A city of immense beauty and unforgettable experiences, Esfahan has been dazzling travelers for ages. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that most Westerners appreciate the truly Persian character that the city has retained.
Nesf-e Jahan, "Half the World"; is a popular rhyme with the name of Esfahan and an example of the praise lavished by the inhabitants and poets on their city. At one time - at the close of the 16th and throughout the 17th centuries - this boast was not as exaggerated as it may sound today.
Nonetheless, of all the cities in Iran, Esfahan is the richest in historical and architectural wealth. Robert Byron in The Road to Oxiana rightly remarked that the city's structures "rank Esfahan among those rare places, like Athens or Rome, which are the common refreshment of humanity".
When they were created, Esfahans buildings enjoyed a fabled reputation in 4 all of Europe. TI1ey are still more widely known in the West than any other architectural structures in Iran. Fortunately, most of Esfahans former glory has survived and is being carefully maintained.
There must have been a conspiracy to locate the capital in Tehran with all its dirt and noise and to leave Esfahan for pleasure. Esfahan belongs to those very few cities of which one can say that the more you behold them, the more they surprise and fascinate you. This is why a visit to Esfahan is never complete.
In Esfahan and its environs, one will have a choice of destinations that can satisfy the most exacting demands.
Esfahan's earliest history is shrouded in mystery and does not emerge with clarity before the beginning of the Islamic period. Naturally, however, legends abound. One of these calls the half-mythical King Jamshid the city's founder, while the other attributes the construction of the Tabarak citadel, the core of the ancient city, to King KeyKavus of the legendary Kianid dynasty.
There is no certainty as to the origin of the city's name either. ]t is believed to be derived from a Pahlavi word, meaning an assembly point for armies, which may have gathered here during the Parthian and Sasanid periods.
Although information on the pre-Islamic period of Esfahan's history is very scarce, it does exist.
There are reasonably solid grounds for believing that Esfahan could have been one of the most important cities of the Elamite kingdom. It may have been a subsidiary of Anshan, one of Elam's main cities. There are records of some Esfahan's residents having migrated to what is now Khuzestan, at that time the heart of the Elamite Empire.
In the time of the Medes, Esfahan remained a part of the Median kingdom and was known to the Babylonians.
During the Achaemenid period, Gaba, the royal summer residence, is believed to have been located on the site of present Esfahan. The name Gaba has survived as Jay, which Arab geographers used for the oldest district in the city.
As part of the Parthian Empire, Esfahan was ruled by one of the high-ranking sovereigns accountable to the Parthian king. Some even believe that the last Parthian ruler, Artabanus V, was killed by the Sasanid troops on the site of modern Golpayegan, near Esfahan.
During the Sasanid period. the crown princes were sent here to study statecraft. At that time, Esfahan was an important military and strategic site and was ruled by the representative of one of the seven leading Iranian families. Approximately at the same time, Jay became known as Shahrestan ("Township").
Some authorities believe that Jay was not actually a town, but a fortress that guarded the neighboring town of Qeh. When Qeh was destroyed by the Arabs, people migrated to Jay. Some also say that one of the largest libraries of the ancient world, collected at the order of the half-mythical king Tahmuras, was preserved in the fort of Jay. Attributed to him as well is the construction of the fort itself, along with the Fire Temple.
Another district of the original city, Yahudiyeh ("Jewish city"), was founded at a later date some 3.5 km east of Jay.
It is most likely that the Sasanid king Yazdgerd I, who had a Jewish wife, al-lowed a large number of Jews to settle here. Another legend, however, claims that the foundation of Yahudiyeh dates back to the time of Nebuchadrezzar . (630-561BC) and the exile of Jews from Jerusalem. Today Yahudiyeh constitutes the Jubareh district of Esfahan and is still the residential center for local Jews. In the course of time, the twin towns of Jay and Yahudiyeh expanded until they coalesced to form one city.
|Charbagh Street 1705|
Early Islamic Period in Esfahan
The history of Esfahans development during the Islamic period is much brighter and more precise. The first unchallenged date is the year 643, when after the Battle of Nehavand, the city fell to the Umayyads, These were followed by the Abbasid caliphs, who kept control of Esfahan until 931. They made it the capital of the al- Jibal Province of the Abbasid Caliphate.
