Monday, August 20, 2012

The Architecture of Iranian Bazaars

Imamzadeh Zeid at the
Grand Bazaar in Tehran
By Heidi Noroozy

A trip to Iran is never complete without a visit to one of the country’s many bazaars. These marketplaces date back to the fourth century C.E., when they were built along major trade routes, often at the intersections of several thoroughfares. Cities had areas reserved for trade, where small stores and merchant stalls grew into sprawling covered markets. The term comes from the Middle Persian word, baha char, which meant “place of prices.” Bazaars have long been commercial and financial centers as well as a focus of social and religious life.

In its simplest form, a bazaar is defined as two rows of shops facing each other on either side of a street and connected by a stone roof. This definition hardly does justice to the enormous complexity of these structures, with their labyrinths of streets and multiple levels. Iranian bazaars combine typical features of Persian architecture: arches, domes, and vaulted ceilings, brickwork, decorative tiles, and even paintings.

Historically, bazaars were organized into sections, each dedicated to a specific trade, and this layout is still largely preserved today. You seek out one area for spices—to find it, just follow your nose—and another for kitchenware, a third for gold coins and jewelry. The stores are tiny, sometimes only large enough for a small sample of wares, the bazari (merchant), and two or three customers. Often, each section forms a self-contained “neighborhood,” with its own teahouse, mosque, public bath, and Hosseinieh, a space for religious ceremonies.

The Bazar Bozorg, or Grand Bazaar, in Tehran, is the largest in the world, although it is far from the oldest. Only 200 years old, it features 6 miles of covered space. This central marketplace is a must-see stop for any visitor to Tehran, but it’s best to take a local guide along. Having grown haphazardly over the course of two centuries, it has no uniform architectural style but consists of a jumble of covered corridors, open streets, courtyards, and caravansaries. As far as I know, there is no map to help you navigate the place, and even asking for directions can be of little help. A lot of bazaris and laborers working here only know their part of the labyrinth well and have no more than a vague notion of what lays beyond.

Carpet section of the
Grand Bazaar in Tehran

Tehran’s Grand Bazaar was once the center of financial and even political power, and its bazaris played a significant role in the Islamic Revolution. Today, much of its financial clout has shifted to the northern part of the city, but you can still see the money changers along the streets, sitting among stacks of dollars, euros, and rials.

One of the most fascinating features of an Iranian bazaar is the caravansary, a spacious, domed hall often located at the back of the marketplace but sometimes at its very heart. This chamber was once a place for caravans of traveling merchants to put up for the night or set up temporary stalls for a few days before moving on to the next town. The advent of motorized vehicles has now displaced the horse-drawn carts of earlier eras and put an end to this function. Today, a caravansary is known as a sarai, or sometimes timcheh, and forms a central courtyard surrounded by shops (as opposed to the long hallways in the rest of the bazaar). The goods sold here are often the finest luxury items, carpets, and works of art.

Caravansary in the Kashan Bazaar

The Vakil Bazaar in Shiraz is one of the most beautiful in the country. Built by Karim Khan Zand, who ruled Iran from 1750-1779, it has a largely cruciform shape, with arched columns, decorative brickwork, and openings in the vaulted roof that bring in light and fresh air. Its former caravansary, the Serai Mushir, is located on the south side, where vendors sell traditional handicrafts, many of them made by the local Qashqa’i tribes.

Handicrafts on sale at the
Sarai Mushir in Shiraz

My favorite bazaar, though, is the one in Esfahan, which departs from the usual labyrinthine layout. It is mainly rectilinear, built around the perimeter of the city’s enormous Naqsh-e Jahan Square with shops on the ground floor and storage space and offices upstairs. Like Vakil, it features typical Persian architecture with arches, vaulted ceilings, and decorative brickwork. But it dates back several centuries earlier to the time of Shah Abbas I of the Safavid Dynasty. All around the main entrance at the north end of the square, you can still a series of fading frescoes depicting Shah Abbas’s wars with the Uzbeks. In the arch between the paintings, stretches an ornamental structure known as stalactite work—a series of small niches layered on top of each other like a honeycomb.

Frescoes and honeycomb arch of the
Isfahan Bazaar

The Esfahan bazaar is famous for its handicrafts, made right on the premises. The workshops are located in the back corridors, where you can watch artisans stamp colorful patterns on cotton tablecloths or hammer intricate designs into copper and bronze bowls.

To truly experience an Iranian bazaar, with its riot of colors, cacophony of sounds, spicy scents, and crush of humanity, you have to visit one in person. Just watch out for the carters pulling their wagons piled high with goods through the corridors. They don’t stop for pedestrians!

Or check out this panoramic view of the Esfahan Bazaar.


  1. This is a fascinating piece, Heidi. I had always assumed bazaars were similar to European markets, but they are obviously much more. And the photographs you have included are tantalizing. Thanks for a really informative post.

    1. Thanks, Patricia. Bazaars are almost like little cities of their own, except that everyone goes home at night.

  2. Isenberg Devorah
    I wana thank you for providing instructive and qualitative stuff so often.