Kathryn Babayan, The City as Anthology: Eroticism and Urbanity in Early Modern Isfahan (Stanford University Press, 2021). 

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

Kathryn Babayan (KB): I have always been drawn to the writing of social and cultural history from below, an affinity that goes back to my coming of age in Tehran on the eve of the Iranian Revolution. As high school students we were politicized, cognizant of authoritarian regimes, of social inequities, and of the power of ordinary people. But as a graduate student I was confronted with a different reality. I entered the field of Islamic history when philology continued to be the mode of scholarship; historical texts were mined for facts and understood as transparent truths, reflective of social practices and historical realities. Moreover, the historiography on the premodern Middle East privileged scriptural Islam and high culture over popular mentalities and everyday practices. Much like earlier trends in the writing of European and US history, institutional, intellectual, military, and economic history were valorized subjects of inquiry, narrating stories of men in power, and their acts and ideas. This was the mindset that shaped most Near Eastern studies departments in the United States during the 1980s. I was, however, lucky to have had a renegade advisor in Martin Dickson, and so I stepped out into history and benefited from the teachings of Peter Brown and Natalie Zemon Davis, who became my intellectual mentors. I wanted to write their vision of history where the material and affective lives and experiences of ordinary men and women came into intimate focus. The City as Anthology is this dream come true.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

KB: The City as Anthology offers a different model to study early modern urban culture through verbal (majmuʿa) and visual (muraqqaʿ) anthologies collected in Isfahan’s households. It combines historiographies of the book with scholarship on urban space to intervene in contemporary discussions about experience and materiality from the vantage point of gender and sexuality.

The book began with simple questions: What were these anthologies? Who produced and preserved them? How were they made, and for what purpose? To answer these questions, I limited my research to Isfahan and the seventeenth century when most extant anthologies were assembled. I separated anthologies that assembled specialized subjects, such as diplomatic letters, philosophical, medical, or theological treatises, from those interspersed with professional and personal or familial objects. Categorizing anthologies along the lines of genre and modes of curation provided me with the model or rubric of what I have termed “household anthologies,” which are family archives distinct from single subject anthologies that were compiled for institutional purposes, such as the transmission of power and knowledge in courtly or religious circles.

It is the subjective processes of making urban knowledge that frame my reading of anthologies, as residents collected paintings, recorded segments of essays and poems, and chose personal and private letters or talismans to include in their family archives. The rich variety of habits of collecting and curating expose the professional and personal lives of households as well as their ties to generations of city life. For seventeenth-century Isfahan, anthologies-cum-archives are unique sources that bring people’s lives into view. This is particularly important for a city with no extant state or city archives.

The written word has been privileged as the site of literacy in the medieval Arabic-speaking world across several scholarly works that focus on histories of the manuscript or study reading practices connecting social networks to knowledge production. By way of anthologies, my history of Isfahan concentrates on the city as a space of urban knowledge making. Thus, part of my work is to use anthologies to map the social space of the household in Isfahan. Anthologies preserve networks of texts that connected households together with the intersecting lives of teachers, students, friends, and relatives that mattered to each respective family. Friendship is critical to this process; friends exchanged poetry, essays, and letters among themselves, engaging their networks as they circulated and recorded urban knowledge. Male friendships developed around shared habits of viewing and collecting images, which were to be read, discussed, and performed in the bazaars, coffeehouses, and streets of Isfahan. It is these rituals, I argue, that comprised not only the “anthologizing of the city,” but also the procedures and methods of sex and gender knowledge production.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

KB: For my first book, Mystics, Monarchs and Messiahs: Cultural Landscapes of Early Modern Iran, which was based on my dissertation, I was unable to conduct research in Iran. I had been restricted to materials available either in print or in manuscripts housed in European libraries; these sources shaped my exploration of sovereignty and heresy in the Safavi Empire. Court chronicles and religious treatises were my recourse; I dove into accounts of popular revolts and became sensitive to the tensions punctuating dominant narratives as I considered these “official” sources alongside epics and poetry to gain access to the world view of the subjects of Safavi Iran. With a socially inflected perspective, my reading of the language of sovereignty and heresy complicated a historiography of the early modern Islamic world that had previously relied on a static view of scriptural Islam to understand the past. I was, of course, reliant on the mediating voices of historians, clerics, poets, and storytellers who spoke for monarchs, mystics, or messiahs.

My second book project is based on research in Iran. In 1993 I began reading through catalogues at the University of Tehran Library to see what kinds of material had survived beyond those produced by the institutions of the imperial court and the religious seminary. It was at this point that I came across anthologies, termed majumuʿa, literally a “gathering together.” As I read through the catalogues, I was baffled to see contents that included personal letters, wills, talisman recipes, and other miscellanea. Clearly these majmuʿa did not correspond to the anthology taxonomy I had heard of. Puzzled and fascinated by their genres and subjects, I knew then that these anthologies would be the archive from which a social and cultural history of the Safavi world could be written.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

KB: I very much hope that The City as Anthology comes to be known outside the circle of Persianists as a model for early modern urban culture wherever it can be found, from Venice and Barcelona to Kyoto. Its topic (the anthology as verbal, visual, and material construct) is interdisciplinary and so too are its methods, which draw from social history and art history, gender, sexuality, and media studies. Though grounded in scholarship within the specialized field of early modern Persianate studies, it addresses a large audience of scholars working on the history of the book, the city, and friendship, adding an exciting and heretofore understudied corpus of material to an already vibrant discussion.

My aim has been to provide sufficient historical specificity to the practice of friendship and the forging of social relations, so as to facilitate a dialogic engagement between early modern Persianate studies and early modern sexuality studies. By means of my analysis, we can see both similarities and differences with the western world while adding some thickness to our broader knowledge of sexuality. Thinking sex with the early moderns has compelled me to see erasures that today silence passionate friendships and that obscured the entangled history that love shared with eros and beauty. The early modernity of homoeroticism archived in seventeenth-century household anthologies extends the possibility of the analysis of gender and sexuality to loving friendships that established amical communities in other geographies and temporalities. Whether moving the dialogue eastward to Delhi or westward to Istanbul, Damascus, Cairo, Paris, and London, my project details how erotic sensibilities forged social collectives that shaped the habitus of early modern Isfahan.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

KB: Presently, together with a fellow historian, Nozhat Ahmadi, and her graduate students at the University of Isfahan, I have begun the vast project of collecting and generating tables of contents for numerous catalogued anthologies housed in the capital’s most prominent public libraries—at Majlis, Malik, Milli, and Tehran University. We have been indexing the various genres of texts included in each. Adapting our work to include reconnaissance, we have taken careful account of the content and organization of these anthologies and have considered eventually creating a Safavi digital database of Majmu’a where fellow scholars across the world may freely have access to these rich Persianate-world sources.


Excerpt from the book (from the Conclusion, pp. 196-201)

The City as Anthology reads household anthologies as verbal and visual archives of an entwined urban and erotic form of knowledge, typically overlooked in the historiography of seventeenth-century Isfahan. Eight residents acted as protagonists in this early modern history of Isfahan. Anthologizing their experience of the city, they wrote their relationship to the habitus they helped shaped. Seven men and one woman enacted the gestures, manners, and sensibilities of a shared culture of adab that configured their social and erotic relations. Schooled in the politics and aesthetics of Isfahan, residents deployed different media to embody what I have termed “urbanity,” displaying their mastery of the adab of sociability and flaunting their knowledge of the city and its ways. From king to widow, painter to religious scholar, poet to bureaucrat, their authorial voices and habits of writing, reading, seeing, and desiring have grounded my analysis of the urban. A shared phenomenology emerges from these anthologies as residents learned to see the beauty of Isfahan, realized how to read eros in its beauty, cultivated desire for the coy gestures of the beloved, and studied the protocols of writing love in letters to friends. These intimately entangled acts—seeing, reading, desiring, and writing—converge to fashion the urban self through the sensual and the sexual. As authors, the eight protagonists of this book made the city their own, writing their quotidian engagement with friends, kin, and clients, dynamically divulging the many dimensions of the social, the cultural, and the religious spheres of life in Isfahan.

