Imam Khomeini Square is a public square, one of the largest in the Middle East, that many Iranians hold dear as the cultural heart of their country. It is one of the most popular tourism sites in Iran, and though it lacks the religious importance of Qom or Mashhad, the Imam Khomeini Square does not lack for gawking visitors, both Muslim and non-Muslim. The square is home to a trio of Esfahan’s most popular sites, including the Ali Qapu Palace, the Masjid Sheikh Lotfollah, and the awesome Masjid Imam, also known as the Shah Mosque or the Blue Mosque of Esfahan. The latter, when viewed from behind the great refelecting pool, is a sight that many officianados believes rivals Taj Mahal in India. The Imam Khomeini Square is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Following the Mongol-Timurid period, the cities of Persia went through a long period of recovery. Esfahan, which had suffered less than its neighbors, recovered more quickly, and by the 16th century had become the largest city in Persia, and may in fact have been the largest city in the Middle East as well by this time. After the Safavid dynasty came to power in the 16th century, Esfahan became the capital of Persia, and would remain so for more than two hundred years. It was during this period that Esfahan acquired the reputation as being the definitive city of Islam, at least to western minds.
Under the Safavids, Esfahan was rebuilt in grand style. Most of the city’s great palaces, mosques and schools date from this period. Their greatest project, without a doubt, was the construction of the Naqsh-E Jahan Square and its attendant monumental buildings. This great public space, later renamed Imam Khomeini Square in honor of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, was one of the most ambitious projects of its kind ever undertaken in the Middle East, comparable perhaps to Tianenmen Square in Beijing, China.
The first of the square’s great monuments to be completed was the Masjid Sheikh Lotfollah, named in honor of a popular Lebanese religious leader who was a member of the Shah’s court. It was finished in 1618 AD, and was soon followed by the Al Qapu Palace, which faced the Masjid Sheikh Lotfollah directly across the square. The palace would be the official residence of the Persian shahs until the capital was relocated to Teheran. Finally, the great centerpiece of the square, the Blue Mosque, was completed, the most magnificent building ever built in Persia.
Esfahan’s fortunes turned in the 1700’s, when a war with the Afghanis took its toll on the city both economically and physically. The decline of the importance of the Silk Road also contributed to the city’s wane. The final blow came in 1795, when the Persian capital was moved to Teheran. Despite all of that, Esfahan is Iran’s most popular tourist destination. It is more cosmopolitan than Qom or Mashhad which are mostly off-limits to non-Shi’ites anyway and less hectic than Teheran and more beautiful than Teheran.
The Imam Khomeini Square is one of the most breathtaking public plazas in the Middle East. Enclosed by a vast arcade, it is anchored at the north end by the Bozorg Bazaar and at the south end by the spectacular Masjid Imam. Just slightly south of the midpoint is an expansive reflecting pool with a clear line of site to the Masjid Imam. The pool is somewhat flanked on the east side by the Masjid Sheikh Lotfollah and on the west side by the Ali Qapu Palace. The latter offers wonderful high vantages of the Imam Khomeini Square from above.
The square’s main attraction is undoubtedly the Masjid Imam, more commonly known as the Shah Mosque. This beautiful building is considered the penultimate in Persian Islamic architecture, and it dominates the surrounding neighborhood with its magnificent blue-tiled dome. Almost as impressive as the dome are the pair of gigantic Persian gates measuring 90 feet and 110 feet in height, each flanked by a pair of minarets and bedecked in some of the richest tile mosaics ever created.
The Imam Khomeini Square dominates the heart of Esfahan, approximately 200 miles south of Teheran. It is an open site and can be freely visited by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The palace is also open to the general public. The two mosques are open to Muslims only. All sites are open daily from 8:30am-5:00pm. Cost of admission to each location ranges from IR20,000-25,000. Web: www.tourismiran.ir (official tourism website of Iran)
Besides the sites clustered around the Imam Khomeini Square, the next important place in Esfahan is the Masjid Jameh. In addition to the Ali Qupa, Esfahan is home to two lesser but equally beautiful royal residences: the Hasgt Behesht Palace and the Chehel Sotun Palace. Other major religious locations include the Masjid Manar-E Ali, the Masjid Hakim, and the Madrassa Chahar Bagh.