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East, South and West Iwans of the Jameh Mosque, EsfahanIran's masterpiece, Esfahan is a stunning, colourful architectural gem, the centre of Persian arts and culture, brought to prominence by Shah Abbas the Great, set amid the desert of the central Iranian plateau. Esfahan is Iran's number-one tourist destination for good reason with a large number of historic monuments. Its profusion of tree-lined boulevards, Persian gardens and important Islamic buildings gives it a visual appeal unmatched by any other Iranian city, and the many artisans working here underpin its reputation as a living museum of traditional culture. Walking through the historic bazaar, over the picturesque bridges and across the UNESCO-listed central square are sure to be highlights of your holiday. Esfahan's monuments can be ranked among the most splendid of the Islamic world.

Such is Esfahan's grandeur that it is easy to agree with the famous XVI century half-rhyme "Esfahan nesf-e jahan' (Esfahan is half the world). Robert Byron, author of the 1937 travelogue 'The Road to Oxiana', was slightly more geographically specific when he ranked 'Isfahan among those rarer places, like Athens or Rome, which are the common refreshment of humanity'.

This is the country's third-largest city, and the outskirts are home to plenty of heavy industry, including steel factories and a much-discussed nuclear facility. Traffic jams are also a regular occurrence.

The atmosphere in town is a relaxed one: this is a place to wander in, to get to know slowly, with its gardens, its river side and its shopping streets. It is a town that contains a multitude of hidden treasures and a quick visit, even if it lakes in the main monuments, will hardly do it justice.

Esfahan's main monuments are centred around the following areas: the Royal Square and Chahar Bagh (Four Gardens) Avenue, the Friday Mosque, and on the other bank of the river, New Jolfa. Most of the buildings are from the Safavid period, although a few monuments remain from the Seljuk dynasty (the Friday Mosque, the Sareban and Forty Daughters minarets, the Shahrestan Bridge) and the Mongol dynasty (the tomb of Baba Qasim, Imamzadeh Jaffar).

Chahar Bagli, 5km long, is the north south artery through the centre of town. The Zayandeh River, crisscrossed by a series of historic arched bridges, runs roughly east-west. Northeast of the river are the expansive Imam Sq and the Bazar e-Bozorg (Grand Bazaar), while to the south lies the Armenian neighbourhood of Jolfa and the high rises ot the new town. Taxis and minibuses ply the main thoroughfares ot the city, and if your haggling skills are good you could negotiate a private taxi.

The centre of Esfahan during the Seljuk period was the Friday Mosque and the Meidan-e Kohneh, to the north of the present Royal Square. In 1598, Shah Abbas decided to shift this centre and turned to the Naqsh-e Jahan (Image of the World), a vast palatial square and park expanded on the orders of Shah Tahmasp (1524-1576). The palace at the edge of the park was enlarged to become the Ali Qapu Palace, and additional buildings were erected in other areas of the park. Between 1589 and 1606, work began on the square itself and on the buildings around it, as well as on a large avenue called Chahar Bagh, which was to link the royal city to the river. The Allahverdi Khan Bridge at the end of this avenue also dates from this period. Work was interrupted for a few years and only started again in 1611, with the construction of the Royal Mosque. At this time, the finishing touches were added to the other monuments around the Royal Square. Today, several of the gardens, pavilions and palaces from this early Safavid period have disappeared, in particular along the banks of the Zayandeh-rud.

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in EsfahanThe Royal Square of Esfahan was the symbolic centre of the Safavid dynasty and of its empire. Usually filled with a crowd of street-sellers and entertainers, the square was also used for a variety of celebrations and festivals, for polo matches and for public executions. The Shah and his court watched the festivities from the balcony of the Ali Qapu Palace.

Begun in 1602 as the centrepiece of Abbas' new capital, the square was designed as home to the finest jewels of the Safavid empire - the incomparable Masjed-e Shah, the supremely elegant Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah and the indulgent and lavishly decorated Kakh-e Ali Qapuand Qeysarieh Portal. At 512m long and 163m wide, this immense space is the second-largest square on earth - only Mao Zedong's severe Tiananmen Sq in Beijing is bigger. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The square has changed little since it was built, and at each end you can still see the goal posts used in regular polo games 400 years ago (you will see these polo matches depicted on miniatures for sale around the square). The centre of the Square has now been laid out in the suburban manner with fountains and water basins and recently planted with trees. The modern additions are the souvenir shops, which occupy the spaces on either side of the arched arcades but are relatively innocuous. They sell a variety of tourist souvenirs, textiles and handicrafts (compare prices and quality from shop to shop before buying and bargain hard).

It is a very popular spot on summer evenings when the Esfahanis settle down on carpets on the lawn and bring out their picnics and samovars. The square is best visited in the late afternoon and early evening, also when the fountains are turned on, the light softens and the truly splendid architecture is illuminated.

Chahar Bagh Avenue once led from the Safavid city to Jolfa and the royal gardens at Hezar Jerib on the other bank of the Zayandeh River. Shah Abbas chose not to connect the avenue directly with the Royal Square, and it therefore began to the west of the palatial complex. It was planted with trees, and a canal ran down the centre of it in a series of little waterfalls. It was a favourite promenade of the people of Esfahan, and still is today: Chahar Bagh has become one of the main shopping streets of the city with tea rooms, cinemas and fashionable clothes shops.

Si-oh-seh BridgeThe main monuments around Chahar Bagh were built in the reigns of Shah Abbas' successors and are equally great works of art as the constructions of that great ruler. Unfortunately, all too often, the only remains we have today of the innumerable houses, palaces and pavilions of Safavid Esfahan are the descriptions left by XVII and XVIII century travellers.

The population of ksiahan is as diverse as anywhere else in Iran. Besides Persians there are Azaris, occasionally visiting Bakhtiyari nomads, a sizable Armenian Christian community, Zoroastrians (the original monotheistic people ol Persia), Afghan refugees, as well as small Jewish and Balia communities.

Esiahanis are fiercely proud oi their home and its status as the capital of Persian arts and culture. Consequently, the typical Esfahani is likely to be articulate and urbane, educated and erudite, and as warm and welcoming as Iranians elsewhere. They will be conscious of their Muslim faith, and tend to be family oriented, living at home until and perhaps alter they are married. An appreciation of all things artistic will be matched by a passion for football. Young people predominate in Esfahan, the majority of the Iranian population is younger than 30 years of age.

Whilst in Esfahan do not miss an experience of wandering around the domed expanse of the Bazaar-e Bozorg, taking tea and smoking a qalyan (water pipe) at the outdoor tables of the Qeysarieh Tea Shop looking onto Imam Sq, poring over the exhibits at the Decorative Arts Museum of Iran, heading out to the Ateshkadeh-ye Esfahan to see the fire ceremonies of the Zoroastrians, strolling the banks of the Zayandeh River and fuelling up on tea in one of the teahouses under the bridges, musing on the elaborate frescoes ot the Chehel Sotun Palace.