1902 Encyclopedia > Ispahan (Isfahan)

(also known as: Isfahan)
Persia (modern day Iran)

ISPAHAN, or ISFAHAN, a city of Persia, in the province of Irak Adjemi, is situated in 32° 39' N. lat. and 51° 44' E. long. It enjoys the reputation of a very salubrious climate, except in the autumn, when fevers are prevalent. The following statistics are given by modern authorities; but the condition of the city and its environs is subject to con-stant change. The city walls—a mere mud curtain ruined in many places—are about 5 miles in circumference. There are some 300 villages, more or less nourishing, in the neighbourhood. In the interior of the city there are reckoned to be sixty mosques (of which about forty are in use), from eighty to a hundred baths, perhaps fifty colleges (which seems, however, far beyond the wants of the popula-tion), and twenty caravanserais in a more or less perfect state.

The public buildings of Ispahan (the best specimens of modern Oriental design and decoration to be found in Persia, or perhaps anywhere in the East) are of two distinct classes-—those constructed by Shah Abbas and his successors, and those erected during the present Kajar dynasty. The two great palaces of Shah Abbas the Great are named respectively Chihil-Sutun (" the forty pillars ") and Hasht Bihisht (" the eight paradises"). They are surrounded by extensive gardens, traversed by avenues of planes and poplars, and intersected by paved canals of running water, with fountains and reservoirs sparkling in all directions, the whole area being encompassed by a mud wall which is nearly 3 miles in circumference. The buildings themselves are ornamented with gilding and mirrors in every possible variety of arabesque decoration; and large and brilliant pictures of the usual Persian type, representing scenes of Persian history, cover the walls of all the principal apart-ments and have been ascribed in many instances to Italian and Dutch artists, who are known to have been in the ! service of Shah Abbas. Attached to these palaces are separate buildings, such as the Amaret-i-Now (or " new edifice "), the Talari-Tavileh (or " hall of the stables "), the Gul-dastah (" bunch of roses "), and several others, which have been erected in modern times by wealthy courtiers for the convenience of the sovereign, and which are also generally occupied as residences by the European ministers, and by other distinguished travellers who are I provided with royal accommodation on their way to the I capital. Perhaps the most agreeable residence of all is the ; Haft Dast (" seven courts") in the beautiful garden of Sa'adetabad, on the southern bank of the river, and 2 or 3 miles from the heart of the city. This palace was built by Shah Tahmasp, the successor of Shah Abbas, and until lately was kept in good repair and used as a villa residence by the prince governor. Sir Gore Ouseley resided there with his suite for some months on his deputation to Persia in 1811. The garden of the Chihil-Sutun palace, where Sir j Harford Jones's mission was established in 1809, opens out ; through the Ali-K^pi (or " Sublime Porte ") into the great square or Mydan-i-Shah, the most remarkable feature in the city, and probably the largest square in the world, being 2000 feet in length by 700 in breadth. This square is surrounded by a double row of arcades, and formerly resembled a permanent fair; now, however, it is painfully desolate. The corners of the square face the cardinal points, and in the centre of each face is some remarkable builuing. On the north-west is the Ali-Kapi, forming the entrance to the royal palace. It is three stories high, and from the summit is obtained a splendid view of Ispahan and the environs. Opposite to the Ali-Kapi on the south-east side of the square is the famous Mesjid-i-Shah, or " royal mosque," covered with glazed tiles of unusual brilliancy, and richly decorated with gold and silver ornaments, being by far the handsomest mosque in all Persia; but, as Europeans are not admitted to the interior, it has never been well described. In the centre of the north-east face of the square is the gate entrance to the great bazaar usually called the Kaiserieh, while immediately over the gate, where in Chardin's time the great Dutch clock with its automatic figures used to excite the admiration of the Ispahanfs, the Nokhara-Khana, or " trumpet house," now blares forth its dissonant roar at sunrise and sunset, and on the remaining or south-west side is another sacred build-ing, the mosque of Lutf Ollah, which is only inferior in grandeur and beauty to the Mesjid-i-Shah.

