The Armenian Cathedral in Esfahan is dedicated as All Saviour but is generally known as the Vank Cathedral. Austere dun-coloured brick on the outside gives way inside to a riotous mix of Persian tiles, Byzantine gold and European-style fresco. Every surface is decorated and the effect is dazzling. Building began in 1606 and the cathedral was completed in the mid 1600's, since which time it has served as the focal point of the Armenian church in Iran. Architecturally it reflects the 17th century Safavid style with soaring arches and a very Islamic-style dome.
Even if you don't stay at the Abbasi Hotel whilst you are in Esfahan, you should go and see it. The hotel tour is interesting, but best of all is to visit in the evening, to sit in the garden at the teahouse and listen to the works of great poets of Iran as they are read each night, sip tea through a lemon or saffron flavoured sugar wafer or, if you feel in need of something more substantial, a bowl of steaming abgosht (spinach soup). It's a favourite with Esfahanians as well as visitors.
The outstanding feature of the Khaju bridge are the two Royal Pavilions set on either side of the middle of the span. The tiled and inscribed decoration of these pavilions has been restored as has the tiling on the facade of the arches. Built in 1650 AD on the foundations of an older bridge, it was constructed to be both a road and a dam with sluices to control the flow of the river to form an ornamental lake. Nowadays the sluices are used to fill irrigation canals, a much more practical use, but the bridge remains as magnificent as it ever was.
The Majid-e Jam'e Abbasi, or the Imam Mosque must be one of the world's most stunningly beautiful buildings. Those glorious tiles in all their intricacy and variety, the huge sweeping curves and arches of the iwans, the great prayer hall with its perfect acoustic, the flawless planning that allows the flow of the building to be completely uninterrupted by steps or screens -all combine to make a visit here a quite overwhelming experience.
Come at about 11 when the light is best for photos, but come back again just to absorb the amazing atmosphere of this fabulous building.
If the Imam Mosque is the dazzling crown of Esfahan, the Sheikh Lutfollah Mosque is a small, perfect diamond. It only appears small, set as it is into the long arcaded side of the Maidan. Although the walls are 170cm thick to support the enormous dome, the use of high windows and light give it a wonderfully delicate appearance, and the ever-decreasing pattern in the dome enhances that. Yellow, not blue, is the dominant colour here. The building was always intended for private prayer so there are no great public areas, and the combination of the intimacy of the structure and the exquisite tilework makes this a unique place to visit.
Vank Cathedral was built from 1606 to 1664, as the main church for the Armenian refugees fleeing to Isfahan from the Turkish massacres. Shah Abbas offered the Jolfa district of Isfahan as a refuge for them.
Inside there are some rather garish frescoes, depicting some of the gorier biblical scenes, including the persecution of the Israelites and the massacre of the Innocents. Obviously, the events in Turkey were still very much on the minds of the artists.
Photography is not permitted inside the cathedral.
There is also a museum with photographs of the more recent Armenian massacres of 1894-96 and 1915-16. This is something like a holocaust museum: quite moving and disturbing.
Mostly dating from the 12th Century, but built on foundation that date from Sassanian (2ndCentury) times, the Pol-e Sharestan is the oldest bridge in Esfahan. Much plainer that the other bridges, it sits on 12 giant stone buttresses that date to the earliest construction. These are surmounted by the arches and spans of early Islamic building The river here is usually fast running and it is a very pleasant walk along the river to reach the bridge.
The shadows at sunset make for great photos.
A walk down the the main north-south avenue in Esfahan, the Chahar Bagh (Four Gardens) will bring you to the loveliest of all the city's bridges - the Sio Seh Pol. The bridge is sometimes known as the Allaverdi Khan bridge - named so for the architect who built it in 1602. Now closed to traffic, with little teahouses in the piers, a walk across the bridge (or under it ,through the receding arches that are are favourite place for young Esfahanis to meet and chat) will take you across to New Julfa -the Christian Armenian section of the city.
In the grounds of the Vank Cathedral you will find a museum dedicated to the martyrs of the Armenian Massacres and their enforced diaspora from Turkey in the early 20th Century. As well as the graphic and heart-wrenching exhibits that deal with this tragedy, there are others dating back to the first arrival of the Armenians in Persia in the 16th Century together with some of the priceless treasures they brought with them. There is good English (and French I think) titling to the exhibits.
The Masjid-e-Jumeh, or Friday mosque, is is both the most ancient and the most important mosque in Esfahan. It may not be as immediately attractive as the other great mosques in the city but in it its wonderfully harmonious and complex brick and stonework it is both a sampler of over 1000 years of the evolution of sacred building in Iran and an extraordinarily beautiful building.
Damaged during the Iran/Iraq War, it has been most sympathetically restored and is now a World Heritage site.
Something of a curiosity is the Menar-e Junban - a Mongol period mausoleum known generally as the Shaking Minarets. Whilst of no great architectural merit, the building is very popular with visitors because of the odd way pushing on one minaret can make the other move. If you want to try your hand at moving the minarets yourself, access to the roof is via a very cramped and dark staircase. If you don't feel like tackling that, it's easy enough to observe from the ground outside.
Currently the minarets are undergoing restoration - all those years of shaking have taken their toll - and the building is encased in scaffolding. You would be advised to check their current status when you arrive in Esfahan before making the trip out to where they are.
Chehel Sutun palace is a seventeenth century summer pavilion, built by Shah Abbas as a reception hall in which to entertain foreign dignitaries.
There is a long, rectangular pool in front of the pavilion, flanked by fir trees. I found it quite incredible to see fir trees just across the Gulf from the hot desert of Saudi Arabia.
The murals on both the innner and outer walls of the palace are some of the most beautiful in the world.
One fascinating aspect of these murals is the Mongolian features of many of the people at that time, because, of course, this was once part of the Mongol Empire.
Isfahan boasts the second biggest city square in the world, after Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
The only problem is what to call it. It has had so many different names over the years. First it was Naqsh-e Jahan. Then it was Maidan-e Shah.Currently it is called Emam Khomeini Square.
It is 510m long and 165m wide. It was built by Shah Abbas in 1612. The southern end is dominated by Masjed-e Emam. At the northern end is the bazaar. On the eastern side is the Sheikh Loftollah Mosque and on the western side, the Ali Ghapu Palace. Its fountains look beautiful at sunrise and sunset.
Horse-drawn carriages take visitors for a quick spin around the square.
The Ali Qapu is another of Esfahan's exquisite buildings. This time the decoration is not brilliant tile but rather soft-toned and intricate inlaid stonework and delicate frescoes. The building towers over the arcaded sides of the Maidan - though it was originally the gate to the long-gone royal palaces and gardens that stretched away behind it. All that remains of them now is the name on a square - Nash-e Jahan - Image of the World.
The long climb to the third floor balcony will reward you with wonderful views across the square to the Imam and Sheikh Lutfollah Mosques. It was to this balcony that the Shah would come to watch polo and entertain his foreign guests.
The 132m-long, Khaju Bridge was built over the Zayande River in 1650. In the middle is a royal pavilion, which was used by Shah Abbas.
It is also a dam, and when I was there in March, the water level was so low that there was no water left on the downstream side.
Under the bridge is one of the oldest teahouses in Iran.