The bazaar (see BĀZĀR) of Isfahan is one of the best-preserved examples of the kind of large, enclosed, and covered bazaar complex that was typical of most cities in the Muslim world prior to the 20th century. The oldest areas of the present-day bazaar date from the early 17th century; its first stone was laid in 1603. Prior to this date the bazaar of Isfahan was concentrated around the Meydān-e kohna, the old town center (see PLATE II in X [1] above). In 1590 Shah ʿAbbās had decided to move his capital to Isfahan, and although he initially renovated the old bazaar, he later decided to construct a new city center of palaces, mansions for his dignitaries, mosques, and other functional buildings around a new meydān, the so-called Meydān-e Naqš-e Jahān. In 1602 work on the new meydān began (Blake, p. 23; but 1590-91 according to sources discussed by McChesney, pp. 114-19). First, a one-story façade of arches and porticoes was built, which faced the new square. Through a number of large and small gates people could access the square and the covered bazaar complex behind them. Secondly, an upper-story (bālā-ḵāna) was built, with commercial offices and artisan shops that were open to the square. Initially, some 200 shops surrounded the square; each was two stories and about five meters high. The lower-story each contained two shops, and the upper-storey four smaller shops, two facing the square and two at the back, which had a small balcony with a protective brick railing. Most of the original floors were made of marble, while the floors added later were colored tiles and stone (Jonābādi, pp. 759-60). It took, of course, a few decades before the bazaar finally acquired its critical mass. Because the new bazaar at first had to meet the needs of the royal palace complex, the mansions of the Safavid elite as well as of their visitors, the bazaar is often referred to as the royal bazaar. The bazaar at the old square continued mainly to serve the needs of the general population, but it gradually fell into disuse and its entire function was absorbed by the new bazaar (for a discussion and maps see Blake, 103, map 9; Soltani-Tirani, p. 4, fig. 1).

The bazaar still forms the commercial heart of Isfahan, because of its location and continued central commercial function. Its importance is further enhanced by the fact that it is surrounded by a number of public shopping thoroughfares which, although formally not part of the original bazaar complex, nevertheless are now an integral and dynamic part it. Like all bazaars it has no residential function at all, for it is only dedicated to a large variety of commercial and socio-religious functions. As to the commercial use of the bazaar there are a great variety of trades, crafts and service providers that work in its many shops and sarāys. There are both itinerant and stationary retail activities, private and public services (which include mosques, bathhouses, coffeehouses, public kitchens and simple inns). Wholesale, commissionaires, export and import, finance and credit, crafts and trades as well as the related brokerage activities are to be found there. One may roughly distinguish three major commercial complexes as to the retail trade: (1) the textile sector, from raw material to finished product; (2) food products and spices; and (3) household needs. Furthermore, there is a commercial branch that deals with the needs of the rural areas. There has, of course, been a shift in the relative composition of the trades and crafts that work in the bazaar. Much of the wholesale and import and export trade has moved to other parts of the city, and even to a great extent to Tehran, during the last 50 years. Also, modern Western style shops and supermarkets have drawn away some of the bazaar’s business to the various residential quarters of the city. One major positive development is that the bazaar has acquired a new commercial function as a tourist destination, visited for its sights and sounds as well as its goods and services. This has resulted in the proliferation of shops that specifically make, buy and sell products for tourists, while some crafts have even survived largely because their main clientele is tourists (metal work, inlay-work or ḵātam, for example; see xiii. below).

Location is, of course, very important. Those shops that sell products with a high unit-value, for example, jewelers, are mostly found at the entrance to the bazaar and at other easily accessible location. Those crafts and traders who are involved in low-unit value production are usually found in less desirable, less accessible locations (e.g., shoemakers, barbers, coffee-houses). Another characteristic is the fact that a variety of different locations account for where a product is sold, traded and stored. For example, an important wholesale company most likely has an office at a prime location in one of the best sarāys, but it usually stores its goods in a warehouse in a less well-maintained sarāy at a less desirable and less expensive location, i.e., more to the periphery. In addition, the goods that the company trades in are made by artisans who work at another different location in the bazaar (for detailed discussion of the location of shops in the bazaar with maps, see Soltani-Tirani, p. 22-31).

