Social architecture is a theoretical approach that takes the city itself as a text. In the anthropologist’s Clifford Gertz’s words the cityscape is “a story people tell themselves about themselves.” The built environment reflects the social system and the ways in which that system is expressed, reproduced, and experienced. The defining architectural element of Safavid Isfahan was the Maidan-i Naqsh-i Jahan, the great piazza around which Shah ‘Abbas built the nucleus of his new capital. Around the perimeter of this central square the shah erected the paradigmatic monuments of the city. Like the courtyard of the mosque or the small central square of the neighborhood mahalla, the Maidan-i Naqsh-i Jahan was the focal point for the activities and institutions of the city. The Maidan-i Naqsh-i Jahan integrated space and time in Shah ‘Abbas’s new capital, showcasing the emperor’s roles as chief creator of urban space and as chief manager of the activities that defined urban time. Because of the centrality of the Maidan-i Naqsh-i Jahan, the author structures his analysis of the social architecture of Isfahan around it. After a brief introduction to Safavid Iran in Chapter I , the author turns in Chapter Two, whose subject is the founding of the imperial capital, to the relationship between the old and new maidans. In Chapter Three, which focuses on the cityscape, the maidans serve as twin guideposts, ordering and orienting the buildings of the northern and southern halves of the city. Chapters Four through Nine—on the imperial palace, great amiri mansion, garden retreat, bazaar, caravanserai, mosque, madrasa, and imamzada—begin with a monument on the maidan, often the defining example of its type. Having analyzed this building, the author moves to other examples of the type as they appeared across the city. In this way he attempts to show not only how the buildings are distributed over the cityscape but also how the institutions they embodied were reproduced throughout the social fabric. To untangle the dialectic of space and time and to chart the changes in urban space over time is to uncover the changing relationships among the political, economic, and religious institutions.
This volume offers significant contributions in three separate fields: (1) it is the first comprehensive study of Isfahan, one of the great cities of early modern Eurasia (2) it contributes a significant chapter to our understanding of Iran under the Safavids, 1500-1722 and (3) it adds a great deal to the literature on cities in the Middle East and to the “Islamic city” model.