Place, Memory & Empire in Safavid Yazd


A review of Memory on the Boundaries of Empire: Narrating Place in the Early Modern Local Historiography of Yazd, by Derek J. Mancini-Lander.

While earlier historical work on Iran in the Safavid period has focused on either the imperial court or the empire as a whole, Derek Mancini-Lander has taken up the question of how history could be seen and written from the vantage point of a secondary city within the Safavid domains, the southwest Iranian city of Yazd. The dissertation focuses on a local history of Yazd, the Jāmi‘-i Mufīdī, meaning “Mufīd’s Compendium,” or “Useful Compendium” (playing on the meaning of the author’s name). The Jāmi‘-i Mufīdī was written in the late seventeenth century, a period when a change in imperial strategy, initiated by Shāh ‘Abbās I at the turn of the century, “reoriented the city’s position vis-à-vis the imperial court and the other regions of the realm and reconfigured the ways in which Yazdīs could participate in the project of imperial rule” (p. 9). The author of the Jāmi‘-i Mufīdī, Muḥammad Mufīd Bāfqī (hereafter, “Mufīd”), was a disappointed native of Yazd who had once held relatively high bureaucratic positions (p. 1). Unable to find employment in the Safavid administration, he made his way to India, where he wandered for nine years before finding acceptable employment in the Punjabi city of Multān (pp. 6-9). Mufīd saw his own experience as exemplifying a crisis that beset the whole city of Yazd: the flow of benefits underlying the major institutions and political relationships between Yazd and the imperial court had dried up. The imperial court had turned its back on Yazd, and the city’s erudite and talented men were abandoning the Safavid Empire for India (p. 7).

Mancini-Lander examines the Jāmi‘-i Mufīdī in light of two earlier works on Yazd, with the goal of understanding “the ways in which these authors used their commemorations of local sites as a means of articulating a local perspective and, at the same time, a sense of belonging in the world outside Yazd,” and also how they used the history of their city “to negotiate status vis-à-vis the imperial center” and “to take part – albeit from the periphery – in the project of crafting empire” (p. 10). In fluid, graceful prose, Mancini-Lander explores the major mythic and symbolic themes of Mufīd’s history, its poetics and key tropes, and traces them through a number of central structures and historical events that defined the city of Yazd for Mufīd, producing a clear account of how the author drew successive layers of history into a coherent narrative that admonished the reigning Safavid monarch, Sulayman II, not to neglect the city.

The central concept Mancini-Lander uses for understanding how Mufīd produces a narrative history from the physical environment of the city and selected biographies is the chronotope. This term, coined by Mikhail Bakhtin, describes the way in which language represents points in space as having a strong temporal valence, or associates points with particular places, allowing readers to orient themselves within the world of the narrative and “understand the relationship between the time of the story, the time of writing it, and the time of reading it” (pp. 30-31). Mufīd is thus shown to mobilize both highly specific local memories about important places in the city and individuals in the city’s history, as well as more widely-held historical memory, to cultivate a sense of nostalgia and pride in Yazd as a homeland, and also to warn the ruler against marginalizing the city. In this way, Mancini-Lander develops an intuitive and nuanced explanation of how a regional history can function rhetorically: how the focalization of a historical, biographical, and geographical study on a single region works to convince readers of its importance and value. Thus, Mufīd warps history and geography around the city of Yazd and its monuments, redefining pivotal events and key individuals in the dynastic history of the Safavids and the Tīmūrids in terms of their relationship with the city, and thus giving Yazd an essential role in what were defining moments for these dynastic enterprises.

The first chapter explores the major mythic and symbolic elements in the Jāmi‘-i Mufīdī, and “the conceits that the authors contrive in order to switch on their chronotopes and empower them to act outside the boundaries of the text” (p. 37). Of particular importance throughout the text is the motif of water and wells. Water in Mufīd’s text is a synechdoche – both an example of the benefits that can flow between ruler, land, and people, and a figure standing in for benefits as a whole. Mancini-Lander shows how the mythical founding of Yazd by Alexander the Great, as well as other pivotal or highly symbolic events in the city’s history, revolve around water, either as a benefit that is extracted from the land by labor and just rule, or in the vengeful form of a flood. After establishing Mufīd’s use of the motif of water, the remaining sections of the chapter discuss the important classes of people on whom the city’s prosperity depends: saints, rulers, men of the pen, and financial administrators (mustawfī). The concluding section of the chapter discusses the preface (dībāchah) and how Mufīd uses this part of the text to project its authority beyond the subject of Yazd.

