On the way into Natanz from Isfahan, don’t miss the Gonbad-i Bāz – the unique Safavid hawking pavilion built by Shah Abbas the First as “the greatest tribute ever paid to a single bird”. This unusual survival of a non-religious Safavid building is an octagonal domed tower perched on a conical mountain near Natanz.

View from the minaret at the Natanz shrine - the gonbad-baz is the little bleb on the highest mountain

View from the minaret at the Natanz shrine – the gonbad-baz is the little bleb on the highest mountain

I love how it can be seen from all around. I love even more the stories that are told about why it was built.

Although Kleiss suggests that it is a royal pavilion for hunting the “numerous deer” in the area; most other writers, and all the many locals I have spoken to, say that it commemorates a very special hunting bird.

According to Encyclopaedia Iranica, in 1592-3 Shah Abbas the Great ordered a mausoleum built for his favourite hunting bird, the valiant and gallant Lavand. This bāz – the word denotes both hawks and falcons – died during a hunting party near Natanz. To “the great affliction of the shah”, who would have been only 21 years old, the bird drowned whilst “tenaciously chasing a partridge inside a deep well”. A slightly earlier painting in the Metropolitan Museum gives an idea of what this hunting party might have looked like.

The octagonal hawking pavilion above Natanz. Image: Tishineh.com

The local version of the story is slightly different. It still concerns Abbas hunting near Natanz, a courageous bird, and a well. But in this account, just as Abbas went to drink, the “King’s darling” inexplicably struck his cup from his hand. When Abbas tried again, the bird attacked again. On the Shah’s third attempt, and the bird’s third strike, Abbas ordered the bird killed.  As the Shah returned to the water to drink unmolested, the Shah, or perhaps one of his falconers, noticed a snake slithering away. The sharp-eyed bird had saved the Shah’s life, but paid the ultimate price for his faithfulness!

According to the Natanzi’s, it was actually then the mayor of Natanz who had the gonbad – the dome – built.

Many pavilions were built in the Safavid era, but very few have survived. This one is constructed in relatively permanent building materials and in a relatively inaccessible place. There is a path – which I only found out about after I failed to climb up without one!

Young Safavid man, with his hawk. I couldn’t resist sharing this painting. Image: pinterest

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Many travellers stop at Natanz to see the gorgeous Ilkhanid (early 14th century) façade. It’s only an hour or so from Isfahan, on the way to Kashan.

Old photo of the frontage at Natanz shrine – presumably before the renovations in the 1970s. Image: Thanks to the staff at the Shrine

But when I first went there, I was excited to see the ancient plane trees at the front of the Shrine. These have been suggested to have protected the façade from the sun and wind, even if an old photo (at least partially) refutes this idea.

Ancient Plane tree at front of Natanz shrine

Ancient Plane tree at front of Natanz shrine. Image: Caroline Mawer

Stories tell of the “monstrous” plane tree “under which from time immemorial have lodged all the caravans which came from Shiraz or Isfahan to Qazvin and Tabriz”.  Even at midday, with the sun right overhead, the huge branches of this plane tree apparently shaded an area of more than thirty paces size. The Spanish Ambassador, García de Silva y Figueroa, described seeing a caravan of 200 camels, horses and other beasts of burden easily accommodated in the tree’s shadow when he travelled up to Qazvin to meet Shah Abbas the Great in 1618.

And Shah Abbas himself stayed by or under the plane tree when he walked from Isfahan to Mashhad in 1601.

Since oriental plane trees can live 2000 years, it’s theoretically possible that it’s the same tree. But I soon worked out that the tree in front of the shrine is NOT the one in the stories.

Satellite view: showing the avenue of plane trees through the middle of the town; the shrine with the ancient plane trees out the front; the shadow of the 37 metre minaret – and the site of the stump that I was shown by local men as the site of the “monstrous” tree in Safavid times

First, the people from Natanz say that the town traditionally stretched “az chenar ta menar” – from the plane tree to the minaret (of the Shrine). The chenar they are talking about can’t be just outside the sShrine!

Also, Figueroa described the plane tree he saw as being 200 paces from the Shrine.

Instead, the local Cultural Service staff showed me another – once enormous – stump now with just a few struggling leaves. This is shown on a satellite map of the town. The stump is very nearby the modern market – which fits with the idea that supplies were sold to travellers beside the monstrous tree.

But the tree at the front of the shrine does give an idea of the enormous tree in Natanz that the Safavid travellers admired so much.

