The City as Anthology
Eroticism and Urbanity in Early Modern Isfahan
Kathryn Babayan



The Adab of Urbanity

Encountering the City

The history of a city can be written in infinite ways. Histories of early modern Isfahan have portrayed the city through its institutions and through its nodal function at the intersection of the arts, politics, and trade, linking it to larger imperial and global networks.1 Isfahan’s monuments and built environment—the palace, the mosque, and the religious seminary—have been privileged sites and sources in the writing of its history. Scholars have examined the Dutch East India Company archives to foreground Isfahan’s political economy and the silk trade that linked the city to Europe.2 Mercantile documents, letters, and the business correspondence of Armenian merchants from Isfahan’s suburb of New Julfa connect networks of merchant families trading in Iranian silk, Indian textiles, and gems to an early modern global economy. Historians have mined these commercial documents to study the trading habits and practices that sustained a network of Julfan Armenian merchants from Madras to Manilla in the east and Venice and Amsterdam to the west.3 More recently, a multifaceted approach has focused on Georgian and Armenian slave converts to Islam who became governors and court functionaries in the Safavi imperial household. These slave elites have been studied as agents of centralization, because they were engaged in building the political and cultural life of the city through their patronage of the arts, architecture, and trade.4

The City as Anthology explores Isfahan through the lens of seventeenth-century anthologies. Thousands of manuscripts produced in Isfahan assembled household objects ranging from portraits and letters from friends to poems depicting the central square, marriage contracts, and talismans. Authors collected, curated, and bound together material generated by the culture of adab, or etiquette and conduct, to learn how to act and relate to other residents of a diverse and ever-growing capital city. The anthology, itself a medium of communication, was a new kind of book. In Persian it was called a majmuʿa (from the Arabic root j. m.ʿ), literally “gathered together,” which assembled verbal texts, or a muraqqaʿ (from the Arabic root r.q.ʿ), or “patchwork,” which collected visual texts. In this book I read both the majmuʿa and the muraqqaʿ as collections of city life. Both pedagogical and experiential, these visual and verbal texts anthologize the city; they preserve the material artifacts of city encounters and the conditions of communication that bring the urban scenery into focus. Moreover, anthologies accumulate histories of friendship alongside individual and family histories. They enliven the cityscape with their personal stories of love, fear and betrayal, and loss that map the emotional topography of Isfahan.

Anthologizers—as far as we know, all of them male—compiled manuals of composition and rhetoric, model letters, drawings and paintings, and essays and poems that they encountered through networks of friends, bringing together different genres to learn and take pleasure from within the domestic realm of their households. Collected in the intimate space of the home, anthologies helped fashion, and in turn were shaped by, urban sensibilities. Although authorship of anthologies was a male prerogative, the practice of anthologizing linked families of male and female readers and personally implicated them in Isfahan’s culture. By archiving family histories, anthologies document how members forged social and affective bonds with kin and with friends, acts that made the city legible for themselves. Anthologies helped residents write their own place in the city or communicate the city’s splendors to those not living in Isfahan, making their own journeys through its sprawling quarters legible today.

The history of reading the city as text goes back to Roland Barthes’s engagement with urban semiotics and Kevin Lynch’s visual modeling of the city as an image perceived by its residents.5 For Barthes, the city speaks to its inhabitants in a language that becomes legible through sociability. Lynch, on the other hand, develops his concept of legibility in the relationship between the subject and the society as it is made and remade through the process of perceiving, conceiving, mapping, and moving through urban spaces.6 I borrow Lynch’s language of urban imageability and legibility to read Isfahan through the heuristic of the anthology, or fragmentary city readings assembled by residents into a codex. In addition to reading, I argue that seeing, desiring, and writing are entangled modalities of encounter that allowed residents to experience the city and to anthologize the city in complementary ways. In The City as Anthology I investigate how the verbal and the visual cultivate the senses to affect urbanity; residents read texts in circulation, curated them, and then wrote their own crafted works to display their city knowledge. Anthologies constitute spaces of assembly, gatherings of dispersed city texts reinscribed by authors and scribes into a manuscript. Through words and images residents in Isfahan wrote the city and performed their social relations. Their habits of collecting objects of adab, texts that taught them social etiquette and sexual conduct, expose city practices and can be seen as artifacts of Isfahan’s urbanization as a capital. More than artifactual, the anthology is agentive. As a product of urban aesthetic, the anthology generates ways of desiring the beauty of the city of Isfahan, shaping and being shaped by styles and manners of urbanity. The intimately intertwined acts of seeing, reading, writing, and desiring the city recursively reproduce the anthology, the household, and the author in distinct and often contradictory ways.

