“The Persians called this square, Naqsh-e Jahan Square, half the world, meaning to see it was to see half the world,” Samira Ahmed explains. The joy of seeing the grand square laid out in front of her speaks stories on her face, a broad grin gradually emerging. She is in Esfahan to tell the fascinating tales of this grand monument for BBC Four’s Art of Persia – an exquisite series looking at the history and culture of the alluring land of Iran, once known as Persia. I may be sat in my London flat right now in a looming lockdown, but I once saw half the world.
One of my earliest memories of travelling in Iran is strolling around this very square in Esfahan. My family (too many members to count) and I would travel across the city in bundling taxis and open-car Jeeps to reconvene here.
“Careful with the samovar Zara, my dear, you need two hands!” My uncle would shout over to the back of the car as he zipped through the roar of other vehicles, one eye on the road, one eye on the copper urn holding its precious liquid inside. For, naturally, Iranians can’t have a gathering without a glass of steaming chai, black tea. And Iranians can’t meet without huge offerings of food. The sharing of food on Naqsh-e Jahan Square comes in the form of a mountainous picnic – somewhat an art form in Iran.
Picnickers flock to the lush green patches of the square to spread out, gossip over who is marrying whom, and to indulge in hearty Iranian cuisine. Pyramids of plastic Tupperware are passed around like Pass the Parcel, while the lid is peeled back to reveal the tub’s colourful insides. The roar of reds from saffron rice billow out, while the deepest greens of sabzi, herbs, are layered in the containers. Tiny cucumbers with a drizzling of salt are crunched on like an apple, while soft, juicy kebabs are bitten into while the tangy zing of sumac enters the hot, humid air.
“Who has the tahdig?” My father would call out over the Persian carpet, comforting us as we perched on top of it and picnicked. Tahdig is the crispy, crunchy, golden potato found at the bottom of a pot of rice – and it’s what every Iranian fights over at meal times.
There are other flecks of gold glimmering near Naqsh-e Jahan Square where there are endless stalls of traditional craftsmen in Bazar-e Bozorg. The parts of the bazaar that rub shoulders with the square are over a thousand years old. Middle-aged mustachioed men crouch over the finest Persian rugs. Thin needles weaving in and out of the blanket of colour – glimmering gold, velvety crimson and bold black – all catch the eye. Rings of clink, clink, clinks and tap, tap, taps travel through the market as craftsmen chip away at grand metal trays and add fine detail to pretty metal bracelets, all to be haggled for.
The square is no stranger to decadence. Drifting through the sprawling space which stretches out at 512m long and 163m wide, Naqsh-e Jahan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, stands as one of the biggest squares in the world. The square was where the Safavid Empire’s jewels were kept once upon a time. It was the creation of Shah Abbas the Great and it stood proudly as the centrepiece of his new capital. Little has changed on the square from this time – apart from the lone goal posts at either end are no longer used. They were once instrumental in the polo matches that were played some four hundred years ago. Today it’s just the clip-clop of horse hooves that can be heard with the clicking and clacking of a carriage not far behind. Tired legs can rest as they transport you through this mighty space. Families with little ones chuckle as they are sped around trying to reach the twinkling fountains in the enchanting evening light, while young couples enjoy the scenic ride, eyes fluttering at the square – and each other.
The loudest sound on the square is the roaring call to prayer which projects out to all of its glorious corners. Scurries of men in long-sleeved jumpers and women in black chadors, coverings, march towards the Masjed-e Shah to carry out their daily prayers. They almost forget to look at the grand, majestic tile display on the entrance to the mosque. The portal has been standing and welcoming believers since 1611. Ocean, sapphire and azure blues dazzle and reflect in the evening light – there is not a patch of bare wall in sight.
The mosque echoes inside. The main sanctuary of the building is home to a giant ceiling, which stretches up to 36m – the exterior soars at 51m and it’s this empty space in between that projects large, billowing echoes. As a child I would stomp my dusty trainers on the black paving stones under the middle of the dome, while the rest of my family would listen out for the sound to follow. There would always be a race to see who could hear the echo first. The fragile human ear can only hear around ten echoes in this area, while scientists report that nearly fifty echoes can be measured.
There are dancing projections of light on the dome of the Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah. Built in the early 17th century in honour for Shah Abbas I’s father-in-law, it’s an impressive piece of Islamic architecture, but interestingly it does not own a courtyard or minaret. But what it does possess are delicate cream and bright pink tiles that nudge each other all the way around the dome. The portal displays rich yellow motifs while a walk through the sanctuary showcases deep blue tiles. The colours of the tiles gradually change throughout the day – for sunlight and mosaics present the perfect light show.
As the night draws in in my mosaic-less flat in London, I’m plunged back into the present moment as I hear Samira conclude her explanation of the Naqsh-e Jahan Square and the city.
“[Esfahan] stands today as an extraordinary gallery of Islamic architecture,” she narrates as the camera shows Pol-e Si-o Seh, a 298m-long bridge. I can only hear Samira’s voice at this point, but I know she’s smiling behind the camera.
I smile too as I make a promise to myself. A promise that when the lockdown ends and sweet travel shines brightly once more, I will see half the world again. And I will remember to clutch the precious samovar of tea with two hands.
Top image: Mosque on Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan, Iran © milosk50/Shutterstock