Isfahan is located at the intersection of the two principal routes that traverse Iran, north–south and east–west. Isfahan flourished between the 9th and 18th centuries. Under the Safavid dynasty, Isfahan became the capital of Persia, for the second time in its history, under Shah Abbas the Great. The city retains much of its history. It is famous for its Perso–Islamic architecture, grand boulevards, covered bridges, palaces, tiled mosques, and minarets. Isfahan also has many historical buildings, monuments, paintings, and artifacts. The fame of Isfahan led to the Persian proverb Esfahān nesf-e-jahān ast (Isfahan is half (of) the world).Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan is one of the largest city squares in the world, and UNESCO has designated it a World Heritage Site.
Isfahan is derived from Middle PersianSpahān, which is attested to by various Middle Persian seals and inscriptions, including that of the ZoroastrianmagiKartir. The present-day name is the Arabicized form of Ispahan (unlike Middle Persian, but similar to Spanish, New Persian does not allow initial consonant clusters such as sp). The region is denoted by the abbreviation GD (Southern Media) on Sasanian coins. In Ptolemy's Geographia, it appears as Aspadana (Ἀσπαδανα), which translates to "place of gathering for the army". It is believed that Spahān derived from spādānām "the armies", the Old Persian plural of spāda, from which is derived spāh (𐭮𐭯𐭠𐭧) 'army' and spahi (سپاهی, 'soldier', literally 'of the army') in Middle Persian. Some of the other ancient names include Gey, Jey (old form Zi), Park, and Judea.
Under Median rule, a commercial entrepôt began to show signs of more sedentary urbanism, steadily growing into a noteworthy regional center that benefited from the exceptionally fertile soil on the banks of the Zayandehrud River, in a region called Aspandana or Ispandana.
When Cyrus the Great unified Persian and Median lands into the Achaemenid Empire, the religiously and ethnically diverse city of Isfahan became an early example of the king's fabled religious tolerance. It was Cyrus who, having just taken Babylon, made an edict in 538 BCE declaring that Jews in Babylon could return to Jerusalem. Later, some of the freed Jews settled in Isfahan instead of returning to their homeland. The 10th-century Persian historian Ibn al-Faqih wrote:
When the Jews emigrated from Jerusalem, fleeing from Nebuchadnezzar, they carried with them a sample of the water and soil of Jerusalem. They did not settle until they reached the city of Isfahan, whose soil and water was deemed to resemble that of Jerusalem. Thereupon they settled there, cultivated the soil, raised children and grandchildren, and today the name of this settlement is Yahudia.
The Parthians (247 BCE–224 CE), continued the tradition of tolerance after the fall of the Achaemenids, fostered a Hellenistic dimension within Iranian culture and the political organization introduced by Alexander the Great's invading armies. Under the Parthians, Arsacid governors administered the provinces of the nation from Isfahan, and the city's urban development accelerated to accommodate the needs of a capital city.
Isfahan at the end of the 6th century (top), consisting of two separate areas: Sassanid Jay and Jewish Yahudia. In the 11th century (bottom), these two areas were completely merged.
The next empire to rule Persia, the Sassanids (224 CE–651 CE), presided over massive changes in their realm, instituted sweeping agricultural reform and revived Iranian culture and the Zoroastrian religion. Both the city and region were then called by the name Aspahan or Spahan. The city was governed by a group called the Espoohrans, who descended from seven noble Iranian families. Extant foundations of some Sassanid-era bridges in Isfahan suggest that the Sasanian kings were fond of ambitious urban-planning projects. While Isfahan's political importance declined during this period, many Sassanid princes would study statecraft in the city, and its military role increased. Its strategic location at the intersection of the ancient roads to Susa and Persepolis made it an ideal candidate to house a standing army, which would be ready to march against Constantinople at any moment. The words "Aspahan" and "Spahan" are derived from the Pahlavi or Middle Persian meaning 'the place of the army'.
Although many theories have mentioned the origins of Isfahan, little is known of it before the rule of the Sasanian dynasty. The historical facts suggest that, in the late 4th and early 5th centuries, Queen Shushandukht, the Jewish consort of Yazdegerd I (reigned 399–420), settled a colony of Jews in Yahudiyyeh (also spelled Yahudiya), a settlement 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) northwest of the Zoroastrian city of Gabae (its Achaemid and Parthian name; Gabai was its Sasanic name, which was shortened to Gay (Arabic 'Jay') that was located on the northern bank of the Zayanderud River (the colony's establishment was also attributed to Nebuchadrezzar, though that's less likely). The gradual population decrease of Gay (Jay) and the simultaneous population increase of Yahudiyyeh and its suburbs, after the Islamic conquest of Iran, resulted in the formation of the nucleus of what was to become the city of Isfahan. The words "Aspadana", "Ispadana", "Spahan", and "Sepahan", all from which the word Isfahan is derived, referred to the region in which the city was located.
