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Isfahan -- Half the World

Prof. Kim S. Sexton
Dept. of Architecture, University of Arkansas

Photographs from the Ruth and Franklin Harold Collection, Professor Mary Lee Hu, and Professor Jere Bacharach




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Isfahan, a major city in central Iran, was the splendid capital of the Seljuq and Safavid dynasties whose legacies established Iran (formerly Persia) as the cultural heart of the eastern Islamic world in terms of language (Persian), art, and architecture. The Safavid period (1502 1736) was particularly decisive for shaping the city, whose beauty was so great that world travelers purportedly dubbed it "Half the World," which, according to the proud 17th-century historian Iskandar Munshi, was because "they only describe half of Isfahan."

Historians credit the Safavids with being the first rulers to lay a foundation for a national consciousness in Iran, a land populated by diverse ethnic and linguistic groups. They established Shiite Islam as the state religion, promoted Sufism, and instituted state capitalism to support wide-ranging political and social goals. Commerce was so important to the Safavid polity that its most powerful dynast, Shah Abbas I (reign 1588-1629), effectively re-routed the Silk Road through Isfahan so that his empire would enjoy a trading monopoly. By the seventeenth century, Isfahan attracted not only European merchants but also missionaries and mercenaries, as it became a religiously tolerant hub of mercantile and diplomatic activity. The city fabric is significant as an embodiment of this religious, commercial, and political unity, and was exceptional in the early modern Islamic world.

Architecture and Urbanism

Shah Abbas I was the first Safavid ruler to make Isfahan his capital. His decision to move the capital from Qazvin to Isfahan in 1590 may have been motivated by the city's economic potential (the Zayandeh River and its fertile plain) and by concerns for security, given its central location at a safe distance from troubled borderlands. Favorable historical associations also set Isfahan apart from other Iranian cities. Isfahan had been the former capital of the great Seljuq empire (1038-1194) which stretched from Central Asia to Syria. By selecting Isfahan as his royal seat, Abbas associated his rule with an illustrious dynasty of the past, which was especially crucial in the early years of Abbas's rule when the survival of the Safavid dynasty was indeed questionable. A brief overview of Iranian architecture will establish the context for a better understanding of how Abbas remade the city to reflect Safavid ideology.

Isfahan as the Seljuq Capital

Iranian architecture was shaped by the building traditions of diverse ethnic groups which for centuries competed to rule the territory, mainly, Arabic, Turkish, and local Iranian peoples. A uniquely Iranian, eastern Islamic, architecture emerges only in the 11th and 12th centuries with the arrival in Iran of the Seljuq Turks in 1038. The Seljuqs implanted creative and bold structural ideas in Iran, as well as new spatial concepts, which would later serve as a foundation for Safavid architectural developments. The Seljuqs replaced the traditional western Islamic hypostyle mosque layout (brought to Iran in 749 by its first Islamic rulers, the Arab Abbasids) with the four-iwan plan. The Seljuq Turks excelled in the design of very large vaulted spaces and in the decorative articulation of buildings inside and out using complex brick patterns. They also promoted the custom of organizing important urban buildings around an open maidan, a large rectangular piazza or town square. Most of these design schema were unknown or eschewed in the Islamic west.

When the Seljuqs took Isfahan as their capital, they transformed a pre-existing hypostyle mosque into the grand four-iwan Great Friday Mosque (Masjid-i Jami). An iwan is a vast vaulted space open at one end. It was a symbol of absolutist authority dating back to pre-Islamic Persia, when iwans functioned as audience halls in royal palaces. Iwans were also known in Islamic palaces, but it was the Seljuqs who introduced the iwan into mosque architecture. The introduction of a symbol of royal prerogatives into mosque architecture encouraged the viewer to associate earthly rule with divine authority. The Great Friday Mosque has four iwans, one centered in each of the courtyard's four sides. Thereafter, this four-iwan plan became the dominant mosque type in eastern Islamic lands.

The Seljuqs also introduced large domed chambers into mosques in Iran. The domed chamber was known in the western Islamic mosques (Damascus, Cordoba, and others), where it usually served as a maqsura, a space reserved for the sultan and his court in the prime position in front of the mihrab niche. The mihrab niche provides the visual focus in a mosque, because it indicates the direction of prayer toward Mecca. The Seljuqs did not invent the domed maqsura, which altered the more egalitarian spatial qualities of hypostyle mosques, but they built extraordinarily large examples, the first of which was inserted in the Great Friday Mosque at Isfahan in 1086-7. Being large and rather high, Seljuq domes created a city skyline and externalized a symbol of royal power--something that was not as conspicuous in western Islamic cities of that époque.

