Isfahan – Half the World

The beautiful and colorful Iranian city of Isfahan (also known as Esfahan) sits on the north bank of the Zayandeh River, roughly 210 miles south of Tehran, the capital of Iran.  The city of Isfahan is one of the most important centers of architecture in the Islamic world.  Its famous Maydan-e Emam (Imam’s Square) was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. 

Isfahan first thrived under the Seljuq Turks during the 11th and 12th centuries.  During their reign, the Seljuqs positioned Isfahan as a major trading center, and were responsible for some of the architectural wonders of the city.  The Seljuqs introduced large, domed chambers to the mosques built in Isfahan, including the Great Friday Mosque, built in 1086-1087.  The city served as the capital for the Seljuqs, as well as the Safavid dynasty (16th to 18th centuries).

The Safavists leader Shah Abbas I (1588-1629) effectively re-routed the Silk Road through Isfahan so his empire would enjoy a trading monopoly.  It’s location at the crossroads of world trade positioned Isfahan for expansive economic growth.  The city grew and prospered as a tolerant center where European merchants, missionaries, and travelers from across the world would interact.

The Safavists contributed to the important architectural works of the city with the construction of several major religious buildings, including the Mosque of Sheikh Lutfallah in 1619, and the Shah Mosque, in 1666.  The Safavists favored the use of colorful tiling work, which the city continues to be known for.

Today, the city is home to more than 1.9 million (2016 census) people.  The architecture, cultural heritage and history of Isfahan make the city a popular tourism destination.  In addition to its colorful tilework, Isfahan is known for its handicrafts (copper and brass works; silverware; pottery) cotton fabrics and carpet weaving.  It is an important export center for Iran’s economy. Isfahan’s nickname “Nesf-e Jahan” (Persian for “Half the World”) symbolizes all the beauty and color the city possesses.

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by Andrew Lawler, April 2009

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Eṣfahān”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 7 Jun. 2023,

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Eṣfahān”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 7 Jun. 2023. Accessed 28 August 2023 –

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