By way of seventeenth-century anthologies, my history of Isfahan concentrates on the city as a space of urban knowledge production beyond the institution of the imperial court and the Shi’a religious establishment, which were two vital centers of training and transmission.7 Linking practices of reading the city together with modes of writing in the city, the anthologies draw on the dissemination of urban knowledge. Like David Henkin’s work on Antebellum New York in his City Reading, my study literally reads the surfaces of Isfahan’s domes and murals to explore the roles of the written word along with the figural in the urban experience. To access the various ways in which residents imagined their relationships to city spaces, Henkin’s reading of the city focuses on actual texts, such as newspapers, banners, and posters that take material form on the stage of public life.8 The traffic between monumental inscriptions and writings on paper collected in anthologies is key to my understanding of how residents of Isfahan made sense of their city in a practical way. Deploying different agencies and scales involved in the act of seeing the city helps to shed light on how residents learned to read and rewrite their own experience of Isfahan. We can read monumental epigraphy, or calligraphic inscriptions on the walls and domes of mosques, to comprehend the political-religious discourse produced by the Safavi court and the Shi’a religious establishment, but we must read anthologies to understand how the imperial discourse was woven into the lived practices of Isfahan’s inhabitants. Anthologies are tools for understanding state-sponsored forms of urbanity, because they are artifacts for working out ways of living in the city that negotiated with or even explicitly contested the ideal city.

Anthologies locate Isfahan’s households within the urban morphology. However, generated and then collected and assembled in the interior spaces of the house, many anthologies were objects fashioned with the precise intent of traversing the spaces between households—as letters, paintings, and gifts. These objects were assembled in private homes and ultimately collected in households, but their first-order purpose was to forge connections outside the household. What is being archived is a record of the household’s life outside the confines of the house. This is what makes these collections simultaneously domestic and urban—they are a record of the complex symbiosis of life in Isfahan. For the circulation of letters and paintings, I exploit what Janet Abu-Lughod has called semiprivate space.9 Abu-Lughod was referring to features of the urban morphology and the social practices that defined them. The practice of letter and gift exchange or the performance of desire in the bazaar is found rather explicitly on the margins between public and private space. Moreover, these practices deliberately blur the distinction between the two spaces. Anthologies give us clues about how to read (make meaning out of) public monuments or spaces in personal ways—or manners that are significant for the household and its members.

Certainly, the word and the city share a long and connected history. Since the early formation of Mesopotamian city-states, the written word has been deployed to tally agricultural surplus. The very foundation of the city was contingent, in part, on the verbal. I initially focus on monumental epigraphy, designs, and paintings found on the domes and walls of the city of Isfahan; these images affected not only what residents saw but also how they read, learned to desire, and write the city. The scripting of a new program of monumental epigraphy, whereby the court and the mosque inscribed their power onto the built environment, familiarized residents with images as words and words as image(s). Blurring the verbal and the visual, Isfahan’s animated surfaces solicited the gaze and authorized engagement, inciting residents and visitors to participate in its beauty. My anthologizing of Isfahan is part of this critical genealogy of city reading.10

The City of Isfahan

The City as Anthology tells the story of Isfahan at a moment of creation of the new capital center set in motion by Shah Abbas I (r. 1587–1629), thus laying the conditions for the making of an imperial city of rule and global trade. Writing and painting on walls and paper distributed different scales of literacy in the Safavi capital (1593–1722) during the early modern era of urbanization and state formation, which in Isfahan was contingent on the city’s conversion to Shi’ism.11 Isfahan’s new urbanism attracted talent, labor, and knowledge and incited cultural production across different forms and media. This authoritative moment provides a unique context from which to investigate the mutual shaping of the social, cultural, and religious spheres of a city in transformation.

