Isfahan: Iran’s Hidden Jewel

Once the dazzling capital of ancient Persia,Isfahan fell victim to neglect, but a new generation hopes to restore its lost luster

Four hundred years ago, Isfahan was larger than London and more cosmopolitan than Paris. The city's most famous bridge, Si-o Seh Pol (Bridge of 33 Arches) is nearly 1,000 feet long and 45 feet wide. (Ghaith Abdul-Ahad)
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The city's first recorded golden age is traced to the arrival of the Seljuk Turks from Central Asia in the 11th century. They turned the town into their capital and built a magnificent square leading to an enlarged Friday Mosque festooned with two domes. Though the mosque's southern dome—facing Mecca—is larger and grander, it is the northern dome that has awed pilgrims for a thousand years. Peering up toward the apex 65 feet above the pavement, I feel a pleasant and unexpected vertigo, the perfect balance of harmony in motion. "Each element, like the muscles of a trained athlete, performs its function with winged precision," wrote Robert Byron.

Unlike St. Peter's Basilica in Rome or St. Paul's Cathedral in London, there are no concealed chains holding either dome in place; the architects relied only on their mathematical and engineering abilities. A meticulous analysis of the north dome in the 1990s found it to be unusually precise, not just for the 11th century, but even by today's standards. Known as Gunbad i-Khaki (the dome of earth), this graceful structure may have been influenced or even designed by one of Persia's most famous poets, Omar Khayyám, who was invited to Isfahan in 1073 to take charge of the sultan's observatory. Though remembered primarily for his verse, Khayyám was also a brilliant scientist who wrote a seminal book on algebra, reformed the calendar and is said to have demonstrated that the sun was the center of the solar system 500 years before Copernicus.

Alpay Ozdural, a Turkish architect who taught at Eastern Mediterranean University until his death in 2005, believed that Khayyám played a key role in the dome's alignment and construction in 1088-89, creating what amounts to a mathematical song in brick. (Although many scholars are skeptical about this theory, Ozdural claimed that a tantalizing clue could be found in a verse of Khayyám's poetry: "My beauty's rare, my body fair to see, tall as a cypress, blooming like the tulip; And yet I don't know why the hand of Fate sent me to grace this pleasure-dome of Earth.") Just three years after the completion of the dome, the sultan died, the observatory closed, the reformed calendar was abolished and Khayyám—who had little patience with Islamic orthodoxy—later left Isfahan for good.

More than a century later, in 1228, Mongol troops arrived, sparing the architecture but putting many inhabitants to the sword. The city fell into decay and fighting erupted between rival Sunni sects. "Isfahan is one of the largest and fairest of cities," wrote Arab traveler Ibn Battuta when he passed through in 1330. "But most of it now is in ruins." Two generations later, in 1387, the Central Asian conqueror Tamerlane avenged a revolt in Isfahan by massacring 70,000 people. Buildings were again left untouched, but Tamerlane's men added their own macabre monument in the form of a tower of skulls.

It would be another two centuries before Isfahan would rise again, under the reign of Shah Abbas I, the greatest ruler of the Safavid Empire (1501-1722 A.D.). Cruel as Russia's Ivan the Terrible, canny as England's Elizabeth I and extravagant as Philip II of Spain (all contemporaries), Abbas made Isfahan his showplace. He transformed the provincial city into a global metropolis, importing Armenian merchants and artisans and welcoming Catholic monks and Protestant traders. He was generally tolerant of the Jewish and Zoroastrian communities that had lived there for centuries. Most remarkably, Abbas sought to establish Isfahan as the political capital of the first Shiite empire, bringing learned theologians from Lebanon to bolster the city's religious institutions—a move begun by his predecessors that would have profound consequences for world history. The arts thrived in the new capital; miniaturists, carpet weavers, jewelers and potters turned out ornate wares that enhanced the mansions and palaces that sprang up along spacious avenues.

Abbas was a man of extremes. A European visitor described him as a ruler whose mood could quickly turn from jolly to "that of a raging lion." Abbas's appetites were legendary: he boasted an enormous wine cellar and a harem that included hundreds of women and more than 200 boys. His true love, however, was power. He blinded his father, brother and two sons—and later killed a third son, whom he feared as a political threat, passing the throne to a grandson.

Abbas was nearly illiterate but no one's fool. He is said to have personally held up a candle for the celebrated artist Reza Abbasi while he sketched. Abbas could hunt, clean and cook his own fish and game. He loved to roam Isfahan's markets, eating freely from stalls, taking whatever shoes on display suited him and chatting with whomever he pleased. "To go about in this way is to be a king," he told scandalized Augustinian monks accompanying him on one of his jaunts. "Not like yours, who is always sitting indoors!"

During the last half of his extraordinary 42-year reign, which ended with his death in 1629, Abbas left behind an urban landscape that rivaled or exceeded anything created in a single reign in Europe or Asia. The French archaeologist and architect André Godard, who lived in Iran early in the 20th century, wrote that Abbas' Isfahan "is above all a plan, with lines and masses and sweeping perspectives—a magnificent concept born half a century before Versailles." By the mid-1600s, that plan had filled out into a city that boasted a population of 600,000, with 163 mosques, 48 religious schools, 1,801 shops and 263 public baths. The elegant main street was 50 yards wide, with a canal running down the middle, filling onyx basins strewn with the heads of roses and shaded by two rows of chinar trees. Gardens graced the pavilions, which lined either side of the promenade called the Chahar Bagh. "The Grandees were airing themselves, prancing about with their numerous trains, striving to outvie each other in pomp and generosity," remarked one visiting European.

That conspicuous consumption came to an abrupt halt nearly half a century later, when an Afghan army besieged the city for six long months in 1722. Women hawked their pearls and jewels until even precious stones couldn't buy bread. Cannibalism followed. An estimated 80,000 people died, most from hunger. The Afghans left most of the city intact. But that trauma—followed later by the transfer of the capital to Tehran far to the north—wrecked the city's status and prosperity.

"Bush Good!" says a twentysomething Isfahani as he joins me on a park bench in the middle of Naqsh-e Jahan Square. It's Friday morning—the Muslim sabbath—and the vast rectangular space is quiet save for the sound of the fountains. Like many young people I meet here, my companion complains about rising inflation, government corruption and religious meddling in politics. He also fears a U.S. invasion. "We're happy Saddam is gone," he adds. "But we don't want to become like Iraq." A math student with little prospect for work, he dreams of seeking his fortune in Dubai, Australia or New Zealand.

About Andrew Lawler

Andrew Lawler is a contributing writer for Science magazine and author of Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Smithsonian, National Geographic, and other publications. View Andrew Lawler's website.

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