The bazaar complex consists of a large number of bazaar buildings, generally referred to as bazaar or when smaller as bāzārča. Next there are the sarāys or caravanserais, and their smaller version, the so-called timčas. Often a sarāy, which is a uniform, independent construction, usually with an inner court of arcades that is situated within the bazaar complex, includes timčas (small arcaded courtyards or halls) with vaulted entrance halls (dehliz). All these buildings are interconnected with covered market streets (rāsta) and passageways (dālān). These streets and lanes are not only market streets, but also communication routes for people and goods to enter and exit the bazaar. Goods, previously brought by caravans of loaded camels, donkeys and mules, now arrive by lorries, and after storage are carried on the back of porters to the various workshops and sales points (Bakhtiar; Gaube and Wirth, pp. 63-66).

In order to create space and light through openings in the dome, so-called domed crossroads or čahār suq were built where market streets crossed one another. A similar dome was also built when the bazaar market street gave access to a mosque or madrasa. Gaube and Wirth have identified three types of such domes, which are related to Central Asian models. Constructions peculiar to the Isfahan bazaar are domed cellars or windowless, pillared halls that are half subterranean. This type of construction is usually a later addition to a sarāy, most of which seem to have been constructed in the 19th century (Gaube and Wirth, pp. 72-74, fig 24). Nowadays these are mostly occupied by workshops using modern machinery. The advent of electricity (see BARQ) has made it possible to work in these dark spaces. Therefore, it is surmised that originally these cellars were used as storage space.

The bazaar in other Iranian towns mainly consists of a number of smaller bazaars each of which is made up of a large, central sarāy with a number of courtyards, timčas, halls, bazaar market streets, dehliz, and domes that make up a multi-functional, multi-layered construction. The most impressive of these large hybrid buildings date back to the 19th century. However, the number of such hybrids is rather few in Isfahan, probably due to the fixed (endowment) nature of much of the property rights in the city, which did not allow for real estate development as it did elsewhere. However, due to soaring land prices, this seems to be changing somewhat and many buildings that have lost their original function, such as bathhouses, have been torn down and replaced with others serving a different purpose. This shows that the bazaar complex remains a dynamic organism that reacts to the pressures of the world around it (Gaube and Wirth, pp. 66-74; Soltani-Tirani, p. 111 f).

When the bazaar was expanded over time, the original regular, linear structure slowly and subtly adapted itself to the demands of each historical period. The combination of streets, passageways, sarāys, timčas, mosques, madrasas etc., were reproduced many times over within the growing bazaar complex over the course of the centuries. Also, the pattern, whereby each sector of the bazaar was occupied by a single trade or craft, was less strictly adhered to, while there were also movements of trades and craft within the bazaar complex. Moreover, the streets in the newer parts sometimes were not covered, especially in the 20th century, while other vaulted older parts (outside of the central section) have become dilapidated, especially towards the periphery of the bazaar. Over time the bazaar has undergone many changes, including the destruction of parts of the bazaar during the Afghan occupation (1722-29; Floor, 1998, p. 262) as well as during the sacks of Isfahan by various contenders for the throne in the 1750s (Perry, pp. 22, 52, 63). Also, the loss of Isfahan’s status as the capital in 1722 as well as the downturn in the economy in the century following the fall of Isfahan negatively impacted the bazaar’s condition. Some Safavid parts have disappeared, while later additions have created hybrid mixtures. This makes it difficult to identify the time period when the original vaulted streets were built due to repairs, changes, and extensions, resulting in the presence of several styles belonging to different time periods. For example, regarding the vaulted cover of the bazaar market streets, Gaube and Wirth identified eight different types, of which four clay vault types were only found in Safavid era buildings, while the other four belong to the post-Safavid period, one type of which dated as late as 1900 (Gaube and Wirth, pp. 90-94, fig. 25). These sarāys are all of a standard type of construction, and have been used for all kinds of functions including as warehouses, offices, workshops, garages, stables, or even as simple inns to provide sleeping quarters for people from outside Isfahan. The Isfahan bazaar has fewer timčas and also of a smaller size than bazaars in other Iranian towns.

