1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Isfahān

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ISFAHĀN (older form Ispahān), the name of a Persian province and town. The province is situated in the centre of the country, and bounded S. by Fars, E. by Yezd, N. by Kashān, Natanz and Irāk, and W. by the Bakhtiāri district and Arabistān. It pays a yearly revenue of about £100,000, and its population exceeds 500,000. It is divided into twenty-five districts, its capital, the town of Isfahān, forming one of them. These twenty-five districts, some very small and consisting of only a little township and a few hamlets, are Isfahān, Jai, Barkhār, Kahāb, Kararaj, Baraān, Rūdasht, Marbin, Lenjān, Kerven, Rār, Kiar, Mizdej, Ganduman, Somairam, Jarkūyeh, Ardistan, Kūhpāyeh, Najafabad, Komisheh, Chadugan, Varzek, Tokhmaklu, Gurji, Chinarūd. Most of these districts are very fertile, and produce great quantities of wheat, barley, rice, cotton, tobacco and opium. Lenjān, west of the city of Isfahān, is the greatest rice-producing district; the finest cotton comes from Jarkūyeh; the best opium and tobacco from the villages in the vicinity of the city.

The town of Isfahān or Ispahān, formerly the capital of Persia, now the capital of the province, is situated on the Zāyendeh river in 32° 39′ N. and 51° 40′ E.[1] at an elevation of 5370 ft. Its population, excluding that of the Armenian colony of Julfa on the right or south bank of the river (about 4000), is estimated at 100,000 (73,654, including 5883 Jews, in 1882). The town is divided into thirty-seven mahallehs (parishes) and has 210 mosques and colleges (many half ruined), 84 caravanserais, 150 public baths and 68 flour mills. The water supply is principally from open canals led off from the river and from several streams and canals which come down from the hills in the north-west. The name of the Isfahān river was originally Zendeh (Pahlavi zendek) rūd, “the great river”; it was then modernized into Zindeh-rūd, “the living river,” and is now called Zayendeh rūd, “the life-giving river.” Its principal source is the Janāneh rūd which rises on the eastern slope of the Zardeh Kuh about 90 to 100 m. W. of Isfahān. After receiving the Khursang river from Feridan on the north and the Zarīn rūd from Chaharmahal on the south it is called Zendeh rūd. It then waters the Lenjan and Marbin districts, passes Isfahān as Zayendeh-rūd and 70 m. farther E. ends in the Gavkhani depression. From its entrance into Lenjan to its end 105 canals are led off from it for purposes of irrigation and 14 bridges cross it (5 at Isfahān). Its volume of water at Isfahān during the spring season has been estimated at 60,000 cub. ft. per second; in autumn the quantity is reduced to one-third, but nearly all of it being then used for feeding the irrigation canals very little is left for the river bed. The town covers about 20 sq. m., but many parts of it are in ruins. The old city walls—a ruined mud curtain—are about 5 m. in circumference.

