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Volume 13, Number 1January 1962

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Seventeenth-century Persians honored the splendor of their mile-high capital with the motto

"Isfahan Is Half The World"

It looks like a fairy tale city," said young Thomas Herbert, secretary to the English ambassador to Persia. He lifted his head to breathe in the cool air, heavy with the sweetness of rose gardens and the faint scent of spices and sun-baked clay. "I have thought of writing a book about it, but nobody at home in Yorkshire would ever believe..."

Herbert stood with a fellow Briton, an agent for the East India Company, at the southeast corner of the Maidan, the great central square and market place of Isfahan, capital of Persia. They faced westward across the green reaches of the Hippodrome where two squads of cavalry were spurring about at their morning exercises, quivers of arrows on their backs and lances or long hooked swords in their hands.

The Maidan measured 560 yards from end to end and 175 yards across its girth. Its surrounding two-story arcade enclosed a vast field. Sometimes the Maidan served as polo grounds where handsomely mounted players drove the ball toward marble goal posts, the bridles of their horses glittering with emeralds, rubies and gold, their saddles gleaming with precious stories. Sometimes there were contests in the square when horsemen, riding at full gallop, turned in their saddles to shoot arrows at a melon atop a high mast. There were animal fights and there were fairs, with merchants hawking their wares and jugglers, storytellers and wrestlers entertaining the gaping crowds.

Those were the days when Shah Abbas I—called Abbas the Great—ruled Persia and built Isfahan as his dream city, lavishing upon it every Oriental splendor. Not even the Shah's contemporaries—Elizabeth of England or the famed Turkish sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent—could boast a more glorious capital. Then Isfahan was 24 miles in circumference and contained a dozen gates, over 160 mosques, 48 madrasehs (religious colleges), 1,800 caravan terminals and more than 270 baths. Its main street was a stately avenue 66 yards wide and three-fourths-of-a-mile long, along which streams of water flowed in marble channels, forming pools around tiny pavilions. The street terminated in a garden where courtiers and nobles, soldiers and poets used to congregate to listen to music, watch dancing, hear poetry and enjoy the cool river breezes.

Beyond the Hippodrome stood the Shah's blue and gold palace, silhouetted against the mottled sycamores that towered above it from the gardens at the rear. Other palaces clustered round and close at hand the bubble-like dome of the Lutfullah Mosque soared, its walls splendid with turquoise tiles and golden panels, giant inscriptions and geometric and floral designs. A maze of streets and houses with mud walls and whitish brown roofs spread out from the Maidan, and almost every house had its rose and tulip garden and its rows of cypress or poplar trees. Everywhere the slender brick columns of the minarets lifted their sharp spires.

Wonderful as the architecture of the city seemed to Herbert, what amazed him the most were the picturesque crowds jostling toward the long row of stalls and shops at the north side of the Maidan. Wealthy Persians in their parti-colored mantles of silk and turbans wreathed with pearls and gold chatted briskly in Turkish, the language of the court. Their high-heeled, iron-shod shoes clicked on the pavement as they hastened by, eager to reach the market at opening time.

The shoppers mingled in the throng with Turkish guards who wore red quilted caps, and bearded Zoroastrians whose flame-colored scarves set them apart as followers of Persia's ancient religion. And everywhere chattered the foreign merchants, come from all quarters of the globe to buy "the famous wares of Isfahan: Dutch, Portuguese, Muscovites, Poles, Indians, Arabians, Turks and Georgians, each dressed in his native garb and chanting in his home tongue.

The newly arrived Englishman put his hands to his ears. "So many nations!" he exclaimed. "It sounds like Babel."

The agent smiled and nodded. "I agree," he said. 'We have a saying here, 'Isfahan Nisf-i-Jahan —Isfahan is half the world.' Come, let's go up to the cook stalls and I will introduce you to grilled camels' flesh."

It was May Day in the year 1628, and the party of Ambassador Dodmore Cotton had arrived a few days earlier in this green oasis high on Persia's central plateau, 5,000 feet above the sea. Isfahan, previously a sleepy provincial capital, had increased swiftly in size and importance since that day more than 30 years before when Shah Abbas of the Safavid Dynasty forced it to surrender to him by diverting its water supply. Now it spread over a vast oval—a prosperous town of merchants and craftsmen, with some 70,000 dwelling houses and over a half million inhabitants. Shah Abbas was almost as unrelenting a conqueror as Tamerlane, who sacked the city in 1387, but the Shah had made wise use of his power, too. He sent representatives to the fashionable courts of Europe and brought to his own court foreign artists and technicians to blend the skills and knowledge of the West with the revival of his own country's ancient civilization.

