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Hedayat and Isfahan

Hedayat and Isfahan
Mehrdad Bidgoli
University of Isfahan, Isfahan, Iran
This entry focuses on Sadegh Hedayats trav-
elogue Isfahan, Half of the World which is an
early and celebrated example of travelogue in
Persian literature. I will discuss Hedayats
admiring and critical view of Isfahan as the
most important city of Iran in terms of histor-
ical and cultural richness. Descriptions of the
most central monuments and historical places
of Isfahan will also be provided for the reader.
Hedayat · Isfahan · Isfahan ·Half of the
World · Travelogue · Iran · Religion · Islam ·
It is said that Hedayat had written two travelogues.
The rst one, which I will attend to in this entry, is
Isfahān Nesf-e Jahān(1932) and the second one is
the unpublished On the Wet Road (1935) pre-
sumably, a visit to the north of Iran whose
manuscript, it is believed, is lost (see Kamshad
1966: 144). It should be noted at the outset that
while Hedayats travelogue reveals many
features, facts, and legends about Isfahan, it is
not a history or an extended study of this city;
readers interested in such studies are advised to
explore other relevant works (e.g., Jackson and
Lockhart 1986: esp. ch. 6; Taylor 1995: esp. 18;
Matthee 2012).
HedayatsIsfahān Nesf-e Jahān(Isfahan, Half of
the World) is one of the well-written and signi-
cant pieces of writing in this subgenre in Persian
literature. According to Hassan Kamshad, it
tours the historical monuments of a city that is
a symbol of the Sassanidsprosperity,and as a
keen and observant sightseer, he describes the
marvelous mosaics and tileworks of the mosques,
and the grandeur of the historical buildings
(Kamshad 1966: 147). Hedayat, perhaps not
unrelated to his romantic-nationalist attitude,
sutures the modern Isfahan to its original, ancient
identity, just like the way his novel The Blind Owl
somehow tries to do the same to Tehran and Rayy.
The work is, moreover, signicant both due to its
exciting treatment of Isfahan in general one of
the richest cities of Iran historically and culturally,
with numerous ancient monuments and places as
well as architectural masterpieces that attract
thousands of tourists each year. The work also
offers descriptions of its various aspects as well
as minor descriptions of the path Hedayat took
and of the cities and towns which he briey visited
© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020
J. Tambling (ed.), The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Urban Literary Studies,
on his way to Isfahan. Hedayat was driven from
Tehran to Isfahan for about 450 kms in a car,
passing such cities and towns as Qom, Dilijan,
Moorcheh-Khar, and Meymeh; there are brief
descriptions of these places as well.
Hedayat declares that for his four-day holiday,
he is somehow mysteriously attracted and taken to
Isfahan, a city he had only read about and seen in a
few pictures. It seems to him that it is the city
which chooses him and takes him in:
It had been a long time that what I had seen Isfahan
in photos and the descriptions I had heard or read
about it had made a legendary perspective of this
city for me. Just like anecdotes of one hundred and
one nights. With its mosques, bridges, palaces,
minarets, tileworks, engravings, paintings, [it is]
nally a city of talents and artistry that has a long
history, had been worlds greatest city during the
Safavid period and has not still lost its ancient glory
and grandeur. All this was enough for Isfahan to
take me to itself and I have to confess that I didnt
regret this visit (Hedayat 1932:34)
He is not wrong about the greatness of this city.
Eugene Flandin, in his 1840 visit to Isfahan, also
describes Isfahan as one of the greatest cities of
the world with a perimeter of more than forty
kilometers,numerous neighborhoods, castles,
palaces, gardens, etc. (quoted in Honarfar 1967:
4). Perhaps the most wittily exciting (and at times
a little biased or sentimental) treatment of Isfahan
belongs to Mohammad Ali Jamalzadeh, a native
of that city, who opens his Isfahan is Half the
World with this sentiment:
Everyone knows that I am a legitimate child of
Isfahan and born of its pure earth. That Isfahan is
called half the worldis enough to describe the
city. That by making a profession of contentment,
which is one of their excellent characteristics, its
people have been satised with half the worldfor
a city that is really worth a hundred worlds sufces
to describe them. Hafez of Shiraz, who was origi-
nally an Isfahani, considered his Shiraz better than
our Isfahan, even though he called our Zāyandeh
River the Water of Life. Love for homeland is no
fault, of course, and given his eminence, I have no
alternative except to quote his own phrase, Praise
be on his pure but mistaken view!Fortunately,
others who are fair and perceptive and know the
truth have another opinion about our Isfahan, the
image of heaven. The poet Jamal-od-din Abd-
orrazzaq has said even about its earth: Reason
would take the earth of Isfahan for eye salve.
