Sunday, January 12, 2020

Italy | Venice | Early Life of Enrico Dandolo #2


In the first decade of the twelfth century, probably in 1107, although this date is disputed, a son was born to Vitali Dandolo, brother of Pietro, Bono, and Uncle Enrico. The boy was named Enrico, like his uncle. At the time the entire clan, including Vitale and his three sons, were living in the family compounds clustered around the Parish Church of San Luca. Given that this Enrico Dandolo eventually became a doge, played a leading role in the Fourth Crusade and expulsion of the Byzantines from Constantinople, and, with the possible exception of Marco Polo, was the best-known Venetian of the Middle Ages, it is surprising that almost nothing is known about his life prior to 1171, when he was sixty-four years old. In June of 1164 his signature was affixed to a loan agreement but other than that his name is entirely absent from the historical record until seven years later. We do know he married a woman named Contessa (née Minotto?) and had children, one of whom, Ranieri, would serve as vice-doge while his father was accompanying the Fourth Crusade. A second wife named Felicita, daughter of Pietro Bembo, a procurator of San Marco in 1143, is mentioned, but only in a dubious genealogy which most modern historians have discounted. 

Lacking any real evidence about Enrico’s life prior to 1171, the assumption has been made that he spent the early decades of his life engaged in commercial ventures overseas, perhaps working with his brother Giovanni in Constantinople, Acre, Alexandria and elsewhere in the East, and thus was absent from the historical record in Venice. Trade, however, produces a prodigious paper trail, and no documentary evidence of Enrico’s early commercial activities—if there were any—has survived. Enrico’s absent from the historical record prior to 1171 may be attributed to the fact that his formidable father Vitale did not die until 1174, when Enrico was sixty-seven years old. According the Venetian law a father could emancipate his children by giving them their share of the patrimonial inheritance before he died. This severed the legal relationship between father and son, leaving the son free to act entirely on his own, as a separate legal entity as it were. Vitale Dandolo emancipated none of his sons, meaning that they lived very much in his shadow until near the end of his life. Three years before Vitale’s death in 1174 Enrico Dandolo does enter the historical record as an advisor to Doge Michele on an ill-fated military campaign against the Byzantines and a year later in 1172 he was sent to Constantinople as an envoy to the court of the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos. 

Venetian relations with the Byzantine Empire had been deteriorating over the years and had reached their nadir by 1172. Back on December 10, 1167 Byzantine envoys arrived in Venice to seek the aid of the Venetians in a military campaign against the Normans, who from their base in Sicily sought to control the southern Italian Peninsula and Dalmatia, east of the the Adriatic Sea (the coastline of modern-day Croatia). Emperor Manuel I Komnenos cherished the dream of reasserting Byzantine control over these areas and he hoped the Venetians would offer their support. After all, Venice had sided with the Byzantines against the Normans before, most notably in 1081, when a Venetian fleet attacked and nearly destroyed an armada of Norman ships led by Robert Guiscard (“the Crafty”) in the southern Adriatic, off the coast from Durazzo (current-day Durrës, in Albania). A century later, however, the political landscape had changed. Venice had entered into a peace treaty with Norman King William II and it was not willing to abrogate this agreement and wage war against the Normans just to accommodate the Byzantines. Doge Doge Michele had to advise the Byzantine envoys that Venetian aid in any planned war against the Normans would not be forthcoming. 

Emperor Manuel I Komnenos was furious that his ambitions had been thwarted by the perfidous—in his eyes—Venetians. Such was his wrath that Doge Michele advised Venetian merchants to avoid Byzantine ports least they suffer from retaliation at the hands of Byzantine authorities. Venetian envoys were eventually dispatched to Constantinople in an effort to smooth over Manuel’s ruffled feathers, and by 1170 business relations were pretty much back to normal. However, that same year Manuel allowed Pisan and Genoese merchants back in the city. Eight years earlier Manuel had ejected them from the city for internecine brawling and disturbing the peace. Venetians in their own quarter had enjoyed a near monopoly on all west-bound trade in the city since the expulsion of the Pisans and Genoese and were now disgruntled by the competition.

