On the western side of Isfahan’s grand square looms the Ali Qapu, a towering pavilion topped by pillars, under reconstruction, and behind which was the shah’s palatial residence and royal gardens.
Ali Qapu Palace
To me, the structure at first appeared to be an extravagant warehouse. I was disabused of the false impression, however, shortly after entering the narrow halls, navigating past some of the crumbling plaster and fading tileworks, and entering into the partially refurbished grand galleries that once entertained ambassadors of the Near East.
The ceilings are particularly captivating. Rustic arched mihrabs, with nesting iron-like tarnished patterns, faintly colored, forced me again to revisit my understanding and experience of color and design.
Varying sized stars, for instance, are scattered in the lacework and perched amongst the orbs of color rotating around a central point. I ponder their meaning if there is any, and wonder about the craftsmen and women who conceived these combinations.
Bafflement and wonder was only about to be shaken anew.
Hasht Behest Palace
My next encounter with royal extravagance at another royal destination, located in Isfahan’s Nightingale Garden, presented a more objective view of the world. The Safavid’s Hasht Behest Palace features art that drifts away from the pure abstractions depicted at the Grand Square where religious sensibilities overlap with the offices of the state. In these gardens, the human face and events of historical significance are given a larger-than-life treatment that is almost epic in scale.
This two-story palace has about 20 rooms built symmetrically on both sides. Among its highlights are the central hall which consists of a sky-light with mirror artwork, porches on all four sides with wall paintings, and tall thin pillars that to me appeared to be a tad too oppressed by the weight of the ceiling they are holding aloft.
Parts of this grand presentation, like so many world-class sites in Iran, are in disrepair, but very little imagination is required to be in awe of the luxury that the rooms of this mansion once conferred on its owners.
With time — maybe days, maybe weeks, maybe years— it might be possible for an historian to assemble a dossier of the remarkable events portrayed on many of the walls, perhaps also identifying the key players and persons sacrificed there. All the battles, conferences and celebrations offer clues of a culture in retreat, but the details — persons with and without heads, heads with or without persons, beards, mustaches, weapons, fashions of men and women — are treasures beyond words for the people of Iran to protect and cherish.
The past is also a plot for the present, and scheme that is the inspiration of what we call modern. Back at my hotel in Isfahan, the Abbasi, lucky tourists who secure a room there are introduced to hospitality that official Iran hopes will be appreciated by its guests and passed on beyond its borders. Its decor, courtyard and ambiance are all packaged as palatial. And that is not accidental.
Formerly known as the Shah Abbas Hotel, this complex was built as a caravansary at the time of king Sultan Husayn of Safavid about 300 years ago. The structure has been renovated since the 1950s by André Godard, the same developer who constructed the mausoleum of poet Hafez in Shiraz.
While I think at this point many tourists having reached Isfahan may be a little weary and overwhelmed by the rich crafts of this country, this hotel offers still more delights to the sensibilities of the rare individual who takes extra time to explore the halls and rooms in this vast contemporary caravansary.
My bedroom suite is spare and basic but royal. The morning buffet breakfast was another familiar treat as my journey was coming to a close. I noted a wall mural depicting all women and a single man singing, dancing and making merry in the glow of gold and turquoise, the two ubiquitous colors throughout Iran.
I am reminded that visual beauty in Iran does not exist in isolation from its poets, haunting sounds and soulful music.
Regarding music, roughly 300 types of traditional Persian instruments comprise a collection displayed at a small private museum in the Armenian district of Isfahan. Prototypes of reed flutes and horns, as old as 6000 BC perhaps, grace the walls along with innumerable varieties of animal skin drums. I was mesmerized by the lilting love songs presented on the property by a quartet of musicians playing percussion and a string ensemble that included forerunners of the modern violin and guitar, including the kamancheh, oud, and tar.
My final blog on Iran-Persia will be published in a couple of days. Thank you for hanging in there.