Our time in Esfahan got better each day. Not that the previous trips to Tehran and Shiraz weren’t great, they were just different. Each city has a special theme: palaces and museums in Tehran; gardens, poetry, Islamic shrine and Persian ancient cities in Shiraz; and mosaics and frescoes in Esfahan. And the frescoes in Esfahan are so well preserved like they were recently painted in the 21st century.
Just a stone throw away from Naqsh-e-Jahan Square is a pavilion called Chehel Sotoun, a palace situated amongst beautiful landscape of gardens and a long pool. The pavilion was built by Shah Abbas II specifically for receiving and greeting noble visitors, dignitaries and foreign ambassadors.
Chehel Sotoun means “Forty Columns”, 20 wooden columns supporting the entrance of the pavilion plus reflection of the 20 columns in the waters of the pool, therefore 40 columns.
As we walked across the gardens approaching the pavilion, I thought the facade looked rather fragile. The columns were not made of solid marble but delicate, slender-looking wood. It didn’t seem adequately strong to support a roof which looked as if it was going to collapse any moment. However, never judge a book by its cover though it didn’t look impressive on the outside, Chehel Sotoun was incredible on the inside.
We walked inside the Reception Hall of Chehel Sotoun which contains frescoes, and oh my, the frescoes were impressive – illustrations of historical scenes such as reception assemblies with rulers of Turkistan and Humayun from India, and battles against the Uzbek and Indian armies. The frescoes went through some restoration which I can’t remember when, though not in recent decades, and yet the paintings looked remarkably fresh and well preserved.
I love the frescoes because it was a refreshing change from the other places of interest which we had visited thus far in Iran. We saw many palaces and mosques with Persian-Islamic architecture comprising colourful mosaics and glittering cut glass and mirror work but I didn’t expect to see frescoes which reminded me a lot of those in Europe.
Just before our guide, Maryam, left us for the day, she brought us to the Bridge of 33 Arches which is situated right in the centre of Esfahan. The Bridge of 33 Arches, also known as the Khaju Bridge, is the longest bridge of over 970 feet long on the Zayandeh River. Built during the late 16th century during Shah Abbas I, the bridge was considered to be one of the famous examples of Safavid bridge design. It’s called 33 Arches (or Sio-se-pol in Farsi) because the bridge consists of two rows of 33 arches on either side of the structure.
When Maryam brought us to the bridge, it was a cloudy afternoon. The weather forecasted rain that day. And yet, Iranians happily flocked to the bridge to enjoy the flowing waters of Zayandeh River. For many years, due to shortage of water and river drought, the local authorities cautiously released water from the dam to control the storage and distribution of water. In normal circumstances, there should be water underneath the bridge but for many years, it had been dry. At one point, the concrete was completely dry and youngsters came out to play football on it! However, we were very lucky that day. In view of the rainy weather forecast, the local authorities decided to release the water, thus we saw the river flowing underneath the bridge. As such, many Iranians, mostly youths, came out to sit close by the water and to enjoy the day.
By evening, the rain stopped. We decided to return to the bridge again (only 15 minutes’ walk from our hotel) to take a stroll on the bridge and hope to catch a beautiful sunset. I remember it was a Thursday evening and Iranians were geared up for the weekend (their weekend is Friday and Saturday). School children, university students, office workers and the elderly came out to walk along the bridge and the river bank. There were lots of laughter, giggles and photo-taking on the bridge. Young Iranians, once again, approached us, wanting to “practise their English” with us. We spoke briefly to a Literature student from Shiraz who was visiting her boyfriend in Esfahan – she was a little disappointed that we preferred Esfahan to Shiraz while her boyfriend whooped with delight and said to her in fairly good English “you see, I told you, Esfahan is more beautiful than your city”. Cute 🙂
When the sun began to set and the sky turned dark, the bridge was lit. It was beautiful. More flashes of camera lights could be seen. Iranians love to take photos especially with their phones, and they love to pose on the bridge, knowing fully well that the lights on the bridge give a special glow to their pictures 🙂
As we stood there to admire the sunset and the glowing lights, we could not help but marvel at the light and casual atmosphere on the bridge. This country is often misunderstood, and understandably so from global politics perspective, but we were frequently surprised by the freedom to live, love and laugh as evidently shown at the Bridge of 33 Arches…
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