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Middle East Jasmine Dispatch

The Golden Age: Safavid Rule
April 12, 2000

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Shah Abbas I, great leader and founder of the Safavid dynasty
The rulers of the Safavid Dynasty were the greatest rulers in Iranian history. Under their leadership, from 1502 to 1722CE, Persia (now modern-day Iran) experienced a surge of growth, wealth, and expansion. With their 200 year reign came a united Iran, and the foundation on which modern-day Iran is built. Famous for developing the arts, especially in architecture, carpet weaving and miniature painting, the artifacts from this great era are lasting reminders of the Safavid glory. It is difficult to pass through Central Iran and not notice all that Shah Abbas I left behind. Let's take a tour of the busy metropolis of Esfahan in Central Iran and I'll explain!

First we have to understand the history of this region. The founders of the Persian Empire, the Achaemenians who ruled from 559 BCE to 930 BCE, are characterized by a few popular names that you might recognize. King Cyrus the Great, King Xerxes, and King Darius the Great all left their marks on Persia, and shaped the way for Iran. Persia expanded into what is now Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Greece, and Israel. As a matter of fact, it was under King Xerxes that the Israelites were freed from captivity in Babylon (ancient Persia). Xerxes was an extraordinarily benevolent ruler. His kindness is even documented by Queen Ruth, in the bible. She was a Jew, unbeknownst to the king, who in the face of Jewish genocide pleaded for mercy for her people. The book of Ruth in the biblical Old Testament tells her courageous story.

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The air is buzzing at Masjed-e Jame mosque in Emam Khomeni Square
Then there was Alexander the Great who conquered most of the Middle East from Greece to India. He also made a stop in Iran to dethrone the Achaemenians. After Alexander's death in 323BCE, his empire was left to squabbling nobles, none of whom were able to fill his shoes. Next the Parthians came down from the Caspian Sea and took Persia without much difficulty. Then the Sassanians invaded. A fiery people, they captured part of the Roman Empire and were content to focus more on development than expansion. They encouraged regional trade and took advantage of shipping through the Persian Gulf.

The Sassanians formed the Second Great Persian Empire and shaped the foundation upon which the great kingdoms continued their legacy. From 637 to 1502CE various leaders were in and out of power until Shah Abbas I, the captain of the Safavid team, took control. A brilliant leader and a shah of noble bloodline, he gathered an army in his home country of Azerbijan, and began conquering territory east toward, and eventually into, Iran. Under his rule, Persia flourished and made a strong and remarkable recovery from the destruction inflicted by Ghengis Khan. The Safavids formed the Third Great Persian Empire after the Achaemenians and Sassanians.

Esfahan was the Safavid capital city so it's a likely place to start. But with so much to see there we decided to begin on the outskirts and work our way into the city center, saving the best for last. This led us to begin in a small city a few hours from Esfahan called Kashan. Through vast, dry, desert, I imagined we were seeing much of the same scenery that Shah Abbas passed during his journey through the desert so many years ago on his way to Tehran and the other parts of the country. Kahasan is the site of the Shah Abbas palace, the Bagh-e Tarikhi-ye Fin. But be careful because if you don't know to look for the pearl inside this oyster, you could easily pass right by.


surge - a rise to an excessive level
captivity - the state of being a captive or prisoner
trickling - falling in drops
hues - shades of color

Locals poured into the 20-foot-tall wooden doors characteristic of the time period during which this stunning building was constructed. We joined the line outside, but could have never prepared our hearts for the amazing scenery inside. In addition to Kashan natives, Iranians from all over the country were present celebrating the New Year once inside the complex a maze of trees and water sedate your senses, magically eliminating your problems and instantly calming your soul. Small children bounced around, most slowing down to stare and giggle when they saw Brian and I. It was obvious that few tourists come to this remarkable paradise.

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Visions of paradise danced in their heads
Not only was the environment amazing, the architecture was elegant and intricately planned. This structure was built around a natural spring. For the last four hundred years this fountain has run by natural water pressure. A huge courtyard of trickling water and bursting nozzles flows out through the ground like sunbeams stretching out their rays. The royal bathhouse was off to the side. With its warm, hot, and cold-water pools, high vaulted ceilings, and beautifully carved skylights, this bathhouse probably made for quite a bathing experience. Each king after Shah Abbas made it a point to add something to this complex in order to associate his name with the greatness of the building. A museum and library were eventually added during the Ghajar and Nader Shah Dynasties.

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One of the many fountain rays that stretch from the main palace out into the courtyard
The phenomenal attention to architecture and design extended past the boundaries of Kashan and returned us to the old capital city of Esfahan, where the greatest building in all of Iran stands proud. Unlike the Sassanians who had been Zorastrian, the Safavids were devout Shiite Muslims. They quickly embraced Islam and it remains the religion of this Islamic Republic today. Mosques are fine examples of Persian culture at its zenith. The intricate design of the tile work, the delicately carved corners and angles, and the perfect shaped domes and ceilings are marvels. We thought we'd seen amazing buildings before, but the Mosjed-e Emam, which is the grand masterpiece of the Safavid era, took our breath away.

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Visiting this amazing mosque is worth the round trip ticket to Iran! Come and see for yourself!
The Mosjed-e Emam took over 26 years to build and was eventually completed in 1638. It is covered in blue tile, inside and out.. The tiles reflect the color of the light according to the time of day, taking on different hues and almost changing colors. Once you enter through the 30-meter-high doors you can't help but feel the majesty of this sprawling complex. Great arches, fountains, and a splendid courtyard are captivating. You never get bored of tracing the infinite patterns and colors around you. The building's 42-meter-tall twin minarets are outlined against the sky in majestic silhouette.

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 The perfect dome echoes seven times when standing in the center. Perfection, 26 years in the making!
What amazing representation from an even more amazing dynasty. But there's more so stay tuned as the team continues to discover the secrets behind the veil in Iran!!!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Abeja - Out of Town, Across the Sand, Into the City: Nothin' but Desert! Iran Gets Creative with Wind and Water
Brian - My Visit to the Vank (pronounced Bonk)
Kavitha - Balancing East and West: Pars Grows Up
Monica - Home is where the Heart is.... Zartosht's House
Team - Turn Off That Faucet! Water Doesn't Grow on Trees, You Know

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