The City of Isfahan

Isfahan is without a doubt the most elegant, the stateliest and the most agreeable of the cities of Iran. It was one of the most splendid capitals of that astonishing period of history, the end of the sixteenth century. It possesses an air of tradition of dignity, of breeding, which is quite foreign to the parvenu modernity of Tehran.

When Shah Abbas decided that the exposed position of Tabriz necessitated the removal of his capital to a more secure locality, his choice fell, almost inevitably, on Isfahan. For it lay near the centre of his kingdom and remote from his enemies, the Turks and Uzbeks. From the former it was protected by the great Zagros range and from the latter by an almost impassable desert. The beneficent waters of the Zaindeh Rood, one of the few rivers of the plateau, made the area one of the most fertile in his kingdom; and it possessed a healthy and equable climate. When in the nineteenth century the Qajars, in their turn, transferred the capital to Tehran, they did so, not because its location offered any advantages over that of Isfahan, but rather from considerations of dynastic jealousy and prestige.

Isfahan was already a considerable city before Shah Abbas made it his capital. In the eleventh century it was described by one of the earlier Moslem travellers as the largest city in the Persian speaking part of the empire. A wall some 14 miles in circuit surrounded it, and it contained a magnificent mosque, fifty caravanserais and tow hundred bankers.

In the fourteenth century the city was taken by Timor, and shortly afterwards it had the temerity to rebel against him. The Mongol exacted a Mongolian penalty, 70000 of its inhabitants were massacred.

But like so many Persian cities, which suffered similar disasters, it recovered with surprising speed, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries it was again prosperous and important. Then, at the end of the sixteenth century, Shah Abbas made it his capital. Before long, rumours of the luxury and splendour of his court spread to the West and stirred the imagination and enterprise of many travellers. We possess numerous detailed records of their journeys and their sojourns in the capital. There is, indeed, no eastern city of the period of which we have a clearer picture than that of Isfahan during the reign of Shah Abbas and his immediate successors.

The Afghan invasions put an end to that illustrious era. In 1722, after an inglorious battle before the capital, the Persian army, superior in arms and numbers, was singly defeated. The city was soon invested and cowardly Shah Sultan Hossein, the last of the Sefavi kings, surrendered his crown to the invaders.

At first the conquerors treated the inhabitants with clemency. But an insurrection broke out in Qasvin, and the Afghan ruler became alarmed lest the capital should rise in his rear. He determined to murder the ministers and nobles and then to hand over the city to his soldiery to sack. The order was carried out, and for fourteen days the pillage and massacre went on. Seven years later, Nadir Quli relieved the city after he had defeated the Afghans in two great battles. In 1736 he became the ruler of Persia. One of his earliest acts was to transfer the seat of government to Mashad, his birthplace. From that time on Isfahan ceased to be a capital, and the Qajars, Tehran, where it remains.

For 200 years Isfahan persisted with rare intervals of respite under an enlightened prince or governor, in a process of slow decay. Happily that extraordinary monarch Reza Shah rescued it in time. Not only did he ordain and superintend the restoration of its crumbling monuments, but also he inculcated in the minds of the more receptive among his people an awareness of the value of that heritage and a pride in its possession.

Isfahan has been described as one of the outstanding cities of the world. The statement can, I think, be properly defended. But what is beyond controversy is that, architecturally and in layout and position it is the premier city of Persia.

It is the first place unique among the cities of the plateau in that it is situated on a river spanned by two of the noblest medieval bridges in existence. The famous Il-Khani Uzun Hassan, whose capital was Tabriz, built the earlier of the two in the fifteenth century. The Sefavi monarch Abbas II restored it. The other, which is the more renowned of the two, although not the more satisfying, is the bridge of Allah Verdi Khan. It was built during the reign of the great Shah Abbas, who named it after his prime minister.

