Bazaar of Isfahan
By: Mohammad Gharipour, 12 December 2003
After selecting Isfahan as the seat of Shah Abbas, a new bazaar was designed between the old bazaar and the square. Shah Abbas redeveloped the city extensively and had a number of new bazaars built: the buildings surrounding the Naghsh-e-Jahan square (originally including a large number of coffee houses), both the Hasan-abad and mosque bazaars to the south east and the large bazaar to the north, where the old bazaar was located.
As a result it contains a representative selection of Islamic secular architecture over the last 500 years. It has about 5 km (3miles) of shopping streets (raste), some with brick arches, some with poplar beams, over a hundred caravanserais and sarais, innumerable covered halls (timce) and connecting wings (dehliz).
|Figure 7: The interconnected alleys to the Bazaar
As mentioned, Naghsh-e-Jahan is surrounded by a layer of shops. Behind these shops there are several parts of the bazaar, like caravanserais and peripheral markets for different businesses. Based on non-documented stories, after the construction of the new Friday mosque, called the Shah mosque and located in the square, Shah Abbas attempted to encourage people to participate in Friday prayer in the Shah mosque, instead of the old Friday mosque (Masjed-e Jame).
But most people rejected participation in Friday prayers in the Shah mosque, and for a while there two Friday prayers conducted in Isfahan; one in the Shah mosque and another one in the old Friday mosque. People had not accepted the new square as a city center. Then Shah Abbas decided to donate all the shops around the new square to people under the regulations of waqf. In this case nobody was obliged to pay to buy these shops. After that gradually Naghsh-e-Jahan square replaced the old square as the main city center for gatherings, shopping, and participating in Friday prayer.
The old square soon deteriorated into a wood and vegetable market, but the high class retail businesses established themselves where they could expect a good turnover from the courtiers, soldiers and visitors from the nearby Chaharbagh street. The area to the east of the main axis, the qaiseriya and its extension, the jitsazha (fabric painters' bazaar), became the most sought-after site.
The Bazaar was the backbone of the city. The Bazaar was also used as the main street in Isfahan and a place for meeting people, seeing and being seen. This kind of bazaar acted as a real heart of the city. By counting the number of madrasa, mosques and hammams in the Bazaar we can understand to what extent the Bazaar acted as the center of Isfahan. Also there are some other small buildings in the bazaar such as water stores, warehouses and stables.
|Figure 8: Chaharbagh Street in 17th Century
The most important difference between the old and the new Bazaar is the organic growth of the old section in a linear form and the radial growth of the new bazaar. The old Bazaar was developed based on meeting the needs of the society and providing the best accessibility for people in the neighborhood residential quarters, called mahalleh.
|Figure 9: The streets between Naghsh-e-Jahan Square and Chaharbagh Street
Also it should be noted that the reason for the development of the old market into the north was that even before Safavid some residential quarters like Khaju were located in the south and this bazaar was developed as the main street for the residents of Isfahan. Another reason was the Zayandeh River, which was located at the south of new square. As we were told, Safavid Bazaar was carefully designed, in contrast to the old Bazaar.
After Qajar in the 18th century, some bazaars were added to every residential quarter. These bazaars, called neighborhood bazaars, acted as quarter centers. They consisted of a set of facilities, such as shops, hammam (Bathhouses), maktab (schools) as well as commercial activities. They served as large public centers for gathering all of the people to participate in social activities such as religious festivals and making decisions about the quarter (mahalleh) in light of central government.
|Figure 10: The old Bazaar, which starts from Friday mosque
In some historical texts there is written that many of the social and religious ceremonies were conducted in the main Bazaar and neighborhood bazaars. It was common to invite a group of merchants to lunch in the Bazaar. In this case a sarai or timce acted as a ceremonial place.
Unfortunately, in recent years the economic role of the main Bazaar has been decreased. The main reason for this phenomena is the import of goods from western countries and establishing many economic complexes on the outside of the Bazaar, which have provided possibilities in all parts of the city to provide their needs without any need to come into the Bazaar.
Some parts of the Bazaar were ruined in the Pahlavid era, when modern streets were designed in Isfahan. Similarly some parts of the Bazaar, especially the lateral raste for carpet sellers, which had connected the Bazaar to Chaharbagh Street, have been ruined in recent years. But fortunately, traditional life and the increasing number of tourists cause the bazaar still to survive and continue its life as the heart of Isfahan.
The Bazaar of Isfahan, like other bazaars in Islamic cities, can be divided into three parts:
- Raste and dehliz, which are the main and peripheral streets and corridors inside the bazaar.
- Caravansarais, which are the economic complexes with stores and places for (residing) housing merchants.
- Qaisarya, timce and sarai, which are economic complexes without any residential possibilities.
- Heidi A. Walcher, "Between paradise and political capital: the semiotics of Safavid Isfahan", Middle Eastern Natural Environments Journal, 1997: 336.
- ibid: 232.
- Walter M. Weiss, Kurt Michel Westermann, The Bazaar, Markets and Merchants of the Islamic World, Thames and Hudson Publications, 1998: 231.
- Some of these colleges were not only intended for the study of religious studies but also sciences such as philosophy, astronomy, mathematics and chemistry.
- Due to the importance of social health in Islamic societies, many public baths were built in Iran after Islam. These baths, called hammam, were not only a place of cleaning, but also an important place for cultural interactions and social contacts, especially for women. (A.E.J. Morris. History of Urban Form. Longman, 1998: 391.)
- More than 150 new mosques were built at the beginning of the brief but glorious Safavid period in the early 18 century, together with 50 koranic schools, dozens of caravanserais and more than 200 public baths. (Walter M. Weiss, Kurt Michel Westermann, The Bazaar, Markets and Merchants of the Islamic World, Thames and Hudson Publications, 1998: 229.)
- These water stores played an important role in the bazaar, because after the establishment of Islam, based on the hadith (narration) of the Prophet Muhammed and recommendations of the Quran, water became a sacred element and represented something more than human need.
- In Iranian architecture like many other Islamic countries, a city is divided into residential quarters, named mahalleh. Each city like Isfahan is divided into a number of quarters. Each quarter could be considered as the developed form of a house. In every quarter people try to help each other solve any problems and they share in several social activities. Its growth was completely organic and based on the interactions among people; human needs, the network of Qanats, and climatic conditions. Even after Shah Abbas, who was concerned about the "design of the city", there was not any plan previous to the creation of every mahalleh.
- Hosein Soltanzade, Iranian Bazaars, Cultural Research Bureau Publication, 2001: 28,29.