Having established themselves in their own quarter, Venetians, never lacking in a sense of their own importance, had managed to antagonize a good portion of the Constantinople populace, especially those who did not directly profit from trade with them. The Venetian Quarter had become a virtual mini-state where they could do pretty much whatever they pleased. We have already seen how Bono Dandolo and his brother Pietro, while living the Quarter, had translated (stolen) the purported relics of St. Stephen and placed them in a church within the Venetian Quarter, where Byzantine authorities apparently had no legal authority to take them back, and how, despite the stern objections of the Byzantines, the relics were eventually taken back to Venice, probably on a Dandolo-owned ship. Theft of precious relics, although justified by the Venetians on the grounds of furta sacra, (sacred theft), would not have been forgotten or forgiven in a city obsessed with such sacred remains. Also, many Venetians in Constantinople had become very wealthy and they did not hesitate to flaunt their wealth and self-proclaimed superiority before the native inhabitants of the city, who in turn viewed the Venetians as boorish, arrogant, and condescending.

Byzantine court official and historian Nicetas Choniates (c.1155–1217), in his monumental history O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates, presents what may have been the viewpoint of the Byzantine elite. Condescending in tone, his description of the Venetians makes it sound as if they were some obscure tribe from the fringes of the Byzantine Empire that had somehow managed to insinuate itself into Constantinople and then proceeded to commit mischief:
Having reached this point in my history, I shall include the following. There is a gulf in the western sea called the Adriatic which recedes from the Sicilian sea and, separating itself as an effluence of the Ionian, flows a long way in the direction of the north wind. The northernmost recesses are inhabited by the Enetoi, who, in their own dialect, call themselves Venetikoi; nourished by the sea, they are vagabonds like the Phoenicians and cunning of mind. Adopted by the Romans [Byzantines] when there had been need for naval forces, they had left their homeland for Constantinople in swarms and by clans. From there they dispersed throughout the Roman [Byzantine] empire; retaining only their family names and looked upon as natives and genuine Romans, they increased and flocked together. They amassed great wealth and became so arrogant and impudent that not only did they behave belligerently to the Romans but they also ignored imperial threats and commands.
Emperor Manuel I Komnenos could not have been pleased by the increasingly impudent behavior of the Venetians. Also, the recent refusal of the Venetians to ally themselves with him against the Normans must have still rankled. Then there was the curious incident back in 1148 when the Venetians and the Byzantines were ostensibly allied against the Normans, who had seized the island of Corfu. As we have seen, the brother and son of the recently deceased Doge Pietro Polani were in charge of the Venetian fleet sent to aid the Byzantines in dislodging the Normans from the island. But there was considerable ill-will among the nominal allies and at times they even attacked each other. At one point, according to one historian:
They ([the Venetians] captured the Imperial [Byzantine] galley, dressed a negro slave in the Imperial ensigns, placed him under a canopy, and paraded him before the Greek [Byzantine] camp at Corfu, making mock obeisance to him in scorn and insult . . . Emperor Manuel did not forget the insult he had received in the person of the negro slave, nor did he lay aside his hostility. . . He was presently enabled to satisfy his desire for revenge . . .
All of the Emperor’s various grudges against the Venetians were no doubt festering in his mind when Venetians supposedly attacked the Genoese Quarter in Constantinople, even after he had given stern warning to all the various foreign trading quarters to refrain from in-fighting and maintain peace among themselves.  It has been suggested that the attack was the work of agents provocateur in the pay of the Byzantines themselves; in any case, the blame fell squarely on the Venetians. The time had come to rein in the obstreperous people from the Lagoon. Nicetas Choniates continues:
Buffeted by a series of villainies, one worse than the other, the emperor now recalled their offensive behavior . . . and turned the scales against them, spewing forth his anger like the tempestuous and stormy spray blown up by a northeaster or north wind. The misdeeds of the Venetians were deemed to be excessive, and letters were dispatched to every Roman province ordering their arrest, together with the confiscation of their communal properties, and designating the day this was to take place.
On March 12, 1171 every Venetian man, woman, and child on Byzantine territory was arrested and imprisoned and all their property confiscated. Over 10,000 Venetians in Constantinople alone were thrown into prison, and when the prisons overflowed monasteries were turned to temporary jails. Another 10,000 or more were arrested and imprisoned in other cities of the empire. 

As John Julius Norwich points out, the mass arrests all over the empire would  have called for considerable planning and coordination and thus must have been contemplated long before the attack by the Venetians on the Genoese traders in Constantinople, the ostensible reason for the emperor’s actions. Indeed, rumors of possible repercussions against Venetian traders had been afloat for the past several years. Reacting to these rumors, in 1169 or 1170 Doge Michele had seen fit to send two envoys, Sebastiano Ziani and Orio Mastropiero (both of them future doges) to Constantinople to seek assurances that Venetians in the Byzantine Empire were in fact safe and free to carry on business. The emperor not only gave his assurances that Venetians were under no threat but also encouraged more Venetian traders to enter his empire. Following the crackdown of March 12, 1172, the insinuation was made that the emperor had purposely lured additional Venetians into his empire just so he could seize them and their property. In the eyes of the Venetians this was just more more indication of Byzantine perfidy. 

Meanwhile, news of the disastrous events in Constantinople filtered back to Venice via traders and ship captains who had managed to escape the general dragnet and sail back home. As word spread outraged Venetians, many of whom had relatives and business interests in the Byzantine Empire, assembled in front of the Ducal Palace to demand that the government take military action to free their countrymen from Byzantine prisons and restore Venetian property that had been confiscated. This throng qualified as an arengo, or assembly of the general populace, which at least theoretically was still the ultimate political authority in Venice. Now the people were baying for Byzantine blood.

Doge Michele, it would appear from the historical record, favored diplomatic overtures to the Byzantines. Surely they would see the benefits of restoring favorable relations with Venice and the entire affair could be resolved without bloodshed. Business was the business of Venice, he believed, and the most important concern was to secure the release of the prisoners, seek compensation for Venetian financial loses, and resume commercial relations without resorting to warfare. He suggested that envoys be send immediately to Constantinople to begin negotiations with the Byzantines. Apparently his three chief advisors, Orio Mastropiero, Sebastiano Ziani, and Vitale Dandolo, father of the future Doge Enrico Dandolo, felt the same way.

At these juncture ships arrived in Venice with still more tales of outrages inflicted on Venetians by the Byzantines. The arengo, or assembly of the populace, simmering since the first news from Constantinople had arrived, now broke into a boil. Its representatives ordered that a fleet of 120 to 130 vessels be constructed and sent to smite the nefarious Byzantines who had so cruelly abused their fellow Venetians. They also ordered that the Doge Michele personally take command of the fleet. Faced with the will of the people, as demonstrated by the arengo, the doge had no choice but comply. Venice’s famously efficient shipyards constructed an entire fleet of 120 new ships in 100 days. To pay for the campaign against the Byzantines the financial wizards of Venice came up with the novel idea of forcing the populace to buy bonds which paid four percent per year interest. “The bonds could be bequeathed, mortgaged, or sold,” says one historian, “and so we find in this forced loan the earliest instance of government stock, certainly in the history of Venice, perhaps in the history of Europe.”

In September of 1171 fleet sailed down the Adriatic under the command of Doge Michele. On the same ship as the doge, and apparently acting as one of his advisors, was our hero, Enrico Dandolo, the future doge. After leaving the Adriatic the fleet rounded the Peloponnese and entered the Aegean Sea, soon reaching the island of Negroponte (modern-day Euboea), off the eastern coast of Greece, where they invested Chalkis, the capital of the island. The Byzantine governor of Negroponte, anxious to avoid hostilities with the Venetians, suggested sending sending his own envoy to Constantinople in hopes of opening negotiations with Emperor Manuel I Komnenos. Accompanying the governor’s envoy were two Venetians, Manasse Badoer and Bishop Pasqualo of Jesolo.

Under the impression that war had been avoided for the moment, Doge Michele ordered the fleet to proceed to the island of Chios, ninety miles east of Negroponte and 235 miles southwest of Constantinople, where it would hole up for the winter. Here news reached Doge Michele that the emperor Manuel refused to negotiate with the Venetians as long as their fleet remained in Byzantine waters. The emperor did however send an envoy to Chios. This envoy claimed that the emperor might be amenable to negotiations if the Doge dispatched another envoy to Constantinople. The envoy to Chios was probably just a spy sent to sound out the Venetian fleet and the promise of negotiations nothing more than a delaying tactic while the Byzantines explored their options. Nevertheless, the doge, ever optimistic that a diplomatic solution could be reached, sent yet another embassy to Constantinople.

Meanwhile, all was not well with the fleet at Chios. “There, in idleness, discipline became relaxed; the crowded ships grew filthy and unhealthy; plague broke out, more probably the result of dirt than of poison; thousands died,” we are told. (The mention of poison refers to the rumor which spread throughout the fleet that the Byzantines had poisoned the wells used by the Venetians.) Hoping to escape the epidemic, the fleet sailed for the nearby island of Panagia. Here news reached the doge that the second embassy he had sent to Constantinople had been turned away by the emperor. But the returning envoys said, amazingly enough, that if a third delegation was sent the emperor might possibly meet with it. Clearly Emperor Manuel I Komnenos was stalling for still more time. Yet the doge had little choice but to make one last attempt at a negotiated settlement. The plague still raged through his fleet and the ability of the Venetians to actually wage war was lessening by the day.

The third delegation to the court of the Byzantines consisted of Enrico Dandolo and Filippo Greco. Enrico Dandolo was as we have seen on the doge’s ship and acting as one of his advisors. Almost certainly the influence of Enrico’s formidable father Vitale had something to do with Enrico being appointed as an advisor to the Doge on this expedition, but Enrico must also have had some experience in diplomatic matters that led the Doge to believe he was the right man for this last ditch effort at a negotiated peace with the Byzantines. What this experience might have been, however, it is impossible to say, because as noted we know almost nothing about his life up until this point. In any case, his first recorded foray into diplomacy was not a success. He and his fellow envoy were never granted an audience with the emperor and all their other entreaties came to nought. 

While Enrico was in Constantinople the plague continued to ravage the Venetian fleet. In a futile attempt to escape the disease the fleet sailed to the island of Lesbos and later to Skyros, but the sailors continued to die off. “At length the Venetians could endure no more,” intones one historian, who continues:
The crews mutinied, and set sail for Venice. So complete was the collapse of the Venetian armament, so sweeping the mortality, that, as legend declares, the whole Giustiniani family, with one exception, perished . . . The disaster was complete. The shattered remnants of this splendid Venetian armament, created by generous sacrifices and bearing the hopes of the Republic, returned to the Lido in the spring of 1172. Instead of booty, it brought the plague; in place of victory, death.
Meanwhile the 20,000 or more Venetians arrested in Constantinople and elsewhere in Byzantine territory languished in prisons. The Venetians had suffered an ignominious defeat and someone’s head had to roll as a consequence. Doge Michele, although he had opposed the military expedition from the beginning, was held responsible for the disaster and would end up paying the ultimate price.

Although Enrico Dandolo’s first appearance on the historical stage ended in failure, he no doubt learned a lot about the Byzantines and their preferred methods of dealing with outside threats. Manuel I Komnenos probably never intended to engage the Venetians in actual combat, nor was he amenable to a negotiated settlement that included any concessions to them. He had sent his first envoy to Chios ostensibly to negotiate a settlement but more likely he was there to assess the strength of the Venetian fleet (there is no proof Manuel had the wells of the island poisoned). The Byzantines soon learned that the plague out broken out among the Venetians forces wintered at Chios. They probably figured that if they could stall long enough the plague would defeat the Venetians for them. The two additional peace overtures had been a ruse to buy time The Venetians had been misled and manipulated by the duplicitous Byzantines and the result was a disaster. Enrico Dandolo experienced this humiliating defeat first hand. Thirty-two years later, upon his return to Constantinople, he would be given ample opportunities to exact his revenge against the Byzantines.

The badly battered Venetian Fleet limped back into Venice in late May of 1172. The people of Venice had given Doge Michele a mandate to smite the Byzantines and had provided him with a fleet to do so, but he had never even engaged the enemy in combat. The fleet, paid for by bonds extracted from the populace, had been decimated and still more than 20,000 Venetians remained in Byzantine prisons, their property expropriated. The survivors who had sailed back with the fleet let known their opinion: “‘We were poorly led, and if we had not been betrayed by the doge dragging out matters with legates, then all of these troubles would not have overtaken us!’” The citizens of Venice were likewise outraged: 
There was a considerable section of the community, probably bereaved and disconsolate families, which openly and loudly accused the Doge of being the author of their misfortunes . . . The animadversions of this party were bold, violent, and bitter. They soon wore a really formidable aspect. Their clamours and maledictions gradually arrested the public attention. The subject which formed their ground of complaint became the leading theme of conversation. It was canvassed on the Rialto. It was agitated in the parliament, where it gave rise to frequent and angry controversies, in which the speakers freely vituperated each other. The sitting of the 27th May was stormy and tumultuous beyond precedent. The debate turned on the affairs of the Republic and on the causes and consequences of the recent catastrophe; all sides spoke with great warmth and emotion: and high words were exchanged.
As one of the his most trusted advisors, Vitale Dandalo was in the presence of Doge Michele right up until the moment it became obvious that the assembled populace outside and its representatives within the palace were now baying for the Doge’s blood. Vitale and Michele’s other advisors then slipped away, leaving the Doge to his fate. Attempting to escape on foot from the Ducal Palace to the sanctuary of the Zaccaria Convent, 800 feet away, he crossed the Ponte della Paglia—the bridge now famous for its view of the Bridge of Sighs—and then turned left on Calle delle Rassa  where he was overtaken by an enraged mob, one of whom stabbed him repeatedly with a knife. 
Ponte della Paglia, with the current version of the Ducal Palace on the left (click on photos for enlargements)
Entrance to the Calle delle Rasse
Calle delle Rasse. The dwelling of Marco Casiolo, the assassin of Doge Michele, would have been on the left. The site is now occupied by the Danieli Royal Excelsior Hotel.
He managed to stagger to the gate of the convent compound, where he died in the arms of a priest. The assassin, one Marco Casiolo, was quickly identified and arrested. Found guilty, he was decapitated on front of his own dwelling on the Calle delle Rasse. The dwelling was then razed and the order given that no stone building should ever again stand on the site. This edict remained in effect for 776  years. Not until 1948 was the Danieli Royal Excelsior Hotel erected on the site of Marco Casiolo’s old dwelling. 
The entrance to the Zaccaria Convent, where Doge Michele died.
The Danieli Excelcior Hotel now stands of the site of the dwelling of Marco Casiolo. the assassin of Doge Michele.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Italy | Venice | Palazzo Rizzi


Spent the 2019 Winter Solstice in Skopje, Macedonia. Two weeks later I winged to Istanbul and hopped on a connecting flight to Venice. I am back in my usual digs in Venice, an old nunnery which has been converted into a hotel. The building, once the Palazzo Rizzi, is located on the Fondamenta Rizzi, about a five minute walk from the Piazzale Roma, where all buses from the mainland terminate. The hotel is still owned and operated by St. Joseph’s Daughters of Caburlotto, the religious order that occupied the nunnery. As befitting an old nunnery, the rooms are tiny and spartan, to say the least. My bed is about three feet wide—all that was needed by a nun—and my ankles hang over the end, but the room does have a desk and enough electrical outlets to keep all my devices topped up. What else does one need in a room? There is also a midnight to 6:00 a.m. curfew. You cannot enter or leave the building during those hours. This is of no importance to me. Venice is not a night-life city by any stretch of imagination, and I myself would never have any reason to stay out past midnight. The Fondamenta Rizzi, the walkway on which the hotel is located, does not even have a convenience store and is as quiet as a tomb after nine p.m. 
Fondamenta Rizzi on the right (click on photos for enlargements)
The old Palazzo Rizzi, later a nunnery and now a hotel
Venice
Venice. The leaning bell tower is not a photographic distortion. It actually does lean that way.
Canal of San Luca
The Piazzetta in Venice
The Piazzetta in Venice
Piazza and Church of San Marco
Grand Canal from the Rialto Bridge

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Iran | Tabriz | Covered Bazaar

The morning after my trip to the Church of St. Stephanos the breakfast hall of my hotel in Tabriz is occupied by two tour groups from Germany, each with maybe fifteen people. These are not adventure tourism types. All appear to be in their seventies or older, retirees checking Iran off their  list while they are still able to ambulate without walkers or motorized carts. They dutifully line up for cold cereal and bowls of prunes. All the women are wearing head scarves. I tuck into comb honey, clotted cream, dates, and flat bread while reviewing the day’s itinerary. Today will be devoted to Tabriz itself. As mentioned, Tabriz was the Il-Khanate capital from 1265 to around 1305, when Ölziit Khan moved the government to Sultaniyya. Even after the capital was transferred to Sulṭaniyya Tabriz remained probably the most prominent city in the Il-Khanate. Unfortunately, there are few if any physical remains of the Il-Khanate period left in Tabriz. Devastating earthquakes that periodically leveled the city, destruction wrought by invasions, wars, and revolutions, and urban renewal and expansion have all taken their toll.The cataclysmic earthquake of 1780, in particular, leveled most of Tabriz. and as  a result, according to one historian, “the city now contains very few structures of historical interest.” On the way back from the Armenian church yesterday I asked Hamid if he knew of any Il-Khanate-era monuments and anxious as he was to please he finally had to admit that he also did not know of any. I am not saying, I should make clear, that there are no Il-Khanate monuments in the city; I am simply stating that if there are any I was unable to locate them. However, the current-day Tabriz Covered Bazaar, dating from after the disastrous 1780 quake, is apparently a continuation of an earlier covered bazaar founded by the Il-Khan Ghazan in the 1290s and thus deserves our attention.

The current version is said to be the largest covered bazaar in the world. It covers 66.7 acres, with 3.41 miles of passageways and 5500 shops. The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, while ranking as the biggest single tourist attraction in the world, with over 91,000,000 visitors a year, has between three and four thousand shops. The largest mall is the United States, the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota covers more space than the Tabriz Bazaar—96.4 acres total with 56.8 acres devoted to 530-some shops—but many would argue that it is not really a covered bazaar in the classic sense of the term but rather a New World mutation.

