The Maidan-i Imam from Byron’s window

There was time to drive round Isfahan before dark

A couple of days after Byron is in Qom and describes hurriedly the Shrine of Fatima, he arrives in Isfahan. It is, according to the travelogue, the 11th of February 1934. He and the two people that were traveling with him, or better, that gave him a ride, expected to arrive in Isfahan the day before, but bad weather delayed their arrival.

General view of the Maidan, facing North. Photo by Lisa Golombek (archnet).

At a first glance, it seems insane what happens next: Byron stays in the city only a couple of days and does not visit any monument, if not superficially. And we are talking about some of the most known and important monuments in Iran. Nonetheless, we need to consider that he was getting a free ride by Mr. and Mrs. Hovland who were moving to Shiraz. Under this light, the very fact that Byron could “drive round Isfahan before dark”, has another meaning. The Hovlands were very considerate, apparently.

Byron then manages to visit the city by car, and we can imagine him going around and looking things from behind his window, much like present-day tourists on city-sightseeing-busses. Which is something that I personally don’t like, but I do admit that is an easy way to see everything you need to see, especially if you are running out of time. And this was also Byron’s case.

View looking east across the Maidan towards Shaykh Luftallah Mosque. Photo by Talinn Grigor (archnet).

The first evening he is in Isfahan, he visits the Maidan-i Imam, the eight-hectare space also known as Naqsh-e Jahan Square, constructed between 1590 and 1595, under Shah Abbas I, for state ceremonies and sport. Byron describes it carefully in a long, vivid paragraph:

“There was time to drive round Isfahan before dark. Passing the Chihil Sutun, long familiar from pictures of its pool-reflected pines and huge verandah, I entered the Maidan. Blind whitewashed arcades, in two tiers, enclose a space a quarter of a mile long by 150 yards wide. At the near end, by me, stands the ruin of the Bazaar Gate; at the far, facing it, the blue portal of the Masjid-i-Shah, with dome, ivan, and minarets clumped obliquely behind it in the direction of Mecca; in front of each, a pair of marble goal-posts for polo. On the right rises that brick boot-box the Ali Gapu; opposite, the flowered saucer dome of the Mosque of Sheikh Lutfullah, skewed sideways over a blue recess. Symmetry; but not too much. The beauty lies in the contrast between a formal space and a romantic diversity of buildings. To spoil this effect, and to show that Bakhtiari gentlemen are no longer allowed to play polo or exercise their horses here, progress has constructed a sheet of ornamental water in the middle. This is surrounded by a Gothic iron railing and incipient petunia-beds.

View of the north façade with the Naggar-khana, the entrance portal to the bazaar. Photo by Talinn Grigor (archnet).

He would eventually visit many of the monuments he mentions in this description, but by now, this is the one and only superficial look he can have of them.


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