In the year 1629, small groups of fishermen began living on the rocky shores of my small peninsula in Massachusetts, thus founding---albeit indirectly---the future town of Marblehead. This is my one connection to the Iranian city of Isfahan, because in the same year its most famous ruler, Shah Abbas the Great, died after a glorious reign of 42 years. While Marblehead would remain a tiny fishing village for another century or more, Isfahan was already renowned throughout the world as a city of architectural wonders. More would be built during the reigns of the following Safavid kings, though none of his descendants measured up to Shah Abbas I.
In ISFAHAN: PEARL OF PERSIA, Blunt has compiled a fascinating account of the city, mostly during its period as capital of the Safavid empire, a period that ended in the Afghan conquest and subsequent destruction of the 1720s and `30s. Though the text covers pre-Islamic times, the rule of the Timurids, and also the 19th century decline as well as a bit of the 20th`s revival, the bulk of the book concentrates on Isfahan's time of glory in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Since large numbers of Western travellers and diplomats visited the city, we can read many of the very lively descriptions they left for posterity---of the buildings, the rulers, city life, and the people and their customs. A chapter describes the Christian residents: the Armenian colony and the various missionary fathers who attempted in vain to make conversions. Another covers both the feasting at the royal court and the buildings created to give it place. A third discusses the minor arts--carpets, gardens, and ceramics. Blunt also reviews the most famous of the 19th century European visitors to Isfahan and includes a large number of their black and white drawings from the pre-photojournalism age. Coupled with Swaan's excellent photographs of the buildings in exquisite detail, many in color, the text comes alive. I found the whole book a fascinating read, even if, published in 1966, it cannot bring us up to date on the vicissitudes of the old city since the Islamic revolution of 1980. For anyone who would like to put Isfahan's fabled architectural wonders (the bridges, the Maidan, the Ali Qapu palace, the Shaikh Lutfullah Mosque, the Masjid-e-Shah, the Theological College of the Mother of the Shah, and many others) together with an account of the history and life of this center of world civilization, this book is a must. While there are many books on the subject, I have never found one with a warmer, more affectionate approach to Isfahan, a city which it is my great misfortune never to have visited.