It is getting on for evening when I discover the simple joys of a pot of tea and a view over Imam Square. The sun is slipping away behind a bloom of domes and minarets. In the vast plaza below are fountains and horse-drawn barouches. Spices swim up from the bazaar, families stroll home and scooters putter down towards the river. The city is winding down for sunset. On the terrace beside me, two young men are sharing a water-pipe. I pour another tea and watch the scene fade to dusk, thinking: if this is the Axis of Evil, it’s not doing a good job of showing it.
I have come to Esfahan, Iran’s former capital and today perhaps the best preserved seat of what was once the Persian Empire. It has a prestigious history. From the 11th century the city stood as a centre of power, flourishing in phases and reaching its apogee in the 1600s under Shah Abbas the First. At his behest, Esfahan was moulded from an important city into a beautiful one. Mosques, bridges and gardens were constructed on a huge scale. A famous text from the period claims “Esfahan nesf-e jahan”. It translates as “Esfahan is half the world”, and even today the conceit seems apt.
But there are few international tourists. Iran doesn’t feature prominently in travel agency windows. It has a belligerent government, a clamp on social freedoms and a knack for drawing unsettling headlines. Mutterings of state-sponsored terrorism don’t make for a strong holiday marketing campaign. Alcohol is banned and women are obliged to keep their heads covered at all times in public. In brochure terms, it’s hardly the Algarve.
And yet. Visiting the country destroys preconceptions. When you encounter unexpected charm it can make it easy to employ hyperbole, but the citizens of Iran are boundlessly hospitable. Living almost bang in the middle of the country, Esfahan’s 1.6 million inhabitants are a case in point. The Western travellers I meet, male and female, all have the same over-nourished story – you can’t pass an hour here without being invited to tea.
“Come. Come my house,” says Milun, and lays his palm to his breast. I have been walking across the 17th-century Khaju Bridge, a sandy-yellow vision of arches and one of eleven crossings over the Zayandeh River. Suddenly, on the lower level, there is singing. Making the most of the acoustics under the bridge’s arches is Milun, ululating a Farsi love song into the afternoon. A couple of his friends stand listening to him. He is not busking. Beaming at my unexpected presence, at the song’s end he walks over sheepishly, shakes my hand and in broken English invites me to eat at his house. The irony is that I am already en route to someone else’s.
Time and again, locals on the street approach to talk, curious, eager to make a connection. On Jamal-od-Din Abdolrazagh Street the next day I meet Muhamad. He tells me he is a journalist and teacher. I ask about his writing. “My newspaper was closed,” he says. I ask why. He gives a look that says: please don’t ask that. Then he tells me he is also a poet. On a sheet of paper he writes, in English: People tell me that windows don’t have feelings or a heart/ But when the glass of a window is steamed up/ And I’m writing with my finger out the words ‘I love you’/ Then the window panes start to cry.
If Esfahan’s people, pavements and teahouses are the city’s lifeblood, Imam Square is its beating heart. Second in size only to Beijing’s Tianenmen, it is a colossal rectangle flanked by some of the finest Islamic architecture in the world. The largest, the blue-tiled Imam Mosque, was completed in 1629. When I visit early one morning, it is quiet except for birdsong. The scale is breathtaking. It took eighteen years to build, and from its open courtyard to the rich azures and yellows of its mosaics, it is utterly exquisite.
Diagonally across the square, the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque is smaller but, if anything, even more triumphant. It is another from the golden period of the1600s. There is a stillness to it. Sunlight plays through its windows and spreads up to its painstakingly patterned dome. Visitors can walk right in and admire it all, crane-necked. I meet a local woman later that day. She is an architecture student, with a pretty purple headscarf worn loosely above a khaki manteau. She says that she thinks the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque is the most beautiful building in the world.
It is a fine city for walking (and a good thing too – puffing too much shisha and eating more than you strictly should is easy here). In the bazaar are sacks of herbs, wheelbarrows of walnuts and great tubs of dates. Bikes trundle past with stacks of 6-foot wide carpets. Butchers sell camels’ feet and, down by the river, locals ride pedaloes and share picnics. It is a pleasure to wander from bridge to bridge and admire the centuries-old designs. There are egrets and herons and flocks of ducks. To the south of the city, jagged mountains frame the vista.
When I return home, I read through my journal. On one page I have underlined part of a conversation I had with a stallholder. It says simply: “My country and my government are different”. Valuable words.