History of Iran: Safavid Esfahan

This is part of a series of an overview of Iranian history–please refer to my posts of 5.10 and 5.11.


The Mongols conquered much of Asia in the 13th century, establishing in the wake of Genghiz Khan four separate kingdoms, including the Ilkhanate dynasty in now Iran and the lands directly east and west of now Iran. The disintegration of the Ilkhanate kingdom in the mid-14th century brought with it a series of lesser rulers over now Iran, until the conquests of Tamerlane from now Uzbekistan in the 15th century. Tamerlane’s was an even more fleeting dynasty in Central Asia and now Iran, largely over by the reign of his grandson.

During this same period rose a Sufi (charismatic/mystical Islamic) order in Ardabil in now northwest Iran. Claiming descent from a Sufi leader named Sheikh Safi od-Din (1252-1334), who in turn was said to have descended from the seventh Shiite Imam [post on Shia Islam to come], this Sufi order became organized and militant and by the end of the fifteenth century declared itself a state that eventually conquered now Iran, the Caucasus, southwestern Central Asia and much of now Iraq and Afghanistan. During their rise they expanded trade and established links with the West, but came into conflict with neighbors the Uzbeks (to the northeast) and the Ottomans (to the west), which conflicts are memorialized in their art (see below).

The Safavids are notable not only for representing one of the high points of Iranian civilization, but also for religious intolerance. Like the Sassanids before them, the Safavids claimed descent from a religious leader (Sassan was a Zoroastrian priest) and enforced a state religion. The Safavids coerced the conversions of many Zoroastrian and Sunni Iranians to Shia Islam. One Iranian told us that the deepening differentiation of Shia beliefs and practices from those of the Sunni may have been encouraged by Europeans, who wanted to divide and weaken the Muslim world. I do not know what historical support there is for such a theory, but it seems likely to me that the Safavids also saw merit in identifying themselves as leaders of a (sub)faith in order to contrast themselves with their opponents, the Ottomans, who had stewardship of Sunni Muslims worldwide through control of the Sunni caliphate, and to unite Safavid Iran under a common banner. Then, as now, differences in religious sects were used to political ends, subfaiths used to distinguish one’s country from its neighbors. [Posts on Shia Islam and Persian identity to come.]

The greatest Safavid ruler was Shah Abbas I (1587-1629), or Shah Abbas the Great, who moved the capital of the kingdom to Esfahan and endowed it with architectural treasures, the greatest parts of which survive today. Esfahan is truly one of the most beautiful cities we have ever visited, its many Safavid relics still forming a harmonious whole, in combination with many earlier structures and the modern tree-lined streets and flowing fountains of a prosperous city.

The most famous landmark of Esfahan, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is Naqsh-e Jahan (“Pattern of the World”), or Imam, Square, located in the heart of the Safavid city. The square is truly regal in its proportions, and blessed with many architectural treasures.

On the south side of the square is the great Qeysariah Gate to the Great Bazaar of Esfahan. The mural depicts a battle between the Safavids and the Uzbeks (which was, of course, won by the Safavids).

The bazaar connects Naqsh-e Jahan Square all the way to the Friday Mosque in the northern part of the old city. [The Friday Mosque itself substantially predates the Safavids, although the Safavids, like almost every Iranian dynasty, built on to it. Post on Iranian architecture to come, which will feature some pictures of the Friday Mosque.] The shops closest to the square, including those around its perimeter, tend to specialize in handicrafts and souvenirs, including especially carpets and miniature paintings. According to guidebooks, only about a third of the bazaars of Esfahan survive, but what remains is still quite extensive.

On the north side of Naqsh-e Jahan Square is Imam Mosque, known before the Islamic revolution as the Shah Mosque.

A huge structure with a large courtyard with four iwans, the Imam Mosque’s dome and minarets can be seen from far away.

A prayer hall of the Imam Mosque, truly cavernous. The Imam Mosque is said to have been constructed in a hurry, and much of its tilework is not mosaic but painted. [Post on Iranian architecture to come.]

On the eastern side of the square is the Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque, certainly one of the most beautiful mosques that we have visited (and likely one of the most beautiful in the world). The dome is muted and subtle on the outside and simply spectacular on the inside.

Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque at night. The apparent asymmetry of the Sheikh Lotfallah and Imam Mosques from the outside is due to the Mosques’ orientation toward Mecca, not shared by the square itself.

Finally, on the west side of the square is Ali Qapu Palace. The Ali Qapu also acted as a gateway to the many palaces and parks to the west of the square.

Roof of the terrace overlooking the square.

On the west side of the square are many former palaces, all set in lush parks. We were most entranced by Chehel Sotun (“Forty Columns”) Palace, which was re-constructed in the early 18th century following a fire (which supposedly the Shah, a religious man, let burn as it must have been intended by god).

The paintings inside are spectacular, and tell many stories. Some are Safavid in origin, and depict great events of the Safavid state, such as visits by neighboring rulers seeking the aid of the Safavids and great battles showing the Safavids defeating their opponents. The murals were covered up by the Afghans, who successfully invaded Esfahan in the early 18th century. Others were painted by Nader Shah, who defeated the Afghans and took over the reigns from the Safavids. The guidebooks (though not our guide) point out one mural of a man kissing a woman’s foot which was almost destroyed by during the Islamic revolution, but saved by the palace’s custodians.

Almost matching Naqsh-e Jahan Square in terms of enjoyability are Esfahan’s bridges. Some of the bridges predate the Safavids, but their present forms are largely Safavid. The Si-o-Se (or Thirty-Three Arch) Bridge, the longest in Esfahan.

Our hotel was across the Si-o-Se, and we loved strolling across it every evening on the way back to our room, pausing to sit under its arches. While we rested and enjoyed the cool evening air at least every few minutes Esfahanis would pause to say hello, leading to some interesting conversations!

The Chubi Bridge. The Si-o-Se and the Chubi bridges both house traditional teahouses, where you can sit and enjoy the river and snacks.

2 thoughts on “History of Iran: Safavid Esfahan

  1. Pingback: Classic Posts | Paul's Travel Blog

Leave a Reply to Neema J. Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *