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Gabae (Isfahan)


The ruins of Gabae. Photo Marco Prins.
The ruins of Gabae, east of the center of Isfahan.
Gabae: town in southern Media, modern Isfahan.

Gabae is mentioned several times in our ancient sources, but is not very well known; this is not likely to change, because the site is now occupied by the metropolis of Isfahan. However, it must have been a pretty important town, because it is situated on the Zayandeh Rud (litt. "life giving river"), one of the main sources of water in the western part of central Iran.

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The ruins of Gabae. Photo Marco Prins.
The ruins of Gabae, east of the center, and the river.

This meant that many travellers must have visited the city. Gabae commanded the main roads to Susa in Elam, to Ecbatana in Media, and to Pasargadae and Persepolis in Persis. In the spring of 330, Alexander the Great, pursuing the last Achaemenid king Darius III Codomannus, passed through Gabae; the fact that it is mentioned in our sources proves that the town existed in Achaemenid times. Several years later, the armies of two of the Diadochi, Antigonus I Monopthalmus and Eumenes, clashed near Gabae (text) in the decisive battle of the Second Diadoch War. Eumenes lost.

Sharestan Bridge. Photo Marco Prins.
Sharestan Bridge, east of the city center.

The town was a provincial capital in Parthian times and received its current name Isfahan in the age of the Sasanians (Aspahan, "place of the army"). However, the name Gabae remained in use (the Arab conquerors were to call the city Jay). Sasanian princes usually studied statecraft in Isfahan, which had by now the standard lay-out of an Iranian city - a circular settlement - with four gates and 104 towers. A Jewish quarter is also mentioned in our sources, and it is likely that there was a Zoroastrian fire sanctuary.

Sharestan Bridge. Drawing by Cornelis de Bruijn.
Sharestan Bridge.

One of the ancient settlements has been identified 4 kilometer southeast of the center of the modern city: a sandy hill that does not really betray its secrets. (A satellite photo can be found here.) The bridge, however, still stands on a foundation from the Sasanian age and resembles the bridge at Shushtar. It is now known as Sharestan bridge. Many artists have made drawings of it; the first westerner to do so was the Dutch traveler Cornelis de Bruijn, who visited the site in 1704. The gate on the bridge is a custom house.

Sasanian fort near Isfahan. Photo Jona Lendering.
Sasanian fort, west of the center of Isfahan.

Ten kilometer west of the modern city center was a Sasanian fort, situated on a hill called Marbin or Maras, which is about two hundred meters high. On top of it, several buildings have been identified; some date back to the Iron Age. Some of them appear to have had the four-arched plan that is commonly associated with the ancient fire temples and are called atashgah. The most famous structure on the hill is a circular building that may have been a watchtower from the Middle Ages, although this has recently been contested and it may in fact be much older. However that may be, it certainly offers a splendid view of the Zayandeh Rud, and is consequently a favorite pick-nick site of the Isfahani's.

A satellite photo of the Atashgah can be found here.
Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2008
Revision: 23 April 2011
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