Biblical clues point to the Ajichay River flowing out of the Garden of Eden, which would place Tabriz at the gates of paradise! More historically verifiable, Tabriz was a Sassanian-period trade hub and came to eclipse Maraqeh as a later Mongol Ilkhanid capital of Azerbaijan. It recovered remarkably rapidly from Tamerlane’s 1392 ravages and, while the rest of Iran was vassal to the Timurids, Tabriz became the capital of a local Turkmen dynasty curiously nicknamed the Qareh Koyunlu (Black Sheep). That dynasty’s greatest monarch was Jahan Shah (no, not the Taj Mahal’s Shah Jahan), under whose rule (1439–67) the city saw a remarkable flowering of arts and architecture culminating in the fabulous Blue Mosque.
Shah Ismail, the first Safavid ruler, briefly made Tabriz Persia’s national capital. However, after the battle of Chaldoran, Tabriz suddenly seemed far too vulnerable to Ottoman attack, so Ismail’s successor, Tahmasp (1524–75), moved his capital to safer Qazvin. Fought over by Persians, Ottomans and (later) Russians, Tabriz went into a lengthy decline exacerbated by disease and one of the world’s worst-ever earthquakes that killed a phenomenal 77, 000 Tabrizis in November 1727.
The city recovered its prosperity during the 19th century. Shahgoli (now Elgoli) on Tabriz’ southeast outskirts became the residence of the Qajar crown prince, but heavy-handed Qajar attempts to Persianise the Azari region caused resentment. The 1906 constitutional revolution briefly allowed Azari Turkish speakers to regain their linguistic rights (schools, newspapers etc) and Tabriz held out most valiantly in 1908 when the liberal constitution was promptly revoked again. For its pains it was brutally besieged by Russian troops.
Russians popped up again during both world wars and had time to build themselves a railway line to Jolfa (then the Soviet border) before withdrawing in 1945. This left Tabriz as capital of Pishaveri’s short-lived Provincial Government (autonomous south Azerbaijan) which tried to barter threats of secession for better Azari rights within Iran. The Provincial Government was crushed in December 1946 and far from encouraging the Azaris, the shah did the opposite, restricting the use of their mother tongue. Reaction against this discrimination put Tabriz in the forefront of the 1979 revolution well before the anti-shah struggle was railroaded by more fundamentalist Muslim clerics.