with light fittings and bric-a-brac.

Tea was served in glasses from a teapot, with a delicious sticky pastry.

Sugar lumps in irregular shapes.

Hanging from the ceiling and displayed behind the tables either side of the narrow room was every conceivable type of middle eastern light fitting, tea pots, old photos and hanging ornaments.

Isfahan is known for its many exquisite handicrafts - textiles, tableware, wood inlay, metal goods, jewellery, and we were in the centre of it.

This man is applying pattern blocks to fabric tablecloths in a textile shop. The technique is called qalamkār which originated in India. It must have taken him years to develop the skill to stamp exactly in line with the stamp before. The finished product was so perfect it could have been done with one huge stamp. A fine stick (or is it a brush?) is used to make tiny finishing touches.They use walnut dye for the black marking, lapis lazuli for the blue.

While we waited for Ali to buy our tickets to the Ali Qapu Palace, the wall alcoves in the corridor provided a great opportunity to take a few people photos. Isn't she a cutie?

The six-floor palace itself, although crowded with tourists, was just wonderful. From the verandah, the shah watched the events below. Standing on that balcony with its hugely high ceilings, looking down on the square below, it's easy to imagine him sitting there with his friends, water gurgling in the pond in the middle, being served refreshments while he watched the spectacle below. It's undergoing extensive renovations.

We're very used to people asking to have their photo taken with us, but I nearly laughed out loud today when a girl who had just had her photo with me on that balcony turned away to her friends, and her expression loosely translated said "Oh. My. Goodness. I did it! I asked her!'

What really captured me was the music room on the sixth floor and top floor. This is a photo of the underside of the square dome - the lines around the edge are the arched windows on all four sides beneath it which allow beautiful light into the room.

The walls are made using a technique called tong borie, which comprises a double-skin plaster wall with the second skin facing the room being cut out in decorative shapes. Not only is it aesthetically beautiful, but acoustically it's stunning for musical performances.

The fresco work is delicate and fragile.

The shaping and patterning of the cutouts on the ceiling are simply stupendous.

The use of complimentary colours masterful. I'm running out of superlatives!

Lunch was a new experience. We had a dish called tachin joujeh, or Persian layered chicken with rice. The steaming chicken and onion mix is sandwiched between two layers of crisp browned rice: a mix of rice, egg, yogurt and saffron at the bottom of the casserole dish which forms a firm crust.

Our last official stop for the day before we were let loose on the bazaar was the huge mosque at the southern end of Imam Square. Until two months ago it was the Jame or Friday Mosque. It's also called Shah Mosque. It was built on a massive scale with a huge courtyard where men were assembling scaffolding for a celebration, we think to do with celebrations for Hajj.

There is one big open space in the mosque with a metal plate on the floor, indicating dead centre. It's obviously famous for its acoustic qualities, because people were jumping up and down on the spot to hear the reverberating noise. Then suddenly a young boy took his place and began to sing. Everyone in the space was transfixed, goosebumps. I recorded it and have put it on Youtube for you to see.

I wandered away still with goosebumps on my arms, and began to watch the men putting up the scaffolding. There was only one man up on the huge framework of pipes, and his workmates were handing pipes up to him, throwing up joiners to be screwed tight. It was like building a huge toy.

He man was moving with all the litheness of a cat, a ballet dancer, an acrobat. Every move he made was graceful and unselfconsciously beautiful. A crowd began to gather to watch him. He wound his leg around pipes, he walked along pipes, he shinnied up and down vertical pipes, he pointed his toe. All with an easy grace, a nonchalance. As if born up there. It truly was a most beautiful and unexpected spectacle.

A little of John Travolta?

I was mesmerised and I hope you can see from these photos how graceful he was. At times he stood provocatively like a rock star, staring out into space, enjoying the audience and the adulation. It was such a performance I felt like clapping.

The doors of the mosque are huge and covered in silver. This is some of the detailing.

Stone carving on a water urn. These urns are put into mosques in memory of Al Hussein - remember the wooden contraption at Yazd where people grieve on the anniversary of his death each year? His enemies denied him water before he was martyred in Iraq and so even today when people drink water they may say, as they lift the cup, Bless Hussein.

We split as a group to wander the bazaar, with its colourful and very beautiful handicrafts.

Very thin sticks of wood (ebony, teak, ziziphus, orange, rose), brass (for golden parts), camel bones (white parts) are glued together vertically and then sliced very thinly across the grain to make these trinket boxes. Ivory, gold or silver can also be used for collection objects.

Practiced since the 18th century in Isfahan, the art of enamel (minākāri) thrived in Isfahan under the Pahlavis.

Meenakari is the art of colouring and ornamenting the surface of metals by fusing brilliant colours over it, decorated in an intricate design. Painting the enamel on these metal items takes months with the finest brush.

This man is hammering out a tray. Metal work encompasses embossing and engraving (qalamzani) on various metals such as iron, copper, brass, and nickel alloys as well as gold and silver.

I was looking for a piece of jewellery and should have bought one of these. By the time I had decided which I liked best, I couldn't find my way back.

The spice corridors and exotic smells.

Fresh hazelnuts for sale.

Old chests.

We walked home in the gathering dusk through a large park where men sat chatting to each other and families picnicked. I cannot tell you how many people asked us to have a photo with them, called out a greeting, asked where we are from. It's lovely to feel so welcome.

Want to know what Hafez said about where you are right now?

The place you are right now God circled on a map for you.

Until tomorrow, when we travel to Kashan, our last stop in Iran, I wait you...

shelley dark, writer 

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