In the l0th century, Esfahan was governed by petty princes, chiefly from Fars and Iraq; the Ziarids and the Byuids were perhaps the most notable. Mardavij ibn Ziar ruled in the Caspian provinces of Gorgan and Mazanderan. He revolted against the Abbasids and proclaimed the independence of his lands. Having taken advantage of a rebellion in the Samanid army, he seized power in northern Iran and soon expanded his domains as far as Hamadan and Esfahan.
Mardavij was particularly famous as a staunch adherent to ancient Persian traditions. The Sedeh Festival, which he held on the banks of the Zayandeh-Rud in 935, was recorded in old historical chronicles as one of the most sumptuous festivities of the early Islamic period. Mardavij was assassinated on the day after the Sedeh holiday, and Ziarid power thereupon disintegrated.
Esfahan under the Byuid Rule
After the death of Mardavij, Esfahan came under the power of the Buyids, and so began one of the most remarkable periods in its history. The Buyids were of Deylamite (northern Iranian) . Their line was founded
by the three sons of Buyeh Ali, Hasan, and Ahmad.
Ali, appointed governor of Karaj about 930 by Mardavij, seized Esfahan and Fars after the death of his patron, while at the same time Hasan and Ahmad took Jibal, Khuzestan, and Kerman. In 945, Ahmad occupied the Abbasid capital
of Baghdad and established the Buyid rule there, making the Sunnite caliphs the figureheads. Thereafter the brothers were known by their honorific titles of Emad al-Dowleh (Ali), Rokn al-Dowleh (Hasan), and Moez al-Dowleh (Ahmad).
The Buyid period in Esfahan's history is marked by vigorous activities in building and by great thriving of arts, particularly fine silver work, pottery, and silks. The Shiite nature of the state was manifested in the passionate observance of Shiite festivals and in the encouragement of pilgrimages to the Shiites' holy sites.
The major cultural centers of the Buyids were the cities of Rey, Esfahan, and Nain in Iran, and Baghdad in Iraq. Esfahan was first governed by Hasan Rokn al-Dowleh, and many splendid structures were built there at his orders.
At that time, the city is said to have had twelve bronze-plated gates through which elephants could easily pass, a thousand mansions, and fifty mosques. After a short period in which Hasan Rokn al-Dowleh's successors ruled, the city yielded to a new Dower - that of Turks.
Seljuk Kings in Esfahan
For a brief period in 1034, Masud I, son of the brilliant Ghaznavid ruler Sultan Mahrnud, held Esfahan. However, in 1047, Toghrol Beik Seljuk successfully besieged it for a year and then made it the capital of his domain. For the first time in its history Esfahan was raised to the status of the empire's major city. Founder of the Seljuk dynasty, Toghrol Beik spent twelve years of his life in Esfahan and succeeded in expanding the city by careful planning.
The city prospered even more under Toghrol's successors to the throne, Alp Arslan and Malek Shah. guided by their capable vizier, Nezam al-Molk. The period of Malek Shah's rule, when the city enjoyed the lavish patronage of the new king, is one of the most important in Esfahan's history. The architectural wealth left by the Seljuk rulers rivals that of the afavids themselves. From this period dates a superb park known as Naqsh-e Iahan, laid out on the site, where a famous square was later created by Shah Abbas.
Toward the end of the Seljuk period, Esfahan fell under the power of the Ismaihtes, who killed Nezam al-Molk and Malek Shah and set fire to the Congregational Mosque (pp 112-120), destroying its famous library. Toghrol III, the last Seljuk ruler, was defeated by Ala al-Din Tekish, the Kharazm-Shahs leader, and Esfahan came under the scepter of the short-lived Kharazm-Shahs dynasty. After the Seljuks' fall, the city temporarily declined.
Mongol, Timurid,) and Turkman Rulers in Esfahan
When the Mongol hordes swept through Iran, a great battle was fought outside Esfahan in 1228, and the city was captured. At that time, Esfahan lost a significant part of its population, along with its importance as a first city of Iran. Its buildings, however, were spared. and the city continued to enjoy reasonable prosperity. Under Oljeitu, the Il-Khanid ruler, many great structures were built in the city.
The Mongols' short rule in Esfahan was followed by that of the Injuid and Mozaftarid princes. These, however, were soon extinguished by Tamerlane's attack. Tamerlane's invasion of Esfahan in 1387 led to more than 70,000
deaths. The city streets were filled with the heads of the dead, heaped up into pyramids. In spite of everything, none
of Esfahans principal buildings was destroyed, and Some further construction, though very sparse, was undertaken. Craftsmen are known
to have left Esfahan and other western towns to work for Tamerlane at Samarqand. For the visitor to Esfahan this is a misfortune, because in the late 14th and early 15th centuries the Timurid renaissance produced some of the finest of all Islamic buildings.