Of the many fine public buildings constructed by the Sefavis and during the reign of the present dynasty very little remains. There are still standing in fairly good repair the two palaces named respectively Chehel Sitūn, “the forty pillars,” and Hasht Behesht, “the eight paradises,” the former constructed by Shah Abbas I. (1587–1629), the latter by Shah Soliman in 1670, and restored and renovated by Fath Ali Shah (1797–1834). They are ornamented with gilding and mirrors in every possible variety of Arabesque decoration, and large and brilliant pictures, representing scenes of Persian history, cover the walls of their principal apartments and have been ascribed in many instances to Italian and Dutch artists who are known to have been in the service of the Sefavis. Attached to these palaces were many other buildings such as the Imaretino built by Amīn ed-Dowleh (or Addaula) for Fath Ali Shah, the Imaret i Ashref built by Ashref Khan, the Afghan usurper, the Talār Tavīleh, Guldasteh, Sarpushīdeh, &c., erected in the early part of the 19th century by wealthy courtiers for the convenience of the sovereign and often occupied as residences of European ministers travelling between Bushire and Teheran and by other distinguished travellers. Perhaps the most agreeable residence of all was the Haft Dast, “the seven courts,” in the beautiful garden of Saādetabad on the southern bank of the river, and 2 or 3 m. from the centre of the city. This palace was built by Shah Abbas II. (1642–1667), and Fath Ali Shad Kajār died there in 1834. Close to it was the Aineh Khaneh, “hall of mirrors” and other elegant buildings in the Hazar jerib (1000 acre) garden. All these palaces and buildings on both sides of the river were surrounded by extensive gardens, traversed by avenues of tall trees, principally planes, and intersected by paved canals of running water with tanks and fountains. Since Fath Ali Shah’s death, palaces and gardens have been neglected. In 1902 an official was sent from Teheran to inspect the crown buildings, to report on their condition, and repair and renovate some, &c. The result was that all the above-mentioned buildings, excepting the Chehel Sitūn and Hasht Behesht, were demolished and their timber, bricks, stone, &c., sold to local builders. The gardens are wildernesses. The garden of the Chehel Sitūn palace opens out through the Alā Kapū (“highest gate, sublime porte”) to the Maidān–i-Shah, which is one of the most imposing piazzas in the world, a parallelogram of 560 yds. (N.-S.) by 174 yds. (E.-W.) surrounded by brick buildings divided into two storeys of recessed arches, or arcades, one above the other. In front of these arcades grow a few stunted planes and poplars. On the south side of the maidan is the famous Masjed i Shah (the shah’s mosque) erected by Shah Abbas I. in 1612–1613. It is covered with glazed tiles of great brilliancy and richly decorated with gold and silver ornaments and cost over £175,000. It is in good repair, and plans of it were published by C. Texier (L’Arménie, la Perse, &c., vol. i. pls. 70-72) and P. Coste (Monuments de la Perse). On the eastern side of the maidan stands the Masjed i Lutf Ullah with beautiful enamelled tiles and in good repair. Opposite to it on the western side of the maidan is the Alā Kapū, a lofty building in the form of an archway overlooking the maidan and crowned in the fore part by an immense open throne-room supported by wooden columns, while the hinder part is elevated three storeys higher. On the north side of the maidan is the entrance gate to the main bazaar surmounted by the Nekkāreh-Khaneh, or drumhouse, where is blared forth the appalling music saluting the rising and setting sun, said to have been instituted by Jamshīd many thousand years ago. West of the Chehel Sitūn palace and conducting N.-S. from the centre of the city to the great bridge of Allah Verdi Khan is the great avenue nearly a mile in length called Chahār Bagh, “the four gardens,” recalling the fact that it was originally occupied by four vineyards which Shah Abbas I. rented at £360 a year and converted into a splendid approach to his capital.

It was thus described by Lord Curzon of Kedleston in 1880: “Of all the sights of Isfahān, this in its present state is the most pathetic in the utter and pitiless decay of its beauty. Let me indicate what it was and what it is. At the upper extremity a two-storeyed pavilion,[2] connected by a corridor with the Seraglio of the palace, so as to enable the ladies of the harem to gaze unobserved upon the merry scene below, looked out upon the centre of the avenue. Water, conducted in stone channels, ran down the centre, falling in miniature cascades from terrace to terrace, and was occasionally collected in great square or octagonal basins where cross roads cut the avenue. On either side of the central channel was a row of oriental planes and a paved pathway for pedestrians. Then occurred a succession of open parterres, usually planted or sown. Next on either side was a second row of planes, between which and the flanking walls was a raised causeway for horsemen. The total breadth is now fifty-two yards. At intervals corresponding with the successive terraces and basins, arched doorways with recessed open chambers overhead conducted through these walls into the various royal or noble gardens that stretched on either side, and were known as the Gardens of the Throne, of the Nightingale, of Vines, of Mulberries, Dervishes, &c. Some of these pavilions were places of public resort and were used as coffee-houses, where when the business of the day was over, the good burghers of Isfahān assembled to sip that beverage and inhale their kalians the while; as Fryer puts it: ‘Night drawing on, all the pride of Spahaun was met in the Chaurbaug and the Grandees were Airing themselves, prancing about with their numerous Trains, striving to outvie each other in Pomp and Generosity.’ At the bottom, quays lined the banks of the river, and were bordered with the mansions of the nobility.”

