During the democratic interlude, Isfahan’s status as a former capital, along with its unique architectural history, led to its continuing reputation as one of the world’s great cities of art and culture.
The Beautiful City of Shah Abbas
Well over three hundred years after the death of its patron, Shah Abbas I, Isfahan was still known worldwide for the majesty of the monuments and construction projects he sponsored.
The shah’s goal had been to establish a showplace capital to rival Constantinople, the famed center of the Ottoman Empire.
His projects included wide avenues leading to large public squares, palaces, caravansaries, mosques, and madrasehs (religious schools) as well as an expanded ‘old’ bazaar.
After viewing the Maidan-I-shah, the focal point of the city, seven times the size of Piazza San Marcos in Venice, many tourists were quick to applaud his efforts, citing the old Persian saying Isfahan nisf-I-Jahan or Isfahan is half the world.
Cold War Modernizing (?) of Traditional Isfahan
Most foreigners did not traverse the full length of the bazaar from the elegance of the Maidan to the Friday Mosque in the north of the city.
Tourists were unaware that a ‘gutting’ process, involving the imposition of a gridiron pattern on Isfahan’s traditional morphology, had long been underway, presumably to provide automobile access to the older quarters of the city.
This process had been exacerbated by post World War II demolition in the most historically significant neighborhoods.
The Power of Shi’ism
Importantly, though, even in 1960, Isfahan still visually reflected its past history and its geography.
Although physical change quickened in the early years of the Cold War, many customary aspects of Isfahan’s daily life remained untouched at the end of 1959.
The city’s mosques and madrasehs continued to express the consolidated power of Shi’ism as planned by Shah Abbas I (1587-1629).
The main branch of the Shi’a surviving today is known as the Twelvers because it traces the line of Imams from Ali down to the twelfth, after which it comes to a stop.
The twelfth Imam is believed to be not dead but hidden, and he will one day return as the Mahdi to purify the world.
This belief has been the official doctrine of the Persian state since the sixteenth century, and is today followed by about 80% of the population of Iran, by the majority of Arabs in neighboring Iraq and by substantial majorities in Turkey, India, Pakistan, Lebanon and the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia. [Edward Mortimer, Faith and Power: The Politics of Islam (New York: Vintage Books, 1982.)]
Ethnic Tolerance in Early Cold War Isfahan
Even though Isfahan’s population had grown from 180,000 in 1940 to 254,000 in 1956, the city had not yet begun to sprawl. Socially, little had changed.
Ethnic tolerance was still an accepted part of everyday life since Isfahan continued to be home to a diverse population of Christians, Jews, tribal groups, and Muslims. However, strict segregation of religious minorities persisted.
The Jewish area, Yahudiyeh, was distincet from the Muslim town, and Jolfa, the (Christian) Armenian quarter of Isfahan, remained intact, although now a more integral part of the city.
A colony of Jews was thought to have been exiled to Isfahan by Nebuchadnezzar in about 690 BC.
In early Arab times, Yahudieh or “Jewish town” could be found on the site of what later became the Jewish quarter in the northeast of Isfahan.
The Armenian area was developed by Shah Abbas I when he moved his capital from Qazvin to Isfahan in 1597. At that time, he moved the whole Armenian population in northwest Iran (which was being harassed by the Ottoman Turks) to the city, settling them in a new suburb where he allowed them to build their own churches and where he could make use of their abilities as merchants.
Viniculture was also important to the quarter.