By the middle of the 15th century, the. Timurids had lost their grip on most of Iran proper, where events were chiefly influenced by the rivalry of two Turkman tribes-Qara-Quyunlu (the Black Sheep) and Aq-Quyunlu (the White Sheep). First the Black Sheep occupied Esfahan, but they were Soon overthrown by the White Sheep, led by Uzun Hasan. This short-lived dynasty did not even survive through the 15th century. In 1499, Ismail, whose mother was Uzun Hasan's daughter. seized the reins of government and founded the Safavid dynasty, and in so doing inaugurated the era of Esfahans greatest splendor.
Shah Abbas I and the Golden Age of Esfahan's History
|SHAH ABBAS I|
The history of Esfahan cannot be separated from the name of Shah Abbas the Great, the ruler who chose it as a capital in 1598 and spent forty-two years of his life toward its beautification and eminence.
Brought up in Herat, the great cultural and intellectual center of Iran in the 16th century, since childhood Shah Abbas had been influenced by its magnificent architecture, painting, and calligraphy. 'The young prince showed astounding precocity as a connoisseur of the arts.
When he was seven years old, an emissary from the royal court arrived in Herat accompanied by his favorite painter, Habibollah of Saveh. Abbas appreciated the artist's work and unceremoniously appropated him from his master.
In 1587, Shah Abbas was crowned king. He started his career by eliminating all those who had made (and could unmake) him shah. In 1591, he appointed as his grand vizier a gifted aristocrat, Hatim Beik Ordubadi, a determined man who accomplished a series of reforms which helped to increase the Shah's control over the entire country. In his late twenties, Shah Abbas was near the height of his power. His "revolution from above" preceded that of Louis XIV, but was at least as far-reaching.
Shah Abbas was famed as a very energetic person. He loved hunting and often busied himself in the royal stables. He was a skilled craftsman, making scimitars, bridles and saddles for his horses. weaving fabrics and distilling flower water with his own hands. Sometimes I he gutted the fish or skinned the game he had killed and cooked it himself Though almost illiterate, he was an able conversationalist with a thirst for useful knowledge. In a discussion, he was quick to get the point and was always ready to skewer an opponent's remark with a sharp and well-aimed thrust. He was eager to learn about foreign lands and never missed an opportunity to cross-examine visitors from Europe about conditions in their home countries. Like his contemporary Akbar in India, Shah Abbas enjoyed discussing religion with Christians, .with whom he was very tolerant and protective. md found it amusing to see his own clerics struggle with the missioners arguments. Like many oriental monarchs, he enjoyed going about among his subjects, and often he strolled the streets incognito.
Another very notable feature of Shah Abbas was his extreme superstitious project without taking the advice of his astrologers. This blind faith in the stars was responsible for the curious episode of his temporary abdication in 1591. Having been told by the court astrologer that the configuration of the planets threatened the occupant of the throne, he appointed a certain Yusuf to be the shah until the danger was over. Yusuf was crowned and enjoyed four days of glory; on the fifth day he was executed.
In 1598, Shah Abbas transferred the Safavid capital from Qazvin to Esfahan, where he built a whole new city, cheek by jowl with the ancient one. His intent was to build a new capital worthy of the Safavid state at the height of its power.
Under Shah Abbas's guidance, Esfahan rapidly became one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The city's change of status from a provincial to an imperial capital brought a great increase in population. Many of the newcomers were highly-skilled artisans who pursued the necessary patronage. Others came for commercial reasons, and among them were thousands of Armenian Christians, forcibly moved by the Shah from northwestern Iran to Julfa (pp132-135).
The new seat of authority was a vital embodiment of Irans new system and new strength, as well as astrategic move to the Persian-speaking center of the Iranian plateau.
Esfahan under Shah Abbas's Successors
The period after Shah Abbas's death, except for a short interlude during the reign of his grandson Shah Abbas II was marked by gradual decline. However, this decline was felt much less in Esfahan than in other parts of Iran. By the end of the Safavid period, Esfahan remained one of the most magnificent cities in the world. According to a description that appears in Chardin's travel account, Esfahan contained 162 mosques, 48 madresehs, 1,802 commercial buildings, and 283 bathhouses. Most of these buildings no longer survive, but those that do remain constitute some of the city's finest monuments.
