Thirty-Three Arches

There is something both timeless and eerily beautiful about arches in Safavid architecture. The elegant ogees appear in both two ...
By Mark R. Jahnke

There is something both timeless and eerily beautiful about arches in Safavid architecture. The elegant ogees appear in both two and three dimensions across the city of Esfahan, forming façades and domes, lining bazaars, and crisscrossing the Zayandeh Rud in the form of four stone pedestrian bridges.

Stepping onto a pedestrian bridge is always a thrill. I still remember when I first walked across the Weeks Bridge, looking at the cars on both Soldiers Field Road and Memorial Drive and thinking to myself, “I bet you wish you could use this bridge.” Where else in Boston can you see people dancing Argentine tango beneath the full moon in the spring, jumping into the river in the summer, cheering on the rowers in the fall, and quickly running across in a bundle of down in the winter?

In Esfahan, the bridges are in neither the town square nor the city center. In fact, the most famous of them was merely built as a shortcut to an Armenian suburb. Nevertheless, they remain one of the city’s primary tourist draws along with the equally arched and majestic Naqsh-e Jahan, one of the largest public squares in the world. People from all over, including my fellow travellers and myself, snap photos of the bridge during the day, exploring the ins and outs of all of the arches through the low-ceilinged passageways. But this is no Ponte Vecchio; the only businesses to be found on the bridges are a few traditional tea houses built into the stonework underneath with windows gazing out across the riverbed.

Not that the bridge needs any other businesses, as tea somehow goes perfectly with Safavid arches. In the afternoons, people sit in traditional gardens, sipping the toffee-colored liquid out of pear-shaped clear glasses. These gardens are lush with flowers, orange persimmons, and bright magenta pomegranates hanging from the trees. The fountains, pools, and channels create a soft white noise, and the welcoming comments and invitations into people’s homes for dinner come from all directions. Some streets even have a Persian garden in the median. Despite the cacophony of traffic and motorbikes, walking down the middle of Four Gardens Boulevard is oddly calming. It was a far cry from what I had seen in “Argo” 72 hours before landing in Iran.

Esfahan sleeps earlier than Tehran, except for the square and the bridge. In fact, my first encounter with the most famous, the Si-o-seh Pol, which literally means the Bridge of 33 Arches, came at midnight under the harvest moon.

It started as an evening stroll with my travel companions suffering from cabin fever after the five-hour bus ride that took us from Tehran to Esfahan. With a cool but balmy desert wind, we approached the sodium-vapor orange glow of the bridge. I was torn between wanting to take as many pictures as I could and a desire to put the camera away and simply watch the lives moving past me on quiet strolls, walks home, and the occasional romantic rendezvous at one of the few places where the young people of Esfahan feel comfortable as themselves.

The world that I found at the bridge, and indeed in all the places I visited in Iran, is not the world often depicted in the American media. Rather, it is a space where people come together to do what we might do on a balmy summer’s night in the chairs of Harvard Yard: be ourselves with the people who matter most to us.

We had seen pictures of the bridge in the spring, when nearly the entire city comes to the banks of the river to picnic and see friends during the New Year’s celebration in March. In those shots, the water reflected the glow of the lights like something out of a fairy tale, illuminating the entire length of the bridge. As we walked to the riverbank in person, though, all we could see was the dusty expanse of rocks where there should have been water. Nowadays, the river runs dry for most of the year, and several of the arches remain unlit, their lights long since burnt out.

Some say the bridge is decaying. It is built of stone after all. Some say that the less and less that the Zayandeh Rud runs, the sooner the bridges will all collapse into the riverbed, another loss of Iranian grandeur far too soon after the destruction of the historic sites of Bam in an earthquake in 2004. I like to think, though, that this dark period in the bridge’s life might be more temporary. After all, stone has proven to be a most durable building material; the fully intact ancient fortresses of Iran across the region stand as testament to the material’s longevity, as do many of Rome’s finest treasures.

We made our way quietly down to the base of the bridge and walked underneath to listen to the echo our voices made in the concave ceiling. In the nooks of the outward-facing arches we saw people relishing the beauty of the full moon and thinking about everything that surrounded them.

Then, we heard the sound of music coming from further down the bridge. We walked out from underneath the arches and followed the melody to find three young Esfahani men who were strumming a guitar and singing quietly to themselves the elegant lilt of Persian rhymes. The melody was of a minor key, and the words, my colleague told me, were about love and loss. The men were eager to include us, and one by one, the Iranians around us joined in the song, each knowing the lyrics by heart.

We all went to bed shortly thereafter. But I still hear that music every so often, though the musicians are far away. It makes me crave tea with bergamot.

—Mark R. Jahnke ‘13, an FM Staff Writer and Crimson Publishing Associate, is a Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations concentrator in Pforzheimer House. He is more dangerous with blades on his feet than in his hands.