Gaube and Wirth have made a similar typology for caravanserais, where they identified five different types: (1) The Safavid or arcade group, the main characteristic of which is the arcade in the upper-story. This type of sarāy has an ayvān (q.v.) that rises above the building elements; it often has a hall (dehliz) at the entrance and barrel-vaulted arches as covering of each wall section. Also, they are decorated with geometric patterns with glazed tiles, while later buildings have ceramic mosaics or painted tiles. (2) The one-story Golšan group (named after its first known model, the Sarāy-e Golšan), construction of which was begun during the Zand period. This type of construction is characterized by a one-story alignment, tile decoration in the upper parts of the wall sections, wreathed moulds that surround the courtyard, dehlizes and cloistral arches above a long, and rectangular ground plan as roof for the wall sections and recessed corners. (3) The one-story group in the bazaar’s periphery. In contrast to the Golšan group, which is the result of historical development, this type of building was functionally determined. They are all to be found at the periphery of the bazaar, and serve as a place for the transshipment of goods. They therefore have very large courtyards for (un)loading, and additional side courtyards where the caravan animals were stabled. This type of construction was built in the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. (4) The mahtābi (terrace) type of the 19th century; these are all two-storied, but they do not have a surrounding arcade in the upper-story. The recessed upper-story has a terrace facing the courtyard. Moreover, they all have recessed corners, and covering of the wall sections by cloistral arches over a long-rectangular ground plan. (5) The late Qajar tārom (wooden roof) type, which is a product of the early 20th century. The side facing the courtyard has an upper-story that has a wooden roof supported by stone or wooden pillars. This type is divided into two groups—either the upper-story is recessed, or it is aligned with the ground floor (Gaube and Wirth, pp. 94-101; figs. 26-29).

Similarly there are six different types of timčas or domed halls (1). The one-story open- or flat-roofed type; (2) the two-story arcade type; (3) the two-story mahtābi type; (4) the two-story tārom type; (5) the two-story equilateral octagonal type; and (6) the two-story stretched octagonal type. It is only natural that these types were similar to that of the sarāy as a timča is but a ‘small tim,’ which is another word for sarāy (Gaube and Wirth, pp. 101-3). These timčas are relatively rarer in Isfahan than in the bazaars of other cities in Iran. Gaube and Wirth have suggested that the qaysÂariya of Isfahan was the forerunner and model for the later timčas because from an architectural standpoint it is a more elongated bazaar hall than a bazaar street. The qaysÂariya was emblematic for the Isfahan bazaar. It functioned both as the gateway (darb) to the many streets and passageways of the inner bazaar complex and, at the same time, it was the richest and largest bazaar of Isfahan where merchants sold rich fabrics and cloth. Hence it was also referred to as bazzāz-ḵāna or mercers hall. It was a pentagonal semi-circular building around a pond and construction began in 1603 and was completed in 1619. Although it was said to have been modeled after the qaysÂariya of Tabriz, it may also have borrowed design elements from the qaysÂariya of the bazaar around the old square of Isfahan that it replaced. It has been suggested that many of the later caravanserais that were built in Iran borrowed their basic design from the gateway of the Isfahan bazaar (Gaube and Wirth, pp. 66-68; Blake, pp.107-10).

