Re-Imagining the Royal City: Architectural Patronage and Urban Memory of Isfahan, 1694–1834
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Re-Imagining the Royal City: Architectural Patronage and Urban Memory of Isfahan, 1694–1834

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Isfahan, a central city in Iran, became the seat of the Safavid empire (1501-1722) under the rule of Shah Abbas I (r. 1588-1629) in 1590, and a great architectural activity turned it into an early modern city out of its medieval past. The grand public and royal architecture of New Isfahan garnered a lot of attention and left a lasting impact on the representation of the city after Shah Abbas I’s reign. This excessive attention to the pinnacle of Isfahan’s urban history led to the prevalence of a static and timeless image that overglazed the role of later urban interventions key to the vitality of this urban center. This dissertation problematizes this civilizational and dynastic approach to the understanding of urban history and focuses on the neglected and overlooked urban and architectural transformations of Isfahan from the late seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries. Through an examination of the built environment and its literary representations in tandem with networks of power and patronage, this study complicates the inherited and dominant history of this period by foregrounding emerging urban patrons and lost architectural and urban interventions.To reconstruct the understudied urban changes in the timeframe of this project, I consulted an array of untapped visual and textual primary and archival sources including historical maps, engravings, architectural drawings, photographs, historical accounts, travelogues, and literary works. The emphasis in this reconstruction was placed on the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century developments of Isfahan under the supervision and patronage of Mohammad Hosein Khan Sadr-e Isfahani (1758-1823). I read these reconstructions against the production and commission of panegyric-tazkira (biographic anthology) as lieu de mémoire to cast light on the underlying social, cultural, and political nexus in which these projects were conceived and perceived. The findings of this research demonstrate that not only did the city remain an active location for royal and non-royal architectural and urban patronage, but also its modifications were preconceived and meaningful in each historical phase. The reconstruction of new developments under Shah Soltan Hosein and local urban patrons, especially Sadr-e Isfahani, in the city brings to light a collective act of referencing Isfahan’s glorious past to recover its urban prosperity. The continuous adoption of the “chaharbagh avenue type” and the addition of the Farahabad Palace-garden and the Emarat-e Sadri in Isfahan signified this desire. Sadr-e Isfahani’s urban vision was the culmination of this desire manifested in the architectural patronage of an emerging and local urban elite. The symbolic and conceptual entanglement of his physical interventions in Isfahan and the commission of Madayeh portrayed the ways in which this patron reminded Isfahan of its celebrated past while he simultaneously reinscribed a new memory and history of the city at the beginning of the Qajar period.

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