Isfahan as the Safavid Capital

Nearly four centuries after the fall of the Seljuqs, Shah Abbas I selected Isfahan as the Safavid capital. The Safavids were a local, Iranian dynasty. Initially, Abbas did little to alter the physical appearance of Isfahan, preferring merely to associate his reign with pre-existing symbols of authority. He established his royal palace on the old maidan (city square) near the Great Friday Mosque, a legacy of Seljuq rule. Understandably concerned with preparing the foundations for the city's infrastructure, Abbas rebuilt and refurbished old bazaars and laid some foundations for new shops. He did not neglect the emperor's duty of providing public entertainments. He leveled the old maidan and spread sand on it so that it could be used for polo, horse racing, and wine drinking.

When restoring Seljuq buildings, Abbas left the Safavid mark in an unmistakable yet respectful manner. His renovation of the Great Friday Mosque, for instance, visually accentuated the features most associated with imperial authority using the brilliant colored tiles favored by Persian architects. He focused on the mosque's iwans and courtyard which he had sheathed in polychromatic patterned tile veneer. The iwan vaults were elaborated with muqarnas (applied ornament which looks like stalactites or honeycombs) to which glazed mosaic tile was applied. Two minarets were added to the main iwan and clad with colored tiles, creating a new iconographic symbol of authority in which the new (twin minarets) was grafted onto the old. In general, Abbas demonstrated sensitive, if self-serving, reverence for Isfahan's glorious past and concern for its fitting display.

The New City Plan -- Embodiment of Safavid Ideology

The Safavid monuments for which Isfahan is famous were commissioned by Abbas I after 1602. Military victories between the years 1590 and 1602 had confirmed Abbas's capacity as an empire builder. More capital and labor were put into bridges, roads, and caravanserais to build and facilitate trade. Abbas I was now ready to supplant the city's past and construct a pristine arena of Safavid rule outside the historic center. He established his "new city" in Isfahan to the south of the old city center, to which he transferred the imperial household; merchants and artisans relocated there as well. In the design of the new city, Abbas mobilized certain elements of the architectural past to generate a new Iranian imperial identity in the name of Safavid religious, commercial, and political ideals.

The center of the new city was a magnificent new maidan (510 x 158 meters) exultantly called the "Design of the World" Maidan (Maidan-i Naqsh-i Jahan). Its design united all of the facets of the Safavid polity into one spatial diagram: worship (the Shah Mosque), commemoration (the Mosque of Sheikh Lutfallah), sovereign administration (the Imperial Palace), and trade (Qaisariya Bazaar).

Abbas I's designers differentiated the new city from the old historical center by organizing the street patterns on orthogonal grids not oriented toward Mecca. The old city had narrow winding streets and the old maidan was oriented toward Mecca. The old and new maidans were connected by the winding covered street of the Great Bazaar (2 km long) covered by high stone and brick vaults by the order of Abbas I. English and Dutch traders lived near the bazaar, as Isfahan was home to one of the East India Company's warehouses. Where the Great Bazaar met the new maidan, a group of buildings was built that constituted the Qaisariya Bazaar (Imperial Bazaar--built and maintained by the emperor). They housed imperial manufactures (wholesale silks and fine textiles, goldsmiths, silversmiths, jewelers), the state mint, a hospital, public bath, and a caravanserai. Unlike the shops of the Great Bazaar, these were arranged on a regular grid and aligned with the new city. Their importance to the regime was represented by the Qaisariya Gateway on the new maidan; no other imperial bazaar in the Safavid realm had a monumental entrance.

The grand scale and inorganic mathematical order of the new city implied that the values embodied in the old capital had been surpassed and supplanted by Abbas's priorities: religious tolerance, capitalism, state Shiism, Sufi reverence for saintly teachers and concern for the welfare of the masses. The new maidan turned its back on the old center, creating instead an alignment with the new Chahar Bagh Avenue (1596-1602) and the multi-ethnic, multi-faith sacred sites and suburbs south of the Zayandeh River. The latter included Hindu cremation platforms, a Zoroastrian cemetery, and the suburbs of New Julfa (for silk-trading Christian Armenians) and Abbasabad Chahar Bagh (for Tabrizi war refugees). Many new bridges were built linking the northern city with the southern suburbs.. Operable flood gates on the lower level of the Khwaju Bridge (1650-51) celebrated Safavid technological control of nature, while on the upper level social amenities such as a promenade and pavilions invited passers-by to linger and enjoy the view of the river -- source of the city's pleasure and prosperity. By designing the avenue, bridges, and streets of the suburbs in alignment with the orthogonal layout of new city, the designers succeeded in embedding Abbas's ideology inescapably into the fabric of urban life.