Many buildings in the bazaar were decorated, either by mural paintings and/or by tile decorations. There is a large variety of geometrical designs, all variations on cross, diamond, and graded patterns. The mosaic bricks for the post-Safavid period are all smaller and flatter and less color intense. They are quadrangular or bar-shaped. There are also post-Safavid words in mosaic form, albeit barely legible. Another form of decoration was that of tiles, often used on the heads of the wall sections making nine different geometric patterns. The face of the QaysÂariya gateway had been decorated with tiles, while in the upper recesses there were mural paintings of Shah ʿAbbās hunting, Shah ʿAbbās defeating the Uzbeks, male and female Europeans having a party, and finally the symbol of Isfahan, the Sagittarius. In the center on top of the gateway there was a clock that was still functional in 1638, but no longer worked in 1670. Within the bazaar complex the vaults of the streets or wall panels were also decorated with epic scenes as well as with arabesques (Floor, 2005a, pp. 122-23, 126; Blake, p. 110; Gaube and Wirth, pp. 105-12, figs. 32-36).

All buildings have a name. Frequently, in the case of bazaars, it indicates a professional group or guild (often of those who traded and worked there), while in the case of sarāys it is usually a person, normally the patron-builder. Others are known by a particular characteristic (e.g., sarā-ye dālān-darāz or ‘the sarāy with a long entrance passageway’), the name of the quarter or of the patron (Masjed-e Sāru Taqi), or some other qualifier. The names have changed over time, of course, just as the function and use of buildings have changed. In the qaysÂariya, for example, instead of rich fabrics all kinds of tourist products are sold, and the same holds for the bāzār-e čitsāzhā (the bazaar of the chintz makers), although there are still some shops that also sell chintzes (Gaube and Wirth, pp. 116-260).

Life in the bazaar is not always about business. Although the bazaar complex is the commercial heart of Isfahan, there are buildings that serve a function other than a commercial one. Today, there are still ten madrasas in the bazaar whose design is very much like that of the sarāys, eight of which date from the Safavid period and two are from the 19th century. In these madrasas religious youths as well as older males receive advanced religious instruction which may lead to a religious career or to serve one’s own edification. One also could find some refuge from the hustle and bustle of the bazaar inside a madrasa’s courtyard, which is often lined with trees and has a large pond in the middle (Bakhtiyar, pp. 328-31, figs 9-12; Gaube and Wirth, pp. 103-5).

Also, there are a number of mosques, most of which were built in the 17th century and some in the late 19th century. These mosques are characterized by different designs and some, like the Ḥakim Mosque, are as beautiful as the Royal Mosque on the Meydān (see x above). Here the population of the bazaar undertake their daily prayers and participate in religious ceremonies. Some of these mosques had a special relationship with one particular guild that either was its patron and/or had (co-)financed its construction. Such is the case with the Masjed-e ḵayyāṭhā (tailors and dressmakers mosque), which, apart from its religious function, also served as the administrative office of the said guild. How well integrated these mosques are in the commercial life of the bazaar is evident from the example of the Bāḡča-ye ʿAbbāsi Mosque, which has shops flanking its entrance hall. Whereas religion was experienced in an individual and enclosed manner in the mosque and the madrasa, this was different in the takiya, a type of building where communal rawża-ḵānis were held, and where during Moḥarram and Ṣafar the Shiʿite passion play (taʿzia-ḵāni) was performed, often combined with a procession of religiously significant symbols, players, and the general public (Floor, 2005b).

Apart from endowing funds to build mosques, madrasas, and takiyas, people also did this for saqqā-ḵānas of water spigots and maqbaras or mausolea in the bazaars and elsewhere. Also part of the religious functions were the bathhouses (see HAMMĀM) constructed in the bazaars, where believers regularly came to wash away their impurities so as to be ritually clean and be able to perform their religious duties such as prayer. In addition to the bathhouses where men congregated for relaxation, there were also all kinds of itinerant and shop-based sellers in the bazaar of a large variety of the foods and drinks that made up the supplies for social gatherings. For example, a few shops in Isfahan in the 19th century supplied the entire city with beriāni food, all of which was made in one cook shop in the bazaar, (Taḥwildār, p. 119). There also were itinerant sellers of coffee, tea, water, and smokes as well as coffee-houses (qahvaḵāna), where the same services were offered. Moreover, these were popular gathering points to exchange news, gossip, and to listen to poetry and story tellers. “Hither repair all those covetous of News, as well as Barterers of Goods; where not only Fame and common Rumour is promulgate, but Poetry too, for some of that Tribe are always present to rehearse their Poems, and disperse their Fables to the Company” (Fryer, III, p. 34; Du Mans/Schefer, p. 244; for coffee-houses in the 19th century, see Floor, 2004). On festive days, shopkeepers would additionally burn oil lamps and decorate their shops so that the entire bazaar area was a sea of light (see ČERĀḠĀNI).