I am on my fourth cup of Nescafe (no filter coffee or lattes here, and the only tea is in bags;  a Tea Cognoscente myself, I would of course not be caught dead using tea bags) when Hamid and Masud appear. Earlier in my room I had binged the covered bazaar and discovered that it always closes for the first ten days of the month of Muharram. I mentioned this to Hamid and he replied, “Don’t worry, yesterday was Ashura, the tenth day of the Muharram. The bazaar will be open today.” The bazaar is close to the center of the city, about a fifteen minute driver from our hotel. “I like Tabriz”, enthused Hamid, a native of Tehran, as we drove toward downtown. “The streets and sidewalk are very clean and you don’t see any of the beggars and street people you see in some districts of Tehran. And the pollution here is nothing like Tehran.”

Tabriz is situated on the western edge of the Iranian Plateau at an altitude of 4430 feet. About twenty-five south of the city looms 12,163-foot Sahand Mountain, the cone of a now-extinct volcano. The earliest history of the city is extremely hazy. Legends that the city was the original Garden of Eden and/or the birthplace of Zoroaster, founder of the Zoroastrian religion, while persistent (tour guides dredge them up to this day), are no doubt apocryphal. A Tarui or Tauris mentioned in an epigraph of the Assyrian King Sargon (r. 722–705)   dated to 714 b.c. may refer to an early version of the city; if so, this may be the first mention of the settlement or town in the historical record. Clearly some sort of town existed here during the time of the  Sassanian Empire (224 a.d. to 651 a.d.). Arabic Muslims invaded the region in 642, after the fall of the Sassanian Empire, and an Arabic tribe from Yemen settled in the town of Tabriz. Zubaida, the wife of Abbasid Calif Harun al-Rashid, he of One Thousand Night and One Arabian Nights fame, is often credited with founding the city, but of course it already existed by her time. Zubaida (d. 831) was famous for providing wells, water reservoirs, and other amenities for Muslim pilgrims traveling from Baghdad to Medina and Mecca. Although she did not found Tabriz, she apparently rebuilt the city after it was destroyed by a devastating earthquake.   

Due to its location close to the unstable suture between the Arabian and Eurasian tectonic plates earthquakes have been a recurring theme in the history of Tabriz.  “Earthquakes have occurred with greater frequency in Tabriz than in any other major city in Iran,” states one historian who had studied the subject in detail. Although ephemeral sources cite numerous earthquakes affecting Tabriz—the years 634, 694, 746, 838, 949, and 1020 are mentioned—the first quake for which there is firm historical evidence occurred in 858. The 858 quake leveled the city restored by Zubaida. In turn it was rebuilt by Abbasid Caliph Mutawakkil (822–861). Despite the attentions of the illustrious Zubaida, Tabriz was “scarcely little more than a village until at least the mid-ninth century.” It was not until after the city was rebuilt by Mutawakkil that it became a flourishing trade center, but even then it was just one bead on a necklace of cities stretching between the Orient and Occident. It was not until the Mongols made it their capital that Tabriz became what one historian calls a “striking example of a world historical city in both its cosmopolitan intellectual culture and its central role in the thirteenth-century global economy.”

The streets leading to the Covered Bazaar were certainly clean, but they were also suspiciously quiet. We parked a block away from the bazaar and proceeded on foot to one of its many entryways. The portal was open but when we entered we found the long corridor empty.  All the doors leading off to passageways on the the left and right was closed and locked. Proceeding down the dark corridor we finally encountered a janitor with a broom. He announced that the bazaar is closed for the Ashura ceremonies until further notice. “That’s crazy!” said Hamid. “Ashura was yesterday. Why is the bazaar closed today? The man said he wasn’t even sure if it would be open tomorrow.”
 Deserted corridors of the Covered Bazaar
Not only was I eager to tour the bazaar because of its historical significance, I was also interested in its famous carpet shops. Tabriz has been an important carpet manufacturing center for centuries and Tabrizi carpets have assumed a certain cachet among collectors. I had no intention of buying any—some rooms of my Hovel In Zaisan Tolgoi are already three deep in carpets from Bukhara, Samarkand, Khotan, and other historic carpets centers—but I do have a passing interest in the history of carpets and was anticipating a few hours of palaver with carpet dealers while examining their merchandise. They can be an excellent source of information, assuming one can separate the chaff of high-pressure salesmanship from whatever grains of actual information they may have to offer.

