“The City as Anthology: Eroticism and Urbanity in Early Modern Isfahan” by Kathryn Babayan

Reza Abbasi, detail Youth Reading, ca 1625 (Wikimedia Commons) Reza Abbasi, detail Youth Reading, ca 1625 (Wikimedia Commons)

They gaze at you, the fashionably-attired youths of Esfahan, from a distance of 300 years. Swaying like cypress trees, their tresses floating in the air like clouds, their faces surrounded by peach fuzz, they smile like the Gioconda and with more mystery. Who are these young men and what do they say to the viewers? After the lucidity of the great 16th-century Persian and Mughal painters like Behzad and Sultan Mohammad, who painted kingly battles and hunts, the 17th century brings us the works of Reza Abbasi and Mohammad Qasem, and their ambivalent but sexually-charged portraits of young men and occasionally young women. These 17th-century masters painted not for royal masters and state gifts, but for middle-class collectors of  scrap books for paintings, poetry, letters and didactic texts which they shared in more intimate settings. Kathryn Babayan takes us on a tour of 17th-century Esfahan (Isfahan in Babayan’s transcription), the city, its pastimes, its collectors and its memorialists. On this tour we try to understand what the cypress-like youths have to say.

17th-century Esfahanis led lives not too dissimilar from our own, hence the “early-modern” tag in the subtitle. They enjoyed majestic public spaces, coffee shops, wine-bars, shopping centers and outdoor spectacles. According to Babayan, the shahs of Iran lavished constructions on Esfahan not only to embody their secular power, but also to provide a foretaste of paradise, with all the pleasures and beauties that the faithful, newly-converted to Twelver Shiism, could expect in the afterlife.

The shahs also gathered in Esfahan, from around their empire, classes of people who could appreciate the finer things: artisans, scribes, theologists and merchants. In place of the courtiers, palace slaves or tribal khans who dominated the social scene under earlier dynasties, 17th-century Esfahan had middle class bons vivants who wrote poetry, collected paintings, and entertained one another with wit and cultivation. This larger, leisured class had access to ample quantities of paper and ink, and left voluminous records of their lives, their pastimes and their loves. As in Iran today, they lived in a society segregated by gender.

Consequently, their love lives give us the most difficulty. Babayan says thinking about sex with the early moderns “involves confronting those moments where the meaning of sexuality and eroticism are far from transparent.” She convincingly demonstrates, through a close examination that the pictural art of Shah Abbas’s age was suffused with eroticism, as in her reading of the great mural painting in the Palace of Forty Pillars, with its besotted pages and tribadic dancing girls. Certainly, the Esfahanis thought about sex.

More difficult is to know what they thought about it. In one case study, Babayan summarizes the rhymed, autobiographical account of a woman who undertakes the pilgrimage to Mecca upon the death of her husband. Along the way she goes to visit a female friend. The text makes it clear that the widow had once had an intimate relationship with this friend, but we don’t know if it was an improper relationship. We don’t really know whether a physical relationship between women provoked anything more than embarrassment in polite society.


The City as Anthology: Eroticism and Urbanity in Early Modern Isfahan, Kathryn Babayan (Stanford University Press, April 2021)
The City as Anthology: Eroticism and Urbanity in Early Modern Isfahan, Kathryn Babayan (Stanford University Press, April 2021)

Turning to relationships between males, the picture becomes even more complex. Intimate relations between males involving penetration, was considered by the religious authorities, then as now in Iran, as a capital crime. Although the cult of youthful male beauty is a hoary Iranian tradition, Domenico Ingenito demonstrated in his magistral study of Sa’di of Shiraz that the spectacle of male beauty provided ascetic mystics a better appreciation of the divine. In this sense, the album leaves by Reza Abbasi and Mohammad Qasem may have been no more than aids for mystical contemplation. On the other hand, there was an older, antinomian tradition of Sufi devotion involving physical consummation of forbidden love. Twelver Shiism rejected this tradition and began to persecute Sufi orders in Iran. Babayan reaches no definitive conclusions on the extent to which the authorities’ condemnation constituted mere lip service, or how the official position affected private behavior. It would have been helpful to look at legal cases and condemnations in Esfahan to form a firm opinion.

In the absence of data, we should probably not consider the 17th-century Iranians as any more given to same-sex, heterogenerational love than moderns. As Walther G Andrews and Mehmet Kalpakli point out in their Age of the Beloveds (2005) just because the Safavids and Ottomans wrote about love of boys, that doesn’t mean it was more prevalent than in other periods. Going beyond mere sexuality, we see that Iranian culture reveres asymmetrical relationships: slave/master, pupil/teacher, lover/beloved. Babayan’s analysis of Mohammad Qasem’s painting of the teacher punishing a student suggests that out of these asymmetrical, often abusive relationships, comes art, civility, craftmanship and even love.

Babayan’s dense, close reading of family albums and memorials brings to life an Esfahan as lively and as sensual as any Safavid page or cup bearer. Babayan might have left more room in her book to let the protagonists speak for themselves: a translation of some of these texts would be welcome. Meanwhile, while we continue to struggle to understand precisely how 17th-century Iranians saw themselves, the richness of these texts convince us that they were as confused and amused by life as we are.

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.