Residents and travelers to Isfahan would have been struck by the volume of traffic as well as by the vibrant turquoise, lapis, and yellow tiles of its domes and portals, the minarets of its mosques, the floral paintings on the walls of storefronts surrounding the main square and entrance to the bazaar, and especially the ubiquitous presence of the written word. Epigraphs, such as those engraved in stone exempting barbers and bathhouse employees from taxes, emblazoned the walls and domes of mosques and were visible at eye level. The ever-present medium of writing cultivated a visual aesthetic and transmitted a sense of urbane civility. Placed outside, in open spaces, the prevailing public function of epigraphy was to solicit the gaze and educate spectators as they moved through the city. With its use of monumental writing authorizing conversion to Shi’ism and encouraging innovative aesthetic forms of calligraphy and tilework developed by Isfahan’s artists and artisans, this epigraphic program had a determining influence on the capital’s visual culture. The use of symbolic Quranic calligraphy was a visible instrument of communication that spoke to residents with multiple registers of literacy. Graphic letters naming Allah, the prophet Muhammad, and the Shi’a Imam Ali in geometric shapes became legible icons even for the unlettered (Figure 0.1). Verses in Arabic from the Quran and Persian love poetry that evoked the garden of paradise filled the space around the new city square, known as the Naqsh-i Jahan, or “image of the world.” These were accompanied by colorful paintings depicting the beauty and erotic pleasures of the “abode of the blessed” populated by delightful female and male youths. This practice of blurring letters with figures created images that infused the urban space with symbols of the divine, especially on the domes, archways, and walls of the central square. Carved in large calligraphic script (thulth) visible from the ground, the meanings of verses depicting paradise were supplemented with painted images of the heavenly garden on the arcade walls. Eroticism was inscribed into the Naqsh-i Jahan, central to the experience of Isfahan, which placed the cultivation of the sensory as a requisite for learning how to read the city square.

FIGURE 0.1 Interior wall and honeycomb arch of the new Friday Prayer Mosque inscribed with the Arabic phrase Subhan Allah (Glory be to Allah) on the top diamond and Allah on the bottom diamond of the arch. Photo by Kathryn Babayan.

The bazaar and the mosque, the two lungs of a Muslim city, were separated in Isfahan by a vast open space bounded by an arcade with 200 storefronts (Figure 0.2). Developed in 1590, the Naqsh-i Jahan was designed to orient the medieval city along a new axis; it would become the site of a revolution in the function of urban outdoor spaces.12 Naqsh refers to “design,” in both the figurative and verbal senses of engraving and intent, and is often associated with a sheet of paper. Authors and poets came to understand the new central square as the surface of a page, a blank sheet of paper, reading a range of possibilities into its composition. Much like a scribe, the Safavi king Shah Abbas I wrote the space for his city center from dust to be flattened and filled with verbal and visual texts for his residents to experience. The double entendre in its name, naqsh, also cleverly links the paintings on the walls of its arcade and the bazaar entrance (Qaysariyya) to the Quranic verses, creating an analogy between rectangular space and a sheet of paper. Images and words inscribe erotic sights and rewards along the walls of the square to create paradise on earth. Fully exposed to the light of day, these elements made “the image of the world” manifest as an array of legible power scripted in calligraphic symbols of the divine across the surfaces of this new square.

FIGURE 0.2 Panoramic view of the Naqsh-i Jahan square looking toward the Qaysariyya Bazaar (facing the viewer) to the Imperial Gate (left), the Shaykh Lufullah Mosque (right), and the new Friday Prayer Mosque (vantage point of the photographer). Photo by Mohammad Sarraf.

