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Naqsh-e Jahan Square, Isfahan, Iran

GPS: 32.657423480987, 51.677850668002

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Built between 1598 and 1629 during the reign of Abbas the Great, the 5th Safavid Shah (king) of Iran, Naqsh-e Jahan Square is located in the heart of the historic city of Isfahan. Under the Safavid dynasty, whose rulers led the country from 1501 to 1736, Isfahan became the capital of Persia from 1598 after a military victory over the Uzbeks of Khorassan. It imposed itself to the detriment of the city of Tabriz, considered too close to the borders of the Ottoman Empire by Abbas the Great.

Naqsh-e Jahan Square (which can be translated literally as “Image of the World Square”) is the second largest urban square in the world after the Tiananmen Square in Beijing (China). Measuring 560 metres long and 160 metres wide, it symbolizes the religious, commercial, cultural and political centre of the powerful Persian Empire before its influence declined. In the early 18th century, the Afghan prince from Kandahar Mirwais Hotak, rose up against the Persian army occupying southern Afghanistan. His son, Mahmud Hotak, succeeded him to power and invaded the province of Isfahan. He was proclaimed Shah of Iran and then crowned emperor in 1722 in the capital of the Safavids. Tehran then definitively replaced Isfahan as capital of Iran from 1786.

Formerly called Shah Square after its founder, Naqsh-e Jahan Square is now known as Imam Square or Meydân-e Emâm, in reference to the leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution of 1979 (Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini). It is embellished with gardens and fountains, lined with two-storey arcades and has many craft shops (jewellery, Persian carpets, ceramics, ancient objects, decorative fabrics…). This square is not typical of urban units in Iran as cities are generally laid out without large open spaces. In Isfahan, Naqsh-e Jahan Square occupies a vast pedestrian area always full of life, where inhabitants, traders, worshippers, national and foreign tourists converge. It is an outstanding example of Iranian and Islamic architecture. Magnificently structured, this large esplanade is surrounded by elegant buildings built in the 17th century, characteristic of Persian and Safavid styles: the Shah Mosque to the south (with an impressive dome), the Ali Qapu Palace to the west (a superb five-storey architectural building), Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque to the east (with no courtyard or minaret as it is reserved for the royal family) and the Grand Bazaar of Isfahan to the north (one of the largest craft markets in the Middle East).

