Isfahan is Iran’s third largest city and number-one tourist destination, with an impressive history and outstanding architecture. The city that was once called ‘Isfahan nasf-e jahan’ which literally means ‘Isfahan is half the world’. A rhyming proverb that is justifiable. It was one of the largest cities in the world and had been given the honor to be the capital of Iran twice.
The history of Isfahan is very broad with many successive invasions, starting with the period of the Achamaenids and ending with the Qajar dynasty. To enumerate, Isfahan has been ruled by fourteen different empires. During this time many peaks and valleys occurred.
From the Achamaenids to the Seljuks
Between 651 C.E. and 1220 C.E. Iran managed to extricate from the Arab conquest and establish the Persian Empire with an Iranian dynasty. The most important monuments, such as the dome of the Friday Mosque (‘Masjid-e-Jāmeh Isfahān’) constructed by Nizam al-Mulk, date from this period. The mosque as it is today, is the result of continual construction until the late 20th century.
From the Il-Khans to the Safavids
Under the reign of the Il-Khans, or the ‘Lords of the World’, Oljeitu Khan was the most important ruler. He had a high interest in art, which is represented in the stucco prayer niche in the Friday Mosque. He also was the first ruler to accept the Shi’ite belief.
The greatest poet of Iran, Hafez, lived at the time of the Muzaffarid. This period was brought to an end by the Timurids and followed by the Qara-Quiunlus, who built the Darb-e-Iman. Itis a funerary complex with different construction styles.
“I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing lights of your own being.”
This period ended with the Safavid dynasty, which left fascinating architecture. It is called the city’s golden age. The Khajou Bridge, the Mosque of Hakim, the Talar-e-Ashraf and the Palaces of Chehel Sotoun were built.
From the Afghani interregnum to the Qajar
The only construction at the time of the Afghani interregnum is the “Porch of Omar”, which is a mehrab in the Friday Mosque. In 1753, Karim Khan took over the authority and made Shiraz the capital. Moving the capital to Tehran, during the period of the Qajar, stopped any further building in Isfahan. The only architectural construction built at the time was the Masjed-e-Seyyed.
All these architectural constructions have been designated by the UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. Robert Byron, a British travel worker, ranked it as “Isfahan along those rare places, like Athens or Rome, which are the common refreshment of humanity”. Knowing its history and seeing its impressive architecture, it is understandable to call Isfahan the ‘hidden jewel of Iran’.