Expressed in an idiom that drew on the Sufi discourse of love and beauty, these verbal and visual productions moved from a metaphoric space of the garden to that of the city, the new urban space where paradise was to be lived. Sufi epistemology imagines the body as the microcosm, the macrocosm as the universe, and the garden as the space that acts as a mediating heuristic between the two.13 Once Isfahan was configured as paradise, it had to appropriate the rhetorical figure of a garden, with its metaphorical logic of excess, for spiritual union with the divine to be manifest. Much like the metaphor of the garden, Isfahan became the site of extravagance and abundance, the extension of the divine, to be desired and recognized in all its bounty and potential. As the producer of adab, Isfahan drew subjects, men and women from different regions and backgrounds, into the urban agential sphere to fulfill its promise, as though beckoning residents to inscribe pomp and exaggeration onto the blank folios of an anthology, and thereby to redefine, satirize, and disturb the urbane endeavor. It is not surprising, then, that writing also underwent a transformation, moving from epigraphy and the media of stone and ceramics to the realm of paper, which could then be assembled into household anthologies. Both monumental public writing and the more intimate process of writing on paper point to a larger cultural trend whereby the world was captured in poetry, calligraphy, and painting in historically and materially recognizable ways.

Passing by a commanding five-story royal building at the entry of the palace complex, a spectator would see the golden dome of a private royal mosque that signaled the intimate relationship between politics and religion. At Friday prayer, artisans, merchants, and shoppers walked from the bazaar across the 1,840-foot span of public space, where an urban economy of piety, pleasure, and politics flowed under the gaze of court and mosque. To the south, they faced a magnificent tiled portal of the first Friday Prayer Mosque inscribed with a famous testimony from the prophet Muhammad: “I am the city of knowledge and Ali is its gate.”14 Flanked by two minarets, this architectural masterpiece was built to proclaim Shi’ism as the religion of the Safavi Empire. Shah Abbas I appointed the Shi’a scholar Shaykh Bahaʾi (d. 1621) chief religious dignitary, the Shaykh al-Islam of Isfahan. Together the shah and the shaykh worked closely to cultivate and assemble a Muslim community of Sunni and Shi’a residents in Isfahan. The shaykh’s role was to help bolster the shah’s legitimacy and devise a communal platform for the inclusion of Sunni and Shi’a followers in worship. Residents of Isfahan, who were mostly Sunni, were enticed to participate in the fashioning of a singular religious collective. Shaykh Bahaʾi succeeded in popularizing the Shi’a religion; as part of his conversion strategy, he composed in Persian the Jamiʿ-i ʿAbbasi (Abbas’s Collective), a manual on proper etiquette and religious obligations that highlighted shared Sunni and Shi’a rituals and beliefs.15 In this manual he encouraged the majority Sunni population of Isfahan to enter a new communal space of worship that would, over the longue durée, educate and convert them to Shi’ism. Shaykh Bahaʾi composed the epigraphic program on the mosque’s interior walls calling all worshippers of Allah to enter through the gate of Ali and pray in a hall inscribed with stories legitimizing the succession of Ali as the friend of God and Muhammad’s vice-regent. By turning this Friday Prayer Mosque into a public record of how religion would elevate believers and strengthen the Shah’s sovereignty, Shaykh Bahaʾi transformed the mosque into a space of collective worship.

