You may wish to read an introduction to this section first.
Naqsh-e Jahan (Image of the World) and its four main monuments: (above - left to right) Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Shah Abbas Mosque and Ali Qapu Palace; (below) Ali Qapu Palace and Gheisarieh Bazaar
Ispahan is the Capital City of all Persia, and a very large place, where the King usually keeps his Court. (..) Nor indeed could Ispahan be accompted other than a Village, before Sha-Abba had conquer'd the Kingdoms of Lar and Ormut. But then observing so fair a Situation, where he might as well be near the Provinces which he had newly conquer'd, as for the design which he had to extend his Dominions to the East and West, as he had enlarg'd them to the South, he quitted Casvin and Sultany to reside at Ispahan, as in the center of his Empire. (..) The great Meydan is a place about seven hundred Paces long, and between two and three hundred broad. It has Buildings upon all the four Sides. It lyes in length directly North and South, the Fronts are every one Portico'd , and Terrass'd at the top.
Jean-Baptiste Tavernier - Travels through Turkey and Persia (1630s-1660s)
Built by Shah Abbas I the Great at the beginning of the 17th century, and bordered on all sides by monumental buildings linked by a series of two-storeyed arcades, the site is known for the Royal Mosque, the Mosque of Sheykh Lotfollah, the magnificent Portico of Qaysariyyeh and the 15th-century Timurid palace. They are an impressive testimony to the level of social and cultural life in Persia during the Safavid era.
From the UNESCO synthesis of the universal value of Naqsh-e Jahan which in 1979 was added to the World Heritage List.
In 1588 Shah Abbas, then sixteen, became the ruler of the Safavid Empire which had been founded at the beginning of the century. He had to face a double threat: the Ottoman Empire to the west and the Khanate of Bukhara to the east. During the XVIth century the Ottomans had seized Tabriz, the Safavid capital until 1555, four times. Qazvin, the new capital, was not far enough from the border, thus Shah Abbas decided to relocate his court to Isfahan in the centre of the Persian tableland.
The Meydan or great Piazza of Ispahan was the contrivance of the great Sha- Abas, who had never done it, if a great Prince of the ancient Race of the Kings of Persia had not refus'd him the old Meydan , with several Priviledges, and the House that stood by it. Thereupon he design'd this new Piazza, to draw off the Merchants, and to spoil the old Market-place, by their departure from that quarter of the City which is less inhabited at this day. (..)
Going toward the South-Front, you meet with two little Goals five or six Foot high, and sev'n or eight distant one from the other. Here the men play at Pall-mall on horse-back, the Horse-man being to strike the Ball running at full speed, between the two Goals. Tavernier
The Ottoman army had a technological edge over the Safavid one, because of their wide use of firearms and artillery. In 1590 Shah Abbas signed a peace treaty with the Ottomans on very unfavourable terms, with the aim of gaining time to reorganize his army. He achieved this objective in the following years. In 1598 he managed to defeat the Khan of Bukhara and he won back Khorasan (Land of Sunrise), the eastern provinces of today's Iran (you may wish to see a 1900 map of Persia and Central Asia). In 1603 he declared war on the Ottomans and after a number of successful campaigns he forced Sultan Ahmet I to acknowledge the loss of Baghdad, Tabriz and vast territories in the Caucasus (Treaty of Serav 1618).
Shah Abbas decided to make Isfahan the symbol of Persian power by moving the city centre to the south of the old one to reach Zayandeh Rud, the only stream of the arid tableland which deserves the name of river. The gigantic size of Naqsh-e Jahan, the meydan (main square) of the new city, helped to bridge the distance between the old town and the river.
Naqsh-e Jahan: two-story arcade surrounding the whole square
The Mydan or great Market, is with no doubt the most spacious, pleasant and Aromatick Market in the Universe; a thousand paces from North to South, the other way above two hundred; the building is of Brick, well made and in delightful manner fabricated. It is full of shops, each shop full of ware. The Mydan being the noblest part, is so placed in the heart of this triumphant Citty. (..) Within the Mydan the shops are uniform, the trades are no where severed, but
united. Some be of Mercers, of Lapidaries some, and most of them of
gums, drugs and spices so sweet and so delicate.
Sir Thomas Herbert - Some Yeares Travels Into Divers Parts of Asia and .. (in Persia in 1626-1629) - 1638
Travel books abound in comparisons between the size of Naqsh-e Jahan and that of other world known squares and apparently only the modern square in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing is larger. Size apart, an interesting comparison is with Plaza Mayor in Madrid which was designed almost at the same time as Naqsh-e Jahan and has a similar uniform design.