Isfahan and Gay were supposedly both circular in design, which was characteristic of Parthian and Sasanian cities. However, this reported Sasanian circular city of Isfahan has not yet been uncovered.
When the Arabs captured Isfahan in 642, they made it the capital of al-Jibal ("the Mountains") province, an area that covered much of ancient Media. Isfahan grew prosperous under the Persian Buyid (Buwayhid) dynasty, which rose to power and ruled much of Iran when the temporal authority of the Abbasid caliphs waned in the 10th century. The city walls of Isfahan are thought to have been constructed during the tenth century. The Turkish conqueror and founder of the Seljuq dynasty, Toghril Beg, made Isfahan the capital of his domains in the mid-11th century; but it was under his grandson Malik-Shah I (r. 1073–92) that the city grew in size and splendour.
After the fall of the Seljuqs (c. 1200), Isfahan temporarily declined and was eclipsed by other Iranian cities, such as Tabriz and Qazvin. During his visit in 1327, Ibn Battuta noted that "The city of Isfahan is one of the largest and fairest of cities, but it is now in ruins for the greater part."
In 1387, Isfahan surrendered to the Turko-Mongol warlord Timur. Initially treated with relative mercy, the city revolted against Timur's punitive taxes by killing the tax collectors and some of Timur's soldiers. In retribution, Timur ordered the massacre of the city residents, his soldiers killing a reported 70,000 citizens. An eye-witness counted more than 28 towers, each constructed of about 1,500 heads.
Isfahan regained its importance during the Safavid period (1501–1736). The city's golden age began in 1598 when the Safavid ruler Abbas I of Persia (reigned 1588–1629) made it his capital and rebuilt it into one of the largest and most beautiful cities in the 17th-century world. In 1598, Abbas I moved his capital from Qazvin to the more central Isfahan. He introduced policies increase Iranian involvement in the Silk Road trade.Turkish, Armenian, and Persian craftsmen were forcefully resettled in the city to ensure its prosperity. Their contributions to the economic vitality of the revitalized city supported the recovery of Safavid glory and prestige, after earlier losses to the Ottomans and Kızılbaş tribes, ushering in a golden age for the city, when architecture and Persian culture flourished.
As part of Abbas's forced resettlement of peoples from within his empire, as many as 300,000 Armenians (primarily from Jugha) were resettled in Isfahan during Abbas' reign.) In Isfahan, he ordered the establishment of a new quarter for these resettled Armenians from Old Julfa, and thus the Armenian Quarter of Isfahan was named New Julfa (today one of the largest Armenian quarters in the world).
In the 16th and 17th centuries, thousands of deportees and migrants from the Caucasus settled in the city. Following an agreement between Shah Abbas I and his Georgian subject Teimuraz I of Kakheti ("Tahmuras Khan"), whereby the latter converted to Islam and submitted to Safavid rule in exchange for being allowed to rule as the region's wāli (governor), with his son serving as dāruḡa (prefect) of Isfahan. He was accompanied by a troop of soldiers, some of whom were Georgian Orthodox Christians. The royal court in Isfahan had a great number of Georgian ḡolāms (military slaves), as well as Georgian women. Although they spoke both Persian and Turkic, their mother tongue was Georgian. Now the city had enclaves of those of Georgian, Circassian, and Daghistani descent. Engelbert Kaempfer, who dwelt in Safavid Persia in 1684–85, estimated their number at 20,000.
During Abbas's reign, Isfahan became famous in Europe, and many European travellers, such as Jean Chardin, gave accounts of their visits to the city. The city's prosperity lasted until it was sacked by Afghan invaders in 1722, during a marked decline in Safavid influence. Thereafter, Isfahan experienced a decline in importance, culminating in moving the capital to Mashhad and Shiraz during the Afsharid and Zand periods, respectively, until it was finally moved to Tehran, in 1775, by Agha Mohammad Khan, the founder of the Qajar dynasty.
In the early years of the 19th century, efforts were made to preserve some of Isfahan's archeologically important buildings. The work was started by Mohammad Hossein Khan, during the reign of Fath Ali Shah.
In the 20th century, Isfahan was resettled by many people from southern Iran: especially during the population migrations at the start of the century, and in the 1980s, following the Iran–Iraq War. During the war, 23,000 from Isfahan were killed; and there were 43,000 veterans.