The vast open space at the epicenter of Shah Abbas I’s imperial creation was flattened and then covered with sand from the Zayanda-rud, the life-giving river, to stage polo games, horse races, fireworks, and mock battles against the Uzbeks, both neighbors and enemies of the Safavis. Shah Abbas I visibly flaunted his authority so that inhabitants might witness his spectacular power in the space of the central square. Commerce and traffic were engineered to flow from the medieval Seljuk center, with its markets and Friday Prayer Mosque, through the tunneled alleys of a new bazaar that opened onto the northern corner of the Naqsh-i Jahan. The bazaar rivaled not only the old commercial enterprises of the medieval city but also the regional bazaar of Tabriz, the former Mongol (Ilkhanid) capital situated on the axis of a vibrant east-west trade. Isfahan’s bazaar would make Tabriz’s marketplace look provincial.16 The shah’s project transformed the built environment, because he also brought merchants from Tabriz to Isfahan; they would change the physiognomy of the city as a result of this high-end migration. The forced migration of Tabrizi merchants and later Armenian silk merchants (in 1605) to Isfahan ensured the centrality of the capital in the growing global market for Iranian silk.17 Tabrizi merchants were relocated thanks to the patronage of the shah, who ordered his chief treasurer, Muhibb Ali Beg, to build them a residential suburb named after the king, Abbasabad (the abode of Abbas), where 500 houses were constructed.18 And for the Armenian merchant community, the shah developed a suburb on the banks of the Zayanda River: New Julfa, which was erected and named after their native city razed by the Shah’s forces.

The transformation of Isfahan’s built environment gave material form to new media and affective ties that, I argue, were bound together in anthologies. The imaginations that anthologizing produced and the choices behind the gathering, excerpting, recording, and ordering of texts represent different techniques of interpreting the city; they reveal a place where, among other things, the refined self was crafted on paper and performed in public. As the male collector curated sentences and verses from known works of poetry and prose, he wrote his own composition. Flaunting their erudition, residents schooled in the ways of urban adab actively engaged in inscribing themselves in their city. Generic experimentation with preexisting literary forms generated new compositions that melded verse with prose, mixing media and tropes together, just as it helped to translate the language of mystical love into one of urbane friendship. For instance, modes and moods embedded in the omnipresent form of the Persian ghazal,19 or love poetry, were adapted to compose the prose letter to friends. Likewise, the entire cityscape became the arena of desire for the city disturber (shahrashub) to write about the coffeehouse, the hammam, or the central square as erotic spaces of sociability.20 The discoursing city licensed creative acts of crafting texts and reinscribing the city in the anthology, which helps us think about the material history of writing and illustrating from a less imperial perspective. As this book reveals, urban practices related to seeing, reading, desiring, and writing were intimately related and mutually co-constitutive, informing both the lived experience of the city and its (re)assembly as domestic anthology.

The multiplication of materials for writing in and about the city is crucial to the curation of the urban self. Writing on paper entails attention to knowledge production, whereas the assembly of folios into anthologies represents different ways of desiring and seeing the city. To probe the materiality of the history of collecting, we must unpack the relationship between urban transformations and the collected experiences of city residents. First, the production of paper as a medium of communication changed the way literature and the visual arts were composed and consumed. In Isfahan paper was produced from rags, making it affordable and more readily available. Paper became the foundation of a new culture of literacy, driven in particular by the needs of an expanding and centralizing state, which required the documentation of revenues from lands (tiyul) granted to governors and their retinues in lieu of salaries. An economic boom generated a demand for paper to produce letters of credit, contracts, and account books that would catalog trade for a growing group of merchants—Isfahani, Tabrizi, Armenian, and Indian buyers, sellers, and agents in regional and global trade.21 In turn, the practice of documenting benefited the literary and visual arts, because gains from trade allowed prospering merchant and craftsmen to engage in the adab of urbanity as authors, patrons, and collectors.

By the second half of the seventeenth century, Isfahan’s population had grown to about half a million residents. According to French jeweler Jean Baptiste Chardin, Isfahan was one of the biggest metropoles he had traveled to in Europe and Asia, equal in size to London.22 The resettlement of at least 6,000 merchant families from the two cities of Tabriz and Old Julfa, in addition to the city’s draw as a new center of commerce for craftsmen, painters, poets, and students of religion, helped to produce a diverse mix of residents. Once Isfahan became established as the empire’s political center, for the first time in Safavi history the entire court as well as the provincial governors built residences in the capital. If by the end of the seventeenth century the Armenian suburb grew to house 6,000 families, with a population of 30,000 inhabitants and twelve churches, the entire city of Isfahan must have experienced a similar doubling of its population.23

Isfahan was not just a center of an empire. It was an ideal city—to which residents, old and new, attached their sense of belonging. How did the rapid increase and mixing of populations from different confessional, sectarian, and linguistic backgrounds lead Isfahan’s residents to encounter and relate to one another? Relying on new media of communication, strangers to the city assembled tools with which to connect in the making of shared and familiar experiences.


