On the present site of Maidan-i-Imam before Isfahan became the Safavid capital, there used to be another square called naqsh-i-Jahan (Design of the world), much smaller than the square today
It was Shah Abbas the Great who made Isfahan his capital and then decreed that the square should be extended to its present size, and lovely buildings set around it. The length of this great square, which is actually rectangular, is 500 meters from north to south, and its width about 150 meters from east to west. It was laid out and beautified in the reign of Shah Abbas the Great, at the beginning of the seventeenth century. From that time until sixty years ago the square presented a very different aspect from the square to day. The whole area of the square within the limits of the water channels round it was quite level, while to the north and south stood two goal posts for the game of polo. Those two goals posts are still in position but replanning with large pool in the center, and lower beds round has transformed the square and given it a completely new look. Most of the buildings round are two-storied and the alcoves simply decorated.
To the south of Maidan can be seen the great pile of Abbasi Jami (Masjid-i-Shah) – the Royal Mosque a vista of blue, – to the east is Sheikh Lutf Allah Mosque quite unequaled – to the west the royal palace of Shah Abbas the Great, Ali Qapo and to the north the Qaysariyeh gateway leading to the Royal Bazaar. The most noteworthy feature of the square is the way in which in sunshine and shade and the varying lights of the day, the whole wonderful expanse takes on a hundred different aspects each more attractive and lovely. If, as some foreign travelers have said, (Isfahan is the heart of the Orient), then Maidan-i-Imam is certainly the heart of Isfahan.
We can still appreciate its wonder on viewing it today, but imagination is needed to recapture the glory of four centuries ago. Let us try to imagine Isfahan four centuries ago. First place a hundred and ten cannons a hundred and ten paces from each side of the entrance to Ali Qapo palace, for a hundred and ten computed in the ancient letters gives the name of the Prophet`s son-in-law, Ali, who was especially venerated by the Safavid King. The palace itself has all the dazzling beauty of the period, lovely doors and all kind of expensive objects and furnishings.
Shah Abbas, of the piercing glance, sits there, surrounded by all the important personalities and ambassadors of the day, Persians and foreigners, and from the lofty gallery views the polo and other maneuvers of his Qezelbash guards below.
This will give you some idea of Isfahan`s former greatness. The Qaysariyeh and the entrance of the Royal Bazaar, built in 1619, stand at the north end of the Maidan. The frescoes and painted pendentives of this gateway are still worth note. The frescoes, which picture the war of Shah Abbas, the Great with the Uzbecks, have faded badly in the air and sunlight, but the roof pendentives are still in good condition. Above the gateway here is some lovely mosaic tiling: these show the play of the star Sagittarius, the Archer, for in the old day eastern writers considered that Isfahan was under the influence of this star. The symbol of the archer shows a creature, half-man, half-tiger, with a large snake for its tail and this is depicted in the tilework here.
The doorway of the Qaysariyeh opens into the Royal Bazaar, where you can find all kinds of hand-woven, hand-printed cloth being sold and you can also go in and see how the patterns are made and applied. This Bazaar has a wonderful painted crossroads, dating from Safavid times, the most beautiful and most important arches crossroads in Isfahan. At that same period, the upper galleries of the gateway used to contain bands of musicians and at sunset each evening the bands would strikes up, with kettle-drums, trumpets, horns and all kinds of military music.