Such was the Chahar Bagh in the plenitude of its fame. But now what a tragical contrast! The channels are empty, their stone borders crumbled and shattered, the terraces are broken down, the parterres are unsightly bare patches, the trees, all lopped and pollarded, have been chipped and hollowed out or cut down for fuel by the soldiery of the Zil, the side pavilions are abandoned and tumbling to pieces and the gardens are wildernesses. Two centuries of decay could never make the Champs Élysées in Paris, the Unter den Linden in Berlin, or Rotten Row in London, look one half as miserable as does the ruined avenue of Shah Abbas. It is in itself an epitome of modern Iran.”

Towards the upper end of the avenue on its eastern side stands the medresseh (college) which Shah Hosain built in 1710. It still has a few students, but is very much out of repair; Lord Curzon spoke of it in 1888 as “one of the stateliest ruins that he saw in Persia.” South of this college the avenue is altogether without trees, and the gardens on both sides have been turned into barley fields. Among the other notable buildings of Isfahān must be reckoned its five bridges, all fine structures, and one of them, the bridge of Allah Verdi Kahn, 388 yds. in length with a paved roadway of 30 ft. in breadth, is one of the stateliest bridges in the world, and has suffered little by the march of decay.

Another striking feature of Isfahān is the line of covered bazaars, which extends for nearly 3 m. 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 the bazaars, the rest of the city is comparatively deserted. When surveyed from a commanding height within the city, or in the immediate environs, the enormous extent of mingled garden and building, about 30 m. in circuit, gives an impression of populousness and busy life, but a closer scrutiny reveals that the whole scene is nothing more than a gigantic sham. With the exception of the bazaars and a few parishes there is really no continuous inhabited area. Whole streets, whole quarters of the city have fallen into utter ruin and are absolutely deserted, and the traveller who is bent on visiting some of the remarkable sites in the northern part of the city or in the western suburbs, such as the minarets dating from the 12th century, the remains of the famous castle of Tabarrak built by the Buyid Rukn addaula (d. 976), the ruins of the old fire temple, the shaking minarets of Guladān, &c., has 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 the million or 600,000 inhabitants of Chardin’s time (middle of the 17th century) have now dwindled to about 85,000. The Armenian suburb of Julfa, at any rate, which contained a population of 30,000 souls in the 17th century, has now only 4000, and the Christian churches, which numbered thirteen and were maintained with splendour, are now reduced to half a dozen edifices with bare walls and empty benches. Much improvement has recently taken place in the education of the young and also in their religious teaching, the wealthy Armenians of India and Java having liberally contributed to the national schools, and the Church Missionary Society of London having a church, schools and hospitals there since 1869.

The people of Isfahān have a very poor reputation in Persia either for courage or morals. They are regarded as a clever but at the same time dissolute and disorderly community, whose government requires a strong hand. The lutis (hooligans) of Isfahān are proverbial as the most turbulent and rowdy set of vagabonds in Persia. The priesthood of Isfahān are much respected for their learning and high character, and the merchants are a very respectable class. The commerce of Isfahān has greatly fallen off from its former flourishing condition, and it is doubtful whether the trade of former days can ever be restored.  (A. H.-S.) 

History.—The natural advantages of Isfahān—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 documents, referring to a period between 3000 and 2000 b.c., the province of Anshan, which certainly included Isfahān, was the limit of the geographical knowledge of the Babylonians, typifying the extreme east, as Syria (or Martu-ki) typified the west. The two provinces of Anshan and Subarta, by which we must understand the country from Isfahān 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 Anshan 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 Anshan, however, ethnic changes were probably in extensive operation 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 Isfahān, 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 Sarū or Sarūk (given in the Bundahish as Sruwa or Srobak), and it was especially famous in early Mahommedan history as the building where the ancient records and tables of the Persians were discovered which proved of so much use to Albumazar and his contemporaries. A valuable tradition, proceeding 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 Flügel’s Fihrist, p. 12, l. 21), which exactly accords with the Assyrian notices of Assan or Anshan 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 Zohāk or Bīverasp, a period which may well represent the duration of Elymaean supremacy over the Aryans of Anshan. 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 Anshan recovered their independence, founding for the first time a national dynasty, and establishing their seat of government at Gabae on the site of the modern city of Isfahān.