Furthermore, these anthologies posit a highly refined sensuality as the prism through which the recognition of a subjective self, family, and beloved friend become tangible in the context of the beauty of Isfahan. The prominence of ʿishq—the mystic love that is desiring—in household anthologies underscores the emotional apparatus that enables us to trace these protagonists’ encounter with Isfahan. Inhabitants deployed the idiom of mystic love to produce their urbanity and exhibit their refinement. Whether as collectors or authors of letters, poetry, drawings, manuals, or essays, men mobilized the idealized rhetoric of beauty and love, fetishized in the figure of the male youth, to engage in politics and fashion their masculine bonds. Among the cast of characters in this history, one king, Shah Abbas I, composed his anthology in the form of a central square (analogized to the Image of the World) adorned by wall paintings and epigraphy illustrating paradise with all its material delights, including homoerotic pleasures for residents and visitors to view and to be seduced by. Shah Abbas I’s authorizing act, aimed to convert his subjects to Shi’ism, drew men and women into the urban public sphere which, as this book has shown, was also a sphere of intimate affects. Although it was articulated in a range of idioms and scales, the representation of male homoerotism was ideologically and materially central to Isfahan’s social and moral fabric, engraved as it was from the walls of the city center to the images and words collected on sheets of paper in households. Though household anthologies and their male authors speak in the privileged language of patriarchy, anthologies themselves were domestic objects, pedagogical tools with which family members across gendered lines could educate themselves and cultivate their relations with kin and friends. In particular, the pedagogical material gathered in anthologies served to educate household members in the adab of sociability and decorum. In this respect, gender difference does not seem to matter much in the practice of intimate friendship, where ʿishq is the ubiquitous emotion that signifies spiritual, familial, and amical ties. The words of one female resident, the Urdubadi widow, illustrate that she, too, marshalled the rituals and language of mystic love to inscribe her relationship to God, her deceased husband, as well as a beloved female friend. While the Urdubadi widow provides suggestive evidence for the practice of intimate female friendships, the question of the practice and acceptance of female homoeroticism more broadly remains speculative. Nonetheless, as manifest in the central square, homoerotic affects were nothing less than world-making, and embodied desire was imagined and lived as a site of both power and resistance.

Muhammad Qasim’s drawing of the Bastinade on the cover of my book encapsulates the social shape and significance of erotic desire for the experience of masculine adab in Isfahan. Educating the male child entailed the solicitation, but also the taming, of homoerotic desire with a disciplinary stick, a technique with which youth were trained into the patriarchal order. The initiation of an apprentice into the circle of his master painter, Muhammad Qasim, reproduces communal hierarchies and symmetries according to age and rank. Men with beards and mustaches bear the regalia of power, from the stick to the book, the pen, and the rosary. A shared performance of adab marks the bodily comportment of Muhammad Qasim; in gesture and gaze he embodies the knowledge of the arts and eros, authorizing its transmission to initiate subservient beardless youth into the proper politics of sexuality. Asymmetries of standing between master and student intersect with symmetrical associations between friends under the scrutiny of two masters, one of the craft and the other of the spiritual brotherhood. Model affective ties, arranged according to the concepts of ʿishq and the protocols of friendship, bound men of all ages together in configuring fraternal communities of learning. The didactic message of the bastinade signals to the audience that ʿishq must also be governed by the adab of urbanity to safeguard the prescribed moral and social order. Inscribed in students’ notebooks as a first lesson, ʿishq is to be practiced according to established codes of behavior to ensure the apprentices’ submission to their master painter and loyalty to their friends and coworkers. In this context of patronage and apprenticeship, erotic desire operates both through resistance and disavowal, highlighting the social condition that produces sensual affirmation. A traffic of affect, involving pain, pleasure, fear and agony, forge the emotional bonds that establish social relations. Muhammad Qasim’s Bastinade signals how sexual desire is experienced through intimate contact with male bodies, as it gives visual form to the epistemology of sexuality that renders intelligible the mutual obligations and the reciprocal relationship binding men in networks at work, at court, in the seminary, and in the city.