Among the other notable buildings of Ispahan must be reckoned its colleges and bridges. The Zindeh-riid or " river of life " rises in Zardehkoh, about 90 miles to the west of Ispahan, where some stupendous tunnelling works are yet to be seen, the traces of Shah Abbas's abortive attempt to turn the Kanin or Shuster stream into the eastern river bed. It flows in a well-cultivated valley through the districts of Char-mehel and Liujan to the town of Ispahan, passing along the southern outskirts of the city from west to east, and being crossed by three principal bridges. The first, the Pul-i-Char-bagh, or, as it is also called, the Pul-i-Juifa, connecting the suburb of Julfa to the south with the stately Charbagh avenue to the north, consists of a double row of 34 arches, with covered galleries on both sides, and with a roadway, battlemented and paved throughout. It was built by Ali Verdi Khan, one of Shah Abbas's principal officers. The second bridge, the Pul-i-Khajii, is on the high road to the south, and is thus much frequented. It is also built with great solidity on a double row of arches, and is kept in excellent repair. The third bridge is smaller and less used. It is named Pul-i-Sheheristan, from a village of that name to which it leads, forming the north-eastern suburb of the city. The river flows on some 30 miles further to the west, and is there lost in the sand.

Of the colleges of Ispahan, which are said to be fifty in number, and the greater part of which are still used as educational establishments for the Mahometan priesthood, the most remarkable building is the Medresseh Shah Sultdn Hussaiu, on the right of the avenue leading northwards from the Pul-i-Khaju. It is thus described by Mr Morier:—

" Its entrance is handsome. A lofty portico, enriched with fantastically twisted pillars, and intermixed with the beautiful marble of Tabriz, leads through a pair of brazen gates, finished with silver, and their whole surface highly carved and embossed with flowers and verses from the Koran. The gates lead to an elevated semi-dome, which opens at once into the square of the college. The right side of this court is occupied by the mosque, which is still a beautiful building, covered with a cupola and faced with two minarets. The interior of the dome is richly spread with variegated tiles, on which are invocations to the prophet and verses of the Koran in the fullest profusion. The other sides of the square are occupied, one by a lofty and beautiful portico, and the remaining two by rooms for the students, twelve in each front, arranged in two stories. These apartments are little square cells, and seem admirably calculated for study."

Another striking feature of Ispahan is the line of covered bazaars, commencing with the Hassanabad and ending with the Kaiserieh, which extends for nearly 3 miles, and divides the city from south to north. The confluence of people in these bazaars is certainly very great, and gives an exaggerated idea of the populousness of the city, the truth being that while the inhabitants congregate for business in these streets, the rest of the city is compara-tively deserted (see Morier's lively description).

But although Ispahan thus abounds with traces of former grandeur and magnificence, although even now, when surveyed from a commanding height within the city, or in the immediate environs, the enormous extent of mingled garden and building, at least 30 miles in circumference, gives an impression of populousness and busy life, a closer scrutiny reveals that the whole scene is nothing more than a gigantic sham. With the exception of the bazaars and a few scattered hamlets, there is really no continuous inhabited area. Whole streets, whole quarters of the city have fallen into utter ruin, and are absolutely deserted, the traveller who is bent on visiting some of the remarkable sites in the north-western or north-eastern suburbs, such as the ruins of the old fire temple, the remains of the famous castle of Tabarrak, or the shaking minarets of Guladan, having to pass through miles of crumbling mud walls and roofless houses. It is believed indeed that not a twentieth part of the area of the old city is at present peopled, and that the million of inhabitants, reported in the time of Chardin, have now dwindled to about 40,000 souls.

The Armenian suburb of Julfa, at any rate, which con-tained a population of 30.000 souls in the 17th century is now tenanted by some 300 wretched families, and the Christian churches, which used to number thirteen, and were many of them maintained in great splendour, are now reduced to half a dozen edifices with bare walls and empty benches. At the same time it must be noted that some improvement has recently taken place in the education of the young, and also in their religious teaching, the wealthy Armenians of India having contributed liberally to the national schools, and a Scottish gentleman, Mr Bruce, having been engaged for some years in missionary labours among the ignorant Christian peasantry of Julfa and Feridiin.

The commerce of Ispahan has also greatly fallen off from its former flourishing condition. The manufactures, it is true, for which the city has been long famous, are still to a certain extent carried on; in the bazaars are yet to be found the brocades, satins, and silks of former days, together with calicoes, chintzes, and other cotton goods; the daldls still hawk about the lacquered boxes, pen-cases, mirror-frames, and book-covers, beautifully painted and ornamented, which are peculiar to Ispahan, while sword-blades, damascened gunbarrels, glass, and earthenware continue here and there to be exhibited in the stalls for sale ; but the imports, both from India and from the north, have greatly diminished, and this has crippled the demand for native produce. Whether the trade of former days can ever be restored is doubtful. British mercantile houses, established at Bushire, are making great efforts to push on their operations to the northward. Various schemes have been discussed for opening direct communication with the Persian Gulf, either by railway through Shiraz to Bushire, or across the mountains to Shuster on the Kariin, and thence by river steamer to Mohamreh. If the Persian Government can be induced to throw open the navigation of the Kariin to British enterprise, it is probable that an attempt will really be made to connect Shuster and Ispahan by rail, notwithstanding the formidable engineering difficulties to be encountered in crossing the Bakhtiaree mountains ; and in that case, as the Indian trade from the south would compete both with the Russian and British trade from the north, in supplying eastern Persia, Ispahan might be expected to derive great benefit from the competition. The position indeed is so favoured by nature and is so conveniently situated in the very focus of the British Indian lines of traffic that in due course of time some improvement may be confidently looked for.

