The city of Isfahan in central Iran is a city of bridges and parks. All exquisitely designed and built in the past with superb Persian architecture. As the description once went “Isfahan, ‘Nesf-e-jahan’” or Isfahan is half the world.
It helps if you have a river running through your city. It also helps if the river is shallow and wide and is perennial thanks to snow melt.
The ‘Zayend-e-rud’ is just such a river, rising from the Zargos mountains and flowing through the heart of the city.
As the city grew on both sides of the river, bridges were built on it and what bridges. These were not the utilitarian, throw-a-log-across-the-river types but examples of design par excellence. They held water like a small dam, they functioned as aqueducts transporting water from one side to the other, they acted as sluices and regulators of water flow, they were places of congregation where you dipped your feet in water or took a siesta below the arches on a hot summer day, they fed the parks with water and so on.
The bridges had wonderful names: Pol-e-Shahrestan, Pol-e-khaju, Pol-e-chubi, Pol-e-jui and my favourite, the Se-o-seh or the “bridge of 33 arches.” The city lights up the bridges in the night. Entire families gather to sit around in the park and watch the river flow. Some people sing and play the lute, others join in. On a full moon it looks like the entire city and especially the children have come to the bridges of Isfahan.
Tourism, both local and global, attracted by the bridges of the city helps the economy. A happy combination of travel, leisure, money, aesthetics and ecology one would imagine.
But things are not as it should be. The agricultural and industrial demand for water has far outstripped the capacity to supply it as well as manage the flow in the river. The Zayend failed to flow for several days last year. Without the river the bridges appeared forlorn and desolate. In the memory of the elders this is the first time such a situation has occurred.
Worldwide the management of water and rivers is in a crisis. This inability to work within ecological resource availability has far-reaching consequences. The ecology of rivers is under threat. The architecture, design and aesthetics of water is under question. A way of life is permanently changing.
The Iranian government is drawing up a plan to reduce agricultural water demand by ten per cent by improving efficiency of water application for orchards and crops. Drip irrigation is gaining ground.
For now the Zayend is flowing. The bridges of Isfahan are lit up and they look beautiful. People are walking on the banks and families spread rugs for a picnic. Life is as perhaps around the Sassanid times centuries back.
The bridges of Isfahan need the river to flow as much as the citizens of the city do.
Through a deeper understanding of our rivers and the culture and ecology that they support perhaps we will find a way to ensure that the world heritage is protected.
On this depends the very existence of a way of life and a civilization.