ISFAHAN

Iran 2013 | TOURISM | PHOTO ESSAY: DESTINATION

When Shah Abbas I decided to move the Safavid capital to Isfahan in 1597, he was tasked with returning a derelict city to glory. The city has been located at a major crossroads of trans-Asian trade since 2700 BC and was incorporated into the Achaemenid Empire under Cyrus the Great in the sixth century BC. Alexander the Great's invading armies led to the rise of the Parthian Empire, which continued Cyrus the Great's fabled example of religious tolerance. The Zoroastrian religion then enjoyed a revival under the Sassanid Empire. During this period the city housed a standing army. One etymological theory contends that the Pahlavi word Aspahan, or “place of the army," is where the city got its name.


When Shah Abbas I decided to move the Safavid capital to Isfahan in 1597, he was tasked with returning a derelict city to glory. The city has been located at a major crossroads of trans-Asian trade since 2700 BC and was incorporated into the Achaemenid Empire under Cyrus the Great in the sixth century BC. Alexander the Great's invading armies led to the rise of the Parthian Empire, which continued Cyrus the Great's fabled example of religious tolerance. The Zoroastrian religion then enjoyed a revival under the Sassanid Empire. During this period the city housed a standing army. One etymological theory contends that the Pahlavi word Aspahan, or “place of the army," is where the city got its name.

The next chapter of the city's history began with the Arab conquest and the spread of Islam to Persia. Despite waning for a period, the Buyids developed the city between 934 and 1055 AD, before Malik Shah I of the Turkic Seljuk dynasty led the city into its first golden age. Today, the Ali Mosque and Minaret, built in the 12th century, still stand as a reminder of the city's Turkic origins. The city was later sacked by the Mongols and razed by Timur in the 13th century, leaving it in ruins for 200 years until Shah Abbas I made the city his capital. It is during this period that Persians began referring to the city as Esfahan Nesf-e Jahan, or “Isfahan is half the world," a term coined to reflect the grandeur of the city.

The Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan is today a UNESCO World Heritage site and surrounded by buildings from the Safavid era, such as the Shah Mosque and the Ali Qapu Palace. The square also grants access to the Isfahan Grand Bazaar, the Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque, and the Shah Mosque. Unable to maintain the prosperity the city enjoyed under Shah Abbas I, subsequent Safavid rulers led the city into a period of war and decline. As traders began to prefer maritime routes to Europe, the city's wealth also declined and it finally lost its titular claim as capital of the Persian Empire when the Qajar tribe unified Persia once again and moved the capital to Tehran. The city did not lose its importance entirely, however, and the Manzil-i Sartip Sidihi palace is a reminder of the city's status as the capital of a large province of the empire in the late 18th century. The Qajar dynasty fell in in the early 20th century, following which Reza Shah Pahlavi, who ruled between 1925 and 1935, instigated many conservation and restoration projects. The city also became the focal point of much archeological interest, and the mausoleum of Arthur Pope and his wife Phyllis Ackerman, two American historians who dedicated their lives to the study of Persian art and culture, stands in the city.

In the post-revolutionary era, Isfahan enjoys its status as the third-largest city in Iran after Tehran and Mashhad. The city's population is between 1.5 million and 2 million, with large-scale urban migration swelling the figures in recent years. The Isfahan metropolitan region is also home to ethnic Armenian populations, as well as pockets of Jews and Zoroastrians, who live in a city long famed for its religious tolerance. The province's main produce includes cotton, grain, and tobacco, while the city itself has become an academic center. The Art University of Isfahan and the Isfahan University of Technology are the two main higher education hubs, while other art schools often occupy extant Safavid- and Qajar-era buildings.

Located on the plain of the Zayandeh River 340 kilometers south of Tehran, today's visitor can expect a hot climate in summer and extreme cold in winter. Naqsh-e Jahan Square is the most popular tourist destination, dominated by the Ali Qapu Palace. Visitors also flock in droves to the Jameh Mosque of Isfahan, the construction of which began in the Seljuk period, and the Safavid-era Grand Bazaar, where many examples of handicrafts and textiles are on sale. Isfahan is famous for its silver and copper works as well as its miniatures, yet its rugs are arguably its most renowned commodity. With a weaving culture that dates back hundreds of years, the trade flourished during the Safavid era, later becoming stagnant as the dynasty succumbed to invasion. In the 1920s, however, the industry began to enjoy a revival as weavers aimed to reproduce Safavid designs. Today, Isfahani carpets are among the most sought after in the world and are a major tourist pull. Other attractions in the city include the Khaju Bridge and Bridge of 33 Arches, both built during the early Safavid period, and the Armenian Vank Cathedral, established by Armenian immigrants during the reign of Shah Abbas I following the Ottoman war in 1603-1605.