The Ispahanis have a very poor reputation in Persia either for courage or morals. They are regarded as a clever, but at the same time a dissolute and disorderly community, whose government requires a strong hand and unyielding temper. The looties indeed of Ispahan are pro-verbial as the most "rowdy" set of vagabonds in Persia. There is also a good deal of religious fanaticism and party spirit among the lower classes, the city being divided into two factions of Na'amet Ullahi and Hyderf (so called from two famous saints of former days), who reside in the rival quarters of Jubareh and Deridasht, and are continually coming into collision. The priesthood on the other hand are much respected for their learning and high character, and the decisions of the chief " mujtehid " of Ispahan are considered of more authority even than those of the sheikh-el-Islam at the capital. The merchants also of Ispahan are a very respectable class, occupied in extensive dealings with India, with Baghdad, and with Constantinople, and rarely, if ever, failing in their engagements. Altogether Ispahan is one of the most interesting cities in the East, exhibiting a genuine picture of active Oriental life.

The natural advantages of Ispahan—a genial climate, a fertile soil, and abundance of water for irrigation—must have always made it a place of importance. In the most ancient cuneiform docu-ments, referring to a period between 3000 and 2000 B.C., the pro-vince of Ansan, which certainly included Ispahan, was the limit of the geographical knowledge of the Babylonians, typifying the ex-treme east, as Syria (or Martu-ki) typified the west. The two pro-vinces of Ansan and Subarta, by which we must understand the country from Ispahan to Shuster, were ruled in those remote ages by the same king, who undoubtedly belonged to the great Turanian family; and from this first notice of Ansan down to the 7th century B.C. the region seems to have remained, more or less, dependent on the paramount power of Susa. With regard to the eastern frontier of Ansan, however, ethnic changes were probably in extensive oper-ation during this interval of twenty centuries. The western Iranians, for instance, after separating from their eastern brethren on the Oxus, as early perhaps as 3000 B.C.,must have followed the line of the Elburz mountains, and then bifurcating into two branches must have scattered, westward into Media and southward towards Persia. The first substantial settlement of the southern branch would seem then to have been at Ispahan, where Jem, the eponym of the Persian race, is said to have founded a famous castle, the remains of which were visible as late as the 10th century A.D. This castle is known in the Zoroastrian writings as Jem-gird, but its proper name was Sarii or Sarnk (given in the Bundahish as Sruwa or Srobalc), and it was especially famous in early Mahometan history as the building where the ancient records and tables of the Persians were discovered which proved of so much use to Abu-Masher (Albumazar) and his contemporaries. A valuable tradition, proceed-ing from quite a different source, has also been preserved to the effect that Jem, who invented the original Persian character, '' dwelt in Assan, a district of Shuster" (see Fliigel's Fihrist, p. 12, 1. 21), which exactly accords with the Assyrian notices of Assan or Ansan classed as a dependency of Elymais. Now it is well known that native legend represented the Persian race to have been held in bondage for a thousand years, after the reign of Jem, by the foreign usurper Zohdk or Biverasp, a period which may well repre-sent the duration of Elymsean supremacy over the Aryans of Ansan. At the commencement of the 7th century B.C. Persia and Ansan are still found in the annals of Sennacherib amongst the tributaries of Elymais, confederated against Assyria ; but shortly afterwards the great Susian monarchy, which had lasted for full 2000 years, crumbled away under continued pressure from the west, and the Aryans of Ansan recovered their independence, founding for the first time a national dynasty, and establishing their seat of govern-ment at Gabae on the site of the modern city of Ispahan.