The design of the individual buildings surrounding the new maidan was not shockingly innovative, but their organization into a legible spatial composition was unprecedented in Iran. The "Design of the World" Maidan was the heart of the new conception. The Imperial Palace occupied the entire west side of the double-storey, arcaded new maidan, having one monumental gateway (the Ali Qapu or "Sublime Portal") and two unobtrusive minor gates there. One grand portal opened onto each of the remaining sides of the maidan, giving access to the Shah Mosque (south), the Mosque of Sheikh Lutfallah (east), and the Qaisariya Bazaar (north). With one prodigious gateway on each of its sides, the new maidan looked as if it were the courtyard of a four-iwan mosque. Hence, the "Design of the World" was a sacralized one which nevertheless included two hundred shops occupying the arcaded perimeter of the maidan. Many other services were located inconspicuously just behind the maidan, including madrasas, factories, caravanserais, merchants' mansions, and artisans' dwellings.

The Imperial Palace was a garden palace complex, a palace type with a long history in Islamic architecture. This palace was composed of elaborate independent pavilions set in the garden, such as the Chihil Sutun, which served as audience chambers, banqueting halls, and residential apartments for the royal family. Garden palaces were typically surrounded by a wall, but in Isfahan's case it was not a fortification wall. The Imperial Palace is also unusual in that the imperial treasury, arsenal, and cavalry were not located inside the palace complex. Stephen Blake thinks that this reflects the casual protocol of Safavid emperors whose authority derived from traditional ideas of kingship rather than military control.

Masterpieces of Iranian Architecture

The Mosque of Sheikh Lutfallah (1603-1619) was the first monumental building to be erected in Abbas's new city. Sheikh Lutfallah was an Arabic-speaking Shiite, an imam and teacher of Islamic law, whom Abbas made part of the imperial household. The sheikh resided in this mosque, a rather novel building in that its design is a conflation of two traditional architectural types. The entire mosque is a centrally planned domed space, which is typical of commemorative mausoleums, not mosques, but this building does not house a tomb. Inscriptions call it a mosque, but it lacks the typical courtyard, iwans, and minarets. However, it does have the essential mihrab niche and is oriented toward Mecca. Multicolored tile veneer sheathes the exterior in a pattern which resembles prayer rugs applied to a vertical surface. Muqarnas faced with intricate mosaic work are suspended over the entrance arch. The interior is often recommended as the most perfectly balanced space in Persian architecture. Filtered light entering through windows in the drum of the dome flickers across the mosaic-lined walls and dome. Eight pointed arches on the walls, outlined in turquoise, bring just enough geometric discipline to this numinous, coloristic space to keep worshipers from entirely losing their earthly bearings.

The Shah Mosque (1611-1666) on the new maidan replaced the Great Friday Mosque as the center of Isfahani religious life, although the latter remained open for assembly and prayer. Compared to the Mosque of Sheikh Lutfallah, the Shah Mosque has a traditional Iranian design: a four-iwan courtyard, the main iwan flanked by minarets, and a towering 170-foot high domed chamber in front of the mihrab niche. The importance of the control of education in the Shiite state is evident in the unusual presence of two madrasas (theological schools) flanking the prayer hall, each with its own arcaded courtyard. Because both the Mosque of Sheikh Lutfallah and the Shah Mosque had to be oriented toward Mecca, they are turned at an angle with respect to the maidan on which each had its monumental entrance portal. In each case, the architects diminished the disorienting linkage between portal and mosque by locating the change of axis in an entrance corridor.

Unprecedented use of color dominates the decoration of the entrance gateways, domes, minarets, and some interior spaces of both the Shah Mosque and the Mosque of Sheikh Lutfallah. The use of polychromatic tile as surface ornament was known in other periods of Iranian history, but it was the Safavids who established colorism as the most salient characteristic of Iranian architecture. Before the Safavids, colored tiles would be used to accent certain architectural elements, but artisans working for this dynasty would cover every surface of a building with colored tiles, marble, plaster, or painted wood. Architectural historians see this propensity for elaborate surface decoration as a triumph of Persian aesthetic purpose over Turkish structural values. The application of colored tile patterning (i.e. curvilinear arabesques, floral designs, kufic inscriptions, and imitation tile "carpets") hides a building's structure. It prevents the viewer from contemplating the workings of the physical laws which keep the building standing up. Thus, a huge building can be made to seem rather weightless, like an otherworldly miracle hovering on earth.

The buildings described here are a handful of the 162 mosques, 48 madrasas, 1,802 commercial buildings, and 283 baths that purportedly existed in Isfahan in the 17th century. After the death of Shah Abbas I in 1629, the Safavid dynasty endured for about a century, but, with the exception of the reign of Shah Abbas II (1642 66), it degenerated from the heights achieved under Abbas I. Isfahan was conquered by the Ghilzay Afghans in 1722.

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© 2002 Silk Road Seattle & Professor Kim S. Sexton.   Silk Road Seattle is a project of the Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington.