Meidan Emam, Esfahan
Meidan Emam, Esfahan is one of the largest city squares in the world. The square is surrounded by important historical buildings from the Safavid era.
The Shah Mosque is situated on the south side of this square. On the west side you can find Ali Qapu Palace. Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque is situated on the eastern side of this square and the northern side opens into the Isfahan Grand Bazaar.
Map of Meidan Emam, EsfahanLoad map
I thought of reviewing an Iranian UNESCO World Heritage Site in light of Trump’s recent threat to the country’s cultural sites. Sheer insanity I thought, but thankfully, Pentagon just completely ignored him as blasting cultural heritage sites constitutes a war crime.
Date of Visit: December 2016
The first site inscribed for Iran, Meidan Emam (also called Naqsh-e Jahan Square) is one of the world’s largest public urban squares in the world, and indeed a tourism icon. Its construction began at the beginning of 17th century, and as described in the UNESCO WHS website: “an impressive testimony to the level of social and cultural life in Persia during the Safavid era”, and was "heart of the Safavid capital’s culture, economy, religion, social power, government, and politics." Shah Abbas I must be proud of his legacy.
Esfahan was the second city I visited during my backpacking trip to the country 3 years ago, and I truly enjoyed it. My first day in this city was spent in this square and the adjacent grand bazaar, taking lots of photos and observing locals and tourists stroll, eat, shop, play and socialize.
The 2-storey arcade serves as the perimeter of the square, which is interrupted in the 4 cardinal directions by the following beautiful monuments and the Qeysarie gate of Esfahan’s grand bazaar:
- Ali Qapu Palace – as mentioned by Alexander, the view of the square from its balcony is stunning. From a casual traveler, I appreciate its beautiful ornamentation, design and architecture.
- Masjed-e Shah – the site’s UNESCO page mentions that it “remains the most celebrated example of the colorful architecture, which reached its high point in Iran under the Safavid dynasty”. At the time of my visit, scaffolding could be seen surrounding one side of the mosque’s dome. For some reason I could not recollect, it deterred me from going inside the mosque. Stupid me, I should’ve at least tried.
- Sheik Lotfallah Mosque - in terms of its interior, it is THE most beautiful mosque I have ever seen. This is the first monument I visited in the morning, which gave me an opportunity to have the entire place to myself and catch the sun rays penetrate the carved windows and lit the entire place to a beautiful golden hue! Freakishly astonishing sight!
I visited the above monuments in the morning and went straight to the bazaar to eat lunch. I dodged my way through a restaurant as the bazaar was crowded with locals haggling and delivering goods (mostly carpets and spices) to various stalls.
The site was inscribed in 1979 based on criteria 1, 5, and 6. Its strongest point I believe is satisfying criterion 6, as this public square was obviously an integral part of the daily lives of people living in and around Esfahan during the Safavid era. It was a tangible aspect of the rich socio-cultural lives of the Safavids, inspiring generations with its purpose and beautiful architecture.
The fact that the Meidan Emam was inscribed so early in the life of World Heritage is hardly a surprise; this square is the darling of the Iranian tourism industry, and rightly so. An interesting point to consider is this timing of the submission and acceptance of this site to the World Heritage List; the 1979 World Heritage Convention occurred in May, only a few months after the Islamic Revolution. The reference in the ICOMOS evaluation of 1979, and the other 1979 documents available on the UNESCO website, makes reference to the ‘Meidan-e Shah’, and the ‘Shah Mosque’, without any mention of the renaming of these components by the new regime. I guess the new Islamic Republic valued the prestige of the nomination enough to still accept it, though evidently with a name change, as the 1988 report makes no mention of the deposed shah. I am unsure of the precise nature of this process of naming; probably an unreported element of the 1979 convention?
The square, apart from the open space itself, has three main components. The obvious first stop is the Ali Qapu Palace, renowned more for its view of the square than for its own sake. This is unsurprising; while the palace has some nice ornamentation, especially on the top floor, the view is the real star here.
The Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque , directly opposite the palace, is unusual in that it has no courtyard or minaret, and comprises simply of a corridor and prayer room beneath the dome. This is a very impressive room, supposedly designed as a private chamber for royal concubines, but was completely crowded when I was there after lunch time. This was quite a detraction from the atmosphere. Given the popularity of Isfahan, arriving at opening time to a particularly desired attraction seems to the most sensible approach
The Emam Mosque, still often called the Shah Mosque, is the most striking component of the square, with its large façade and towering dome. I arrived at opening time to have it to myself. Within 15 minutes, however, 6 separate tour groups were competing for space. Unlike the Masjid-e Jame, this was a significant concern, as immense restoration works are currently underway. Overhearing an English-speaking guide, retiling work started a week prior to my visit (10 April 2016). The result of this was the covering of about 90% of the central courtyard of the mosque with a low tarpaulin ceiling, with about 20% of that remaining space being covered during my presence by ongoing work. This meant that all visitors were crowded beneath this section, trying to get a view of the dome. Within a couple of days, I expect this to be completely covered, which I imagine would severely impact the enjoyability of the site. By the scale of the tile restoration, I assume covering will exist for quite some time.
The square itself is worth seeing at all times of the day, with the Palace particularly impressive while illuminated after dark.
This square is the most beautiful palce in the world and believe me you can not compare sitting there for a break to doing it at any other- european or else place.
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