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Persian and Indian textiles

January 13th, 2016

I just saw the V&A Fabric of India exhibition. It’s great: gorgeous colours, lots of short videos about how things are made … and several pieces that irresistibly reminded me of Persian textiles. You’ve just got time to go see for yourself – it ends 10 Jan

There was a lovely handpainted floor spread from the Coromandel coast.

Coromandel floor spread seen in V&A exhibition. Page: V&A

Coromandel floor spread seen in V&A exhibition. Page: V&A

Even if Persian textiles don’t have flowery grounds quite like the one here, it includes sportsmen and drinkers who look really quite Persian to me.

The image below is a turned-round version of a detail from the top border. Look at their hats, look at the clothes!

Or do you think I’m wrong? Maybe the faces are more Indian than Persian?

Detail from the top border of the Coromandel floor spread in the V & A exhibition. Image: V&A

























A mid-17th century, Deccan silk and velvet hanging from LACMA has a very similar feeling compared to the late 16th / early 17th century, Iranian silk velvet on permanent display in the V&A. Even if the figures shown in the Deccan textile are women, while the Persian textile shows  men!

Was this some sort of standard? Or is it possible that the Indian weavers saw something like the Persian textiles? And decided to try something similar?

And look at this early chintz (below) – with two men and two youths dressed a la Persane – even if they have disconcertingly blue eyes. It includes two European men – who are said to be “probably Dutch” – a striped dog, and two women in Indian-Western dress; plus glass dishes and vessels in Venetian, European, Chinese and Indo-Persian styles; all set in some sort of Indian palace.

It’s all very similar to motifs in Persian book paintings, if not in quite so many Persian textiles. It’s another reminder of the spread of the Persianate world!

'Depicting nations' in the V & A Fabric of india exhibition. Image: V&A















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Many travellers stop at Natanz on their way from Isfahan to Kashan. Of course, when you hear the word ‘Natanz’, most people think only of the Iranian nuclear enrichment controversy. But Natanz is also my most favourite small town in Iran, with some very special historic monuments. Please don’t miss seeing: the shrine; the monstrous plane trees; the Ilkanid mosque; the caravanserai; and the royal hawk pavilion.

First though, maybe you want a few words about the nuclear facilities in Natanz. These are the primary site for Iran’s gas centrifuge program. There are two primary facilities: the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP) and the Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP).

The Comprehensive Nuclear Agreement was signed by the P5+1 and Iranian negotiators on 2 April 2015. Under this, then for the next ten years the facility in Natanz will be the only place in Iran where uranium enrichment will take place. There will only be 5,060 of the less advanced, IR-1 first generation centrifuges. Iran’s more advanced centrifuge models (IR-2, IR-4, IR-5, IR-6, and IR-8) will be placed under IAEA care for the duration of the agreement.

The agreement provides for “continuous monitoring” of the Natanz as well as Fordow facilities. Inspectors supposedly will have unfettered access to these facilities whenever necessary.

Much has been said about the Iranian nuclear programme, but I think that the video here is pretty well balanced (unlike much Western media coverage!). It certainly presents the historical perspective better than most reports. It has some really interesting points – including details of the pre-Revolutionary nuclear agreements. I didn’t previously know that Iran currently owns 10% of FRENCH. I was surprised to see Tony Benn in the video. He’s here in his guise as Energy Minister at the time of the last Shah. But he also underlines Iran’s absolute right to a civil nuclear programme, as part of the discussion of how the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has been applied to Iran.

The Natanz facility is specifically mentioned in the video – and shown at 35.40 as clearly visible from the road. This contradicts the reports of its absolute secrecy.

While there is some discussion of the need for a balanced and long-term energy policy in Iran then, sadly, there’s no mention anywhere of the potential of cheap solar power in Iran. Solar would be even easier in sunny Iran than elsewhere in the world!

<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/uCvygCYVUFo” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>

But please remember that Natanz is not only about nuclear facilities!

Click to read more about: the shrine; the monstrous plane trees; the Ilkanid mosque; the caravanserai; and the royal hawk pavilion.



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Natanz 2: a gorgeous shrine

January 13th, 2016

Many travellers stop at Natanz to see the gorgeous Ilkhanid (early 14th century) façade. It’s one of the most spectacular sights in Iranian architecture, and it’s only an hour or so from Isfahan, on the way to Kashan. With its blend of glazed tile, stucco, and terra cotta it’s been described as a 3-D version of the best of Persian miniature paintings.

