Evolution of the City | Isfahan

Tuesday 7 December 2021 - 17:00 to 18:30

17:00 to 18:30 (GMT) | 20:30 to 22:00 (IRST)

The dome ceiling of Lotfollah Mosque Isfahan | Photo from Phillip Maiwald

Urban Design Group in collaboration with Silk Cities

The third in the series focuses on the evolution of the historic city of Isfahan, along the Silk Roads in Iran.

By comparing cities across the world, we can understand so much more about the areas where we live and work, and the people who live within them. 
Isfahan is one of the world’s most astonishing cities. In former times, it was its largest city, and even today Isfahan city centre is thought to be currently the world’s fifth largest shopping mall. The city is at least 3,000 years old, and the influence of many different cultures and religions including Hellenistic, Sassanian, Zoroastrian, Persian and Islamic can be seen in its urbanism, architecture and art. Today the city has a population of 2.4 million, and retains much of its past glory while dealing with the challenges and competing forces of the 21st century global economy and culture.


Dr Husam AlWaer  UDG Exec | University of Dundee


Dr Farnaz Arefian  Silk Cities, Founder

Silk Cities is an independent professional and academic initiative for contextual knowledge exchange, research and advocacy. The ‘Silk Cities’ initiative is concerned with contextual urban challenges that historical cities in countries along the historic Silk Roads face within the process of urban transformation, as a result of their historic past; urban heritage, disaster risk reduction and post crisis reconstruction, urban design and public spaces, community development, as well as urban development management. 



Prof Zahra Ahari  Shahid Beheshti University, Iran

Isfahan is a living city with a long history from the pre-Islamic period. Located in the middle of the semi-arid zone of the Iranian plateau, it has been in the crossroad linking east-west and north-south historic trade routes. Throughout its long history, Isfahan has been prone to various hazards and major socio-political changes over time.

The first presentation will provide an overview to the formation of the city and highlight some critical moments of Isfahan’s urban history, examining how the vision of resilience colours the story of choosing the location of Isfahan and can be further traced in its history before the city flourished in the Safavid period.

Then, it will argue that during the turbulent times from the city’s decline after the Shah Abbas I era until Pahlavi’s reign, constructing public buildings and spaces helped the city sustain its urban life while its spatial qualities changed.  Interventions in different scales and directions, top-down, middle-up, and down-top, contributed to forming a sense of community and place attachment for various social groups and classes.

Historic resilience of Isfahan is evident in the preservation of its urban life, linking its past with its future through Isfahan’s long lasting history. Another sign of the city’s resilience resides in deep collective memories of Isfahan’s residents, manifesting itself in itineraries and numerous writings from different periods.


Urban Form, Civic Communities, and Communal Rituals in Safavid Isfahan
Dr Farshid Emami  Department of Art History, Rice University, USA

In 1617, the Italian traveler Pietro della Valle described the new developments in Isfahan as forming a 'tetrapolis of four cities'. The tetrapolis, he noted, had a cross-axial plan, divided into four quarters by the Chaharbagh (a 4km long tree-lined promenade) and the Zāyande-rūd (the river that flows in the south of the city). Planned in the southern environs of the longstanding walled town, these quarters were constructed as part of the massive building campaigns that were implemented in Isfahan in the seventeenth century, when the city served as the capital of the Safavid Empire (1501-1722). Drawing on Isfahan’s historic stature and its ecological potential for sustaining a large populace, the urban design and expansion of the city turned it into one of the foremost metropolises of the early modern world.

This presentation explores the planning of the Safavid tetrapolis as a process that was intimately intertwined with the creation of a cosmopolitan capital city and a dynamic social environment. Settled by diverse communities and laid out on a rectilinear pattern, Isfahan’s new neighbourhoods engendered novel ways of inhabiting and experiencing the city. The sociocultural meaning and historical characters of these seventeenth-century developments can only be understood through a study of the lived experiences and communal rituals that they framed and nurtured.


Dr Eisa Esfanjari  Art University of Isfahan, Iran

Backed by its historic resilience and urban heritage, Isfahan has been facing ever-increasing competing forces and pressures of urban transformation over the last half-century. The third presentation will discuss the state of change and resilience in historic Isfahan, what features have been changed over time and what elements have been sustained in the current urban landscape. Reflecting various urban scales, the discussion will address four levels: the system, the entire historic urban landscape, entitled Manzomih in Persian; the centre, the sun of the system or the urban core often fortified, the sector, neighborhoods and urban quarters, so called Mahalih, and the cell, the single building and monument.

This historic city has witnessed contradictory approaches in recent decades. From one side, the entire urban system has been valued hardly at all and parts of the centre and the sectors have been damaged deliberately. From the other side, there are also examples of individual buildings, urban elements and monuments retained in the present.


00:00:00 Dr Husam AlWaer  WELCOME
00:00:55 Dr Farnaz Arefian  INTRODUCTION
00:50:58 Dr Eisa Esfanjari  CONTEMPORARY ISFAHAN
01:06:25 Discussion