Fakhr-e Gorgani of Isfahan, who is sometimes
called the Pride of Iran, and other notables who
have had some acquaintance and dealing with
Isfahan have all come up with sayings which are
bywords in praise and eulogy of it. One has said:
Who says, Isfahan is half the world? If there is a
world, it is Isfahan! (Jamalzadeh 1983: 10)
These descriptions are more or less common
among those who have visited the city and seen
its great, classic, and eye-catching splendors and
their inexhaustible varieties with their own eyes,
as I have (still not fully, of course). Hedayat is no
exception as, evident throughout his travelogue,
the city catches his senses before, during, and after
his visit.
After a 6-h delay for a car and two short delays
in Shah Abdul Azim and Kahrizak (southern out-
skirts of Tehran), his road trip began, stopping for
the rst time in Hasan Abad (about 30 km to the
south of Tehran, now an industrial town, like
Kahrizak to which Hedayat had already referred)
when it was getting dark. After having a drink and
a short rest, they moved toward Qom. Hedayat
describes Qom as the city of the dead, scorpions,
beggars and pilgrims(7), a crowded city of dif-
ferent people with different languages and dia-
lects. Mainly due to the fame of its holy shrine,
Qom had from ancient times been a destination for
pilgrims as well. After a visit to the holy shrine
and then having dinner, they leave Qom; it was
about midnight that their car began moving on the
road again. Finally, they stopped at a gas station
Hedayat tells us that the area is called Shirin-
bālā(9), presumably in the south-western part of
Qom and the driver took a nap there. After
having a cup of tea with his companions, Hedayat
would take his notes in the absolute silence of the
night and then himself take a nap (10).
At the cock-crow, they awake the driver and
begin to move again. They pass hills and moun-
tains as sunrise gradually would shine and cast its
light on the road. It took presumably an hour or
two before they reached Dilijan (11). Hedayat
refers to old castle-like houses, ruins, and tradi-
tional clothes of its people. They have breakfast
and soon move toward Moorcheh-Khar and
Meymeh (famous for their good yogurt as
Hedayat tells us). On the way, the car blows a
2 Hedayat and Isfahan
tire and for some time, Hedayat and his compan-
ions roam around the desert. They could see the
domes of Moorcheh-Khar and Meymeh from afar
as they restarted the trip. They again at Moorcheh-
Khar (today named Moorcheh-Khort) to rest and
eat. The driver would talk about the ancient glory
of that town which was by then turned almost into
ruins (1415). After a word on a few legends
ascribed to that town, they begin to move toward
Meymeh and Isfahan. They drive past the ruined
domes and castle-like walls and nally reach at
the city gate at about 2:30 p.m. After a few hours
of rest at an inn, Hedayat begins his visit.
Hedayat Tours Isfahan
Hedayat correctly mentions the centrality of
Zayandeh-rood (Zayandeh river, zayandeh
means procreator or bearer) in the formation of
Isfahan in ancient times, the river that feeds and
vitalizes the city and its surroundings (Hedayat
1932:1617). As Lotfollah Honarfar writes:
The most important river owing in the center of
Iran is Zayandeh-rood which springs from the
heights of Zard-kooh-e Bakhtiari and from a branch
named Koohrang, and ows from west to east,
[nally arriving] at Gāv-khooni pond... It is about
400 to 480 km... Its riverbed, from its springhead
to its deltas procreates [generates] water, hence it is
called Zayandeh-rood [a procreator or generator
river] ... In Irans vast and arid plateau,
Zayandeh-rood is a blissful presence... (Honarfar
1967: 20-22)
The city is actually fed, to borrow from
Jamalzadeh, by the milk of comfort and prosper-
ity from the bountiful breasts of that loving nurse
[i.e., Zayandeh river](1983: 19).
Hedayat rst visits Charbagh or Chahār-bāgh
street (chahār-bāgh means four gardens), a
broad and big street which is the main walkway
of the city(Hedayat 1932: 16). There is a grand
walkway in the middle of the street and four series
of old sycamore trees with four brooks moving
between them, much like the best streets of Ber-
lin and Paris(16). Then he moves to the famous
river and Sio-Seh Cheshmeh bridgewith series
of shops on its both sides. He describes the
strength of that old bridge and the beauty of the
water shining and passing below it.