But the shrine in Natanz isn’t just about the sumptuous facade. The complex developed as a grave-tomb-shrine after a shaykh in the Suharwardi Sufi order, ‘Abd al-Samad, died in Natanz in 1299. It is now recognised as one of the best preserved shrine complexes from the Ilkhanid era (1256–1353).

The muqarnas semi-dome over the khanqah portal, Natanz. Image from Archnet

As well as the tomb of ‘Abd al-Samad, there’s a four-iwan mosque, an octagonal sanctuary, a minaret, and a mosque from the 1930’s. To fit in the available space, these are squashed together, built at different floor levels, and sometimes overlapping. Because of that, and the fact that the complex was built (and rebuilt) over many centuries, it can sometimes be difficult to work out what you are seeing. This post aims to help with that.

It’s useful to start by looking at the façade west to east (left to right as you face it):

The western portal is what remains of an early fourteenth century khanqah – somewhere for Sufi travellers or students who wanted to stay at ‘Abd al-Samad’s shrine. This khanqah was destroyed and replaced by a mosque in the 1930s.

Behind the central arch of the Natanz façade there is a 37-metre minaret with an inscription dated AH725/1324-25AD. This was substantially restored in the 1970s

At the eastern end of the façade, there’s another portal, which acts as an entrance into the complex through a sunken narrow corridor. An inscription there says that the building is a mosque built by Zayn al-Din Mastari in AH704/1304-5AD.

Muqarnas ceiling of the tomb in Natanz. Image: study blue

As you walk down into and through the sunken corridor, you’ll come to a doorway into the tomb chamber. This has a glorious muqarnas ceiling – and the much less glorious remnants of a – now looted – tiled mihrab and walls. I’ve written more about this little room here.

When you go on, you will come into a square courtyard mosque with two storeys of rooms, linking four iwans. There are muqarnas in the north and south iwans. Linked to the south iwan is an octagonal sanctuary.

The restoration in the 1970s revealed that this sanctuary was originally a freestanding pavilion. It is much earlier than the courtyard mosque – as it is dated AH389/999AD. It may not look anywhere near as lovely as the facade, but it is the earliest dated example of an octagonal form in Iran. It was built open with columns, like the early tomb towers. Buyid tombs didn’t actually need to have a body buried within them – there are fascinating accounts of bodies being placed in glass coffins, suspended from the ceiling. The body of someone called Qabus was hung in a location where the early morning light struck it. In Natanz, like in other important Shia shrines, the pavilion was built to be walked around (the technical term is circumambulation). At Mecca, the qa’aba is walked around counterclockwise (seven times). At Natanz, pilgrims would have walked in the opposite direction: clockwise. The renowned art historian, Sheila Blair, has suggested that the pavilion was originally built as an imamzada or shrine for a descendant of the Prophet.

This is surely why the site is so jumbled – the early fourteenth century development followed on from an open, octagonal pavilion built three hundred years earlier.

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A Palace for Safavid women

January 10th, 2016

We know relatively little about the life of Safavid women, but we do know something about the elegant Jahan Nama Palace. This Palace was designed for the royal women of Shah Abbas the Great.

It’s name translates as “Reflection of the World”. Although they would have been hidden behind finely wrought, trellised windows, the Safavid women were able to look out on all the sauntering and social preening going on along the Chahar Bagh promenade.

Kaempfer’s ‘Planographia’ of Isfahan. Image: British Library

We know the Palace’s location – it’s shown on Engelbert Kaempfer’s famous Planographic (it’s the cubic building in top right corner). The Jahan Nama is up at the non-river end of the Chahar Bagh promenade. It’s close to the Daulat Gate, one of principal entry points to Isfahan. It’s been described as marking this area with ‘imperial significance’.

But no-one really knows exactly what it was like.

Europeans often produce quite different reports of specific Safavid buildings, and Jahan Nama is no exception.

Jahan Nama palace foundations. Image: Payvand

Pietro della Valle described “una piccolo casa”: a “small building with windows and ayvans all around”.

Chardin reported a three storey ‘pavillon carre’.

While Tavernier described a “pavilion or tabernacle forty feet square, which joins to the hinder part of the Kings House, with a double storey, to which several give light, clos’d with wooden lattices very artificially wrought”.

I’ve included the Jahan Nama here because I think it’s the probably most romantic building in Safavid Isfahan. It’s a good example of us not-quite-knowing, but wanting to peek into the most private buildings, the most intimate lives of  Safavid women. The palace was also a key part of Shah Abbas’ urban plan.