1. Babaie, Isfahan; Babaie, “Safavid Palaces”; Blake, Half the World; Dale, Indian Merchants; Haneda, “Urbanisation of Isfahan”; Jafariyan, Safaviyya.

2. Matthee, Politics of Trade.

3. Aslanian, From the Indian Ocean.

4. Babaie et al., Slaves of the Shah.

5. Roland Barthes attributes the concept of reading to Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, a study of the village of Bororo deploying the semantic approach. See Barthes, “Sémiologie et urbanisme”; and Lynch, Image of the City.

6. Lefebvre, Production of Space; Wheatley, “Levels of Space Awareness.”

7. Literacy, that is, the use of particular literary forms as part of a larger complex of social practices in early modern Islamicate societies, has recently received some scholarly attention, but the significant role that manuscripts played in the production, preservation, transmission, and transformation of discourses and practices beyond the court and the religious seminary remains unexplored. My research begins to address these important lacunae.

8. Henkin, City Reading, 5. I would like to thank Will Glover for introducing me to David Henkin’s work.

9. Abu Lughod, “The Islamic City.”

10. My reading of Isfahan has also been inspired by the work of medievalist Armando Petrucci on the Roman Empire; Petrucci reads cities like Rome through the ubiquitous presence of monumental writing. See Petrucci, Public Lettering. Henkin draws on Petrucci’s work, in his case to distinguish between writing and the figurative arts. In my reading, I blur the visual and verbal values of public texts.

11. Fletcher, “Integrative History”; Bentley, “Cross-Cultural Interaction.” I would like to thank Sebouh Aslanian for these sources, which discuss the correlation between the global rise of literacy, urbanization, and the centralization of large states.

12. The first stage of development of the central square probably took place over a five-year period (1590–1595) after Shah Abbas I issued a decree to construct the new city center in 1590. I have adopted the date of 1593, recorded by the contemporaneous historian Afushta Natanzi, when Shah Abbas I’s celebrated the inaugural ceremony of Isfahan as the capital. For a detailed discussion, see Chapter 1. Also see McChesney, “Four Sources.”

13. Subtelny, “Visionary Rose.”

14. Hunarfar, Ganjina, 430.

15. For Shaykh Bahaʾi’s works on ethics and conduct, see his Jamiʿ-i ʿAbbasi, Kashkul, and Nan u Halva.

16. Natanzi, Naqavat al-Asar, 107.

17. Herzig, “Rise of the Julfa Merchants”; Matthee, Politics of Trade; Baghdiantz-McCabe, The Shah’s Silk. Sebouh Aslanian draws on this scholarship for his own research in the Venetian archives. Aslanian dates the first appearance of Julfans in the Venetian archives to 1571. Ghevont Alishan confirms these Julfan merchants as agents in Venice depositing, as early as 1571, money in Venice’s Banco Dolfin. Old Julfans were the suppliers of Iranian silk to European merchants in Aleppo; see Aslanian, From the Indian Ocean, 28.

18. McChesney, “Four Sources,” 122.

19. On the history of the Persian ghazal, see de Bruijn, “Ghazal”; Lewis, “Reading, Writing and Recitation”; and Meisami, Medieval Persian Court Poetry, 237–98.

20. I discuss the city disturber, or shahrashub, in Chapter 3.

21. See Aslanian, From the Indian Ocean.

22. Chardin, Voyages, 4: 69.

23. The Jesuit missionary Monsigneur Levesque de Berite estimated in August 1662 that there were 25,000–30,000 Armenian residents (6,000 families) in New Julfa (Berite, “Extrait d’un Journal,” Gal 97 1–3, fol. 114). Thanks to Sebouh Aslanian for providing me with this information.