Besides its two splendid bridges, Isfahan possesses one f the most imposing square of any city in the world. It measures 512 x 150 meters, and its axis runs exactly north and south. Polo was played there in Shah Abbas’ time; the goal posts are still standing at each end. The only square which can compare with it is the Red Square in Moscow, but the most single-minded friend of Russia could hardly place the cathedral of ST Basil on a level with the Masjid e Shah, or the Tomb of Lenin with the Masjid e Sheikh Lotfollah or the Ali Qapu. Nor does any system of enclosing a square compare with that of the Persian. They do it with a long line of identical two-storied, pointed arches in brick, a method that is at once simple, restrained and dignified.

Isfahan also possesses one of the finest avenues in Persia, the famous Chahar Bagh, which bisects the city from the north to the bridge of Allah Verdi Khan, and then carries on through the industrial centre on the farther side of the river to the Shiraz road. Shah Abbas planned it for use as a pleasure garden, as its name implies. It possesses three traffic lanes separated by rows of trees.

The oldest and archaeologically the most interesting mosque is the Masjid e Jumeh. It dates from the eleventh century and a still older building had previously existed on the site. Numerous additions were made to it between the twelfth and eighteenth centuries. In 1930 an extensive programme of repairs was undertaken. Unfortunately, so much of the masonry and tile work had to be renovated or renewed that the building appears today more like a modern foundation than a mosque, which is nearly a thousand years old.

Students of architecture disagree ass to which of the two premier mosques of Persian, the mosque of Gohar Shah in Mashad or the Masjid e Shah of Isfahan is the nobler edifice. The tile work of the former is, perhaps, more splendid and more varied, but the latter is architecturally more impressive. It was begun in 1612, by the order of Shah Abbas, and was finished in 1638, eight years after his death.

On the east side of the square is the great domed mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah. It is a covered building without a courtyard, one of the few of the great mosques of Persian of this type. Its huge dome, the entrance and the whole of the inside of the building are tiled, the inside with tiles of a deep lapis blue. Mohammad Reza of Isfahan who completed it in 1619 designed it. The ladies of the court of Shah Abbas used the mosque as a place of worship.

On the opposite side of the square facing the mosque, is the Ali Qapu, the Exalted Gate, so called because it was the main gateway to the royal enclosure. Shah Abbas is said to have lived there while he was engaged in building his capital. From the great terrace, with its tapering wooden pillars, the Sefavi kings used to watch the games of polo and the military parades in the square below.

The inside walls and ceilings of the building were covered with paintings and designs in fresco. Many of the former have been covered with plaster. Attempts are being made to remove it without damaging the paintings underneath, but unhappily without much success. The designs, however, are mostly intact or have been well restored. As examples of sixteenth century design they are remarkable.

The Chehel Sotoon, one of the palaces of the royal enclosure, was probably built during the reign of Shah Abbas, but the date is uncertain. The name means forty pillars, whereas the actual number of pillars is eighteen, with two more to support royal recess. The probable explanation of the discrepancy is that there were twenty pillars on the west side of the building, which was destroyed by fire during the reign of the last Sefavi king, Shah Sultan Hossein. If a more fanciful explanting is preferred, it is that the second twenty pillars may be seen reflected in the tank, which faces the building.

The interior of the Chehel Sotoon has been converted into a museum. The most interesting of the exhibits are the historical paintings in the main hall, some of which are probably Italian.

The magnificent tiled gateway of the Madresseh Chahar Bagh is situated on the east side of the avenue of that name. Like most of the Moslem religious colleges it is built round a square courtyard with a great tiled porch on each of the four sides. A fine tiled dome with tow minarets surmounts the porch on the south side. Round the courtyard are rooms for 134 students. The Madresseh was finished just before the Afghan invasion (1722), and it is said that the Afghans murdered the last Sefavi king there in his private room.

Isfahan a Carpet Centre

Isfahan is not a very important weaving centre. The city emerged as a weaving centre only about the 1925. Before that it was merely a collecting point for the comparatively few Lori and Bakhtiari rugs, which were then produced, and it was periodically visited by the dallals from Hamedan and Tehran in search of these goods. Isfahan at that time was nothing but a feeder for the Hamedan and Tehran markets.