The royal city of Gabae was known as a foundation of the Achse-menidse as late as the time of Strabo, and the inscriptions show that Achaemenes and his successors did actually rule at Ansan until the great Cyrus set out on his career of western victory. Whether the Kdbi or Kavi of tradition, the blacksmith of Ispahan, who is said to have headed the revolt against Zohak, took his name from the town of Gabas may be open to question ; but it is at any rate re-markable that the national standard of the Persian race, named after the blacksmith, and supposed to have been first unfurled at this epoch, retained the title of Darafsh-a Kdvdni (the banner of Kavi) to the time of the Arab conquest, and that the men of Ispahan were, moreover, throughout this long period, always especially charged with its protection. The provincial name of Ansan or Assan seems to have been disused in the country after the age of Cyrus, and to have been replaced by that of Gabene or Gabiane, which alone appears in the Greek accounts of the wars of Alexander and his succes-sors, and in the geographical descriptions of Strabo. Gabas or Gavi became gradually corrupted to Jai during the Sassanian period, and it was thus by the latter name that the old city of Ispahan was generally known at the time of the Arab invasion. Subsequently the title of Jai became replaced by Sheheristdn or Medineh, " the ! city " par excellence, while a suburb which had been founded in the immediate vicinity, and which took the name of Yahudieh, or the "Jews' town," from its original Jewish inhabitants, gradually rose into notice and superseded the old capital.

Sheheristdn and Yahudieh are thus in the early ages of Islam described as independent cities, the former being the eastern and the latter the western division of the capital, each surrounded by a separate wall; but about the middle of the 10th century the famous Boide king known as the Rukn-ed-Bowleh united the two suburbs and many of the adjoining villages in one general enclosure which was about 10 miles in circumference. The city, which had now re-sumed its old name of Ispahan, continued to flourish till the time of Timur (1387 A.D.), when in common with so many other cities of the empire it suffered grievously at the hands of the Tartar invaders. Timur indeed is said to have erected a Kelleh Minar or "skull tower " of 70,000 heads at the gate of the city, as a warning to deter other communities from resisting his arms. The place, however, owing to its natural advantages, gradually recovered from the effects of this terrible visitation, and when the Sefevaean dynasty who suc-ceeded to power in the 16th century, transferred their place of resi-dence to it from Casbin, it rose rapidly in populousness and wealth. It was under Shah Abbas the first, the most illustrious sovereign of this house, that Ispahan attained its greatest prosperity. This monarch adopted every possible expedient, by stimulating commerce, encouraging arts and manufactures, and introducing luxurious habits, to attract visitors to his favourite capital. He built several magnificent palaces in the richest style of Oriental decoration, planted gardens and avenues, and distributed amongst them the waters of the Zindeh-riid in an endless series of reservoirs, fountains, and cascades. The baths, the mosques, the colleges, the bazaars, and the caravanserais of the city received an equal share of his atten-tion, and European artificers and merchants were largely encouraged to settle in his capital. Ambassadors visited his court from many of the first states of Europe, and factories were permanently established for the merchants of England, France, Holland, the Hanseatic towns, Spain, Portugal, and Moscow. The celebrated traveller Chardin, who passed a great portion of his life at Ispahan in the latter half oi the 17th century, has left a detailed and most inter-esting account of the statistics of the city at that period. He him-self estimated the population at 600,000, though in popular belief the number exceeded a million. There were 1500 flourishing villages in the immediate neighbourhood ; the enceinte of the city and suburbs was reckoned at 24 miles, while the mud walls sur-rounding the city itself, probably nearly following the lines of the Boide enclosure, measured 20,000 paces. In the interior were counted 162 mosques, 48 public colleges, 1802 caravanserais, 273 baths, and 12 cemeteries. The adjoining suburb of Julfa was also a most flourishing place. Originally founded by Shah Abbas the Great, who transported to this locality 3400 Armenian families from the town of Julfa on the Arras, the colony increased rapidly under his fostering care, both in wealth and in numbers, the Christian population being estimated in 1685 at 30,000 souls. The first blow to the prosperity of modern Ispahan was given by the Afghan invasion at the beginning of the 18th century, since which date, although continuing for some time to be the nominal head of the empire, the city has gradually dwindled in importance, and now only ranks as a second or third rate provincial capital. When the Kajar dynasty indeed mounted the throne of Persia at the end of the last century the seat of government was at once transferred to Teheran, with a view to the support of the royal tribe, whose chief seat was in the neighbouring province of Mazenderan; and, although it has often been proposed, from considerations of state policy in reference to Russia, to re-establish the court at Ispahan, which is the true centre of Persia, the scheme has never commanded much attention. At the same time the government of Ispahan, owing to the wealth of the surrounding districts, has always been much sought after. Early in the century the post was often conferred upon some powerful minister of the court, but in later times it has been usually the apanage of a favourite son or brother of the reigning sovereign. Feth Ali Shah, who had a particular affection for Ispahan, died at that place in 1834, and it is still a time-honoured custom for the monarch on the throne to seek relief from the heat of Teheran by forming a summer camp at the rich pastures of Gandoman on the skirts of Zardeh-Koh, to the west of Ispahan, for the exercise of his troops and the health and amusement of his courtiers. (H. C. R.)

The above article was written by Sir H. C. Rawlinson, K.C.B., F.R.S.

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