FOREWORD: "Trade, Shopping,
by Oleg Grabar
For all those who have been in an Iranian bazaar, even in
a relatively modern one like Tehran's, there lingers forever
the memory of a wonderfully mysterious area in which known and
unknown goods emerged from unexpected places and people, dressed
in many different ways, wandered under beautiful arches and domes
of baked brick. It seemed like a remote and exciting world of
its own, unique and changeless.
Cold reality and logic make one read it all quite differently.
The bazaars of Iran, it could be argued, are nothing but shopping
centers. At first glance, they, of course, look different from
our neatly compartmentalized and homogenized spaces enclosing
pedestrians malls and surrounded by huge parking lots and delivery
roads. But these differences are perhaps secondary and these
ancient bazaars may just be like old clothes, quaint and perhaps
no longer very comfortable, but covering the same bodies and
the same actions as are part of the contemporary scene.
Let me pursue the point. The long spine of Isfahan's bazaar winds
its way between two planned and constructed spaces which are
partly open to the skies. One, the monumental ensemble of the
meydan-i Shah (now the maydan-i imam), is royal and religious;
the other, the complex building known as the masjid-i jomeh,
is also religious but in a more civic and urban sort of way.
One could enter this spine in many places, passing first through
warehouses as one left the living quarters of private houses
and small traders, generally related to each other through ethnic,
tribal, family, or religious associations. People, in fact almost
exclusively men, walked in this spine and goods were only occasionally
brought in on the backs of donkeys, mules, and, more rarely,
camels. At various intervals, there was a fountain to provide
freshness and refreshments and a place for rest and for the exchange
of news or gossip; someone, to be sure, also provided food. In
all likelihood, there were times when entertainment, usually
musical, was also available, and we know that an orchestra played
at the meydan-i Shah entrance to the bazaar.
Isfahan was a capital and a show piece of Safavid wealth and
patronage. Although lesser cities may not have received all the
amenities found in the capital, among the striking features of
Iranian (and other) bazaars are, nearly everywhere, the vastness,
the expansiveness, of the spaces they occupy and the consistency
of their arrangements, as though a basic, even if flexible, prototype
had been invented or developed at some unknown time and then
carried through the centuries.
So do our modern shopping centers give an impression of sameness
in their arrangements; in such services as eating, drinking,
and resting available in them; in the occasional appearance of
entertainment; in the necessity for people to walk, while little
carts or vans transport goods. Even the outlying areas of the
spaces are comparable, as modern shopping centers have parking
of private cars and trucks tying them to the daily life beyond.
In heavily settled places, as with the Forum des Halles in Paris
or with many reconverted garages and factories elsewhere, some
of these elements of composition are placed underground with
invisible parking places and subways, but the principle of a
sequence going from the shopping center to the parking and then
to means of access to various ways of local living is consistent
in new shopping centers as they were in the bazaars of old.
We are less clear on whether traditional Iranian bazaars served
as collective and family festive places, as happened outside
of Iranian cities for the New Year or as transform our centers
at Christmas time, but we can imagine that on major religious
celebrations, like those of Muharram or of the end of Ramadan,
the bazaars did play a role for larger urban groups than those
who used them every day, even though it is safe to assume that
a masculine environment always predominated.
Why not simply conclude that traditional bazaars were but the
older equivalents of modern shopping centers with differences
in life style and behavior expressed in multiple ways characteristic
of each separate culture but without any fundamental alteration
of comparable human behavior? There are, I believe, two reasons
not to draw such a conclusion of universal sameness, even if
one can easily admit that the same desires for material consumption
and for acquisitiveness dominated both kinds of spatial organizations.
The first reason is both simple and important. In the modern
world, manufacturing has disappeared from the shopping center.
In the traditional world, things were made in bazaars. Everyone
knows about streets with specialized artisans weaving baskets,
making shoes, beating metal, transforming every conceivable raw
material into all sorts of useful or decorative objects. Bazaars
were noisy; some, like the streets of metalworkers, were overwhelming
with the sounds reverberating on walls and vaults, so noisy in
fact that in recent times apprentices were moved into open spaces
around bazaars for the loudest operations affecting metals. Noises
do not appear in photographs, but dust does, and all bazaars
were filled with particles of work, the sawdust of woodworkers
or the threads of textiles, mixed with the dust of architecture
and of endlessly shuffling feet. This dust is like a veil which
covers the visitor or like the filter through which he reaches
whatever he sought, the object of his desires. And to the dust
must be added odors, the sweet smells of candies and pastries,
the rich scents of endless perfumes, the rough smell of leather
or of paint, the hard odors of working bodies making things or
carrying them around.
Making things was not simply a technical activity now gone from
shopping centers, it was a continuous sensory experience for
the eyes, the nose, the ears, at times the taste buds and even
touch. That experience could be exhilarating and attractive or
repulsive and depressing. But, when compared to the aseptic quality
of our shopping malls, it always was a profoundly human experience,
mixing in a uniquely rich combination everything that man can
make and everything that exudes from the body. Both the inhabitants
and the makers of the bazaar as well as visitors who came to
it contributed all together to that concoction of noises, smells,
and sights and imbibed it in ways which are quite different from
those of our own shopping areas.
The other difference between traditional bazaars and contemporary
centers lies in the nature and quality of their respective architecture.
I shall restrict myself to two aspects of that difference. One
is a technical one, at least at first glance. It involves the
material of construction and the ways in which it was treated.
Today steel beams or concrete blocks hold up two or three levels
of shops connected by escalators or steps and end with a more
or less translucent ceiling of glass or glass substitute, through
which some sort of sky appears, even though one never quite knows
whether it is the real sky or some image thereof. But, artificial
or not, it is the source of light for most of the shopping center
and that light always seems to be coming from the sun during
the day, from artificial sources at night.
But something quite different happens with the construction of
traditional bazaar spaces in Iran. Brick, the phonetic unit of
construction, is always present, always visible, as though the
whole atomic structure of the building was made apparent. Spaces
are cut up into cubicles covered with vaults or domes and the
succession of cupolas, often with different decorative designs,
seems to be an endless discovery of new treasures, of new ways
in defining space, of wondrous mysteries in richly designed zones
of transition, in tactile walls whose bricks, and at times additional
ornament (tiles or stucco), shine from obscured sources of light.
For, even though most domes have more or less the same opening
at the top through which the light of the sun or of the moon
comes down to the level of men, this light does not illuminate
everything the same way but cascades down through a range of
more or less mysterious volumes, as though endlessly searching
for something it will never find in the continuous life of the
bazaar. It is difficult to reconstruct in their fullness the
ways of light in bazaars before the appearance of electricity.
In addition to the round skylights, one should imagine thousands
of small lights from candles or from oil lamps of different sizes.
Just as with buildings transformed into their phonetic components,
light must have appeared as a firework of flickering sources
transfiguring people and things into sharply defined three dimensional
objects rather than illuminating them fully and almost cruelly.
The architecture of the bazaar was an experience of discovery,
it created a mystery in which both men and things played a strange
role, only partly defined through their specific function of
selling and making or of buying and waiting to be bought. By
its skillful manipulation of light and of built surfaces, this
architecture sought to attract and to fascinate. Together with
the noises, the smells, and the visual festival of colorful items
on display, it proclaimed the complexity of life and something
of its illusory quality. Everything may be possible and available,
but perhaps nothing is real.