Monday, April 23, 2012

Si-O-Se Pol—Bridge Over Multicultural Waters

Arcade on the Si-o-Se Pol Bridge
Photo by Siasard
By Heidi Noroozy

I’m a sucker for bridges. It gives me a rush to stand in the middle of a river, high and dry above the rushing stream, and contemplate all the places the river has been, from its source in the mountains to its mouth at the sea. I like to imagine the human stories that play out along its banks and think about the ingenious ways people have devised for crossing from one side to the other.

The Iranian city of Esfahan has a bridge that I’m sure was built just for dreamers like me. The Si-o-Se Pol Bridge spans the Zayandeh Rud River and connects Esfahan’s famous Chahar Bagh Boulevard with the Armenian neighborhood of New Julfa. This bridge is not only one of the oldest in Esfahan (built between 1591 and 1597 on the order of Shah Abbas the Great) but also the largest anywhere in Iran (45 feet wide and 175 yards long).

The Si-o-Se Pol is also known as the Allah Verdi Khan Bridge, the name of the provincial governor who oversaw its construction. Born a Christian in Georgia, Allah Verdi Khan Undiladze was captured during one of Shah Abbas’s Caucasus campaigns. He worked his way up to the position of commander in the Persian ghulam army, a special branch consisting of Christian captives. Later, Abbas appointed Allah Verdi Khan governor of Pars Province in southern Iran, and he eventually became the second most powerful man in the empire, after the shah. How’s that for a rags-to-riches story?

The bridge’s double-decker structure is built from the yellow brick and limestone masonry that is typical of Esfahan architecture. On a clear day, the color turns a burnished gold under the region’s relentless desert sun. The upper level holds the roadway, now limited to pedestrian traffic, and is flanked by two vaulted arcades. In the old days, when the bridge was a major thoroughfare crowded with carriages, farmers driving stock to market, and carts laden high with merchandise for the bazaar, these side corridors served as pedestrian zones where people on foot could escape the danger of being trampled. Today, they are quiet spaces where you can walk and admire the lovely arched ceilings and high brick walls.

Photo by Shahab Maghami

The lower level rests on piers, separated by 33 arched sluices where the river can flow past. These sluices lend the bridge its name, for Si-o-Se Pol means the Bridge of 33 Arches in Farsi. The piers, in turn, are supported on piles driven deep into the riverbed. The builders created these piles by digging shafts down to the stable bedrock, lining the shafts with earthenware pipes, and filling the pipes with stones and mud. Apparently, such pile construction was cutting-edge technology in the late 16th century.

This bottom deck also contains a teahouse with tables and chairs set up along a narrow passage under the southern end of the bridge and also on an outside ledge near the shore. Between the tables, flights of stone steps lead to private chambers, where a family or group of friends can enjoy their tea out of public view.

My favorite features of the Si-o-Se Pol Bridge, though, are the alcoves set at intervals along the upper deck. They form little balconies overlooking the river, where you can sit and admire the view. See why I think this bridge was built for dreamers like me? I did sit in one of these alcoves once, contemplating the river, the distant mountains—and murder. (I am, after all, a crime writer.) It was where I came up with an idea for the novel I was writing at the time, in which a young woman is pushed from the Si-o-Se Pol Bridge and drowns in the river below.

Sipping tea under the bridge
I’ve also sipped tea in one of the teahouse’s little stone rooms. After dark one evening during Ramadan, my husband, his sister, and I sat on the red-carpeted floor, leaning against large cushions that lined the walls, and enjoyed little glasses of steaming tea. The river was calm that night, and we listened to it lapping gently against the stone piers, punctuated by the occasional crash of breaking glass.

Breaking glass? Curious, I crawled to the window of our stone chamber and peered down into the teahouse kitchen, which stood just above the water line. A man stood there tossing old water pipes (known as gheylians) out the door, where the glass portions shattered on the stone foundation over which the river flowed. (Note to self: Never go wading barefoot in the Zayandeh Rud—at least nowhere near the Si-o-Se Pol Bridge.)

The Si-o-Se Pol may not be the prettiest bridge in Esfahan. That honor goes to the Khadjou Bridge, which was built fifty years later. But I have to love a bridge whose history is rooted in three countries and two religions: Persia, Armenia, and Georgia and Islam and Christianity. Even better, it’s a bridge whose designers wanted people to take a moment from their busy day and notice the wonders of the natural world.

To get a close-up look at the Si-o-Se Pol Bridge, check out this video by Amin Eftekhari:


  1. Having tea in that tea house must have been great even without the glass smashing! Again, it would be nice if more of this side of Iran was talked about!

  2. Thanks, Sangeeta! I always have experiences like this when I visit Iran and I love to share them with the world. :)

  3. What a beautiful bridge--and interesting story, Heidi. I love the photo with the golden hues.
    I can imagine myself there drinking tea with you ... and possibly even contemplating murder. :-)

  4. Love the Georgia connection. And beautiful too.

  5. Jenny, we could both plot out our next books on that bridge. You don't have to set a book there, it's just a very inspirational place.

    Edith, I thought you'd like that bit of Georgian history. :)

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