Only a few remnants of this plan are still visible. And I think it’s completely appropriate to highlight how little we really know about Shah Abbas’ plan – even though modern Isfahan is often described as Shah Abbas’ masterpiece.

The foundations of Jahan Nama palace were apparently found  during the recent construction of a subway. According to the archaeologists who found it, the  Zel-ol-Soltan gave orders to destroy it, claiming that the site provided a view of Hasht Behesht Palace, where his sister lived.

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Indian and Persian tents

December 27th, 2015

I know a little about Persian tents: like the impressive encampment of  Shah Tahmasp – as described by the Venetian spy, Michele Membre in 1539. There were Persian tents “as far as a man could see, all well-ordered, with their streets” and so many horses and mules “that they couldnt be counted … all the plains were full of animals”

Read more about this at: http://www.carolinemawer.com/…/shah-tahmasps-military-enca…/

Some portions of Persian tents still survive, like REFERENCE

But recently the gorgeous V&A Fabric of India exhibition included a portion of Tipu Sultan’s 18th century Indian tent – the biggest tent the V&A has ever seen.

Part of Tipu Sultan’s eighteenth century Indian tent. It’s very impressive, even if it’s not one of my favourites: Persian Tents. Image: Guardian

A fascinating V&A blog explores how they managed to erect the tent: 

However, I confess that I’ve still got a preference for Persian tents!

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Dodmore Cotton was the first accredited British ambassador to Shah Abbas the Great. Officially, the embassy was tasked with establishing formal trade and diplomatic relations between England and Persia. Unofficially, it aimed to resolve the diplomatic impasse following the public fisticuffs in London between Robert Sherley and Abbas’ 1625 ambassador to Europe, Naqd Ali Beg (read more about the fight here).

Robert Sherley’s wife Theresa, as portrayed by Van Dyck. She accompanied her husband to Europe, and was on the boat back to Gombrun. Image from wikimedia

Robert had been merely keeping up the family tradition of fighting with the Persian envoys they were accompanying: in 1601 his brother, Anthony, had “come to blows… on the steps of a Vatican palazzo” with a Persian who, like him, claimed to be the ambassador of Shah Abbas. [Brinda Charry and Gitanjali Shahani, Emissaries in early modern literature and culture, p.24]

Dodmore Cotton, Naqd Ali Beg, Robert Sherley, and a retinue including Thomas Herbert and Robert Stodart left England in March 1627. During the voyage, Naqd Ali Beg committed suicide, presumably because of his diplomatic failure(s). Read more about Naqd Ali Beg’s splendid portrait here. The embassy arrived in Gombrun on 10 January 1628, and travelled up to Ashraff, for an audience with Abbas I. On the return journey, Shirley and Cotton died.

Portrait of Naqd Ali Beg. The East India Company paid for this representation. He’s shown wearing finest Persian silk, and standing on a Persian carpet. The portrait is now on show in the British Library. Image: British Library

There are two accounts of the embassy. Thomas Herbert’s A relation of some yeares travaile.. Into Afrique and the greater Asia, especially the Territories of the Persian Monarchie was a remarkable bookselling success.

In contrast, The journal of Robert Stodart; being an account of his experiences as a member of Sir Dodmore Cotton’s mission in Persia in 1628-29 was unpublished until Edward Denison Ross retrieved it in 1935.

Both of these sources have plus points and also problems. I’m going to discuss Herbert’s Relation in lots more detail in subsequent posts. But I wanted to mention Stodart’s Journal here.

There are gaps in it – with lots of the journey summarised only by distances covered and the stopping places. Even when the party halted, there were often only scanty details. Stodart’s diary for Hispahone (Isfahan) has big gaps, but the section that remains is all about feasts, and invitations to and from members of the English and Armenian communities. As in the earlier accounts of the Sherley party, the maydan and the other monuments presented by Herbert are not even mentioned by Stodart.

Herbert presents lots more of the sorts of details that historians are interested in now. But his Relation has also got gaps and problems. Brentjes has compared the two sources for the journey between Tabriz, Qazvin and Damavand. For this, Herbert presents an “impossible itinerary”, presumably to allow him to include more background. Unfortunately, however, his “general geography of Iran is wrong more often than not, and his historical descriptions are accurate only in the sense of being correctly summarized from earlier sources”.

It’s not only Herbert’s geography that is sketchy. The next posting in the mini-series is about his first edition. After that is the (different) second edition.


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That’s what Lord Curzon thought about Thomas Herbert’s A relation of some yeares travaile… into the Territories of the Persian Monarchie. 

