“Isfahan: Architecture and Urban Experience in Early Modern Iran” by Farshid Emami


We know a lot about Isfahan in the 17th century. Poets and court chroniclers praised its beauty and recorded its expansion under the great monarch, Shah Abbas (1588-1629). European travelers like John Chardin and Pietro della Valle left us picturesque descriptions of its monuments and people. Artists painstakingly recorded the city-scape. Scholars have long studied its architecture and urbanism. In recent years, Kathryn Babayan has delved into the letters and diaries of its citizens. Now Farshid Emami tries to pull all these threads together and answer the question: what was it like to live in Shah Abbas’s Isfahan?

Emami, whose earlier work has focussed on the coffee shop culture of that era, starts not from point of view of Shah Abbas and his monumental building project (which transformed the city from a sleepy walled town to a verdant garden-metropolis) but rather from the view of a Baudelarian flaneur. When one walked around Isfahan, one could spend the whole day enjoying the shade of the great bazaars, the cool of the canals and streams that wound through the city center. An avenue four kilometers-long invited the stroller to wander out of the city, under the shade of plane trees, besides a succession of pleasure gardens with alluring names, like Nightingales, Roses, Perfumes, Grapes, and Almonds. The Nightingales hosted flocks of those birds under the watchful eye of the Andalibchi Bashi, entrusted with the heavy responsibility of ensuring their sweet singing. In other gardens citizens of Isfahan had permission to pick as much fruit as they wished. The flow of water, like the walking paths, formed a metaphor for a city in perpetual movement, for shoppers, for outings of friends, for marveling foreign delegations. Even women had one day a week set aside for them, for their exclusive use of the city’s extensive promenades.

Gems of Iranian architecture are threaded together like pearls on a string across the city.

Isfahan: Architecture and Urban Experience in Early Modern Iran, Farshid Emami ( ‎ Penn State University Press, April 2024)
Isfahan: Architecture and Urban Experience in Early Modern Iran, Farshid Emami (‎Penn State University Press, April 2024)

This new Isfahan arose out of a dialogue between the Shah and the commercial and religious elite. The monarch wanted to build a political and commercial metropolis, to attract the growing international trade of the 17th century with India and Europe, and to build a manufacturing base in prized Persian luxury goods like silk. To do this he had to involve the great merchants, artisans and community leaders from all over Iran and cooperate with them in the laying out of their new markets and residences. He forcibly resettled Armenians, Georgians and Tabrizis in their respective barrios. Yet, however much compulsion populated the city, Abbas’ new capital would be not only magnificent in size and monumentality, but also attractive for its new inhabitants.

Accordingly, he built his great foundations, like the new Friday Mosque, the Lotfali mosque and Ali Qapu gate (the Iranian equivalent of the Sublime Porte) to serve as anchors for the flow and ebb of pedestrian traffic, so that the perspective led one from one monument to another, with a never-ending sense of discovery. Not only are these buildings gems of Iranian architecture, but they are threaded together like pearls on a string across the city, producing an effect of marvel and aesthetic pleasure. In later years, wealthy citizens built belvederes for themselves in the hills north of the city, from where the cerulean tiles and tree-marked avenues could be admired from afar.

Young boys and public dancers enjoyed as much fame as our live entertainers today.

Miniature by Reza Abbasi
Miniature by Reza Abbasi

Moving from the tangible to the intangible charm of the city, Emami finds its coffee shops emblematic of this culture of pleasure, as Isfahanis indulged in the recently adopted habits of coffee and tobacco. Meanwhile, wine the Iranians had long imbibed, so taverns intermingled with cafes throughout the bazaars. These cafes were decorated by famous artists, with those alluring images of courtesans and boys are familiar to us from by the album paintings of the era’s greatest artist, Reza Abbasi. These murals served not only to please the eye, but advertised the presence of such charmers in the different establishments. Young boys and public dancers enjoyed as much fame as our live entertainers today, and inspired a genre of popular literature known as “Shahr-ashub”, people who set the city in disorder with their beauty. Emami in an earlier work showed that a wonderful tile mosaic of beautiful people, now in scattered in western collections, once graced a principal artery of the pleasure quarters.

Emami extensively evokes the social activities that made Isfahan come alive. Citizens celebrated not only important Muslim holidays like Bayram, but also a water festival resembling Thailand’s Songkran. The shah accompanied his Armenian subjects when they celebrated Epiphany with grand pomp. Sufi convents instigated civil disorder like that of the greens and the blues of Byzantium. Citizens laughed at local poets’ scurrilous attacks on important people, often listening to their live performances in cafes. Other poets simply wrote about the joys of this cosmopolitan and pleasure-filled city. Emami provides a complete translation of one such work, by Mir Muhammad “Ashiq” (his pen name means “Lover”). It advises “one should leave religion and the heart behind… and then step into the market…”

Emami presents a lively and complete portrait of Isfahan in the era of Shah Abbas and his immediate successors. He has also produced a beautiful book. Somewhere between a coffee-table book and an academic publication, it beckons the reader with colored plates of Isfahan’s tiled masterpieces, clear reproductions of historical sketches, as well as the author’s own architectural drawings, both floor-plans and angled projections, that bring back the grandeur and elegance of the Safavid capital.

David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). His forthcoming book Horse Power will be published by WW Norton in 2023.