He then visits the School of Chahār-bāgh
nearby (School of Four Gardens; for a photo and
further description, see Jamalzadeh 1983:867),
with its masterful tilework and sky blue domes
as a representative of the art of architecture and
tilework of the recent Safavid period(18).
Indeed, when Shah Abbas Safavi made Isfahan
the capital of Iran in 1597 (Tabriz was the previ-
ous capital), this city underwent some changes
and developments (architecture and paintwork/
tilework) (on this, see Taylor 1995:37; Babaie
2018: esp. 138139). In the school, he sees a
clergy comparing the Quran and the Bible, with
people sitting around the mosque near the foun-
tain. On the way back to the inn, he sees groups of
people howling for Ashura (the death of Imam
Hossein, the third imam of Shiite Muslims), but
ignores them and accuses them of wasting their
time. Here, one can see that Hedayat has a critical
view on any overindulgence and extremism in
religious activities, but as an integral part of the
city (see Weber 1958: esp. 96103), he will not
exclude religion as is evident at the end of the
travelogue (more will be said at the end of this
While having dinner at the inn, Hedayat and
others talk about the people of Isfahan, dividing
them into three ethnic groups: (a) the ancient,
native inhabitants, (b) Bakhtiari people, and
(c) Jewish minorities who are presumably descen-
dants of those who were freed by Cyrus (19; see
also Taylor 1995:12, 4). They also talk about
problems people of Isfahan have been facing in
recent years, e.g., opium, alcohol, and illnesses,
and also unhappiness caused by clergies forcing
people to howl and mourn during the year
(Hedayat 1932:2021). Then they comment on
the potentialities of the city and criticize urban
management techniques of Isfahan with regard
to its tourist attraction:
Isfahan is the best city for attracting tourists, [and]
several American tourists have so far come to visit
Isfahan. The London show and Popes library here
have been effective, but what the city lacks is good
inns. With the monuments in Isfahan, it is possible
to nominate it as one of the most spectacular cities
Hedayat and Isfahan 3
in the world, and because it is located almost in the
middle of Iran, there should be a line or trajectory
from north to south for the visitors that connects
important and spectacular cities in terms of natural
sights, weather or historical works; they should also
provide the means of comfort for the visitors and
make Isfahan the center of that [trajectory]. (21)
The next visiting place is Chehel-Sotūn (forty
pillars). Fresh trees surround the central mansion
with twenty wooden, red pillars, which remind
Hedayat of Persepolis; the rectangular pool in
front of the mansion reects the twenty pillars of
the mansion, thus summing up forty! Four of the
pillars have stone bases craved in the shape of four
lions. The walls and ceilings are painted with
bushes and owers, now barely visible but still
impressive. The paintings and shapes on the inner
side of the main dome is so detailed and magnif-
icent that one cannot bear to gaze at it for very
long (2122).
Hedayat describes the paintings on top of the
curtains around the main hall Shah Ismaeel in
war and Nader Shahs conquering of India and
refers to one eye-catching painting of a festivity in
which Shah Abbas and his people are drinking
mey(Persian wine) and watching dancers. This
painting, Hedayat tells us, is presumably drawn
under the direct command of Nader Shah in order
to show him as a man of war and courage and
Shah Abbas a bibulous and inefcient king
(2223). Below the curtains are masterful paint-
ings of beautiful faces,lovers having wine and
lovers in nature, some of these paintings are rem-
iniscent of Chinese works for Hedayat (23). There
are also dim fragments of Dutch paintersdraw-
ings with European subjects.Hedayat
Perhaps the Isfahani spirit of love is inspired by
these paintings and pictures of love in Chehel-
Sotūn, because most people spend their Friday
with musical instruments, wine and love on the
grove beside the river.
