The Persian Bazaar: Veiled Space of Desire

by Mehdi Khansari
& Minouch Yavari

 Price: $50.00
 Size: 120 pages -- 9 x 12
 Binding: Clothbound
 ISBN: 0-934211-37-X

In the West the word "bazaar," (which comes from the Persian) has changed its meaning from a place where a variety of articles can be found to a place of disorder. In truth, the traditional Persian bazaar was a highly organizaed commercial and financial center of the city. Linked to the mosque, the seminary (madreseh), the religious club (hoseyniyyeh), the caravansary, and the bathhouse (hammam), it was both the spiritual and the cultural heart of the Iranian town. To the casual visitor this organization was not always apparent. This book uses sixty full-color photographs, 80 duotones and twenty maps and drawings, as well as texts from the different perspectives of an art historian, an urban architect, and a professor of environmental planning to convery not only the design and remarkable architecture of the bazaar, but also the exoticism that stikes the senses.

This journey through the traditional Persian bazaar will fascinate the layman and scholar alike. The reader will not only experience the colorful festival of life and architecture that is the bazaar, but will also gain a deeper understanding of the intricate workings and underlying cultural and spiritual structures of the traditional bazaar-an archetypal organizing principle of bazaars from Istanbul to Samarkand.





  • New York Times Book Review
    "Khansari and Yavari, reveal the social logic underlying these magnificent structures-in drawings and words, but most vividly in photographs that let one discover the magic cave that is a bazaar as if one were walking through it, assaulted by the sounds of potters, cabinet makers, farriers and merchants of everything from bread to gold, seduced by the odor of spices and coffee, dazzled by light drifting down from the pierced domes and scattered by brilliantly glazed arches and ceilings onto crowds winding far below among the fabrics and carpets, donkeys and carts, dust and incense."
  • Center for Iranian Research and Analysis Newsletter
    "This book is principally a collection of photographs of facets of various Iranian bazaars. about 80 photos in black and white and 40 in color. Brickwork, tiles, domes, and other architectural features constitute many of the most dramatic and beautiful photos, although there also are some scenes of life and activities in the bazaar. Seventeen different bazaars are included, with Kashan and Isfahan having the most illustrations, although Qazvin, Shiraz, Yazd, Tabriz, and Kemlan also are well represented. There are a few photographs from smaller bazaars from towns such as Bandar Abbas, Mahan, or Zabol."
  • Bookwatch
    "The architecture of the traditional Persian bazaar involves the manipulation of light and setting to lend an exotic aura: the authors here utilize photos, maps, and the insights of urban planners and illustrators to present different angles on the Persian bazaar experience."

    For full text of all reviews, click here


Foreword: "Trade, Shopping, and Architecure"
by Oleg Grabar

by Gerard Grandval

Introduction: "Bazaars, At the Heart of Iranian Towns"
-- A Hierarchical Model of Urban Structure
-- The Central Core, Seat of the Three Powers
-- Center of Economic Life
-- Architectural Compenents of the Bazaar
-- A Hierarchical Organization of Space
-- Specifically Iranian--or Persian--Features?
-- The Urban Kaleidoscope: Many Towns, Many Variations
-- The Bazaar: An Endangered Species?
by Marcel Bazin

Veiled Space of Desire

















FOREWORD: "Trade, Shopping, and Architecure"
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.

About the AuthorAbout the Author Mehdi Khansari was born and educated in Tehran. He studied photography at the School of Visual Arts in New York. In 1986 he co-authored with his wife, Minouch Yavari, Espace Persan, a book on traditional architecture in Iran. His latest work can be found in The Persian Garden: Echoes of Paradise.

Minouch Yavari was born and educated in Tehran. She received her architecture degree in Paris and has worked as an architect since 1984 in Tehran, and then later in France. Her diagrams and plans illustrate The Persian Garden: Echoes of Paradise.

Oleg Grabar is a professor in the School of Historical Studies at the Irstitute foe Advanced Studies, in Princeton.

Gérard Grandval is an architect working in Paris and the winner of the Grand Prix de Rome.

The following represent only those books currently in print. If there is a title you feel we have overlooked please let us know.

If you like the photos and illustrations in this book, you may want to take a look at Khansari and Yavari's work in The Persian Garden: Echoes of Paradise.

Bazaar: Markets and Merchants of the Islamic World by W. Michael Weiss is a new photo book we have not yet seen, but sounds lovely.

A more general book which includes a section on the role of the bazaar in Iranian cities is Iranian Cities: Formation and Devlopment, by Masoud Kheirabadi. There are also two much older, out-of-print books in the same vein: one is Iranian Cities (1979) by Heinz Gaube, the other is Persian Cities (1960), by Laurence Lockhart. These last two may be found by searching online for them on one of the online book searches, such as Advanced Book Exchange, Alibris, Bibliofind, or Bookfinder.


There is virtually nothing on the web on Persian bazaars. If you know of anything please let us know. However, interestingly enough, many Persian-interest web sites like to use the word "bazaar" in their headlines as a way of claiming to have a wide variety of content all under one roof.

When the U.S. wrestling team competed in Iran, they visited a bazaar in Tehran, causing quite a stir. Another news story reported the establishment of Iran's Bazaar in Bonn, Germany.

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