The air rattles with the cries of men. They hammer their hands to their hearts in unison in a series or rhythmic slaps that echo through me. Some flagellate themselves with chain whips. And then the call from the minaret sounds out and all turn to face Mecca. Standing shoulder to shoulder, the men bow their heads to their cupped hands, as if reading an imaginary Koran. Their lips murmuring prayers; their eyes scrunched in aching devotion. I notice an elderly man confined to a wheelchair holding his mohr (clay tablet) delicately to his forehead, its surface worn smooth by caresses. We’re amid the crowds gathered on Esfahan’s Naqsh-e Jahan Square — the largest in the world — for Ashura (one of the holiest days in the Shia religious calendar, mourning Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who was killed in the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD).
I weave through to the edge of the thronging masses and sit on the stoop of one of the shops lining the UNESCO World Heritage Site-listed square. Its four sides are studded with the imperial Ali Qapu Palace, Shah Mosque, 1.5-mile-long Grand Bazaar, and Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque. Elongate pools and trees spread across its centre, but it wasn’t always this way. When Safavid ruler Shah Abbas I made Esfahan his capital in 1590, he played polo in the grounds.
The Shah also rerouted the Silk Road through Esfahan, placing it at the crossroads of the east-west and north-south trade routes, giving the city a trade monopoly. He relaxed religious laws and built caravanserais, roads and elaborate bridges to facilitate commerce. British and Dutch merchants had homes on the square and the East India Trading Company kept a warehouse near the bazaar.
Indeed, Esfahan has a history of welcoming foreigners: from the Jews in the sixth century to migrants from the Caucasus and Armenians who were resettled in the 17th century from the unstable Safavid–Ottoman border to the neighbourhood of New Julfa, which still thrives today. By the 16th century, it was one of the largest and grandest cities on Earth and the proverb, Esfahān nesf-e-jahān ast (‘Esfahan is half the world’) became popular parlance.
After a short while, a woman, encased in her chador (full-body cloak), sits beside me with her husband and young sons and starts speaking Farsi. “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m from the UK,” I reply. Her face cracks open with a toothy smile. “Oh, but you’re wearing the hijab — I thought you were Iranian!” she laughs. “How do you find wearing it?” she enquires. “Yes, what do you think of our women covering their heads?” interjects her husband, shyly. I echo the questions back to them. “For us, it’s a matter of choice. I’m only wearing the full outfit now because it’s a religious day. Tomorrow, I’ll wear bright colours!” Her name is Tayebeh and she’s studying to become an engineer. We swap telephone numbers, take a selfie, and promise to WhatsApp each other later on. Esfahan is as international in outlook as it was 500 years ago.