Around 1925 weaving began on an important scale in Isfahan itself and in some of the nearby villages. No sooner was the industry firmly established that a sudden expansion took place in the production of Bakhtiari rugs from the Chahar Mahal. The rugs naturally found their way into the nearby Isfahan bazaar.

Thus the output of the looms in the Isfahan area, the considerable influx of rugs and small carpets from the Chahar Mahal, and the trickle of Lori rugs from the Kuhgalu and other Lori tribes have made Isfahan a small, but no longer negligible, market.

The Weaving Industry of Isfahan and The Neighbouring Villages.

 The production of fine carpets in Isfahan was brought to an inglorious end by the capture of the city by the Afghans in 1722. There is no evidence that any attempts was made, during the subsequent 200 years, to revive the industry. Here and there a few desultory looms may have existed in the city, but nothing more. There are no eighteenth or nineteenth century carpets extant, which can, without hesitation, be ascribed to Isfahan.

The re-establishment and rapid expansion of the industry, which took place in the early twenties, was due rather to simple economic causes than to the vision or the assiduity of any single person or group of persons. The echoes of the post-war boom in Europe had penetrated as far as Persia, and the people of Isfahan had sensed that there was a keen demand for carpets in the West. Yet they were not participating in the trade, which was bringing prosperity to the weaving centres. So they, too, began to weave.

At first, rug sizes only were produced. They were fine in quality and their designs were attractive. But the material used was not of the best, the dyes were poor and the pile was cut too low. The price, however, was reasonable, and for as the European markets were at the time looking for a lightweight rug of fine quality at a low price, they sold readily. Production continued to increase until, by the middle thirties, a bout 2000 looms were producing these rugs in Isfahan alone, plus another 500 in the nearby villages.

The outbreak of WW II nearly bought disaster to the infant industry. It had depended, exclusively, on European demand, for the designs and colours were unsuitable and the fabric too thin for the American market. Thus, when the European demand expired, the whole industry was threatened with extinction. It was saved by the increase in home consumption brought about by the boom in Tehran.

But the nouveaux riches in the capital demanded a better class of rug than the Isfahan weavers had been accustomed to produce. They also demanded carpet sizes. So that by the end of the war practically all looms in the city were weaving a finer and more expensive fabric than before, and about a third of the looms were weaving carpets. The local demand, however, was never sufficient to make up for the disappearance of the trade with the West. So that production fell to about a third of the pre-war figure.

Higher pay had forced weavers to start working for the newly established cotton and woollen mills. This had started before the War. By 1949 the 2000 looms had been reduced to 600, with probably anther 300-400 in the four weaving villages nearby. The well closely woven but inexpensive Isfahans were no longer woven in the city but in the villages. These were crude in colour and coarse. They were unsuitable for the Western market; however, there was a demand for them in Tehran, Iraq, Syria and Egypt. City looms were producing rugs of the finest quality, many of them with silk warps. They counted from15 x 15 to 25x 25 knots to the inch. The finest pieces were woven with mill yarn, spun from Australian wool in the local factory, or with yarn from the mills of Tabriz or Qasvin. The pieces of lesser count were woven with hand spun yarn either local or imported from Meshed or Tabriz.

Weaving in Isfahan was carried on almost entirely in the houses, most of which are situated in the poorer quarters of the city. There were usually two looms to a house. The householders either weaved for their own account or for one of the local merchants who supply them with materials and pay the labour as the work proceeds. There were some factories in the city of ten or fifteen looms.

These pieces were not so imaginative in terms of colour and design. There were about fifteen colours that the Isfahanis used.

In the 1950s a few workshops started weaving very fine pieces again. The growth in demand in the 80s brought new blood to the industry and some of the new workshops started weaving some artistic pieces and not just what was traditionally produced in terms of design.

These days some of the finest Persian pieces come from Isfehan.