CHAHAR BAGH AVENUE
Chahar Bagh Avenue once led from the Safavid city to the royal gardens at Hezar Jerib and Jolfa on the other bank of the Zayandeh River. Shah Abbas chose not to connect the avenue directly with the Royal Square, and it therefore began slightly to the west of the palatial complex. It was planted with trees, and a canal ran down the centre of it in a series of little waterfalls. It was a favourite promenade of the people of Isfahan, and still is today: Chahar Bagh has become one of the main shopping streets of the city with tea rooms, cinemas and fashionable clothes shops. The main monuments around Chahr Bagh were built in the reigns of Shah Abbas successors and are equally great works of art as the constructions of that great ruler. Unfortunately, all too often, the only remains we have today of the innumerable houses, palaces and pavilions of Safavid Isfahan arc the descriptions left by l7th- and l8th-century travellers. Among the few buildings still standing is the Chehel Sotun (or Forty Columns), set in the old royal park between the Ali Qapu Palace and Chahar Bagh Avenue (the entrance is on Sepah Avenue). Used for official ceremonies and particularly for receiving foreign embassies, the palace was finished in 1647 during the reign of Shah Abbas II; it was later largely rebuilt after a fire in 1706. The palace opens out onto a talar with tall, narrow wooden columns set on carved stone bases. The name of the palace-which in reality has only twenty columns-is an allusion to their reflection in the water of the large pool in front of the talar. One of the characteristic features of Safavid palatial architecture is the integration of buildings into a natural environment such as a park or a garden. Here, water plays a very important role in the spatial relationship between inside and out. In addition to the large ornamental pool at the Chehel Sotun, the architects laid out fountains in front of the throne and on the terrace, as well as canals linking the pools in the garden.
The talar is covered with a flat wooden roof, whose ceiling and eaves are painted with very fine motifs, while the walls of the eivan are decorated with floral frescoes. Originally, the entire exterior facade was covered in stalactites set with mirrors, but these now remain only in the eivan which gives onto the talar, where the throne was placed.
This throne room leads into the great audience hall with its three domes, which now houses the Isfahan Museum (at present only one of the halls of the building is open to the public). Here again, the ceiling is painted with sumptuous designs in blues, reds and golds. The six large historical murals on the upper part of the walls represent Safavid court life and military exploits of Safavid rulers; they are painted in a style which reflects a European influence. The battle scenes above the entrance have been identified as the campaigns of Shah Ismail I (1501-1524) against the Uzbeks, and those of Nader Shah in India (1739-1740); next to them is a reception held by Shah Abbas II (1642-1666) in honour of a king of Turkestan. On the opposite wall is a scene of a sumptuous banquet given by Shah Abbas I (1587-1629), and a representation of a battle between Shah Ismail and the Ottoman janissaries of Sultan Suleiman; last of all is a painting showing Shah Tahmasp (15241576) greeting the Indian prince Humayun.
Beneath these great scenes are smaller paintings, closer in style and subject matter to Persian miniatures. Covered in plaster during the Qajar period they have recently been carefully restored All around the room are a series of exhibits, mostly Safavid objects from the l7th and l8th centuries, including carpets, armour, porcelain and coins (the dates given in the cases are those of the Islamic calendar).
just south of Imam Hossein Square is Park Shahid Rajai (Bagh-e Bolbol) and the small Hasht Behesht Palace (Palace of the Eight Paradises). Built in 1699 by Shah Suleiman, this pleasure pavilion was later renovated by the Qajar ruler Fath Ali Shah around 1880, and again under the Pahlavis. It is a more or less octagonal building with a large central domed hall which gives onto a series of small chambers. The paintings on the walls, and the stalactite ceiling decorated with small mirrors, are particularly interesting.
Just past the park, at the corner of Chahar Bagh Avenue and Shahid Ayatollah Madani Street, is the madresseh of the Shah's Mother (once the madresseh-ye Madar-e Shah, now known as madresseh-ye Chahar Bagh), built between 1706 and 1714 during the reign of the last Safavid ruler, Shh Soltafi Hussein- It is an enormous complex which includes, in addition to the madresseh itself, a caravansarai (khan-e Madar-e Shah) of the same date, now turned into a luxury hotel. Today the madresseh functions as a theology school and visits are therefore limited to the entrance hall.
The entrance gate of the madresseh, on Chahar Bagh Avenue, stands out sharply from the rather austere arcaded fade of the building. The gate, which has a richly decorated stalactite vault, has wooden doors covered in partly-gilded silver sheets decorated with floral motifs and inscriptions. Once past the gate, one enters a domed vestibule with a superb design of polished bricks and blue and white tiles.
Unlike the courtyards of the mosques which are large, empty areas, the central courtyard here resembles a garden with its tall plane trees and central canal-fed marble basin. Doors at each corner of the courtyard lead to smaller yards. All around are the rooms of the students, set on two floors, each one opening out onto a vaulted niche, sparingly decorated with black and blue lines. The outer surface of the walls around the court is covered in glazed tiles.
|Chahar Bagh Boulevard 1705|
The north and east Eivan of the court, decorated with scrolls and inscriptions, serve as classrooms. As is the case in mosques, the south Eivan is the most ornate. It is flanked by two quite short minarets, very richly decorated, particularly on the balcony and stalactite cornices, Behind the Eivan is the domed prayer hall. From the exterior, the dome is reminiscent of the dome on the Imam Mosque in the Royal Square, with a calligraphic inscription around the drum, broken at intervals by the windows, and a floral design on the dome itself. This elegant decoration has been executed with a skill hardly equalled in any other building in the city, and there is no sign here of decadence, despite the late date of its construction. The inside of the dome is covered with a rich design of arabesques. Next to the mehrab is a very fine mimbar carved out of a single block of marble.
The income from the caravansarai next to the madresseh was intended to pay for the upkeep of the theological college. Built along classical lines with room giving out onto the central courtyard, the caravansarai was turned into a luxury hotel (Hotel Abbas.si, ex-Hotel Shah Abbas) under the last shah. Even if you are not staying there, the garden is a very pleasant , quiet place for afternoon tea, In the street behind the caravansarai is the Honar Bazaar (bazar-e Boland).
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