Naqsh-e Jahan Square, known as Imam Square , formerly known as Shah Square, is a square situated at the center of Isfahan city, Iran. Constructed between 1598 and 1629, it is now an important historical site, and one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. It is 160 meters wide by 508 meters long (an area of 89,600 m2). The square is surrounded by buildings from the Safavid era. The Shah Mosque is situated on the south side of this square. On the west side is the Ali Qapu Palace.
In 1598, when Shah Abbas decided to move the capital of his Persian empire from the north-western city of Qazvin to the central city of Isfahan, he initiated what would become one of the greatest programmes in Persian history; the complete remaking of the city. By choosing the central city of Isfahan, fertilized by the Zāyande roud (“The life-giving river”), lying as an oasis of intense cultivation in the midst of a vast area of arid landscape, he both distanced his capital from any future assaults by the Ottomans and the Uzbeks, and at the same time gained more control over the Persian Gulf, which had recently become an important trading route for the Dutch and British East India Companies.
The chief architect of this colossal task of urban planning was Shaykh Bahai (Baha’ ad-Din al-`Amili),who focused the programm on two key features of Shah Abbas’s master plan: the Chahar Bagh avenue, flanked at either side by all the prominent institutions of the city, such as the residences of all foreign dignitaries, and the Naqsh-e Jahan Square.
The Maidan ( square ) was where the Shah and the people met. Built as a two story row of shops, flanked by impressive architecture, and eventually leading up to the northern end, where the Imperial Bazaar was situated, the square was a busy arena of entertainment and business, exchanged between people from all corners of the world. As Isfahan was a vital stop along the Silk Road, goods from all the civilized countries of the world, spanning from Portugal in the West, to the Middle Kingdom in the East, found its ways to the hands of gifted merchants, who knew how to make the best profits out of them.
The Royal Square was also admired by Europeans who visited Isfahan during Shah Abbas’ reign. Pietro Della Valle conceded that it outshone the Piazza Navona in his native Rome.
During the day, much of the square was occupied by the tents and stalls of tradesmen, who paid a weekly rental to the government. There were also entertainers and actors. For the hungry, there were readily available cooked foods or slices of melon, while cups of water were handed out for free by water-carriers paid for by the shop-keepers. At the entrance to the Imperial Bazaar, there were coffee-houses, where people could relax over a cup of fresh coffee and a water-pipe. These shops can still be found today, although the drink in fashion for the past century has been tea, rather than coffee. At dusk, the shop-keepers packed up, and the huzz and buzz of tradesmen and eager shoppers bargaining over the prices of goods would be given over to dervishes, mummers, jugglers, puppet-players, acrobats and prostitutes.
Every now and then the square would be cleared off for public ceremonies and festivities. One such occasion would be the annual event of Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Also, the national Persian sport of polo could be played in the maidan, providing the Shah, residing in the Ali Qapu palace, and the busy shoppers with some entertainment.