The royal city of Gabae was known as a foundation of the Achaemenidae as late as the time of Strabo, and the inscriptions show that Achaemenes and his successors did actually rule at Anshan until the great Cyrus set out on his career of western victory. Whether the Kābi or Kāvi of tradition, the blacksmith of Isfahān, who is said to have headed the revolt against Zohāk, took his name from the town of Gabae may be open to question; but it is at any rate remarkable 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 Kavāni (the banner of Kāvi) to the time of the Arab conquest, and that the men of Isfahān were, moreover, throughout this long period, always especially charged with its protection. The provincial name of Anshan 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 successors, and in the geographical descriptions of Strabo. Gabae or Gāvi became gradually corrupted to Jaī during the Sassanian period, and it was thus by the latter name that the old city of Isfahān was generally known at the time of the Arab invasion. Subsequently the title of Jaī became replaced by Sheheristān or Medīneh, “the city” par excellence, while a suburb which had been founded in the immediate vicinity, and which took the name of Yahudīeh, or the “Jews’ town,” from its original Jewish inhabitants, gradually rose into notice and superseded the old capital.[3]

Sheheristān and Yahudīeh 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 Buyid king, known as the Rukn-addaula (al-Dowleh), united the two suburbs and many of the adjoining villages in one general enclosure which was about 10 m. in circumference. The city, which had now resumed its old name of Isfahān, continued to flourish till the time of Timur (a.d. 1387), when in common with so many other cities of the empire it suffered grievously at the hands of the Tatar invaders. Timur indeed is said to have erected a Kelleh Minār 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 Safavid dynasty, who succeeded to power in the 16th century, transferred their place of residence to it from Kazvin, it rose rapidly in populousness and wealth. It was under Shah Abbas the first, the most illustrious sovereign of this house, that Isfahān 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 Zendeh-rūd 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 attention, 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 Isfahān in the latter half of the 17th century, has left a detailed and most interesting account of the statistics of the city at that period. He himself 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 m., while the mud walls surrounding the city itself, probably nearly following the lines of the Buyid 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 Isfahān 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 18th century the seat of government was at once transferred to Teherān, with a view to the support of the royal tribe, whose chief seat was in the neighbouring province of Mazenderān; and, although it has often been proposed, from considerations of state policy in reference to Russia, to re-establish the court at Isfahān, which is the true centre of Persia, the scheme has never commanded much attention. At the same time the government of Isfahān, owing to the wealth of the surrounding districts, has always been much sought after. Early in the 19th 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.[4] Fath Ali Shāh, who had a particular affection for Isfahān, died here in 1834, and it became a time-honoured custom for the monarch on the throne to seek relief from the heat of Teherān by forming a summer camp at the rich pastures of Gandumān, on the skirts of Zardeh-Kuh, to the west of Isfahān, for the exercise of his troops and the health and amusement of his courtiers, but in recent years the practice has been discontinued.  (H. C. R.) 

  1. These figures are approximate for the centre of the town north of the river. The result of astronomical observations taken by the German expedition for observing the transit of Venus in 1874 and by Sir O. St John in 1870 on the south bank of the river near, and in Julfa respectively was 51° 40′ 3.45″ E., 32° 37′ 30″ N. The stone slab commemorating the work of the expedition and placed on the spot where the observations were taken has been carried off and now serves as a door plinth of an Armenian house.
  2. This pavilion was the Persian telegraph office of Isfahān for nearly forty years and was demolished in 1903.
  3. The name of Yahudīeh or “Jews’ town” is derived by the early Arab geographers from a colony of Jews who are said to have migrated from Babylonia to Isfahān shortly after Nebuchadrezzar’s conquest of Jerusalem, but this is pure fable. The Jewish settlement really dates from the 3rd century a.d. as is shown by a notice in the Armenian history of Moses of Chorene, lib. iii. cap. 35. The name Isfahān has been generally compared with the Aspadana of Ptolemy in the extreme north of Persis, and the identification is probably correct. At any rate the title is of great antiquity being found in the Bundahish, and being derived in all likelihood from the family name of the race of Feridūn, the Athviyān of romance, who were entitled Aspiyān in Pahlavi, according to the phonetic rules of that language.
  4. Zill es Sultan, elder brother of Muzafar ed d-n Shah, became governor-general of the Isfahān province in 1869.