Just over ten years ago, my parents organised a family trip to Iran. My mother, who is originally from Tehran, decided that the time was finally right for us to visit her homeland. Fortunately, she was eager to introduce us to her country, as well as to our extended family, so after a whirlwind week of meeting countless relatives in Tehran, we were whisked off in my uncle’s car on a 250-mile drive south.
I remember watching the desert pass us by through a hole in the floor of the car. Whilst my mother feared for our lives as we hurtled down the desert highway in a dilapidated vehicle, I became peacefully hypnotised by the exotic and beguiling scenery. I fancied myself a nomad travelling between caravanserais, guided only by the sun and the stars. As we approached Isfahan, my parents decided to pitch camp in the more contemporary surroundings of the Khowsar hotel. However, I soon discovered that this was a modern city that still fuelled dreams of a romantic past.
On our first day, we walked through wide boulevards toward the old Nagsh-e-Jahan Square (now the Imam Square), and I could almost smell the sun that crisped the leaves on the trees and made the dust dry and soft on the paths. We stopped at a bench by the banks of the Zayandeh River for a picnic breakfast of soft naan bread, sour cherry jam, and black tea. As the morning progressed, the warmth and serenity of our new surroundings brought about an overwhelming feeling of contentment.
Reaching our destination, we meandered across Nagsh-e-Jahan Square before entering through archways into the labyrinthine bazaar. The entire burrow of shops was permeated with odours of fresh naan bread, mixed herbs, and thickly woven textiles. I stepped inside a stall where rich, earthen-coloured killims (a type of Persian rug) enveloped me, and for a moment, I found myself inside a tent at one of my imagined caravanserais.
At the next shop, my mother haggled over an already cheap silver trinket. Being a place of discourse as well as trade, many shopkeepers seemed to enjoy the challenge of a spirited customer. On occasion, when we could steal away from a persistent vendor, I would observe as old men would sit back with a string of worry beads and engage in personal prayer amongst the rabble and dust.
Eventually, the bazaar spits you back out into the main square, and we picked up on a tour of the royal Ali Qapu Palace and the Imam Mosque (previously known as the King’s Mosque). It was here that I began to learn the meaning behind the 16th-century rhyme "Isfahan nesf-e-jahan" (Isfahan is half the world).
The pale blue Isfahani tilework shines down on you from magnificent structures, encapsulating the poetry and majesty of the city in its arches, domes, and minarets. I noticed a group of German tourists gazing around the Imam Mosque. Everyone in the group seemed to be struggling with how best to focus their attention, split as it was between their tour guide, their cameras, and their own instincts, which seemed to be telling them to simply stop and stare.
Shah Abbas I commissioned the building of the Imam Mosque early in the 17th century, and it took 26 years to complete. As I looked up at the walls and at each tiny tile set in place much like a single thread in a Persian rug, I started to understand the difficulty of absorbing all that Isfahan had to offer in the space of only a few days.
The tourists scurried off behind their guide, and we stayed back, not minding for once that my father wanted to burn up a few rolls of camera film on a single location. I took shelter from the midday sun, cooling myself inside numerous vaulted corridors and chambers, cleverly engineered centuries ago to provide pedestrains with some much-needed air-conditioning.
Sounds from the outside world gradually resurfaced as I wandered toward the exit, and I had no sense of how much time had passed since we had entered. The weather had cooled a little, so it seemed like the ideal time to cross over the Si-o-seh Pol (Bridge of 33 Arches) and stop en route at one of the tea houses tucked away under its arches.
Built in the early 1600s, the bridge extends the elegant architecture of the Imam Square clear across the river, and it is to nightlife what the bazaar is to daytime society. Families and friends congregate on the Si-o-seh Pol eager to exchange news or to unwind in a chai-khuneh (tea house), smoking a hookah and enjoying fresh tea by the glass.
Sitting cross-legged on embroidered cushions, I peered over the ledge and out onto the Zayandeh, which provided background music as it burbled between the arches of the bridge. Inside, a kaleidoscope of pictures, pots, strings of beads, and glowing lamps filled the sand-bricked walls, which curved up and over our heads. Swirling patterns of red and blue spread over each table, which were laid out meticulously with open bowls of sugar cubes, an indispensable commodity for Iranian tea-drinkers.
Such sweetness in life seemed to permeate Isfahan. When I visited as a teenager, it was doubtless as one unprepared for the impression that this desert oasis would leave.
I hope that at some point not too far in the future, I will be able to make the return journey along the caravan route to Isfahan and reacquaint myself with the turquoise domes and jewelled tea houses that have been locked up in my memory for the past ten years. For that, I will whisper my own prayer.