The history of Esfahan can be traced back to the Palaeolithic period. In recent discoveries, archaeologists have found artefacts dating back to the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze and Iron ages.
Ancient Esfahan was part of the Elamite Empire under the name of Aspandana also spelt Ispadana. It later became one of the principal towns of the Median dynasty. Subsequently the province became part of the Achaemenid Empire. After the liberation of Iran from Macedonian occupation by the Arsacids, it became part of Parthian Empire. Esfahan was the centre and capital city of a large province, which was administered by Arsacid governors. In the Sassanid era, Esfahan was governed by "Espoohrans" or the members of seven noble Iranian families who had important royal positions, and served as the residence of these noble families as well. Moreover, in this period Esfahan was a military centre with strong fortifications.
Esfahan fell temporarily under the rule of Arabs until the Abbasid era, only being attended to by Al-Mansur. In the 10th century, under the Buwayhid Dynasty, Esfahan regained its importance. In the reign of Malik Shah I of the Seljuk dynasty, Esfahan was again selected as capital and commenced another golden age. In this period, Esfahan was one of the most thriving and important cities of the world. The famous Persian philosopher Avicenna lived and taught there in the 11th century.
In 1387, Esfahan surrendered to the Turko-Mongol warlord Timur. Initially treated with relative mercy, the city revolted against Timur's punitive taxes by killing the tax collectors and some of Timur's soldiers. In retribution, Timur ordered the massacre of the city residents and his soldiers killed a reported 70,000 citizens. An eye-witness counted more than 28 towers, each constructed of about 1,500 heads.
As the result of its suitable geographic situation, Esfahan flourished again especially during the Safavid dynasty.
The Golden Age of Esfahan arrived in the 16th century under Shah Abbas the Great (1587–1629), who conquered it and made it the new capital of the Safavid dynasty. During the reign of Shah Abbas I, who unified Persia, Esfahan reached its pinnacle. Esfahan had parks, libraries and mosques that amazed Europeans.
The Persians called Esfahan, Nesf-e-Jahan (half the world), meaning that to see it was to see half the world, and also referring to it as a point where many cultures and nationalities meet and mingled. In its heyday, Esfahan was one of the largest cities, with a population of over half a million;163 mosques, 48 religious schools, 1801 shops and 263 public baths.
In 1722, following the defeat of the Safavids in the Battle of Gulnabad, Afghans raided Esfahan after a long siege, which left much of the city in ruins. Although the Afghans were a primary cause of Esfahan's decline, it can also be attributed to competition from maritime commerce developed by European merchants from such countries as the Netherlands. Esfahan's wealth originated in its role as a chief waystation along the trans-Asia trade route (such as the Silk Road). Such land trade dwindled as the cheaper sea routes increased in popularity for transporting commodities between Asia and Europe.