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  • An urban heritage that has amazed its visitors for centuries; the gigantic appearance of the square and the elegance of its historic buildings (mosques, palaces and a series of two-storey arcades); the large esplanade and the royal gardens that are ideal for walking
  • A site representative of Persian architecture and Safavid art (vaulted rooms, blue and yellow ceramic domes…) reminiscent of the flourishing caravan city at the time of the Silk Road
  • The Shah Mosque (Masjed-e Shah or the Royal Mosque) adorned with earthenware and magnificent ceramic mosaics; the floral motifs and the use of seven different colours on its walls; the entrance of the monument in the form of a pishtak (large projecting arch)
  • Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque (Masjid-i Sadr) and its refined arabesques; the palette of colours used in the interior decoration; the restoration of the glazed tiles of the dome
  • Ali Qapu Palace (Grand Ālī Qāpū) and its murals with various motifs; the beautiful view of the square from the palace
  • Qeysarie Gate leading to the Grand Bazaar of Isfahan (one of the most important, authentic and lively markets in Iran); the nearby Asarkhane Shahi Museum (site of an ancient mill used for centuries to extract vegetable oil)
  • The many craft shops around the square (especially in the two-level gallery); the abundance of cafés, tea rooms (Chāi khāneh) and restaurants in the neighbourhood; a popular place where children, students and families meet regularly
  • Near Naqsh-e Jahan Square, the Museum of Decorative Arts (rich and varied collections) and Atigh (or Kohneh) Square built by the Seljuk Empire in the 11th century; the gardens and arched bridges of the city (places to stroll or picnic); the small royal palaces and mausoleums of saints; the old caravansary (occupied by the Abbassi Hotel) and the Chaharbagh School (or Madrasa Madar-i Shah); the Jāmeh Mosque of Isfahān (or Friday Mosque), its massive columns and its pre-Islamic foundations dating from before the Safavid dynasty
  • The Persian carpets of Isfahan (hand-woven); the master weavers of the local guild (from vegetable dyes and natural materials); stencil-printed fabrics using ancient techniques (with engraved wooden blocks); the spectacle of metalwork
  • A former crossroads of international trade, the vast esplanade of Naqsh-e Jahan Square was used for official celebrations, public executions, military gatherings and polo games during the Safavid dynasty that ruled Persia. Under Abbas the Great and his successors, the Iranian people were massively converted to Shia Islam from the 16th century onwards, which became the official religion of their empire. This orientation was taken to protect Persia from its Ottoman rivals who were adherents of Sunni Islam and sought to impose a caliphate throughout the region.
  • To ensure that he retained power and to prevent any conspiracy by his own clan, Abbas the Great ordered the assassination of his eldest son and blinded his other male children of ruling age.
  • In developing Naqsh-e Jahan Square in this way, Abbas the Great’s ambition was to bring together in one place the three main components of power in his court: the clergy (through the Shah Mosque), the merchants (thanks to the Grand Bazaar of Isfahan) and the royal power (with the Ali Qapu Palace).
  • Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque is sometimes nicknamed the “Women’s Mosque” because it is directly connected to the Ali Qapu Palace by an underground tunnel that Abbas the Great had built to allow the women of Isfahan to get to the mosque out of sight. Consisting of a single room under a vault, it is also known as the oratory of the former Shah of Persia.
  • After a decade of work marked by the restoration of its immense 50-metre high dome, the Shah Mosque was restored to its former splendour in 2021. This impressive dome was completed by Abbas the Great in the last year of his reign in 1629. According to François Nicoullaud (former diplomat and French ambassador to Tehran), the courtyard of the Shah Mosque and the room of the Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque represent a kind of antechamber to heaven. Thus, the domes covered with plant motifs act as bridges between earth and heaven.
  • The Grand Bazaar of Isfahan is one of the oldest of its kind in the Middle East. In the days of the Silk Road, its luxurious stalls displayed the finest products from the western and eastern worlds. Caravanserais served as resting places for distant travellers and as stopping places for merchant caravaners.
  • The Persian carpet of Isfahan, of great reputation, can count 1 million knots per square metre depending on the wool used.
  • With 2 million inhabitants, Isfahan is the 3rd largest city in the country behind Tehran and Mashhad. This ancient capital of Persia is nicknamed Nesf-e-Jahan, which can be translated as “half the world”. Thus, the discovery of the jewels of this Iranian city would be equivalent to know already a good part of the world around us.
  • The best time to explore the architectural wonders of Isfahan is in spring or autumn. The city is located at an altitude of over 1,500 metres in the centre of the Iranian (or Persian) Plateau and borders vast stretches of desert. Temperatures are therefore scorching in summer and extremely harsh in winter.
  • If possible, avoid going to Naqsh-e Jahan Square on Muslim Prayer Day (Jumu’ah) on Fridays as the site is crowded (about 20,000 people reach the Shah Mosque on that day).
  • The terrace of the Ali Qapu Palace offers a different view of the architectural heritage of Naghsh-e Jahan Square.
  • Try to be present in the square at the end of the day to watch the sun set. That’s when the historic buildings of Naqsh-e Jahan Square are at their best. Horse-drawn carriage tours are available around the square.
  • Allow enough time to explore the Grand Bazaar of Esfahan at your own pace in the old town. In its labyrinth of narrow streets accessible through a monumental gate, you will find a wide variety of products divided by major guild (handicrafts, Persian or kilim carpets, fresh food products, spices, fine herbs, ceramics, fabrics, clothing, jewellery, Chinese products…).
  • Close to the market is the Asarkhane Shahi Museum. This historic site features an ancient mill that has been used for centuries to extract vegetable oil.
  • Continue your route via Chahar Bagh Boulevard (west of Naqsh-e Jahan Square). This avenue, lined with royal palaces and fruit trees, has long been considered by some travellers as one of the most beautiful streets in the world.

Where to eat

  • Cafe Narvan
    (Italian-style coffee)
  • Firouz Sherbat Cafe
    (local and colourful address)
  • Malek Soltan Jarchibashi...
    (exceptional decor)

Where to go out

  • Chehel Sotoun
    (safavid art)
  • Hasht Behesht
    (the Eight Heavens)
  • Si-o-se-pol
    (sublime arch bridge)

Where to sleep

  • Spring Hostel
    (pleasant hostel)
  • Hasht Behesht Apartment Hotel
    (convenient and well-placed)
  • Bekhradi's Historical House
    (charming cocoon)

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