Afghans in Esfahan
At the end of the Safavid reign, the country and its capital were torn apart by courtiers, who plundered the state treasury with the Shah's silent consent. The resulting pressure was placed on the common people who had to pay in-creased taxes. A series of rebellions swept through Iran. In 1710, Mir Oveis revolted against the Safavid governor of Qandahar and managed to expel him from the city. Mir Oveis was succeeded by his son Mahmud. For several years, Mahmud and his followers sacked the territories of Sistan and south Khorasan. After a series of successful raids, they advanced to Esfahan and besieged the city. When it became clear that Mahmud was marching on the capital, Shah Sultan Hossein sent envoys with the offer of a considerable sum of money in e¬change for the withdrawal of Mahmuds troops to Afghanistan. Mahmud paid little notice to this plea.
In 1722, a pitched battle was fought in Golnabad, in which 25,000 Afghans routed a Persian army of twice their number. In the meantime, Peter the Great of Russia, who had long contemplated establishing a trade route to India, invaded the north of Iran, while the Ottomans took advantage of the disintegration of the Safavid realm and invaded from the west.
During the six-month siege of Esfahan, Mahmud attempted to force an entry into the city several times, but never succeeded. However, due to the treachery of a general, Vali of Arabia, he finally established a bridgehead on the northern bank of the river. He set up strong-posts, thus making it very difficult to bring supplies into the town. Famine began. However, Mahmud had insufficient men to conduct the siege, and soon he made a peace offer. The Shah decided to reject it. Only when the palace itself began to go hungry, did Sultan Hossein take desperate action. He sent an envoy to Mahmud with the offer of 100,000 gold coins, the provinces of Khorasan and Kerman, and the hand of his daughter in marriage, if he would put an end to the siege. However, this time Mahmud haughtily declined the offer, The Shah had no other option but surrender of the city. Sultan Hossein and the princes, with the exception of Tahrnasb II who was safely out of reach, were imprisoned. With this, the short lived Afghan rule had begun. Mahmuds position, however, was far from secure. He had to counterattack the Russians in the north, the Ottomans in the west, the troops of Tahmasb 11, who had been by then proclaimed a king, and the revolts of the people, who despised the Afghans as barbarians. Mahmud resorted to inhu¬man brutality, bordering upon insanity. In this highly neurotic state, he took the decision to exterminate the former royal family. In 1722, all the princes, including three decrepit uncles of Shah Sultan Hossein, were killed b)' Mahmud himself and two of his guards. Only Sultan Hossein and his two small children were spared. After this gruesome massacre, Mahrnuds mind broke down completely. Mahrnuds cousin, Ashraf, entered Esfahan and took power into his hands. Meanwhile, Tahmasb Qoli emerged in Khorasan, destined, as Nader Shah, to be the last great Asiatic conqueror. The decisive battle between the troops of Nader Qoli and those of Ashraf took place in November 1729 at Murchehkhort near Esfahan. Ashraf was forced to abandon the capital. His last act there had been to murder the harmless Sultan Hossein.Tahmasb II and then his infant son, Abbas III, had nominal power, but it was Nader and after him, Karim Khan Zand who actually ruled. When Nader was himself crowned king, he transferred the capital to Mashhad, and Esfahan became once again a provincial city.
Qajar Period and Zel al-Sultan in Esfahan
During the Zand dynasty, Shiraz was made the capital city. Under the Qajar rulers, the capital was transferred to Tehran, and one of the worst periods in the history of Esfahan began. The situation was aggravated when Zel at-Sultan, Fathali Shah's eldest son, was appointed governor of the city. TI)e great extravagances of his court had to be compensated for by local revenue. When people proved unwilling to pay the increased taxes, Zel at-Sultan found a way out in selling Safavid lands, artifacts, and even the trees from the boulevards to the people. He encouraged the demolishing of most Safavid places; in those places that he spared, he changed the interior decorations.
TIle period of Zel at-Sultans governing was the first in the history of Esfahan that witnessed mass migration, particularly to Tehran. The economy declined, and very little construction was carried out. Most of the public buildings were created at the orders of rich merchants, such as Malek al-Tojjar, or persons of consequence, like Hajj Mohammad Hossein Sadr Esfahani.
During the Pahlavi rule, the city and its principal monuments were to a certain extent restored. This process continues during the modern period.
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