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Ardabil - the City of Sufis and Mystics

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Ardabil - Historical Overview
Ardabil in pre-Islamic times
Ardabil in the Middle Ages
Ardabil in the time of the Safavid, Afshar and Qajar
Municipal of Ardabil Ardabil (Farsi: اردبیل, Azerbaijani: Ərdəbil) is the easternmost major city in the historical Azerbaijan and the capital of the homonymous province, newly founded in 1993. The city is situated about 1350 meters above the sea level surrounded by a dry steppe highland, at the foot of Iran's third highest mountain, the Sabalan (4811 m, Farsi: سبلان , Azerbaijani: Savalan Dağı). The ascent of the Sabalans is comparatively easy, but recommended only in the summer months, as the rest of the year is too cold and most of the trails are covered ice or snow. The region around Ardabil has a reputation for a cold but very healthy climate. Numerous, sometimes sulfurous, natural thermal springs make this area a popular resort region. Already in the Middle Ages – most wealthy – visitors came to Ardabil expecting relieves from their suffers. However, agriculture can not be carried our without irrigation. Numerous myths and legends arose over the centuries around the region - in particular around the huge Sabalan. If we are to believe them, the religious founder Zoroaster might have written his holly book Avesta in this region. Whether even the name "Ardabil" might be derived from "Avesta", can't historically be proved. Even today Ardabil is famous for its fine and precious carpets and its silk production not only in Iran but also far beyond its borders. In 2010, the Sheikh Safi al-din Khānegāh and Shrine Ensemble in Ardabil was registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Ardabil - Historical Overview

Ardabil in pre-Islamic times

Unfortunately there are only a few reliable information about the pre-Islamic period of Ardabil available. The history of the city apparently reaches far back into the pre-Christian era. Already in Sumerian scriptures a settlement is mentioned, which is suspected to be a predecessor of today's city of Ardabil. According to the Avesta Zarathustra was born on the banks of the river Aras. Herein, some historians already claim to see a relating to Ardabil. Doubts on this theory are justified solely by the fact that the Aras river is some 150 kilometers away from present Ardabil. Possibly the current name of the city is derived from “Artavil”, which in the sacred Avestan language means “holy/sacred place”. This would allow the conclusion that Ardabil already existed in around 1000 BC. This theory is supported by finds discovered in Ardabil and its surroundings. Numerous axes, daggers, arrows and swords as well as necklaces and jewelry can clearly be associated to this period. Most likely Ardabil was already an important commercial center in Achaemenid times (559-330 BC). According to another theory Ardabil was only founded in the fifth century AD by the Sassanid Emperor Peroz I. (“The Victorious”, Farsi: پیروز , ruled from 459 until his death in 484) and firstly called Firuzgerd. After the Islamic conquest it was renamed in Ardabil. However, it is certain that Peroz I. has extensively expanded Ardabil and provided it with a fortification. He also made Ardabil to the steady residence of the governor of Azerbaijan.

Ardabil in the Middle Ages

From the 6th century Ardabil developed more and more to an economic and cultural metropolis. During the Islamic conquest, starting from the year 633, Ardabil was the largest city in the northwest of Iran, even bigger and more important than for example Tabriz in the west or Derbent in the north located on the Caspian Sea. Nevertheless Ardabil was a frequent target of attacks from insurgent tribes from the nearby Caucasus or from the Russian armies during this period. In the beginning Ardabil could fend these raids pretty good. However, in the year 639 Ardabil was conquered by Islamic conquerers. The short-lived Sajid dynasty (889 – 929) occasionally even made Ardabil to their capital (up from 901, after Maragha and Barda). At this time the first Islamic coins were minted in Ardabil. In 929 the Sallarids (919 – 1062, Farsi: سالاریان) under the rule of Muhammad ibn Musafir (Farsi: محمد بن مسافر) took the city – it was the beginning of a restless time for Ardabil's inhabitants. In the 10th century Ardabil turned to be more and more an influent and prosperous city, some cultural and educational institutions were established at that time. Nevertheless, the city of Tabriz, some 200 kilometers away from Ardabil, could gain more and more influence and became the most important cultural and economic center of the region. The Arab geographer and writer Ibn Hawqal (Farsi: بن حوقل) even describes how Ibn Marzuban (Farsi: ابن مرزبان), an officer in the service of the Buyids (934-1062), forced the inhabitants – who in his opinion were arrogant and cocky – to tear off the fortification and cary the wreckage away using their precious robes.

However, Ardabil could remain an important commercial center. A solid city wall with four gates surrounded the city, which was an important hub along important trade routes. Many artists and craftsmen settled in Ardabil. Besides artful carvings the city was famous at this time for its precious brocades made of silk, fine cloths and carpets. Dyeing with natural colorant carmine, which is obtained from the female scale insects, the craftsmen mastered in the highest perfection and made them famous far beyond the borders of the region. Ardabil went through 200 years of peace and prosperity.

The peace was ended in 1209 when Ardabil was sacked by Georgians. Around 12,000 civilians were reportedly killed in the massacre. Ardabil had scarcely digested that shock as it was again sacked, this times by the Mongols, after they could twice defend there town successfully. As almost everywhere, the Mongols raged in a gruesome way. They killed innumerable residents or abducted them and razed large parts of the city to the ground. But the way they came they left again and Ardabil could very quickly recover from the Mongol blow. Again Ardabil could enjoy years of peace and prosperity. Historians only mention a few rats bothering the inhabitants increasing the demand of cats. In 1252 Safi ad-Din was born in Ardabil – an ancestor and eponym of the Safavid dynasty (1501 – 1722) and founder of the famous (initially Sunni) Sufi Order.

Ardabil in the time of the Safavid, Afshar and Qajar

Among the Safavids (1501 - 1722) Ardabil enjoyed another period of prosperity and - initially - also of peace. Their first Shah Ismail I (Farsi: شاه اسماعیل, born July 17, 1487 in Ardabil, † May 23, 1524 in Tabriz), a descendant of Safi ad-Din, succeeded for the first time after centuries in uniting the empire. He made the Shiite form of Islam the sole state religion. The Sufi orders became the starting point of the Shia in Iran, not least due to the generous support of the Safavids who always devoted a special significance to the city. In tribute to Safi ad-Din they built the magnificent tomb for him and his family, which today is registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The German scientist, author and Orient traveler Adam Olearius (born September 24, 1599, † February 22, 1671) described Ardabil as "the center of trade and commerce of international significance".

During the entire time of the Safavids (as well as later in 1915) Ardabil had to suffer from the endless attacks from the Ottomans. For this reason Shah Tahmasp I moved the capital from Tabriz to Qazvin (Persian: قزوين) in 1548, which is located approximately 480 kilometers southeast from Tabriz. As in 1722 the last Iranian ruler of the Safavid dynasty Shah Sultan Husayn (Farsi:. شاه سلطان حسین, born in 1668; † 1726) was forced to abdicate by the invading Afghans, his son Tahmasp II (Persian: تهماسب, born 1704, † 1740) had to fight simultaneously on three fronts.

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