Qaysariya is another transliteration of the bazaar's name which more clearly indicates its origin from Julius Caesar and its meaning.
The decision to build a major addition to the existing bazaar shows the attention Shah Abbas paid to the economic development of Isfahan and in general of the whole country. To this purpose he deported thousands of Armenian skilled workers and merchants from Julfa, a town on the River Aras which today separates Iran from Armenia and Azerbaijan, to Isfahan, where they settled in a separate quarter south of the river.
Trade with Europe had to go through Ottoman territories and therefore Shah Abbas favoured the opening of new routes through Russia which in 1557 had seized Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea and was therefore directly bordering on Persia. He ousted the Portuguese from some of their bases in the Persian Gulf to break their monopoly on sea trade and he established maritime routes and diplomatic relations with Europe.
Gheisarieh Bazaar: decoration of the portal showing the zodiacal sign of Sagittarius. In the hole beneath the pointed arch there used to be a wooden structure where music was played at sunset and sunrise
In the midst of the North-Front stands a great Portal, with a large Dial over it, which Sha-Abas brought from Ormut when he took it from the Portugals. But the Dial is of no use, nor is ever like to be. Round the Tower of that Portal runs an op'n Gallery, with a kind of a Cieling over head supported with Pillars, from whence every Evening about Sun-set, and at Midnight, a noise of Drums and Trumpets is to be heard through the whole City. Tavernier
The Muslim ban on depiction of living beings was fully respected in the decoration of the mosques of Isfahan, but entirely disregarded in the portal of the bazaar which recalls the portal of Chin Dor Medrese at Samarkand. Sagittarius was regarded as patron of trade, similar to Hermes/Mercury.
Gheisarieh Bazaar Portal: (left) Persian hunters; (right) a European spectator
Pietro della Valle (1586-1652), a Roman nobleman and a distant relative of Cardinal Andrea della Valle, undertook a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1614 and afterwards he travelled extensively through Syria, Persia and India until he returned home in 1626.
In 1616 he decided to visit Isfahan with Ma'ani his young wife, a Christian girl from Mardin.
I set about changing my clothes from Syrian to Persian and I found a barber who shaved off the beard I had cultivated during the previous sixteen months. I wanted him to make me look completely Persian, in other words with cheek and chin shaved and with long moustaches. Ma'ani was heartbroken when she saw me, but I explained her that when travelling to different countries, it is necessary to adapt to different customs.
From Caroline Stone's "Pietro della Valle - Pilgrim of Curiosity" - Saudi Aramco World - Jan/Feb 2014
Shops near the Friday Mosque
Out of this Bazar you go into another full of men that work Copper, such as make Pots, Plates, and other utensils for the Kitchin. Here also live those that make Files, and the blades of Sythes. The rest of the Bazar is possess'd by Dyers of Calicut, and at the end of the Bazar is a fair Inn, where all the Merchants live that sell Musk, Russia Leather, and Furrs. Tavernier
The city of Isfahan including the suburbs is one of the largest in the world and is not less than 12 leagues or 24 miles in circuit. The Persians say to exalt its greatness that Isfahan is half the world. Many persons carry the number of the inhabitants to 1,100,000 souls. Those who place it the lowest affirm that it amounts to 600,000.
Journal du voiage du Chevalier Chardin en Perse et aux Indes orientales - Amsterdam - 1686.
The assessment of the population made by Chardin, a French / British jeweller who visited Isfahan in 1673 helps in understanding why the city had such a large bazaar which surrounded Naqsh-e Jahan on all sides and from there stretched to the old city centre for more than a mile.
Bazaar streets in the section built by Shah Abbas
The portal gives access to the major artery of the bazaar. Mosques, hammams and khans are located off this main street, much of which is lit by circular openings cut into the brick vaults, creating shafts of light dotting the passage at certain times of the day. In its northern ald older section the bazaar splits into small passageways which are dedicated to a specific trade.
European cities which have retained their historical place-names have a "Market Square" surrounded by small streets named after the trades taking place there. This is almost all that was done by local rulers to promote trade, whereas Muslim rulers did much more. Sultan Mehmet II started to build the Great Bazaar of Constantinople in 1461 only eight years after having conquered the city. In general some of the most impressive Islamic monuments are related to trade infrastructures from caravanserais (e.g. Sultanhan) to khans (e.g. Qourtbak Khan in Aleppo) to bazaars (e.g. Mozzaffarieh at Tabriz) and bedesten (e.g. that of Edirne).