Anyway, these curtains are lled with spirit and
after three hundred years, the painter delivers to us
his emotions through these same shapes and draw
us to sweet and loving dreams. And this reminds
[us] of the greatness and civilization of the time,
because the only things that affect the future gener-
ations are these same elegant outbursts [in the
forms] of painting, architecture, music and literature
that thrill mankind and his heart and stimulate the
sense of elegance and excellence... (23)
Hedayat thinks that this mansion could have
been a great museum. He then goes to the nearby
dye and weaving factory and watches the way
these historical works are turned into Persian car-
pets. While bitterly pointing to the way small
children of less than ten years of age masterfully
worked on the carpets with their small hands and
ngers, Hedayat refers to the great toil of this
industry (2425). He thinks Isfahan is the best
industrial city of Iran and will be able to revive
the original industries of Iran in the future (25).
Next is the Shah Square or Naqsh-e Jahān
Square, a vast square which houses the three
great monuments of Isfahan: Shah Mosque
(Masjed Shah), Ali-Qāpū, and Sheikh Lotfollah
Mosque (1932: 25). He laments the way newer
constructions necessitate cutting old and great
trees around the area, thinking that these trees
and this nature have the ancient spirit within
them. Hedayat says that Masjed Shah is one of
the most magnicent constructions of the world
which contains the spirit of the Safavid period and
is created by gods of industry and creation(27).
He thinks that the architecture and arts of tilework
and painting excelled in Sassanid period and
revived in Safavid period (28).
Ali-Qāpūmansion is located on the west side
of Naqsh-e Jahān Square, across from Lotfollah
Mosque. It is similar to Chehel-Sotūn in the way
its portal (balcony) is arranged with pillars. Its
name is Turkish in origin Hedayat thinks the
name is given by the Seljuq dynasty and literally
means brown doors.The hall inside is
ornamented with typical Persian paintings most
of which are now dimly visible, some wiped
away. Its balcony overlooks the city and its sur-
roundings as well as the vast area of the square
where kings would sit and watch people playing
sports in the times of festivities or anniversaries
(1932: 2930). Lotfollah Mosque is located
across from this mansion, it has four walls with a
dome over them. Despite its old age, it is cleaner
and better preserved than the other old mosques. It
was reportedly built by Shah Abbas for his son-in-
law Sheikh Lotfollah (30).
4 Hedayat and Isfahan
Hedayat then visits Khājūbridge, another
bridge similar to Sio-Seh Pol and built across
Zāyandeh-rood. Built like a caravansarywith
bazaars on both sides, it has several small domes
above its shops and stores and has almost three
oors and eighteen or more water springs.The
base is built with formidable stone and has water-
ways that can be blocked in order to keep enough
water and do boating or yachting (1932: 3132).
Masjed Jāmeh, perhaps the oldest mosque in
Isfahan (over 1200 years old), is Hedayats next
destination for the next day. It is located on the far
end of bazaars and ancient places of the city, and
having several entrances which have no signi-
cant tilework on them. But its externals and inter-
nal construction show that it is clearly older than
all mosques of Isfahan. Hedayat says that it had
initially been a re temple, but was later
demolished and rebuilt several times. Though
most of its artful constructions are gone and its
tilework is mostly removed or stolen, what is
remaining here is innitely elegant with a special
method [of construction](1932: 33). Beautiful
cornice, wood, stone, and brick-carvings, archi-
tecture, and tilework (33). The yard and ceiling
are made of marble and, as Hedayat mentions, the
inlay architecture is supremely scrupulous and
eye-catching. This mosque is also another poten-
tial magnicent museum, Hedayat thinks, that has
been used wrongly and by the wrong people; it
should have been a source of artistic inspiration
for masterful designers and artists (34).
Hedayat then goes a longer way to the Imam
Zadeh Ismaeel holy shrine (Imam Zadeh means
child of an Imam). Its entry has a small
tilework with the name of Shah Saon top of it
(1932: 36). The shrine itself is built luxuriously,
with beautiful, hexagonal tiles, ornamented with
gold-carvings and paintings. The ceiling of the
main dome, Hedayat reports, has even more mas-
terful gold-carvings, even more beautiful than
Chehel-Sotūn (3637).
In the afternoon, Hedayat goes to the Jolfā
neighborhood to visit its famous cathedral. Inside
the cathedral, Hedayat says that there is the same
tilework that was common during Safavid period
but the difference is its maintenance: it has been
kept very clean and bright (1932: 38). Above the
tilework, there is a series of paintings of Jesus
Christ and other paintings related to Christianity.