Today, Isfahan produces fine carpets, textiles, steel, handicrafts, and traditional foods, including sweets. Isfahan is noted for its production of the Isfahan rug, a type of Persian rug typically made of merino wool and silk. There are nuclear experimental reactors as well as uranium conversion facilities (UCF) for producing nuclear fuel in the environs of the city. Isfahan has one of the largest steel-producing facilities in the region, as well as facilities for producing special alloys. The Mobarakeh Steel Company is the biggest steel producer in the whole of the Middle East and Northern Africa, and it is the biggest DRI producer in the world. The Isfahan Steel Company was the first manufacturer of constructional steel products in Iran, and it remains the largest such company today.
There is a major oil refinery and a large air-force base outside the city. HESA, Iran's most advanced aircraft manufacturing plant, is located just outside the city. Isfahan is also attracting international investment. Isfahan hosted the International Physics Olympiad in 2007. In 2020, the Iran-Qatar Joint Economic Commission met in the city.
Distribution of drought, normal, and wet years – 1972 to 2009, Isfahan atlas
The city is located on the plain of the Zayandeh Rud (Fertile River) and the foothills of the Zagros mountain range. The nearest mountain is Mount Soffeh (Kuh-e Soffeh), just south of the city.
An artificial network of canals, whose components are called madi, were built during the Safavid dynasty for channeling water from Zayandeh Roud river into different parts of the city. Designed by Sheikh Bahaï, an engineer of Shah Abbas, this network has 77 madis in the northern course, and 71 in the southern course of the Zayandeh Rud. In 1993, this centuries-old network provided 91% of agricultural water, 4% of industrial needs, and 5% of city needs. 70 emergency wells were dug in 2018 to avoid water shortages.
The dry Zayanderud river with Si-o-se-pol in the background, in 2018.
Towns and villages around Isfahan have been hit so hard by drought and water diversion that they have emptied out and people who lived there have moved. An anonymous journalist said that what's called drought is more often the mismanagement of water. The subsidence rate is dire, and the aquifer level decreases by one meter annually. As of 2020, the city had the worst air quality between major Iranian cities.
Situated at 1,590 metres (5,217 ft) above sea level on the eastern side of the Zagros Mountains, Isfahan has a cold desert climate (KöppenBWk). No geological obstacles exist within 90 kilometres (56 miles) north of the city, allowing cool winds to blow from this direction. Despite its altitude, Isfahan remains hot during the summer, with maxima typically around 35 °C (95 °F). However, with low humidity and moderate temperatures at night, the climate is quite pleasant. During the winter, days are cool while nights can be very cold. Snow falls an average of 7.8 days each winter. The Zayande River starts in the Zagros Mountains, flowing from the west through the heart of the city, then dissipates in the Gavkhouniwetland. Planting olive trees in the city is economically viable, because such trees can survive water shortages.
Climate data for Isfahan (1961–1990, extremes 1951–2010)
Over the past decade, Isfahan's internal highway network has been undergoing a major expansion. Much care has been taken to prevent damage to valuable, historical buildings. Modern freeways connect the city to Iran's other major cities, including the capital Tehran, 400 kilometres (250 mi) to the north, and Shiraz, 200 kilometres (120 mi) to the south. Highways also service satellite cities surrounding the metropolitan area.
The bridges over the Zayanderud comprise some of the finest architecture in Isfahan. The oldest is the Shahrestan Bridge, whose foundations were built during the Sasanian Empire (3rd–7th century Sassanid era); it was repaired during the Seljuk period. Further upstream is the Khaju Bridge, which Shah Abbas II built in 1650. It is 123 metres (404 feet) long, with 24 arches; and it also serves as a sluice gate.
Another bridge is the Choobi (Joui) Bridge, which was originally an aqueduct to supply the palace gardens on the north bank of the river. Further upstream again is the Si-o-Seh Pol or bridge of 33 arches. It was built during the reign of Shah Abbas the Great by Sheikh Baha'i and connected Isfahan with the Armenian suburb of New Julfa. It is by far the longest bridge in Isfahan at 295 m (967.85 ft).
Snapp! and Tapsi are two of the carpooling apps in the city.
The city has built 42 bicycle-sharing stations and 150 kilometres (93 mi) of paved bicycle paths. As part of Iran's religious laws, women are forbidden to use the public bicycle-sharing network, as decreed by the representative of the Supreme Leader in Isfahan, Ayatollah Yousef Tabatabai Nejad, and General Attorney Ali Esfahani.
The Isfahan Metro was opened on 15 October 2015. It currently consists of one nort–south line with a length of 11 kilometres (6.8 mi), and two more lines are currently under construction, alongside three suburban rail lines.
