Iran City Guides - Meidan
Meidan Esfahan (Isfahan)
All the world's a square
David Shariatmadari takes a trip round Isfahan's famous Meidan
At the heart of Isfahan, which itself lies at the heart of Iran, sits the Meidan. Planned and built some 300 years ago at the time of the Safavid dynasty, it is a world heritage site and one of the jewels of the Middle East.
Meidan means simply "field" in Farsi, and the word is entirely appropriate, this huge space, which at more than 80,000 square metres is one of the largest city squares in the world, was for a long time the setting for royal polo matches.
Looking at its vast expanse, its not too difficult imagine the players racing from one side to another, kicking up dust as they compete for the favour of the Shah.
The square itself isn't what makes this such an incredible place though its dramatic enough, particularly when filled with worshippers who gather in their thousands every week for Friday prayers. It's what's around the edges that really make this a destination no visitor to Iran can afford to ignore.
Tiled decoration from Isfahan mosque, Iran
beautiful tile-work from a mosque in Esfahan, Iran
The Meidan is a long rectangle, set on a north-south axis. At each of the compass points, theres a unique and fascinating masterpiece. Fittingly, since the Meidan is also known as Naghsh-e Jahan, "Portrait of the World", these can be divided into two quite earthly and two heavenly wonders.
Starting at the northern end is the least immediately impressive of this quartet. Don't skip it though the unassuming entrance to the old bazaar hides one of Iran's most elegant and authentic market complexes. Venture inside and you will discover a dishevelled labyrinth, with stalls selling gorgeous cloth, lapis lazuli trinkets and of course - carpets.
Don't be put off by bazaars you may have visited in other big cities - compared to the frenetic claustrophobia of the Tehran bazaar, Isfahan's is stately and cool. You could easily spend a whole day here, wandering the stone corridors, buying souvenirs and chatting to tradesmen and artisans.
The next stop and second member of the "earthly pair" is the Ali Qapu palace. Originally designed as a gateway to the formal gardens and inner palace to the east, the Ali Qapu (which means "Sublime Portal") grew into a ceremonial building with an unprecedented six storeys of halls and reception rooms.
From the grand terrace on second floor, the shah of the day would watch polo or other spectacles and entertain foreign envoys with the marvellous views of the city. Perhaps the most famous part of the palace, and a source of a thousand imitations throughout Iran, is the music room. Tucked away at the very top, the room represents an early experiment in acoustics. Its stucco walls are covered in deep niches many in the shape of musical instruments designed to create the perfect environment for concerts.
Directly opposite the Ali Qapu, across the pool and fountains that replaced the royal polo field, is the Mosque of Sheikh Lotfallah. Together with the Royal Mosque at the southern end of the Meidan, it represents perhaps the highest achievement of Safavid art. The rich turquoise tiles so characteristic of this style are everywhere. The interior is devoid of clutter (this is not a working mosque but a museum), so in the empty space beneath the dome you can fully appreciate the splendour of the decoration.
The building that completes our tour of the Meidan is the most famous in Isfahan. The Royal Mosque is an elegant sixteenth century assembly of domes and minarets that - without exaggeration - rivals the Taj Mahal. Enter the great silver doors - which still bear the scars of the Afghan invasion of 1722 - and wend your way through arched passages to the great courtyard.
From there, nothing is visible except the massive lapis-blue walls and the sky. If this mosque was designed to give worshippers a glimpse of paradise, then it succeeded. Standing at its centre its easy to believe you've left the mess and confusion of the real world behind.
What's in a name?
Isfahan's great square sometimes appears to be suffering from a bit of an identity crisis. You can see it referred to by any of the following names: Meidan-e Imam, Naghsh-e Jahan, Meidan-e Shah, or just Meidan. Why the confusion?
The answer lies in politics. Built by the Safavid Shah Abbas I, the square and mosque had long been known as Meidan-e Shah or "The Shah's Square". With the overthrow of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1979, all things royal fell decidedly out of favour.
A new government was formed under the cleric Ruhollah Khomeini, known as the Imam or religious leader. Meidan-e Shah gave way to Meidan-e Imam as the officially prescribed name. It might still be thought of as making a political point to refer to the square in the old style, so its wise to stick to the short form Meidan (which has the added benefit of being easier to remember).
In contrast, the whimsical Naghsh-e Jahan, doesnt have political associations. It literally means "Portrait of the World" and echoes the famous saying Isfahan nesf-e jahan, or "Isfahan is half the world".
There are daily flights from Esfahan to Tehran, Shiraz and Ahvaz with less regular air connections to Mashhad, Zahedan, Kerman and Bandar-e Abbas. There are also some international flights to Kuwait and Dubai.
There are buses to many destinations including Tehran (7 hours), Hamadan (8 hours), Kermanshah (10 hours), Rasht (12 hours), Mashhad (22 hours), Tabriz (16 hours) and Yazd (5 hours).
There are regular trains to Tehran (approximately 7 hours). South east to Kerman or Bandar-e Abbas, change in Ardakan.
Naghsh-e Jahan, "Portrait of the World", Esfahan, Iran