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Representations of the past are political constructs by definition. Much of the evidence of the past we encounter is the record of individuals and classes with resources to memorialize themselves. Historiographical narratives and historicalized monuments represent selective renderings of the past, following patterns pertaining to sociopolitical privilege and the influence of some over the affairs of multitudes.

The monumental size of a complex such as Isfahan’s Friday mosque indicates its close connection to matters of power. The structure’s ability to impress is a part of its evolving political function over the ages. It was initially built to mark Isfahan’s status as an important urban hub under the Seljuk dynasty at the end the eleventh century. Various additions, decorations, and repairs indicate the patronage of Ilkhanid, Muzaffarid, Aq Qoyunlu, Timurid, Safavid, and Qajar ruling houses. A record of texts found at the mosque’s site is a virtual cornucopia of the city’s long history (Hunarfar, Ganjina-yi asar-i tarikhi-yi Isfahan, 75–168).

The mosque’s status as a premier political space was downgraded from the seventeenth century, when a Safavid ruler built a new mosque with a towering gateway and dome (initially the King’s Mosque but now called the Imam’s Mosque) as part of Isfahan’s reconfiguration as the capital of an empire. This new mosque sat on one side of a grand city square given the name Naqsh-i Jahan (The World’s Image) to mark the ambitions of Shah ‘Abbas (d. 1629), the Safavid ruler who commissioned it. Just as the square claimed to gather the world to its vast space, chronicles sponsored by Safavid kings created an image of time in which they were the world’s destined rulers.

Gardens of Time

Completed in 1667–1678 in Isfahan, Muhammad Yusuf Valah-Isfahani’s Khuld-i barin (The Highest Paradise) is a massive universal history that purports to tell the story of the material world from its birth to the author’s own day. Its contents follow patterns found in a long list of earlier works, selected and inflected according to the author’s own preferences and the requirements of his situation as a client to the Safavid dynasty that ruled Iran between 1501 and 1722 CE.

The longest, seemingly nearly complete, surviving copy of Khuld-i barin runs to more than 1,800 manuscript folios (3,600 pages), its sheer volume making it a grand repository of information received from earlier literary sources (Nicholson, Descriptive Catalogue, 96–100). The work’s most extensive coverage is reserved for the period close to the author’s own lifetime, defined by rulers of the dynasty he served. For events that fall nearest to him, the author’s reports cited from earlier sources are augmented by eyewitness accounts. The work typifies politically sponsored Islamic chronicles before the nineteenth century, conceived in the grandest terms. Its framing and contents reflect the intimate connection between narration of the past and political legitimacy in Islamic contexts.

Valah-Isfahani’s use of the word paradise as the name of his chronicle is an instance of describing time through spatialization. He invites the reader to see the past as a series of gardens, which themselves consist of a succession of meaningful events. The “gardens of time” proceed in order from the distant past to the present, increasing in volume. Each of them is divided further into smaller enclosures, allowing the author to apportion matters into subordinate categories. Time as event and time as narrative are operational simultaneously in this situation.

At the base level, time consists of the events that form the narratives of the lives of the main characters who define the ages in which they lived. The sequence of things that happened to Muhammad from birth to death, for instance, describes the prophetic age that initiated Islam. These events are then put into an overarching series, forming the author’s metanarrative that takes the reader from creation to the seventeenth century CE.

The flow of time one encounters on the surface of the narrative begins at the year zero of human existence and proceeds to the present time of writing. However, attending to what is included and excluded from the narrative, we can be sure that political and social imperatives of the author’s own context drove his choices. This purportedly universal picture of humanity is actually limited in frame to those human figures of the past whose authority fed into the political legitimacy of those in power in the author’s present.

The world we see in this work is restricted to figures defined as prophets in Islam and only those royal lineages that had ruled over the region that had eventually become Safavid territory. Its massiveness notwithstanding, the Khuld-i barin is an account of the past that mattered to Safavid elites alone and would have appeared truncated and inadequate even to Valah-Isfahani’s contemporaries residing outside Safavid territory. However, this observation is hardly an indictment. Far from being an exception, this work’s parochial and self-interested nature is a quality common to all narratives of the past.

Flowering Events

At the end of the fourth garden, Valah-Isfahani describes the process of writing the work by leaning heavily on the garden metaphor. Calling the narrative a paradise that correlates utterances to meanings, he writes the following:

The preceding thought and mental resolve [upon beginning] was that on whichever garden the gaze would fall, I would busy myself, picking colorful flowers of wondrous news and then, through the pen, rearranging these into bouquets. Consequently, the pearl-scattering pen’s alacrity made the seven-fold garden, eternally in spring, apparent to the sight of onlookers. However, when I traveled the autumn-less road of world-adorning history, and that garden’s colorful flowers came into mind’s view, I saw vast numbers of them hidden in the greenery of lofty language. Relying on intuition, I drew them out, to be appreciated afresh (Valah-Isfahani, Khuld-i barin, 840–841).

This elliptical comment on method is followed by prayers that the Safavid dynasty would last “as long as the world continues to see traces of spring and autumn.”

Paradise is, simultaneously, reality and trope, the past as well as the future. [I]t is also a potent figure of language that coalesces earthly political legitimacy to divine authority.

Valah-Isfahani’s description makes the garden metaphor do multiple duties. The world is a garden whose growth and flowering consists of events, and from this, historians pick flowers to create their bouquets. When a historian like Valah-Isfahani, who is writing in the wake of other historians, creates his new bouquet, he must assess the quality of received works and choose only what seems worthy of being refreshed. The choice that leads to an event being reinscripted is akin to bringing an obscured flower back into view.

In this scheme, flowers denote both events themselves and reports about them, a conflation between reality and narrative. Given that historians make the choice of which events/flowers to pick and (re-)present, they are the creative curators of pasts found in their works. Critically, however, historians’ choices are tethered to political authority, as we can see emphatically in Valah-Isfahani’s arrangement of the work and the constant references to kings and nobles of the Safavid dynasty.

Valah-Isfahani’s homage to paradise in his work’s name imbues the temporality contained within it with normative and didactic significance. For the implied reader, after all, paradise is something that can be real only in the future, beyond earthly existence. The past time that Valah-Isfahani converted into the spatiotemporal realm of paradise is meant to act as a lesson for attaining the exceptional felicity promised for the afterlife in religious literature.

The use of the word paradise and its synonyms in the name of this and numerous other chronicles and other works purporting to describe the past signifies the dialectical relationship between pasts and futures. In one direction, rewards of paradise described in religious narratives represent ultimate goods that ratify the lessons promoted in a rendition of the past. In reverse, instructions gleaned from earlier events adumbrated in the narratives are supposed to goad human actions that generate the merit that leads to deliverance in the afterlife. Paradise in this case is, simultaneously, reality and trope, the past as well as the future. As evident from a work such as Valah-Isfahani’s Khuld-i barin, it is also a potent figure of language that coalesces earthly political legitimacy to divine authority.

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