There was also a public government side to the bazaar. North of the qaysÂariya gateway was a large intersection (čahār suq), which led to two major buildings, namely, the żarrāb-ḵāna and the sarāy-e šāhi (see Plate I), which each had a gateway, albeit less lofty than that of the qaysÂariya. The żarrāb-ḵāna (the Mint), as its name indicates, was the location where until 1877 silver and copper coins were struck by hand, thus providing the means of exchange for facilitating commercial transactions. On two sides of the qaysÂariya gateway balconies protrude (known as naqqāra-ḵāna), which were used by the royal music band. This band played at sunrise and sunset as well as after important events had taken place, such as victories. Often condemned men were led through the bazaar, or even executed in a čahār suq, in order to convey the government’s vigilance to the general population.

Despite the fact that the royal bazaar has long since lost any semblance of its prior courtly association, the bazaar of Isfahan remains a vibrant centerpiece of the city, a place with wide-ranging functions, from the obvious shopping environment to its religious, educational, social, and recreational roles. Because of this, the state of disrepair suffered by many of the bazaar’s less central areas, while an unfortunate consequence of the wounds of time and history, have not undermined the bazaar’s singular importance, both to the citizens of the city and to outside visitors newly acquainted with its many charms.

Plate I. Bazaar Plan, North of Meydān-e Šāh.

Plate II. Aerial view of the bazaar.

Plate III. Entrance of the Royal Bazaar.

Plate IV. Plan and entrance of Mahyār Caravanserai.



Ali Bakhtiyar, “The Royal Bazaar of Isfahan,” Iranian Studies 7/1-2, 1974, pp. 320-47.

Stephen P. Blake, Half the World. The Social Architecture of Safavid Isfahan, 1590-1722, Costa Mesa, 1999.

Raphael Du Mans, L’estat de la Perse en 1660, ed. Ch. Schefer, Paris, 1890.

Willem Floor, The Afghan Occupation of Safavid Persia 1721-1729, Paris 1998.

Idem, “Tea Consumption and Importation in Qajar Iran,” Studia Iranica 33, 2004, pp. 47-111.

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John Fryer, A New Account of East India and Persia. Being nine years’ travels, 1672-1681, 3 vols., London, 1909-15 (Hakluyt Society, 2nd Series).

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Mirzā Beyg b. Ḥasan Jonābādi, Rawżat al-Ṣafawiya, ed. Ḡ.-R. Tabāṭabāʾi Majd, Tehran, 1999.

R. D. McChesney, “Four Sources on Shah ʿAbbas’s Building of Isfahan,” Muqarnas 5, 1988, pp. 103-34.

John R. Perry, Karim Khan Zand, A History of Iran, 1747-1779, Chicago, 1979.

M. Siroux, “Les Carvanserais Routiers Safavids,” Iranian Studies 7/1-2, 1974, pp. 348-75.

Mohammad-Ali Soltani-Tirani, Handwerker und Handwerk in Esfahan. Räumliche, wirtschaftliche und sociale Organisationsformen, Marburg/Lahn, 1982.

Mirzā Ḥosayn Khan Tahwildār, Joḡrāfiā-ye Eṣfahān, ed. M. Sotudeh, Tehran, 1963.

(Willem Floor)

Originally Published: December 15, 2007

Last Updated: April 5, 2012

This article is available in print.
Vol. XIV, Fasc. 1, pp. 43-48