The Last Supper on sale at the bazaar is most likely a Chinese bric-a-brac, but perhaps it has to do with a long tradition.
In the evening Shah Abbas wandered about the town visiting coffeehouses and shops, including that of an Italian art dealer who sold, among other things, portraits of the kind they sell for a crown at Piazza Navona, (..) but which here cost ten sequins (a Venetian gold coin) and are considered cheap at the price.
From Caroline Stone's "Pietro della Valle - Pilgrim of Curiosity" - Saudi Aramco World - Jan/Feb 2014.
The Kings Pallace conjoynes the West side of the
Mydan, possessing a large quantity backwards, but juts not to the street further than the other buildings, nor to the street side gives any magnifick front or state. (..)
Afore the Kings doore, and within the Hippodrome, lye unmounted one and thirty cannons of brasse, and twelve iron Culverins brought
tither by some latee over-throw they gave the Portugal or Turk. Herbert
The rest of the Piazza toward the Palace, is always kept clean, without any Shops, because the King comes often abroad in the Evening to see Lions, Bears, Bulls, Rams, Cocks, and all other sort of Creatures fight which are brought thither. Tavernier
The Meidan was the heart of the Safavid capital. Its vast sandy esplanade was used for promenades, for assembling troops, for playing polo, for celebrations, and for public executions. UNESCO
Ali Qapu: (left) terrace (added in 1648 so that the Shah could watch ceremonies, perhaps in imitation of some papal loggias); (right) side view showing the music room on the top floor
In the midst of the Piazza stands a kind of a May-Pole, or Mast of a Ship, where the people exercise shooting at Birds. When the King comes to shoot, they let a Cup of Gold upon the top of the Mast, which he is to strike down with an Arrow. To which purpose he must ride full speed, nor is he permitted to shoot 'till after he has past the May-Pole, turning himself upon the crupper of his Horse: a remain of the ancient custom of the Parthians, that kill'd their Enemies flying. Tavernier
The pavilion of Ali Qapu on the west side forms the monumental entrance to the palatial zone and to the royal gardens which extend behind it. Its apartments, high portal, and covered terrace are renowned. UNESCO
The construction of a series of palaces for Shah Abbas and his court began in 1592, in preparation of the capital move. Kapi in Turkish means gate (see a page on the gates of Constantinople) and Ali Qapu was the gate of a royal compound which included larger palaces. The building was enlarged by the successors of Shah Abbas with the addition of several storeys and a covered terrace.
Ali Qapu: decoration of the ceiling of one of the main halls
All of the architectural elements of the Meidan, including the arcades, are adorned with a profusion of enamelled ceramic tiles and with paintings, where floral ornamentation is dominant - flowering trees, vases, bouquets, etc. - without prejudice to the figurative compositions in the style of Riza-i Abbasi, who was head of the school of painting at Esfahan during the reign of Shah Abbas and was celebrated both inside and outside Persia. UNESCO
The decoration of Ali Qapu is attributed to Reza Abbasi who is best known for his book miniatures portraying young men and women. In these miniatures Reza Abbasi was careful not to overdo the decoration of the background (you may wish to see one of his miniatures - it opens in another window) and he applied the same approach at Ali Qapu.
Ali Qapu: details of the music room
The guests of the Safavid Shahs must have been in good physical condition to climb the 94 steep and spiralling steps leading to the music chamber on the top floor. The effort however was rewarded by the excellent acoustics of the hall, thanks to a series of hollow panels. The holes have the shape of kamancheh, a typical Persian bowed string instrument. Chehel Sotun, the main palace of Shah Abbas, was decorated with paintings showing musicians and dancers.
Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum in Istanbul (housed in Ibrahim Pacha Sarayi): Beggar's Bowl - Safavid Art - Early XVIIth century
The image used as background for this page shows a lamp at the bazaar.
Pasargadae and Persepolis
Achaemenid Tombs and Sassanid Reliefs
Seljuk small towns (Ardestan, Zavareh and Abarquh)
XIVth century Yazd
XVIIIth century Shiraz
On the Road
An excursion to Abyaneh
People of Iran
and in another section on Iranian Azerbaijan:
Tabriz: The Blue Mosque
Tabriz: Azerbaijan Museum