Esfahan’s Old City


As ever, a visitor of the city of Esfahan is immensely impressed of the Safavid ensemble of the Meydan-e Shah, or how it is also called, the Naqsh-e Jahan (literally, a drawing of the World). The huge square, which is 512 meters long and 163 meters wide, must in fact be praised as one of the most beautiful in the world. There is nothing comparable to the two mosques in their spatial relationship to the Shah’s Ali Qapoo palace, the entrance of the Great bazaar on the other end and hundreds of arches, arcades and shops surrounding the site. It is said that the whole square hasn’t changed much since its creation under Sha Abbas the Great’s reign. As an outstanding example, the stunning façade of the extremely elegant Masjed-e Sheikh Lutfallah, the private mosque of the Shah’s womenfolk, has now been reproduced countless times as an outstanding example of subtle and colorful decoration of 17th century Persian buildings’ outer surfaces. But as a matter of fact, the whole façade is a restoration after World War II.

When planning his new royal city, Abbas I avoided interfering with the old city’s fabric. The former Seljuq capital is located around Esfahan’s Masjed-e Jomeh. The two sites, the Meydan-e Shah and the Great Mosque, were connected by an about one mile long path through the main bazaar. In fact, the ‘medieval’ quarters [1] there and to the west and east of Masjed-e Jomeh continued to enlarge during the Safavid period. From an architectural point of view, the old quarters of Esfahan are as significant for visitors as Naqsh-e Jahan. But little has left in recent decades. Already before World War II, modernization of all Iranian cities took its toll. The need for automobile access resulted usually in cutting the old city center by an arbitrary straight road passing near the Friday mosque [2]. Another road is cut more or less perpendicular to the first one forming a square when intersecting with the former.

Traditional, or ancient, Islamic settlements differ in many aspects from, for instance, villages, towns and cities in the West. Clusters of dwellings are assembled and build an organic fabric together with mosques, caravanserais, shops and workshops in the bazaar [3]. The fundamental unit, almost an urban island, is usually grouped around a narrow blind alley. These units comprise usually several houses forming a ring of little lanes which are bordered by high mud walls preventing any insight into the dwellings. In a house, a central courtyard, often sunken and with trees and flower beds, is surrounded by the rooms for the different purposes, receiving guests, eating and cooking, sleeping [4]. In Esfahan’s old city, these units, i.e., clusters of dwellings, can still sometimes be seen, although most of the houses have been replaced by new buildings during the last decades. The city is still functioning, however. At least, the people are living there. On the other hand, old quarters in many other cities are abandoned, dead and museum-like for visitors, and definitely doomed to further decay [5]. More information about earlier efforts (before the Islamic Revolution) of a rehabilitation of the old quarters in Esfahan can be found in Nasrine Faghih’s arcticle [6].


[1] From a Eurocentric point of view, ‘medieval’ designates a century-long dark age with little progress in culture, science and civilization. There were no ‘middle ages’ in the Islamic world, of course. The constant development in science, art, and philosophy in Islamic countries had come to an end only during what is called Renaissance in Europe, the discovery of the Americas, European Enlightenment, and then colonialism and European imperialism. Sad to say that retardation of development, even stagnation, and fundamentalism have become consistent features of Islam for most of the 20th century.

[2] In the case of Esfahan, it is Khiaban-e Abdorrazzaq, one of numerous tree-lined avenues in the city. That it has brutally cut the old city’s paths can best be seen on aerial views, for instance in Henry Stierlin’s Islamic Art and Architecture, Thames and Hudson, London 2002, p. 214.

[3] One major building in Esfahan’s old city is the gorgeous Masjed-e Jomeh. Oleg Grabar has raised, in his lecture series and subsequent publication (Grabar O. The Great Mosque of Isfahan. New York University Press, New York 1992, p. 18), the question of whether the mosque, which seems not to have a defined border, was invading the city during the centuries or whether in fact the city absorbed the mosque. The interlocking of all aspects of daily life in an organic fabric is obvious here. Further information about the mosque can be found here.

[4] Recent attempts to use renovated old (‘traditional’) houses as hotels has to be considered very critical. One example near Hakim mosque has to be regarded an obvious failure, where a ‘traditional’ house was largely disfigured and decorated with uninspired paintings on the walls. Another house near Masjed-e Ali has preserved its hidden character, and the caring owner has put lots of effort in creating a harmonious environment. The final result leaves, however, mixed impressions.

[5] This is especially visible in, for instance, Kashan and Nain, where most people have moved now to the modern quarters of the cities. Similar developments can also be found in smaller towns or even villages, for example, Natanz.

[6] Nasrine Faghih (1976) Rehabilitation in Dardasht.  Architectural Review 1976; 159: 315-319.

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2 Responses to Esfahan’s Old City

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