Esfahan’s bridges to history threatened by development, neglect

The Iranian city of Esfahan is renowned for it centuries-old bridges, but these architectural marvels are under threat due to pollution, neglect and a governmental water diversion scheme.

al-monitor Iranian women look at the Siosepol on Zayandeh Rud river in Esfahan, July 13, 2002. Photo by BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images.

Topics covered

water, shahristan, shah rule, sassanid era, esfahan, architecture

Aug 28, 2015

It was once the capital of ancient Persia. Today, it’s a metropolis in the center of Iran, still home to some of the world’s finest architecture. Esfahan’s beautiful mosaic domes, tall minarets, magnificent palaces and mosques have given it the title of "Nesf-e-Jahan," meaning "Half of the World" in Persian. At least that’s what Iranians call it — though foreign visitors usually show no hesitation in expressing their admiration.

One of the highlights of the city that catches the eye of every visitor is its legendary set of bridges. These structures cross the Zayandeh Rood, which runs through Esfahan. Pol-e-Shahrestan — ‘pol’ meaning ‘bridge’ in Persian — is the oldest to cross the Zayandeh Rood. It was initially erected during the Sassanid era (third-seventh century) and later restored during the Buyid and Seljuk periods. Located in the eastern part of the city, in the old district of Jay, this historic structure connected what was once the village of Shahrestan on the north side with the agricultural area on the southern bank. Today, it is the entrance to Esfahan’s fairground, with many pedestrians crossing it every day, oblivious to the history under their feet.

Further west is Pol-e Khaju, built by Safavid ruler Shah Abbas II around 1650, in two tiers. Containing 14 arches and at 133 meters (436 feet) long and 12 meters (39 feet) wide, this has been described as the finest bridge in all of Esfahan. The top level contains an arched passageway on each side for pedestrians, and a main central aisle that was used for horses and carts. At the center, there is a terrace-like structure decorated with tiles and artwork; this was where the Shah would sit and enjoy the river view. The lower level, lined with dozens of room-like spaces, was for local governors. During times of ceremony, they would sit and watch rowing matches. On the west side of the bridge, there are a series of steps that were used for social events and as gathering spots. Pol-e Khaju is still a happening place 350 years after its construction. People from all around Esfahan come here to meet, talk, sing and just be. “I think this is one of the most beautiful bridges in Esfahan. It’s even prettier at night, when the lights are on and you can see their reflection in the river — that is if the river has any water,” Mina, a medical practitioner in Esfahan, told Al-Monitor.

Further upstream is the longest and perhaps the most famous of Esfahan’s bridges, known as Allah Verdi Khan, or Siosepol — meaning “Bridge of 33 Arches.” This unique masterpiece was built during the rule of Safavid Shah Abbas the Great under the supervision of Allah Verdi Khan, one of the Shah’s most famous commanders. It is approximately 300 meters (984 feet) long and 14 meters (46 feet) wide, and was constructed to link Esfahan’s famous Chahar Bagh boulevard with the suburb of New Jolfa, which was inhabited by imported Armenian craftsmen. New Jolfa is still considered an Armenian neighborhood and is home to the four-centuries-old Vank Cathedral, among other landmarks.

Reza, a structural engineer living in Esfahan, echoed Mina’s reference to the issue of the Zayandeh Roud’s oftentimes lack of water, telling Al-Monitor, “The Khaju and Siosepol and almost all other Safavid bridges were built to function as both crossings and dams to regulate the water flow in the river. But today, they lie over an often waterless river. Without water, they have no meaning or purpose.” He added, “These bridges were meant to be soaked in water. The lack of water may damage their foundation.”

The issue of the riverbed being dry, and particularly in the summer, has in recent years led to a series of protests. One of the causes of the situation is a government scheme to divert water to feed industrial units.

Sadegh, a professor at Esfahan University who has lived in the city for over 20 years, told Al-Monitor that air pollution is another factor that could bring harm to these historical sites. “These bridges are made of bricks and stone. During the past years, air pollution has covered them with a layer that will cause acid rain and bring about serious damage,” he said.

He added that carelessness on the part of the authorities is another major issue. “Siosepol has cracks today because of the construction of a metro tunnel that came too close to its foundations. A so-called improvement project of the Khaju Bridge a couple of years ago led to the damaging of its structural and historical integrity, since attention was not paid to the finer details. Moreover, instead of using proper archaeological tools and competent, trained archaeologists, conventional construction methods, tools and personnel were used. There is not even a system in place to protect these sites from graffiti and scribblings of different people.”

These bridges have withstood the ravages of time, including violent changes of dynasties and multiple invasions over the centuries. But will they be able to survive Iran’s leap into the age of industrialization? One thing is clear: Unless the authorities act fast, this magnificent heritage — of both Iran and the world — may forever be lost. 

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