Curzon c.1890. His magnum opus: ‘Persia and the Persian Question’ was written in 1892 after his long tour of Persia (September 1889 – January 1890). Image from: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/89/Curzon-after-oxford.jpg

Herbert’s account, of his journey to Persia in 1627-29 as a junior member of the Dodmore Cotton embassy, is one of my favourites too, even if most Safavid historians pay much less attention to it.

It was surely especially influential on seventeenth century European ideas about Persia: it was so popular that, after its first edition in 1634, it was reprinted and augmented five times, with additional Dutch and French translations appearing in 1653 and 1668 respectively. And although Herbert’s travels were later than some other travellers who are now much more frequently referred to – and lauded as providing uniquely accurate details – his book was published before theirs.

Thomas Herbert (1606-82). Image from iranicaonline

Pietro della Valle, for example, visited in 1617-23 but the first volume of his letters was only published in 1650. Brentjes has written of how he “needed three decades to prepare the letters he had written … Two thick volumes of manuscripts in the Vatican Library testify to the amount of work he invested in adapting his originals to the tastes and mores of the public”. Other delays reflected other publishing problems.

The memoir of Figueroa’s 1617-19 journey was only published, in a French translation, in 1667. Even Chardin and Kaempfer both had to wait three decades before their narratives were published. The date and popularity of Herbert’s publications must make them important early influences on the symbolic image of Persia.

But maybe the most fascinating thing about all Herbert’s editions is how much they changed. And these changes, too, tell us much about seventeenth century ideas about Persia. Especially the influence of what Lindsay Allen has described as the “self-sustaining and often incestuous string of publications”.

This is just a taster, though. It’s the start of a blog mini-series on Herbert as an example of how early writings give insights into the development of ideas about ‘the other’.

Next is: The Dodmore Cotton embassy: as background

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Shirin Neshat is the first artist of Middle East origin and first woman since 2009 to have a solo show at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington.

An image from the Women of Allah series. Image from: teachartwiki.wikispaces.com/file/view/s3.jpg/451905604/400×631/s3.jpg

Ms Neshat is an expatriate Iranian and much of her work is identified with gender politics in the Islamic Republic. After her seminal Women of Allah photographic series, and the two-screen videos – some of which are included below – some critics have “have pounced on later works and dismissed them as the products of a one-trick pony”. When she produced work on Egypt: “it feels like Neshat has simply applied the Neshat brand to another country, processing its suffering in her usual style without adding much to the wall of sad, painfully weary faces”.

Others believe that “the central attributes of Neshat’s work—‘multimedia, diasporic, gender conscious, identity focused’—represent universal preoccupations in 21st-century art”. Besides, just because others have followed in her footsteps doesn’t take away from the originality and importance of the earliest work.

It’s the usual problem for Iranian artists: if their work doesn’t ‘look Iranian’, then viewers are dissatisfied; but if they follow or build on the stereotypes, they are criticised for that. It’s even more of a double-bind for women: if they don’t bang on about gender identity in the Middle East, they’ve let the side down; but if they do …

The Hirshhorn exhibition is organised to follow the modern Iranian historical events being referred to by Neshat. It provides a helpful primer for a Washington audience who surely can’t fail to notice that more history might – just might – be being made with the talks over the sanctions currently going on. Of course, Iranian history is never going to be as simple as that.

For example, Nehshat’s black-and-white 2008 video “Munis” was inspired by the 1953 coup and includes precise restaging of famous news stock: “A large American convertible glittering in sunlight, embodying glamour and power, carries paid-for pro-shah demonstrators as it did at the time. Crowds bearing banners and posters illustrate a brief dawn of free speech and open democracy before the shah’s repressive rule kicks in”. But, as the Wall Street Journal notes, “it’s impossible not to see echoes between [1953 and 1979] – the wild rushing through the streets by crowds oblivious to history’s lessons.”

Can I signpost you to a video about a – quite different – Spanish exhibition of Neshat’s work? Rather than historically spelling out that the Americans are sometimes the baddies, this was focused on the human body It’s theoretically in Spanish, but much is actually in English with Spanish subtitles, and even my very rudimentary Spanish meant that I understood (almost) everything.

Read the Smithsonian review here. And the Wall Street Journal here

If you instead (or as well as!) want to see some excerpts from Neshat’s dual screen videos, try these:

Fervor is the first work of Neshat’s I saw. Repressed sexual tension, anyone?


Or Turbulent. This has two performers – a man singing to a crowd, and a woman not-singing to a not-audience. It’s written about well here 


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