As the 1960s ended, Western influences were beginning to penetrate and erode the traditional fabric of the city of Isfahan.
By the 1960s, Isfahan’s builders were abandoning the courtyard plan, favoring Western style block structures instead. Proposals were in work to import a capital-intensive building technology to replace processes reliant on labor and labor-intensive building.
[For those following my posts on Taipei, this is in direct contrast to that city. Planners there decided to concentrate on labor-intensive — rather than capital intensive — industry so as to employ more of their own population.]
Western-style changes didn’t happen by chance.
Western-style changes in Isfahan were formalized under the Third Development Plan (1962-1968) which maintained that master plans were to be commissioned for all major cities in Iran. According to the provisions of the plan, Iranian consultants would associate with a European or American partner and “in the absence of any local equivalent . . . adopt the standards and regulations of a foreign city.”
Many of the worst errors committed can be traced back to this unfortunate decision which ignored the simple fact that, in their environmental conditions, social attitudes and physical form, Iranian cities are fundamentally different to their European or American counterparts. Isfahan’s master plan, prepared by Organic and Beaudouin, shows the city overlaid with a network of roads which cuts through the arteries of the old quarters. Only a part of this has been realised, but its worst effect can be seen in Abdorrazzaq Avenue, which incredibly, breaks through the main route of the world-famous bazaar . . . drawing commerce away from the bazaar and speeding up the decline of that poorly serviced quarter . . . South of the river, Hakim Nazami Avenue . . . links up with a new bridge and forms part of a western thoroughfare [which] . . . cuts through the old Armenian quarter of Julfa, dividing the spiritual centre of the Cathedral area . . .
At the end of the 1960s, the destruction of Isfahan’s historical quarters was proceeding rapidly. This impacted the social reality of the city, affecting not only residential clusters, but the religious as well.
In the past, the sacred and the secular occurred in tandem with “a mosque, a takieh (a place of reunion for digital purposes) and often a tomb . . . found next to a water reservoir, shops and caravanserais.”
Throughout the 1960s, changes in central planning resulted in the weakening of the religious organization of these historic areas.
Now, instead of a local approach, administration was at the national level, increasingly influenced by global (primarily Western) approaches to urban management and land planning. Opportunities for local input in the shaping of the urban environment were almost non-existent
Change was not just physical. The social fabric of the city was also transformed. Three important groups were particularly impacted by the changes which were occurring — merchants/bazaaris, landlords, and clergy.
The reforms of the Pahlavi state undertaken at American urging resulted in shifts in the traditional class structure of the society.
Historically, merchants had provided the state with financial backing in return for guarantees of internal security and the protection of their interests against foreign encroachment. Recently, however, while they had benefited from infrastructure and communications improvements, they had lost the independent political voice they has gained in the Constitutional Revolution. In addition, their business activities now came under partial state supervision, and the expansion of alternative trading outlets like the European style shopping centers popping up along Chahar Bagh Avenue meant that the bazaar was losing its monopoly over retail trade.
The position of landlords was also eroded.
As a consequence of the land reform of the early 1960s (see our post: Iran 1960: Kennedy Pushes Land Reform), many of these individuals became industrialists, commercial agriculturalists, or urban real estate investors. Although they frequently amassed great wealth, they ceased to exist as a social group, losing their political voice in the process. Their change in status over time can be observed by looking at the occupation of Majles representatives in various legislative sessions.
In 1941, landlords held 58% of the seats. The percentage of landlords in the 21st Majles, elected in 1963, was only 35%.
Despite the losses of landlords and merchants, the group most affected by the shah’s reform effort was the clergy.
Members of the religious realm perceived some state actions to be assaults on Islam.
For example, the enfranchisement of women was denounced as a tactic to destroy family life and spread prostitution.
The group also felt threatened by a new election bill passed by the Cabinet on October 7, 1962, that was said to be contrary to the shari’a. The bill not only gave the vote to women, but replaced the Qur’an in the swearing-in ceremony by a phrase “my holy book” which recognized the holy books of other religions as well. Most clerics thought the law was opposed to Islam. Opposition was so strong that the government was forced to back down. However, the government didn’t do away with either the franchise for women or with land reform. Although the clergy were often divided, most were opposed to both of the above government actions.
In Isfahan the situation was compounded because the clergy were also large landholders.
The clergy in Isfahan were losers under land reform since a great deal of property belonging to mosques and religious institutions was confiscated. Other government policies, also, undermined their status and power over the years.
In the early 1960s, clerical students and teachers at religious educational institutions received monthly stipends from a clerical fund amounting to between 300 and 400 rials a month. Following bureaucratic reforms in 1964, the stipends were abolished and replaced by financial assistance from a newly created Endowment Organization. The funds available from the new source were far less than before. In 1973, the stipend was only 228 rials per month, making it impossible for many clerical students to survive.
The Endowments Organization also supervised the disposition of religious establishments, and land acquired by religious institutions through donations of individuals was placed under their control. They also illegally appropriated and sold religious properties. These policies — and growing secularization — contributed to a decline in the number of mosques, theological schools, and theology students.
Political Life in Isfahan
Isfahan’s changing urban environment also held implications for the city’s political life.
The shah clamped down on all forms of participation, and civil society was curtailed under the watchful eye of the government’s internal security agency, SAVAK.
Perhaps the greatest change had to do with economics, however — specifically, the impact of Iran’s burgeoning oil income on urban life. We’ll talk about this on our next post on Iran.
Make sure to subscribe to Cold War Studies so you don’t miss future articles on Iran.
Check out a previous post on Isfahan here.
Photograph by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe.