The City As Anthology
Eroticism and Urbanity in Early Modern Isfahan
by Kathryn Babayan
2021 Stanford University Press

Today, more than ever, have we understood the significance of the city. We have seen how even in the most beautiful cities of the world, lockdown has meant the death of public life, of culture, of cafés, of trade and circulation. We have become acutely aware that cities are much more than their buildings, their walls, and their infrastructure. The City as Anthology: Eroticism and Urbanity in Early Modern Isfahan looks beyond the nuts and bolts of Isfahan’s built environment to focus on the urban imaginary and the ways Isfahanis, from a variety of walks of life, gave meaning to their city in the seventeenth century.

The architectural success of Isfahan’s central square, the Naqsh-i Jahan or Image of the World as a public space in the modern city has rendered its development in the early modern era legible, as though, by merely stepping onto the ground walked by its residents five centuries earlier, we can imagine its history and the affects it produced and engaged. The turquoise, lapis, and yellows of its domes and walls, the ubiquity of its calligraphy, all continue to draw the visitor into the square’s auratic sense of aesthetics. But how did inhabitants born in Isfahan during the early decades of the seventeenth century experience their city? And how did migrants entering the new Safavi capital read the density of its words, images, colors, and people?

My book explores Isfahan through the lens of seventeenth century anthologies (majmu’a). Thousands of manuscripts produced in Isfahan’s households assembled objects ranging from portraits and letters from friends, to poems depicting the central square, to marriage contracts and talismans. Authors collected, curated, and bound together material generated by the culture of adab or etiquette and conduct to learn how to act and relate to other residents of a diverse and ever-growing capital city.

With these family collections, I tell a new history of Isfahan at the transformative moment it became a cosmopolitan center of imperial rule. Bringing into view people's lives from a city with no extant state or civic archives, I reimagine the archive of anthologies to recover how residents shaped their communities and crafted their urban, religious, and sexual selves.

Eight residents act as protagonists in this early modern history of Isfahan. Anthologizing their experience of the city, they wrote their relationship to the habitus they helped shaped. Seven men and one woman enact the gestures, manners, and sensibilities of a shared culture of adab that configured their social and erotic relations. Schooled in the politics and aesthetics of Isfahan, residents deployed different media to embody what I have termed “urbanity,” displaying their mastery of the adab of sociability and flaunting their knowledge of the city and its ways. From king to widow, painter to religious scholar, poet to bureaucrat, their authorial voices and habits of writing, reading, seeing, and desiring have grounded my analysis of the urban. A shared phenomenology emerges from these anthologies as residents learned to see the beauty of Isfahan, realized how to read eros in its beauty, cultivated desire for the coy gestures of the beloved, and studied the protocols of writing love in letters to friends. These intimately entangled acts—seeing, reading, desiring, and writing—converge to fashion the urban self through the sensual and the sexual. As authors, the eight protagonists of this book made the city their own, writing their quotidian engagement with friends, kin, and clients, dynamically divulging the many dimensions of the social, the cultural, and the religious spheres of life in Isfahan.

About the author
Kathryn Babayan is Professor of Middle East Studies and History at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is the author of Mystics, Monarchs, and Messiahs: Cultural Landscapes of Early Modern Iran (2002).

About the Book:
Babayan, Kathryn. 2021. The City As Anthology: Eroticism and Urbanity in Early Modern Isfahan. Redwood City: Stanford University Press.