Thomas Herbert remembered his first glimpse of the city as they approached it—gaunt purple-brown mountains to the south, dark stony desert dotted with salt lakes to the east, and all along the banks of the shallow muddy Zayandeh Rud a tiny rim of green. Isfahan lay on the north side of the river, and the camels, horses and mules of the ambassador's train had plodded across a noble bridge erected above 33 arches of hewn stone. Water from the river was channeled throughout the city, and within the piers of the bridge were spacious chambers where the citizens could rest and listen to the gentle music of the stream—except in summer when it waxed so low that a child could cross.

The people of the town had turned out graciously to meet the ambassador's party. It was the time of the month-long Festival of Roses and Daffodils, which the Persians celebrated with banquets and fireworks. Herbert had watched troops of dancers and jugglers, listened to the music of timbrels, fifes and kettle drums, enjoyed flagons of syrupy shiraz. His Persian hosts were generous, merry and never quarrelsome.

The two westerners turned into the long aisle of the market building. Loud bargaining in a variety of tongues pierced the air. As in London in the days of the guilds, shops dealing in the same sort of merchandise were grouped together, and the two Englishmen loitered and browsed.

Block printers stamped designs by hand on lengths of cotton laid out on the ground. Metal workers deftly hammered silver inlay into copper trays. In cell-like rooms, painters bent double over ivory plaques, engraving miniature polo players and horses on slates of mother-of-pearl.

Silks, wools, daggers, gems, copper work, silver filigree, wood inlay, drugs, herbs, henna, spices, melons so fragile that when they were ripe the jar of passing hoofbeats would split them open on the vine—all of these and much more were on display at colorful stalls. But perhaps most glorious of all were the muted rainbow hues and silken textures of the wonderful rugs that had made Isfahan world-famous.

The cook stalls stood in a group at the northern end of the market, and the atmosphere was spiced with the odor of hot savory food.

"Not rice!" exclaimed Herbert fervently.

His companion laughed. "Well, it is the staple here. We eat rice-with-onion, rice-with-garlic, rice-with-almonds, rice-with-mutton, rice-with-saffron, rice-with-tumeric, rice-with-raisins, and call each a different dish. But here, too, are hard-cooked eggs, salads, goats' flesh, and pheasant, if you've a taste for it. Myself, I'm for grilled camel, as I said."

"Order for both," Herbert agreed.

As they ate, the young man listened wide-eyed to the East India agent describe the experiences of his year in Isfahan. He told of his ride on a fine Persian stallion down the peaceful stretch of shady avenue that led to the fruit forest. He rhapsodized about the forest itself with its many trees: pomegranate, chestnut, peach, apricot, cherry, plum and pear, its red and white roses, its terraces and fountains and singing birds.

He described his visit to Julfa, the ancient Armenian village beyond the river, where the church was hung with treasured oil paintings and the museum boasted relics of antique artisanship. Along the way he saw the strange mosque of the "Shaking Minarets," where the custodian tilted the twin minarets until visitors shuddered with vertigo. And finally he visited the hilltop ruins of a Zoroastrian fire temple, where Magi had tended the sacred fire for many centuries. From its skeleton-like circular tower he looked out over Isfahan—its green gardens and turquoise minarets rising to an azure sky.

In the evenings, the agent watched at the bazaar gate as drummers and woodwind players lulled the sun to sleep. Across the Maidan, on a clock pavilion tower, wooden animals and men bestirred themselves on the hour in a mechanical parade to announce the time. At the Great Shah Mosque, its blue dome half darkening, half glinting in the sun's last rays, the muezzin called the evening prayers as men hurried home at the day's end.

As Thomas Herbert listened to his agent friend recount the wonders of the Persian capital, the first vague outlines of a book began to take shape in the young Englishman's mind. Perhaps his countrymen at home could see and believe this fairy tale city if he painted its grandeur in words. His book, published in 1634, became a classic and was translated into French and Dutch under several titles. It depicts Isfahan at the height of its glory under Shah Abbas I. The Shah died in 1628, the very year that Herbert came to Persia and began planning his book.

Sacked by the Afghans some hundreds of years later, Isfahan never regained its place as an important world capital. But its famous craftsmen are still turning out their exotic wares much as they did when Isfahan was indeed "half the world."

This article appeared on pages 22-24 of the January 1962 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January 1962 images.