The second chapter takes up the figure of Alexander the Great, or Iskandar Dhū al-Qarnayn, who was the founder of Yazd according to Mufīd, and his treatment in a range of histories, including both local histories and Alexander romances such as Niẓāmī’s Iskandarnāmah. His portrayal differs markedly in different works – a number of historical works cast Alexander in an unfavorable light, whereas for Niẓāmī he is an idealized world-ruler. In the story of the city’s founding, Alexander, against the wishes of Aristotle who looked at the site of Yazd and saw only dry desert, attempts to dig a prison which reveals a source of water (p. 231). Thus, the figure of Alexander is connected to intuitive, divine knowledge, as opposed to worldly learning. He was also connected in Persianate political thought to the imperial title ṣāhib-qirān, or “Lord of the Auspicious Conjunction,” most famously used for Tīmūr. This title was the central concept in a new model of kingship developed in the ninth/fifteenth century especially by the “astrologer-historian” Sharaf al-Dīn ‘Alī Yazdī, which became prevalent throughout the Islamic world in the following centuries (p. 250). This latter figure will be a major locus through which Mufīd makes Yazd central to imperial history.

Having worked out the symbolic language and stakes of the text, the third chapter focuses again on the monuments of Yazd and how the story of the city’s history is told through them. Two broad historical developments are of interest here. First, the ascendance of Sayyid families during the period of Mongol rule, which Mufīd depicts as occurring at the expense of the Atābayks, military-aristocratic figures who governed Yazd prior to the Mongol invasions – at first with exemplary, saintly justice, while the last Atābayk is vilified; and secondly, the cultivation, and later neglect, of the sciences of astrology and medicine. The narrative episodes in which these processes play out are organized around the monuments of the city, especially major shrine complexes and buildings endowed by Rashīd al-Dīn and managed by his descendants. These shrine complexes, which included schools and hospitals, dominated the city’s skyline before the Safavid period. In this chapter Mancini-Lander also explores the whole range of historical evidence for the figures involved in these stories, and reveals Mufīd’s rhetorical method of refocalizing developments in imperial history around the city of Yazd.

Similarly, the Sufi orders, especially the Ni‘matullāhīyah, who are the major focus of the fourth chapter, are portrayed by Mufīd as having a central role in the rise of the Safavids, a role which is buttressed by their knowledge of occult sciences that, in Mufīd’s time, have fallen into neglect (p. 497). Finally, the remainder of the fourth chapter explores the changing patterns of patronage that led to the rise of new shrine centers, such as Mashhad, at the expense of Yazd’s old shrine complexes. The forms of devotional practice endorsed and promoted by the Safavids beginning with ‘Abbās I – Twelver Shī‘ī jurists (fuqahā’) based in a different set of institutions and shrines from the Sufis – marginalized Yazd. Yazd’s learned and devotional institutions were the victim of policies of imperial centralization whose aim was to reduce the autonomy of such local centers, and reduce the threat posed by their major families to the dynasty’s control.

While Mancini-Lander does not claim that Yazd is an especially typical Iranian city – asserting that, if anything, it is quite an unusual city, both in its highly arid geography and in its cultural heritage –, his study of one Yazdī’s view can help to inform us about circumstances and historical processes that operated throughout the Safavid Empire. Even if Yazd was unique in many ways, as a secondary or peripheral city, it must have been more representative, in some ways, of the experience of other secondary cities, than the capital. Exploring the experience and memory of empire from a more peripheral location allows us to see a different array of unifying factors and cross-currents than we would see from a more central vantage point. In this respect especially, “Memory on the Boundaries of Empire” is an important contribution to the literature on Iran in the Safavid and Tīmūrid periods that will be of interest to any student of Early Modern Iranian history. It also stands alongside scholarship such as that of Sarah Schneewind (Community Schools and the State in Ming China, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006) to explore how individuals on the margins of early modern imperial states attempted renegotiate their relations with the center of imperial authority, and adds to an important body of literature concerning memory and geography.

Kaveh Hemmat
Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
University of Chicago

Primary Sources:

Muḥammad Mufīd Mustawfī Bāfqī, Jāmiʿ-i Mufīdī, ed. Iraj Afshār, 3 vols. (Tehran: Asāṭīr, 2007).
Sayyid Jaʿfar ibn Muḥammad ibn Ḥasan Jaʿfarī, Tārīkh-i Yazd (Tehran: B.T.N.K., 1960).
Aḥmad ibn Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī Kātib, Tārīkh-i Jadīd-i Yazd (Tehran: Intishārāt-i Īrān-Zamīn, 1978).

Dissertation Information:

University of Michigan. 2012. 569 pp. Primary Advisor: Kathryn Babayan.


Image: Grand Mosque, Yazd. Uncredited photograph.

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