Isfahan is a major city in the centre of Iran, located 406 kilometres south of Tehran. It’s the centre of Isfahan Province.
It is the third-largest city in Iran after Tehran and Mashhad but was once one of the largest cities in the world.
Isfahan is an important city as it is located at the intersection of the two principal north-south and east-west routes that traverse Iran. Isfahan flourished from 1050 to 1722, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries under the Safavid dynasty when it became the capital of Persia for the second time in its history under Shah Abbas the Great. Even today the city retains much of its past glory.
It is famous for its Perso–Islamic architecture, grand boulevards, covered bridges, palaces, tiled mosques and minarets. Isfahan also has many historical buildings, monuments, paintings, and artefacts. The fame of Isfahan led to the Persian proverb “Isfahān nesf-e-jahān ast”: Isfahan is half (of) the world.
The Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan is one of the largest city squares in the world. UNESCO has designated it a World Heritage Site.
Isfahan is derived from Middle Persian Spahān. Spahān is attested in various Middle Persian seals and inscriptions. The present-day name is the Arabicized form of Ispahan. It is believed that Spahān derives from spādānām “the armies”, Old Persian plural of spāda, from which derives spāh ‘army’ in Middle Persian. Some of the other ancient names include Jey, Gey, Park, Judea.
Human habitation of the Isfahan region can be traced back to the Palaeolithic period. Recent discoveries archaeologists have found artefacts dating back to the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages.
What was to become the city of Isfahan in later historical periods probably emerged as a locality and settlement that gradually developed over the course of the Elamite civilisation (2700–1600 BCE).
Under Median rule, this commercial entrepôt began to show signs of more sedentary urbanism, steadily growing into a noteworthy regional centre that benefited from the exceptionally fertile soil on the banks of the Zayandehrud River in a region called Aspandana or Ispandana.
Once Cyrus the Great (reg. 559–529 BCE) had unified Persian and Median lands into the Achaemenid Empire (648–330 BCE), the religiously and ethnically diverse city of Isfahan became an early example of the king’s fabled religious tolerance. It was Cyrus who, having just taken Babylon, made an edict in 538 BCE, declaring that the Jews in Babylon could return to Jerusalem (see Ezra ch. 1). Now it seems that some of these freed Jews settled in Isfahan instead of returning to their homeland.
The Parthians, in the period 247 BCE – 224 CE, continued the tradition of tolerance after the fall of the Achaemenids, fostering the Hellenistic dimension within Iranian culture and the political organisation introduced by Alexander the Great’s invading armies. Under the Parthians, Arsacid governors administered the provinces of the nation from Isfahan, and the city’s urban development accelerated to accommodate the needs of a capital city.
The next empire to rule Persia, the Sassanids (224 CE –651 CE), presided over massive changes in their realm, instituting sweeping agricultural reform and reviving Iranian culture and the Zoroastrian religion. Both the city and region were then called by the name Aspahan or Spahan. The city was governed by a group called the Espoohrans, who came from seven noble and important Iranian royal families. Extant foundations of some Sassanid-era bridges in Isfahan suggest that the Sasanian kings were fond of ambitious urban planning projects. While Isfahan’s political importance declined during the period, many Sassanid princes would study statecraft in the city, and its military role developed rapidly. Its strategic location at the intersection of the ancient roads to Susa and Persepolis made it an ideal candidate to house a standing army, ready to march against Constantinople at any moment.
The historical facts suggest that in the late 4th and early 5th centuries, Queen Shushandukht, the Jewish consort of Yazdegerd I (reigned 399–420) settled a colony of Jews in Yahudiyyeh (also spelled Yahudiya), a settlement 3 km northwest of the Zoroastrian city of Gabae (its Achaemenid and Parthian name; Gabai was its Sasanic name, which was shortened to Gay (Arabic ‘Jay’) that was located on the northern bank of the Zayanderud River.
The gradual population decrease of Jay and the simultaneous population increase of Yahudiyyeh and its suburbs after the Islamic conquest of Iran resulted in the formation of the nucleus of what was to become the city of Isfahan.
