Crossing Zayandeh River, Isfahan, Iran Designer/Engineer Shah Abbas II Completed c. 1650 Span 433 feet (132 meters)

Materials Masonry Type Arch

An ancient Persian wonder holds new lessons for twenty-first-century designers.

In the early seventeenth century, Shah Abbas I, known as Abbas the Great, set to work creating the city of Isfahan, which would become the majestic capital of the Safavids, considered Iran’s greatest dynasty. Understanding architecture’s indelible power, the shah oversaw the construction of extraordinary buildings, including the Imam (Royal) Mosque, the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, the Ali Qapu Palace, and the Portico of Qaysariyyeh, masterworks that transformed Isfahan into a cultural and economic crossroads and earned it the appellation “the Pearl of Islam.” Persians called it Nisf-e-Jahan, “Half the World,” for to see it was to experience the world’s immense wonder. Abbas the Great’s great-grandson, Shah Abbas II (reign 1642-1666), continued his vision, building Khaju Bridge (c. 1650), considered the most exceptional of the five Safavid-era bridges that cross the Zayandeh River.

From the outset, the Khaju was more than a bridge: it integrates a practical river crossing, allows water management, and offers public areas that are shaded, scenic, and comfortably cool. It is a two-level bridge that sits atop a dam, stewarding the city’s water supply. Once a roadway for horses, carts, and caravans, it is also a gathering place, where residents and travelers could and still can sit inside its interior spaces to sip tea and listen to the rushing river, now magnified, thanks to the bridge’s vaults, into an echoing song. Memory is the membrane in which the past is sealed and also the blueprint of what you once, when you were at your most clearheaded, envisioned as the future.



Khaju Bridge crosses the Zayandeh in a series of twenty-three pointed arches, known as Persian arches, that form a pleasing horizontal arcade. Ornate, colorful tilework adorns the arches. At night, illuminated, they become golden. The arches also control the wind, lessening its force on the bridge’s upper deck. This upper deck is 25 feet (7.5 meters) wide and framed by arched walkways; the lower, vaulted space can be accessed only by pedestrians.

The fortunes of any arid area have depended on the availability of fresh water. The Khaju reveals the ingenuity of Persian hydraulic engineering; their waterworks, some of them a thousand years old, still function. Today, as global natural resources are extracted at an unprecedented rate, the ancient Persians have new lessons to teach the world about water stewardship. The Khaju’s sophisticated hydraulics were a critical means of water management. On the upstream side, cutwaters guide the river into a series of channels, a weir, that directs water downstream. When closed, these sluice channels act as locks, damming the river upstream for irrigation of fields and gardens.

Downstream, steps descend to the river, providing a spot to dip one’s feet. Sluice gates, located between the stairs, regulate the flow of water.

As urban centers become more crowded, planners and designers are seeking multipurpose, synergistic solutions like those found at the Khaju Bridge. Its multimodal design opens up new ways of thinking about bridges, the best of which serve practical and economic needs while also expanding social and aesthetic possibilities for their communities. A view through the piers shows the elegant brickwork vaults beneath the bridge, which provide cool shaded places to sit and meet.

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