Actually I may have seen Tabrizi carpets before. Back in Istanbul I had mentioned to a carpet dealer near the Grand Bazaar that I was going to Tabriz and he quickly produced a dozen or more carpets he said were from Tabriz. His father, he claimed, had recently been in Tabriz and had surreptitiously bought up a stock of better quality antique Tabrizi carpets, most of them dating to the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.  These he shipped to near the border with Turkey, which is a little over a hundred miles west of Tabriz, and then had them smuggled via horseback into Turkey to avoid customs restrictions and taxes. Kurdish people on both sides other border facilitated the transfer. 

I had intended on spending most of the day here at the bazaar. As Hamid and I were discussing a new course of action a white turbaned mullah walked by and then knocked on a door leading off the right. The door opened momentarily and he slipped in. Hamid went over and knocked on the door and had a brief discussion with the man who opened it. “I told him that you were from America and that you wanted to see the inside of some galleries. He said we can come in.” As luck would have it, the long gallery we entered was one that specialized in carpets. As luck would also have it, the shops that lined the gallery were all closed. The man who had opened the door invited us into his spacious tea shop just to the left of the entrance to the gallery. Five men who had shops in the galleria were already having tea on what for them was a day off. We were served strong black tea in tall glasses and a plate of fat, luscious dates. The other men just stared at me, their faces like stone masks, not revealing any opinion about the American who had somehow materialized in the middle of their morning tea. Tell them I am an historian (I find this designation excuses a multitude of sins) and ask them which parts of the bazaar are the oldest, I said to Hamid. Also ask them if they know of any parts of the bazaar which may date back to the Il-Khanate period. They seemed to take this request quite seriously and they had a discussion among themselves lasting over ten minutes.
This gallery specializing in carpets was closed the day I was there.
“They are speaking Azeri, and I can only understand a few words. When they are done talking I’ll ask for a summary in Persian,” said Hamid. Azeri belongs to the Turkish language family. An early variant of the language was spoken by the Oghuz Turks who lived around the Aral Sea in what is now Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Many of these Oghuz Turks migrated westward and by the eleventh century had settled in the Azerbaijan region. Their descendants, Azerbaijanis, are the second largest ethnic group in Iran, after Persians themselves. Azeri remains the dominant language of the East Azerbaijan province of Iran and especially Tabriz to this day. Hamid claims that Azeri is the first language of the majority of people in Tabriz, although almost all speak at least some Persian. It is also spoken by a sizeable Azerbaijani minority in Tehran. Azerbaijanis, claim Hamid, are legendarily astute traders and businessmen and control Tehran”s largest bazaar.

After the confabulation the spokesman for the group talks to Hamid in Persian. Some parts of the bazaar are clearly older than others, but it’s hard to put a date on any particular part. Yes, the Mongols established a bazaar here in Tabriz but none of the men can point to any identifiable Mongol-era structures. This was about what I was expecting to hear but at least it had been worth a try asking. The idea was to get the guys talking. The spokesman says he is sorry he cannot be of more help, but he could open his carpet shop for us if we were were interested. We were interested. Hamid attempts to pay the tea shop man for our tea and dates but he shrugs this off. “It’s free for our American guest.”

The carpet shop is long and narrow, without any space to display carpets on the floor. The walls are lined with coarse wool carpets with generic designs, the cheapest kind of carpets meant for everyday use in the humblest of abodes. The owner leads us to a dusty, ill-lit storeroom in the back with six-foot high piles of carpets but they are all the same cheap variety. It’s clear we have stumbled into a rather lowbrow establishment. I have taken better carpets than these on Extended Camel Trips in the desert. I won’t learn anything new about carpets here. We thank the man and leave.