Inside the dome, there is a brilliant gold-craving
which is not in the style of Persian works but
Dutch art (which Hedayat thinks is dull)
(3839). Across the cathedral, Hedayat also visits
the small museum where memoirs of Armenian
immigrants, religious objects, books, and other
things related to the Safavid period are available
(39). While leaving, Hedayat also sees an old
notebook in which famous people (like Bengali
writer Rabindranath Tagore) have written a few
The next day, Hedayat goes out to visit Menār
Jonbān or Menār Jom-Jom (Shaky Minarets), a
famous, mysterious, and shaky construction in
Isfahan. It consists of two rather short towers
which are famously shaky when one ascends it
(1932: 44). Jamalzadeh thus describes the Shak-
ing Minarets:
Everyone who has come to deal with him knows
that, like those Jom-Jom (Shaking) Minarets which
are so much a source of pride and boasting for
young and old in that city, even if the Isfahani
quakes for a lifetime, he is always still rmly in
place, seated where he belongs. He is exactly like
the Zayandeh River, which is yet a fountainhead
afresh for masses of lush greenery even when it is
dry. (Jamalzadeh 1983: 14)
Hedayat ascends them and afrms its shaki-
ness but does not very much enjoy it (Hedayat
1932: 44). On top, he can see a view of Isfahan
and its outskirts. He sees a mountaintop re tem-
ple, where he goes to visit next. The temple is
made of clay bricks and mat but Hedayat says that
it is very formidably built. He has a nice view of
the city there, of its moors and farmlands as well
as the shining river. Inside the temple, he sees an
empty old altar which was used as a replace for
the worshippers. Before leaving, Hedayat lights a
piece of newspaper in the altar. The simplicity and
exposedness of that re temple seem much more
magnicent, respectable, and divine than any
church or mosque (1932: 46).
Below the mountain, Hedayat rests beside a
brook and a middle-aged man comes and sits
beside Hedayat and his friend and talks about the
famous legends and stories about ancient Isfahan,
Hedayat and Isfahan 5
for instance the fact that Isfahan has been a sea in
the old times and people built that re temple on
top of that mountain which was presumably the
only place above water. While listening, Hedayat
I asked myself are these [legends] all real? Is this
man a skillful yarner or a representative of the time
when this place was inhabited by people and is
actually talking about that time?! How great, old
and mysterious is Iran! These thoughts, which are
full of inherited and ancient memoirs, can only be
expected from an Iranian rustic man. An American
or French rustic cannot have so much memoir,
thought and legend. (1932: 4748)
This was Hedayats last day in Isfahan. While
taking a nal walk in Charbagh, he asks: is three
or four days enough to know Isfahan? Can I talk
about it? About this city which... attracted visi-
tors from around the world, a city of industry,
magnicence, wine, painting, tilework, architec-
ture, agriculture, with domes, minarets, light blue
tiles which tried to outpace the magnicence of
Tisfūn the Sassanid capital and still crushes the
observer under its greatness and attractive
Throughout this travelogue, just like his letters,
Hedayats personality and his views toward his
country, its cities, and people are visible, which
comprise a mixture of admiration and criticism.
Dr. Kamshad has, in this regard, acutely pointed to
Hedayatslove for Persia and his consuming
interest in its people, its traditions, culture, and
past glories(Kamshad 1966: 140). These are
clearly traceable both in his Owl as well as his
travelogue, in two distinct contexts and genres.
Hedayat ends his travelogue, in a kind of epi-
phanic feeling that he gets from his nal visit to
the re temple. It seems to him that he has left a
piece of himself, a part of his beingin Isfahan
and in that re temple(1932: 51).
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Jackson, Peter, and Laurence Lockhart, eds. 1986. The
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6 Hedayat and Isfahan
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Isfahan is half the world: Memories of a Persian boyhood
  • Mohammad Jamalzadeh
  • Ali
Jamalzadeh, Mohammad Ali. 1983. Isfahan is half the world: Memories of a Persian boyhood. Trans. W. L. Heston. New Jersey: Princeton University Press Kamshad, Hassan. 1966. Modern Persian prose literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Book arts of Isfahan: Diversity and identity in seventeenth-century Persia. California: The J
  • Alice Taylor
Taylor, Alice. 1995. Book arts of Isfahan: Diversity and identity in seventeenth-century Persia. California: The J. Paul Getty Museum.
The city. Trans. Don Martindale & Gertrude Neuwirth
  • Max Weber
Weber, Max. 1958. The city. Trans. Don Martindale & Gertrude Neuwirth. London/New York: The Free Press.