When the Arabs captured Isfahan in 642, they made it the capital of al-Jibal (“the Mountains”) province, an area that covered much of ancient Media. Isfahan grew prosperous under the Persian Buyid (Buwayhid) dynasty, which rose to power and ruled much of Iran when the temporal authority of the Abbasid caliphs waned in the 10th century. The city walls of Isfahan are thought to have been constructed during the reign of the Buyid amirs during the tenth century.
The Turkish conqueror and founder of the Seljuq dynasty, Toghril Beg, made Isfahan the capital of his domains in the mid-11th century; but it was under his grandson Malik-Shah I (r. 1073–92) that the city grew in size and splendour.
After the fall of the Seljuqs (c. 1200), Isfahan temporarily declined and was eclipsed by other Iranian cities such as Tabriz and Qazvin. During his visit in 1327, Ibn Battuta noted that “The city of Isfahan is one of the largest and fairest of cities, but it is now in ruins for the greater part.”
In 1387, Isfahan surrendered to the Turko-Mongol warlord Timur. Initially treated with relative mercy, the city revolted against Timur’s punitive taxes by killing the tax collectors and some of Timur’s soldiers. In retribution, Timur ordered the massacre of the city residents, and his soldiers killed a reported 70,000 citizens. An eye-witness counted more than 28 towers, each constructed of about 1,500 heads.
Isfahan regained its importance during the Safavid period (1501–1736). The city’s golden age began in 1598 when the Safavid ruler Shah Abbas I (reigned 1588–1629) made it his capital and rebuilt it into one of the largest and most beautiful cities in the 17th-century world. In 1598 Shah Abbas the Great moved his capital from Qazvin to the more central Isfahan, so that it wouldn’t be threatened by the Ottomans. This new status ushered in a golden age for the city, with architecture and Persian culture flourishing. In the 16th and 17th centuries, thousands of deportees and migrants from the Caucasus, that Abbas and other Safavid rulers had permitted to emigrate en masse, settled in the city. So now the city had enclaves of Georgian, Circassian, and Daghistani descent.
Engelbert Kaempfer, who dwelt in Safavid Persia in 1684–85, estimated their number at 20,000. During the Safavid era, the city contained a very large Armenian community as well. As part of Abbas’s forced resettlement of peoples from within his empire, he resettled as many as 300,000 Armenians from near the unstable Safavid-Ottoman border, primarily from the very wealthy Armenian town of Jugha (also known as Old Julfa) in mainland Iran. In Isfahan, he ordered the foundation of a new quarter for these resettled Armenians from Old Julfa, and thus the Armenian Quarter of Isfahan was named New Julfa.
Today, the New Jolfa district of Isfahan remains a heavily Armenian-populated district, with Armenian churches and shops, the Vank Cathedral being especially notable for its combination of Armenian Christian and Iranian Islamic elements. It is still one of the oldest and largest Armenian quarters in the world. Following an agreement between Shah Abbas I and his Georgian subject Teimuraz I of Kakheti (“Tahmuras Khan”), whereby the latter submitted to Safavid rule in exchange for being allowed to rule as the region’s wāli (governor) and for having his son serve as dāruḡa (“prefect”) of Isfahan in perpetuity, the Georgian prince converted to Islam and served as governor. He was accompanied by a troop of soldiers, some of whom were Georgian Orthodox Christians. The royal court in Isfahan had a great number of Georgian ḡolāms (military slaves), as well as Georgian women. Although they spoke both Persian and Turkic, their mother tongue was Georgian. During Abbas’s reign, Isfahan became very famous in Europe, and many European travellers made an account of their visit to the city, such as Jean Chardin. This prosperity lasted until it was sacked by Afghan invaders in 1722 during a marked decline in Safavid influence.
Thereafter, Isfahan experienced a decline in importance, culminating in a move of the capital to Mashhad and Shiraz during the Afsharid and Zand periods respectively, until it was finally moved to Tehran in 1775 by Agha Mohammad Khan, the founder of the Qajar dynasty.
In the early years of the 19th century, efforts were made to preserve some of Isfahan’s archaeologically important buildings. The work was started by Mohammad Hossein Khan during the reign of Fath Ali Shah.
In the 20th century, Isfahan was resettled by a very large number of people from southern Iran, firstly during the population migrations at the start of the century, and again in the 1980s following the Iran–Iraq War.