An old master of hand-printed carpets in Isfahan bazaar
In 2014, industry, mines, and commerce in Isfahan province accounted for 35% to 50% (almost $229 billion) of the Iranian Gross Domestic Product. In 2019, Isfahan province's governorate said that tourism is the number one priority.
According to Isfahan province's administrator for Department of Cooperatives, Labour, and Social Welfare, Iran has the cheapest labor workforce anywhere in the world; and this attracts foreign investors. The labor force has continually grown over the last three decades. However, in 2018 the unemployment rate was 15%.
Isfahan city produces 1,300 tons of salmon. More than 28% of the country's ornamental fish is supplied from Isfahan province, from 780 farms, which in 2017 farmed 65.5 million fish.
Opium was produced and exported from Isfahan from 1850 until it became illegal, and was an important source of income. Isfahan has a large number of aqueducts, farmers having to divert water from the river to farms by canal. Niasarm is one of the largest canals.
From 2012 to 2013 there have been large protests by farmers against the Isfahan-Yazd water tunnel. In 2019, eastern city farmers demanded water, otherwise they would sabotage water transfer pipes.
Fruits and vegetables central market is where farmers sell their product wholesale, selling 10,000 tons a day.
High tech and heavy industries
The industrialization of Isfahan dates from the Pahlavi period, as in all of Iran, and was marked by the strong growth of the textile industry, which earned the city the nickname "Manchester of Persia". There are 9,200 industrial units in the city; 40% of the Iranian textile industry is in Isfahan.
The Telecommunication Company of Iran and the Mobile Telecommunication Company of Iran provide 4G, 3G, broadband, and VDSL.
The Isfahan Scientific and Research Town started in 2001, to act as a mediator between government, industry, and academia in establishing a knowledge-based economy.
Isfahan is the third-largest medicine manufacturing hub in Iran.
Recreation and tourism
Tourism logo by the Isfahan Province Chamber of commerce
In 2018–2019 some 450,000 foreign nationals visited the city. Some 110 trillion rials (over $2 billion at the official rate of 42,000 rials in 2020) have been invested in the province's tourism sector.
Nazhvan Park hosts a reptile zoo with 40 aquariums.
There are the Saadi water park and the Nazhvan water park for children.
There are nine cinemas. Historically, cinemas in old Isfahan were entertainment for the worker class while religious people considered cinema to be mostly an impure place and going to the cinema to be haram. During the 1979 revolution, many cinemas in Isfahan were burned down. Cinema Iran, now a ruin, was one of the oldest cinemas in the city. Great filmmakers such as Agnès Varda and Pier Paolo Pasolini shot scenes from their films in Isfahan.
Sepahan has won the most league football titles among Iranian clubs (2002–03, 2009–10, 2010–11, 2011–12 and 2014–15). The Foolad Mobarakeh Sepahan handball team plays in the Iranian handball league. Sepahan has a youth women running team that became national champions in 2020.
City waste is processed and recycled at the Isfahan Waste Complex.
The Isfahan Water and Sewage Company [fa] is responsible for piping water, waterworks installation and repair, maintaining sewage equipment, supervising sewage collection, and treatment and disposal of sewage in the city.
Human resources and public health
As of June 2020, 65% of the population of Isfahan province has social security insurance.
There are also more than 50 technical and vocational training centres in the province, under the administration of the Isfahan Technical and Vocational Training Organization (TVTO), that provide free, non-formal, workforce-skills training programs. As of 2020, 90% of workforce-skills trainees are women.
Major philosophers include Mir Damad, known for his concepts of time and nature, as well as for founding the School of Isfahan, and Mir Fendereski, who was known for his examination of art and philosophy within a society.
During the Qajar era, Farhang, the first newspaper publication in the city, was printed for 13 years. Iran's Metropolitan News Agency (IMNA), formerly called the Isfahan Municipality News Agency, is based in the city.
The city centre consists of an older section centered around the Jameh Mosque, and the Safavid expansion around Naqsh-e Jahan Square, with nearby palaces, bazaars, and places of worship, which is called Seeosepol.
^ abAslanian, Sebouh (2011). From the Indian Ocean to the Merranean: The Global Trade Networks of Armenian Merchants from New Julfa. California: University of California Press. p. 1. ISBN978-0520947573.
^رونمايي از اطلس شهر اصفهان [Unveiling of the Atlas of Isfahan]. Iran's Metropolitan News Agency (IMNA) (in Persian). 27 August 2015. Archived from the original on 22 September 2020. Retrieved 12 May 2022.