Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque; image by Khazaei.
The Armenian Vank Cathedral.
Isfahan (sometimes spelt Esfahan) is Iran’s third-largest city, at 1,900,000 residents. From 1598-1722, it was Persia’s capital. Archaeological evidence has shown it’s been inhabited continuously since the Stone Age. Its original name was Aspandana, or Ispandana. The city has long been very ethnically diverse, with many different groups of people living not only in the city, but in the greater Isfahan Province.
Isfahan is nestled in the foothills of the beautiful Zagros Mountains, with the Zayandeh River peacefully flowing through the heart of the city. Because of the river, the city is full of beautiful old bridges, examples of some of Isfahan’s most breathtaking architecture. One of these eleven bridges, Siosepol (the Bridge of 33 Arches), was built in the 17th century by Chancellor Allahverdi Khan Undiladze, one of Persia’s many Georgians.
Khaju Bridge at night, image by Shervin Afshar.
Detail of Khaju Bridge, image by Apcbg.
Isfahan is one of the two main settings in the Iranian chapters and sections of my WIP, Journey Through a Dark Forest (the other main setting being the Fereydan region). My original notes from 2001 had had former orphanage girl Inna Zhirinovskaya, now the orphanage co-director, and her old orphanage mother Mrs. Brezhneva escaping in 1937 with some of the children into Austria. Upon revisiting my notes when starting to write my third Russian novel in November 2012, I realised that just wouldn’t be realistic.
When I decided to bring back former orphanage girls Alina Petropashvili, Ohanna Zouranjian, and Izabella Nahigian, and Izabella’s very young mother Maral (none of whom I’d planned to use again), the idea of them escaping into the newly-renamed Iran became so obvious. Iran is just a stone’s throw away from Georgia and Armenia, and they could make their way there over the Alborz Mountains instead of risking a sea voyage and splitting up. Alina and her friends settled in Fereydan, and Inna, Mrs. Brezhneva, and the children settled in the more metropolitan Isfahan.
My original idea was to settle all of them in Tehran, but I quickly realised that would be too cliché and expected. It’s like writing about Chinese immigrants in San Francisco or Jewish immigrants in the Lower East Side. Boring. Moving the action to Isfahan Province gave me the chance to do a lot of awesome research into a beautiful place most Westerners have never heard of. It also made my workload a lot lighter when I found out that Isfahan was never occupied or attacked during the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran which was launched in August 1941. It was so safe that the Pahlavis fled there (apart from the soon-deposed Shah and the Crown Prince).
Chehel Sotoun (Forty Columns) Palace, image by Fabien Dany – www.fabiendany.com.
Isfahan has lots of beautiful old mosques, tombs, mausolea, minarets, schools, and palaces, along with many Armenian churches. The Armenian Diaspora has long had a huge presence in Iran, and Isfahan is no exception. The main Armenian neighbourhood is New Julfa (Julfa Quarter), established in 1606 and going strong to this day.
Isfahan also has an old Zoroastrian fire temple and at least one synagogue. Iran used to have a fairly large Russian Diaspora, in large part precipitated by the Revolution and Civil War, but my research hasn’t turned up any Russian Orthodox churches in Iran in general or Isfahan in particular which are still active today. The vast majority of Russian immigrants have probably long since left.
One of the many entrances to the Grand Bazaar, image by Fabien Dany – www.fabiendany.com.
The Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest and largest bazaars of the Middle East. All sorts of arts, crafts, and food can be purchased here. Your trip to the Middle East isn’t complete until you’ve been to a bazaar or shuk.
Persian cooking is awesome, and Isfahan has several dishes which are native to the area—the nougat candy gaz; fesenjan stew, made of pomegranate sryup, ground walnuts, and some type of meat (or sometimes no meat); pulaki candy; khoresht-e mast, a yoghurt stew; and beryuni, minced mutton and lungs. I wish more Persian food were vegetarian or vegan, but at least it’s not completely carnivorous.
Entrance to the Abbasi Mosque, image by Mr.minoque.
Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque, Naqsh-e Jahan Square, image by Ladsgroup.