“A great city surrounded by beautiful gardens. It is excellently situated so the goods brought to here coming from many regions. Latin Merchants specifically Genevis go there to buy the goods that come from foreign lands,” the Venetian traveller Marco Polo wrote of Tabriz in 1275.
Visitors have been coming to the city for a few millennia and archaeological evidence uncovered near the historic Blue Mosque suggests human settlements going back to distant antiquities. Today Tabriz is the capital of the Iranian province of East Azerbaijan and boasts a population of 1.7 million. The majority of the inhabitants are Azerbaijani and speak a Turkish dialect known as Azeri Turkic, a close relation of Turkish used in Turkiye. While most Azeri speakers claim to understand Turkish, it is common for Turks to say they struggle to understand Azeri. Other groups who call Tabriz their home include Persians – who make up the majority of Iran’s population – Armenians, Assyrians and various peoples from the Caucasus. A diverse city, whose Bazaar was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tabriz excites, delights and intrigues the modern traveller.
The wonders of the city and its Bazaar also delighted the pre-modern traveller, Ibn Battuta, a 14th century North African explorer who wrote: “One of the finest bazaars I have seen the world over. Every trade is grouped separately in it. I passed through the jewellers’ bazaar, and my eyes were dazzled by the varieties of precious stones that I behold.” While 17th century French explorer, Jean Chardin, was also smitten with the city claiming it had the “best and most magnificent markets of Asia.” Trade was a central draw to the city for many in the pre-modern period, it was considered one of the key cities on the Silk Roads’ route, which ran from China across the Middle East to Europe.The good fortunes of the city due to location and commerce have always made it attractive to different dynasties, rulers and empires. Tabriz has served as the capital city for seven different rulers and dynasties throughout its history. Atropates, a Persian nobleman who founded his own kingdom in the third century BC, was likely the first to make Tabriz a capital city.
However, Tabriz has also experienced many devastating events and has frequently been destroyed as a result of invasions, natural disasters and other calamities. In 791, an earthquake left the city in ruins and Zubaidah, wife of the Abbasid Caliph Harun Al-Rashid, rebuilt it and beautified it so much that some have erroneously credited her with founding Tabriz.Over the centuries the Georgians, the Mongols, the Turkomens and others conquered the city and attempted to remake it in their own image. In 1501, Ismail I entered the city and declared it the capital of his new empire, the Safavid Empire. But the arrival of the Safavids did not lead the city to stability, it became a site of battles between the Safavids and the Ottomans. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, the city changed hands between the Ottomans and Safavids a number of times. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Russia became a player and during one war between Persia and Russia, Russian troops captured Tabriz. Moscow would later return the city to the Persians.
In the 20th century Tabriz gained a reputation as the city of ‘firsts’ due to its rapid modernisation. The first printing press, publication houses, public libraries, hotels, cinemas, schools, telephones, firefighters and power plants among other things in Iran began their life in Tabriz. The city was also at the centre of Iran’s Constitutional Revolution in 1905. The revolution would lead to democratic reforms, the establishment of national parliament, a constitution and the principles of freedom of speech. Constitutional House, located next to Tabriz’s Bazaar, was a key meeting point for activists, journalists, politicians and leaders during the revolution. The city was also key to the 1979 Iranian Revolution which gave rise to the Islamic Republic.
It remains the beating heart of Iran, likely to play a role in future key events in the country’s future.