Iran, known historically as Persia, is home to one of the world’s oldest civilisations, stretching as far back as the fourth millennium BC when the ancient Elamite Kingdom was formed. The Middle Eastern country was also the seat of the Persian Empire, the world’s first superpower founded around 550 BC by Cyrus the Great who united Mesopotamia, Egypt’s Nile Valley and India’s Indus Valley under his rule. He was the first monarch to acquire the royal Persian title ‘Shah’.
The Islamisation of Iran began with the Arab, Muslim conquest of the Sassanid Empire, the last Persian imperial dynasty, in the seventh century AD. The region soon became a major centre of Islamic culture, scholarship and learning during the Islamic Golden Age. It was not until the 15th century that the Safavid Dynasty ruled Iran and converted the country to Shi’ism, marking a turning point in Iran’s history and setting the foundations of modern Iranian history and identity.
In 1598, the 5th Safavid Shah Abbas the Great moved the capital of Persia from Qazvin to the more central city of Isfahan, making it the centre of the Safavid Empire. During his reign, he built a great deal of palaces, mosques, gardens and monuments in the city which has since become an icon of architectural achievement and remains a prominent example of Perso-Islamic architecture.
The magnificence and beauty of the city is best reflected in the centuries-old Persian saying ‘Isfahan nesfe Jahan’, meaning ‘Isfahan is half the world’. The key highlight of the city’s architectural beauty is Meidan Emam, a public square at the heart of the historical city and one of the largest city squares in the world. Built by Shah Abbas I in the early 17th century, the UNESCO-inscribed site is bordered on all sides by several architectural masterpieces from the Safavid era which continue to dominate its perimeter today.On the south side of the square lies the Royal Mosque, the crown jewel of Shah Abbas I’s transformation of Isfahan. The Shah Mosque is defined by seven-colour mosaic tiles, calligraphic inscriptions and four imposing iwans, Persian towering gateways decorated with calligraphy bands and geometric designs. The mosque would go on to replace the much older Jameh Mosque, also a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, in conducting the Friday congregational prayers.
On the eastern side of the square lies a smaller, albeit tremendous, place of worship. Renowned for having no minarets, the Mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah was designed as a private mosque to the royal court. Aside from its magnificent entrance, the mosque’s most prominent feature is its striking dome, covered in colorful tiles as is customary for Persian domes.
Opposite the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque lies Ali Qapu Palace, a royal residence of Safavid emperors and the place they would receive and entertain nobles and ambassadors. Originally designed as a vast portal entrance to the grand palace, Ali Qapu is made up of the Arabic word ‘Ali’, meaning exalted, and the Turkic word ‘Qapu’, meaning portal. The Safavids chose the name of the palace to rival the Ottoman ‘Bab-i Ali’, or ‘Sublime Porte’, used in reference to the palace of the Grand Vizier.
The magnificent 17th-century Portico of Qaisariya, on the northern side of the square, leads to the vaulted 2km-long Bazaar of Isfahan. The market is one of the oldest and largest bazaars in the Middle East, dotted with dozens of small shops selling Persian handicrafts, souvenirs and handmade goods.
Also known as Naqsh-e Jahan Square, meaning ‘Image of the World’, the royal square of Isfahan presents a symbolic centre of Persian socio-cultural life during the Safavid dynasty with the imperial residence overlooking the marketplace and the royal mosque. Today, locals and tourists alike gather around the vast fountain at the centre of the square. Many opt for relaxing walks or picnics over the lawn surrounding the water, while others prefer to ride a horse-drawn carriage against the grand backdrop of these remarkable historical monuments.