Built between 1606 and 1655 with the encouragement of the Safavid rulers, Vank Cathedral is the historic focal point of the Armenian church in Iran. The church’s exterior is unexciting, but the interior is richly decorated and shows the curious mixture of styles – Islamic tiles and designs alongside Christian imagery – that characterises most churches in Iran. The frescoes are truly magnificent, and sometimes wonderfully gruesome.
The 298m-long Si-o-Seh Bridge was built by Allahverdi Khan, a favourite general of Shah Abbas I, between 1599 and 1602 to link the upper and lower halves of Chahar Bagh St. It served as both bridge and dam, and is still used to hold water today. Until recently there were teahouses at either end of the bridge, both accessed through the larger arches underneath, though only the northern one remains.
A study in harmonious understatement, this mosque is the perfect complement to the overwhelming richness of the larger Imam Mosque, and is arguably the most fabulous mosque in Iran. Built between 1602 and 1619, during the reign of Shah Abbas I, the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque is dedicated to the ruler’s father-in-law, Sheikh Lotfollah, a revered Lebanese scholar of Islam who was invited to Esfahan to oversee the king’s mosque (now the Imam Mosque) and theological school.
This is the oldest of Esfahan’s bridges. Most of the 11-arched stone and brick structure is believed to date from the 12th century, although the pillars themselves remain from a much earlier Sassanian bridge. Although it’s almost 4km east of Khaju Bridge, it’s a pleasant walk.
For centuries Esfahan relied on pigeons to supply guano as fertiliser for the city’s famous fields of watermelons. The guano was collected in almost 3000 squat, circular pigeon towers, each able to house about 14,000 birds. Today they are unused, made redundant by chemical fertiliser, but more than 700 of the mud-brick towers remain in the city’s environs.
When French poet Renier described Esfahan as ‘half of the world’ in the 16th century, it was the myriad wonders of the square called Naqsh-e Jahan that inspired him. it remains home to arguably the most majestic collection of buildings in the Islamic world. Naqsh-e Jahan means ‘pattern of the world’, and it’s a world that owes much to the vision of Shah Abbas the Great. Begun in 1602 as the centrepiece of Abbas’ new capital, the square was designed as home to the finest jewels of the Safavid empire – the incomparable Imam Mosque, the supremely elegant Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque and the indulgent and lavishly decorated Ali Qapu Palace and Qeysarieh Portal. At 512m long and 163m wide, this immense space is the second-largest square on earth – only Mao Zedong’s severe Tiananmen Sq in Beijing is bigger.
The 14th- century tomb of Abu Abdullah, a revered dervish, is 7km west of central Esfahan in Kaladyn. The tomb is popularly known as Manar Jomban because pushing hard against one minaret will start it, and the other minaret, swaying back and forth. The minarets were added during the 17th century.
The Madraseh-ye Chahar Bagh was built between 1704 and 1714 as part of an expansive complex that included a caravanserai (now the Abbasi Hotel) and the Bazar-e Honar. Revenues from these buildings paid for the upkeep of the madraseh.
Arguably the finest of Esfahan’s bridges, the Khaju Bridge was built by Shah Abbas II in about 1650 (although a bridge is believed to have crossed the waters here since the time of Tamerlane). It also doubles as a dam, and has always been as much a meeting place as a bearer of traffic. Its 110m length has two levels of terraced arcades, the lower containing locks regulating water flow. If you look hard, you can still see original paintings and tiles, and the remains of stone seats built for Shah Abbas II to sit on and admire the views.
The Jameh Mosque is a veritable museum of Islamic architecture and still a working mosque. Within a couple of hours you can see and compare 800 years of Islamic design, with each example near to the pinnacle of its age. The range is quite stunning: from the geometric elegance of the Seljuks, through to the Mongol period and on to the refinements of the more baroque Safavid style. At more than 20,000 sq metres, it is also the biggest mosque in Iran.