Sunday, August 05, 2012


My next visit was to Esfahan one of the most visited and famous cities in Iran. It's famous for its Imam Square, considered to be one of the largest and most beautiful in the world. The city is much older but didn't reach its peak importance until becoming the capital and having the square built about 450 years ago. Today the square is a Unesco site and should be stacked with tourists from all over the world but there were surprisingly few, in yet another sign of how sad the level of international tourism is Iran these days. It's still very popular with domestic tourists and the city is the pride of Iranians all over the country. I liked the square and spent quite a bit of time in and around it in the 4 days I was in Esfahan. The square is lined by the bazaar, which continues as a sprawling covered market for quite a distance outward to the north and east. The southern end of the square has a palace and 2 of the most beautiful mosques in the world, according to them. Modesty isn't really part of the Esfahani character and I heard many unfavourable comments about them from Iranians in other cities.

The covered market of Esfahan.

A hookah cafe at Imam Square.

Imam Square with the Imam mosque.

Ali Qapu palace in Imam square.

Entrance to Sheikh Lotfollah mosque in Imam square.

Inside Sheikh Lotfollah mosque.

Imam square at night.

Men praying at Jameh mosque.

Maybe that's why I'm still convinced that they are the worst drivers in Iran. Iranians all say Tehran has the worst driving, and I'm jumping ahead slightly but I vote for Esfahan for 2 reasons. In central Esfahan there is still little traffic control and nobody obeys anything. In Tehran's centre there are many more traffic lights and cops that the drivers listen to and Tehran is more organized with special bus lanes and a metro system so you can avoid the traffic if you want. For sure Tehran has worse traffic delays and more cars on the road, but in any case I was totally unimpressed with Esfahani driving at the time.
At certain times of the year I can see how Esfahan could be the most beautiful city in Iran but unfortunately this wasn't exactly the time. The positives that it has going for it is the Imam Square and bazaar, which are very cool, but the overall layout it beautiful too. There is a river dividing the city into northern and southern sections. Both sides of the river are lined with beautiful parks and there's nothing better in the heat of summer than to just lay in the grass and relax or have a picnic. Or at least that seems to be the attitude of people there. I still find it amazing how the Iranians love picnics and will lay around in any patch of grass or shade that they can find in the city. Fortunately for them there are a lot of parks and green areas in all their cities. And crossing the river are a handful of very pretty, historical pedestrian bridges dating back 400 years as well. They look great with their arches, the largest having 33. Unfortunately, in the summer the river runs dry and was dry during my visit thus losing a lot of the beauty and effect of the bridges. It did however let me run around underneath them and walk out into the river bed to get photos from more angles.

Khaju bridge.

Si-o-Seh bridge.

Under Si-o-Seh bridge.

Si-o-Seh bridge at night.

To me the biggest disappointment with the whole city is the amount of construction going on. It's so busy and everything seems to be scaffolded. The main Imam mosque, the huge Jameh mosque, the Ali Qapu Palace (in the square), large sections of the bazaar and it's gates were all covered with scaffolding.
Esfahan also has a large Armenian quarter. It's kind of a funny story because Shah Abbas, who moved the capital to Esfahan in the first place decided he wanted to make a beautiful city and a huge square so he forcibly moved the entire Christian-Armenian population from Jolfa (an Armenian region under Iranian control at the time, Jolfa is now a small Iranian border town) to do the work. They were considered to be the most skilled artisans of the day and were given their own section of the city to create “new Jolfa”. I visited this Jolfa to see their main Vank Cathedral and feel the slightly different vibe of a Christian quarter. The cathedral was pretty but I almost died of shock to see nearly naked bodies on the frescos inside the church when everyone everywhere else is so completely covered. What must the Iranian tourists think?

Vank cathedral.

Overall I spent way too much time in Esfahan walking. One of the frustrating aspects of couchsurfing in Iran is that the hosts are usually not comfortable with the idea of you hanging out in the home without them there. Many other places (but not everywhere) have been really relaxed but in Iran it's a little more complicated so most of the time you leave when they leave for work. They work too much. In Esfahan my host (a young married girl living with her family) hung out with me a couple times but often just told me to go see stuff and went to visit family or friends and would sort of forget about me. 12-hour days of walking around in circles in the heat alone gets tiring very quickly, especially when you have no idea what their schedule is and can't pace yourself. As I said before Esfahan is very strict about local/foreigner interactions. When I was with my host she'd tell me to walk a distance away from her and pretend not to know her so the police wouldn't bust her. I'd have to sneak past the neighbours' doors to enter the family home so they wouldn't be found out as well. It's all a bit ridiculous. From what I've heard is that for them to host a foreigner they have to tell the police and register the visitor or ask permission or something and to walk and talk to a foreigner they have to be a registered guide and have their tourist guide card on them. I've also heard it's not actually a law but an abuse of power by the authorities which have gotten a lot more strict and paranoid since the failed revolution of 2009. In any case, trouble is possible and in Esfahan it seems a lot more strict than elsewhere. This made it frustrating for me because it also meant that the possibility of randomly meeting locals was very low and with all my lounging around in the parks, nobody other than a tout or 2 approached me in all my days there :( I did meet 1 Australian guy briefly and ran into him a couple times but it also amounted to nothing. So I sat and watched the world go by getting addicted to ice cream cones to console myself in my loneliness...

A night out with my hosts and friends.

I also had the stress of applying for my visa extension in Esfahan. I actually went to do it the day after my visa expired, which would generally be considered a bad idea and just asking for trouble, but they were surprisingly really nice and helpful. They only gave me an additional 21 days (my original visa was for 21 days) instead of the usual month. That set the timing for the rest of my time in the country and meant that I needed to get moving on to the next destination right away and keep up my intense pace.


At 3:54 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't know why there are no comments but I thought I would at least write to show you someone cares.
Amazing photos. Who would have guessed it would be so beautiful. The world doesn't give Iran enough credit. Please take me with you next time. Sincerely,
your sister SV

At 1:07 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

That sucks that no one would talk to you and that you felt lonely. :( Beautiful pics though!

At 1:08 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, that was from me, Skylar


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