The City as Anthology draws on the analytical purchase of eroticism to provide a distinct vantage point onto the connections between urbanity, friendship, and spirituality. Though this project began by treating the anthology as a genre to understand the city that incited its production, the homoerotic vista provided by the anthologies I consider here tendered a cognitive panorama of Isfahan with a view into how the city was materially and affectively performed. Adopting a different way of doing history in the field of early modern Persianate studies, I focus on a discrete moment in the story of Isfahan, when the lines of force between eroticism and passionate friendship were being reinforced, to think more broadly with historians of sexuality about the valences of erotic desires that bound together networks of friends living in previous centuries. Inspired by historian Alan Bray’s scholarship on sworn friendships, I adopt his mode of social history by locating religiously sanctioned male bonds within systems of affect and kinship. One of the important contributions of his analysis of Western Europe is that intimate male friendship provided both the terms of social cohesion and the means of its disruption. Moreover, I take up literary critic Valerie Traub’s invitation to “think sex with the early moderns,” which involves confronting those moments when the meanings of sexuality and eroticism are far from transparent. In an effort to bring the practices of history into dialogue with queer and feminist methodologies, Traub exploits the opacity of sex as a productive way to lay bare the difficulties and impasses historians elide when, and if, we write about our conceptual frames and processes of making sexual knowledge. To this methodological common purpose, I bring the multiple representations and significations of the Persianate concept of ʿishq to bear via my eight character studies. Considerable historical context informs my reading of the contours and tensions with which residents of Isfahan mobilized the power and pleasures of eros to write and display their adab in anthologies.

My book explores the capacity that homosocial and homoerotic intimacy awarded for social cohesion as well as the threat of disruption it carried over the course of the seventeenth-century in a city experiencing exponential growth in wealth, immigration, and public surveillance. To properly historicize the emotions that animated friendships, I focus on the figure of the friend represented in letters, paintings, and love poetry. Collected in household anthologies, the presence of so many epistolary manuals and model letters to a friend (rasaʾil-i ikhvaniyyat), as well as the personal letters exchanged by friends, first struck me as remarkable. But as I collated fragments of evidence of vows of friendship (sigha-yi ukhuvvat), gifts of drawings to friends, together with model and personal letters, I began to understand them speaking to a convention that was far from unusual for the residents who collected them, gifted them, learned from them, and wrote their own loving letters to friends in and out of Isfahan. The visual and verbal language of eroticism that friends deployed to convey their moods and dispositions, drawn from already resonant mystic love poetry (ghazal), have guided my critical inquiry into the urban history of Isfahan. This language has directed me toward the built environment and the material experience of urban objects, to see, smell, to taste and hear so as to consume eros, for it is these sensual experiences that engendered the lived experience of Isfahan for the seven male and one female characters in this book.

Although my focus is on my protagonists’ shared epistemic affinities of sexuality—grounded in affect, kinship, and intimacy—I also compare the affinities to those of other temporalities and geographies. My aim is to provide sufficient historical specificity to the practice of friendship and the forging of social relations so as to facilitate a dialogic engagement between early modern Persianate studies with early modern sexuality studies. By means of my analysis, we can see both similarities and differences with the western world while adding some thickness to our broader knowledge of sexuality. Thinking sex with the early moderns has compelled me to see erasures that today silence passionate friendships and that obscured the entangled history that love shared with eros and beauty. The early modernity of homoeroticism archived in seventeenth-century household anthologies extends the possibility of the analysis of gender and sexuality to loving friendships that established amical communities in other geographies and temporalities. Whether moving the dialogue eastward to Delhi or westward to Istanbul, Damascus, Cairo, Paris, and London, my project details how erotic sensibilities forged social collectives that shaped the habitus of early modern Isfahan. By the middle of the seventeenth century, residents of Isfahan lived under a new regime of public surveillance where a range of techniques and procedures were deployed by the Safavi court, together with the Twelver Shi’a mosque and seminary, to discipline the body’s sexuality and the homoerotic culture of urbanity. The stigmatization of homoeroticism and its association with sodomy and boy-gazing would reemerge with nationalist projects that rewrote gender roles and sexual desires for Iranian citizens. My book posits an early modern genealogy for the longue durée history of tensions operative in the erotics of beauty and embodied desire. In her Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards, Afsaneh Najmabadi has masterfully demonstrated how, by the turn of the twentieth-century, Iran’s nationalism closeted the male beloved (amrad) and unveiled women to cleanse homosocial spaces from the taint of erotic desire. My history of Isfahan presents an early emergence of heteroerotic anxieties, provoked by the adab of urban love and sufi homoerotic desire, that in the twentieth century were recuperated to make Iran modern. The contradiction of the sex/gender system underpinning the early modern gendered order at the Safavi court and the city of Isfahan illustrates how male sexual patronage and apprenticeship was practiced through asymmetries of age and rank, authorizing the possibility and visibility of behaviors subversive to that order, to simultaneously cultivate hetero or disguised male homoerotic desire, thus laying the conditions for modernity in Iran to produce its heterosexuality.