Ali-Qapu Palace is another gem tourists should make sure to visit while they are in Isfahan. Ali-Qapu palace is located on the west wing of Naghsh-e Jahan Square, in front of Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque.
During the Safavid period, Ali Qapu Palace served different purposes: 1. it made an intimate relationship between the royal court and the common people coming and going in the square; 2. it functioned as the entrance to the complex of royal palaces behind Naghsh-e Jahan Square.; 3. it also functioned as an official office where the royal court met and solved the problems of the country.
Before the establishment of the new Safavid square which was originally called Meydan-e Shah (Shah Square), its site was almost occupied by an older 14th-century Timurid garden known as Naghsh-e Jahan. From the time of Shah Ismail, the area had both a meydan (square) and a palace called Dowlat-Khaneh (literally The House of the Government).
When Shah Abbas’ construction campaign began in Isfahan (1592-1598), he ordered the building of the five-storey Ali-Qapu Palace at the place of the older Dowlat-Khaneh. When the added parts were completed, the first floor was also transformed to match the rest of the building. It is interesting to know that Eskandarbeig Turkman, the historian of Shah Abbas’ court, refers to Ali Qapu Palace as dargah-e panj tabaqe, or (the gateway of the five-storey building).
As P.P.Soucek argues, the name Ali Qapu gained currency after the 1643-44 addition of gateway and Talar. It is believed that the doors of the gateway were transferred from the mausoleum of Imam Ali, the first Imam of the Shia Muslims, in Najaf (now in Iraq) to Isfahan and installed at the gate of the palace. From this time onward, the mansion came to be known as Ali Qapu or the “lofty door”.
When you pass the gate of Ali Qapu, you will enter an octagonal vestibule known as Hasht Behesht (or eight paradises). This part of palace is covered with an amazingly decorated dome, flanked by guards’ rooms and certain offices.
In front of you, there is a passageway, referred to as the royal passageway, which led to the palaces behind the Ali Qapu. Just after the vestibule, on your left, there is small a door which you should enter and take the steep stairs leading to the different floors and rooms of the Safavid mansion.
Generally, each floor of Ali-Qapu Palace includes a music room, a royal chamber and several banqueting rooms. All these rooms were centered around a large room, serving as the reception hall. Obviously, the king used to receive his high-ranking guests in these rooms.
To boast the grandeur of the court, all the 52 rooms of Ali Qapu Palace were decorated as majestically as possible: very delicate and highly priced rugs covered parts of the walls, while other parts were painted with incredibly beautiful frescos, representing a balanced, harmonious combination of floral designs, birds and European scenes. The curtains hung over the windows were of gold and silk fabric.
Following the steps takes you to the talar or the columned balcony of Ali Qapu Palace, built by the order of Shah Abbas II in 1648. This one of a type balcony, masterminded by the grand vizier of the king Saro Taqi, includes 18 columns, each one a 10-meter high trunk of a single plane tree. These 18 columns support a double-layered ceiling, embellished with fine inlaid work and frescos. In the middle of the terrace, there is a marble pond, its surface covered with copper. The king and his guests used to sit in this balcony while listening to the melodious flow of water in the pond and being entertained by celebrations, marches, local plays and even games of polo in the Naghsh-e Jahan Square below. And now that you have reached this royal balcony, we bet you would enjoy one of the most beautiful scenes you have ever seen in your life, a breath-taking panoramic view of the Naghsh-e Jahan Square.
Behind the columned terrace, there is Shah Abbas’ throne hall, used to receive royal guests. In comparison with other rooms, it is much larger, decorated with delicate stucco work, called lāyeh-chini, and fine frescos representing scenes similar to paintings in other rooms. These paintings were the work of Reza Abbasi, the great Safavid painter, and his talented students.
There is an interesting point you should know about this room. If you look up, you will see the upper part of the reception hall surrounded by a series of small windows. These rooms hosted the women of harem, where they gathered to partly enjoy the celebrations held in the reception hall by peeping through the windows.
The small balcony at the back of the throne hall overlooks a politico-religious monument called Tohid Khaneh. It is a single story, twelve-sided building reflecting the Shiites’ belief in the twelve scared Imams. The balcony also houses two narrow spiral staircases of 92 steps, taking you to the highest and most beautiful floor of Ali Qapu Palace, known as the Music Hall.
The Music Hall is also a late addition from the time of Shah Abbas II. It is decorated lavishly with the most beautiful patterns and fretwork stalactites, which are made of hollow pendentives of 20 different patterns. The reason this room is called Music Hall is because of the acoustic properties of these pendentives, which make this hall the most suitable place for performing music. The central part of the hall is cross-shaped, with an astonishingly decorated ceiling bearing stalactite squares transforming into squares. Staying in this room for a while works magic. Immerse yourself in the beauties of this hall and open your ears up to the centuries of music played here, the world will turn into a heavenly place.