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Nishapur was an Islamic city comparable in scale and riches to Baghdad and Cairo, but this status has been neglected due to a lack of comprehensive archaeological investigation and a subsequent lack of information with which historians can work. However, a cross-section of its pottery assemblage has come to light through limited excavation by the Metropolitan Museum in the 1930s and 40s, together with ransacking of the site by adventurers looking for saleable items and by farmers trying to cultivate the land; since then the site has suffered what Wilkinson calls "death by looting", with the result that the present ruins offer no signs of order or stratigraphy for interpretation by the archaeologist or historian.
The modern city of Nishapur in north-eastern Iran (see map) is a few miles away from the medieval city, though still on a site that dates back to the C15th. This area was in early Islamic times part of the province of Khurasan, a traditionally unstable region throughout the first several hundred years of Islamic rule. Nishapur is situated on a fertile plain which is part of the great central Iranian plateau: it is rimmed by high mountains to the north which separate it from other rich cities like Gurgan to the north-west, and Merv and Samarqand to the north-east; to the south of Nishapur the land merges with desert. The geography of this area therefore makes it naturally suitable for settlement as well as a corridor for peoples moving between east and west, whether for reasons of trade, conquest or migration.
Nishapur was in fact described by Yaqut (wrote c.1216) as the "gateway to the East". This is not its only occurrence in literature: historians and geographers like al-Muqaddasi (c.985) and Yaqut considered it to be the richest, most flourishing and populous city in the world. It was the capital of the province of Khurasan, and the seat of military and political authority for many of its rulers. Local histories (such as that by al-Hakim al-Naisaburi, d.1014) and biographical works (isnad) allow tentative reconstructions of the early and medieval Islamic city, and it seems that Nishapur underwent most rapid growth in the C9th and C10th; Bulliet (see below) links this with conversion to Islam and consequent rural-urban migration. It seems that at its height, Nishapur encompassed 47 outlying villages which had become its suburbs: the most well-to-do districts were probably to the south, where underground water channels (qanat), full of snow-melt from the mountains, resurfaced.