You may have chosen Iran as your next travel destination, or you may have not decided yet. In either case, it will be a good idea to get acquainted with the country well, so that you can enjoy your visit to Iran more.
Iranviva Group has provided plenty of comprehensive articles about different things you need to know before traveling to Iran. The following article gives you exhaustive information about the unique Persian art and architecture. Reading this article and other articles provided by Iranviva Group helps tourists get more information they need about the country before deciding to travel to Iran, or before choosing the right tour in Iran.
Persian Architecture is a precious gift, among many, to the world culture. In the visitor’s mind, it seems that the architecture of each city and village in Iran reflects a story about different peoples who have come and gone in this land and different dynasties that have ruled the nation during the past 3000 years. Most of the greatest structures and buildings in this ancient country were built for religious purposes, with Zoroastrianism and Islam as the most prevalent religions in Iran. Therefore, most part of Persian architecture is also known as Islamic architecture.
Some of the distinctive features of Persian architecture include its monumental simplicity and dignity and its use of splendid surface embellishment and color. The typical Persian buildings’ floor plans only consist of some common parts: a rectangular courtyard surrounded by arcades, lofty entrances and four iwans (a vaulted space that opens on one side to a courtyard).
Typical Persian mosque design, now influenced by the Islamic architecture, consists of a dome above an entrance iwan that opens into a large courtyard surrounded by arched cloisters. There are four inner iwans behind these cloisters, one of which characterizing a decorated niche indicating the qibla (direction of Mecca). This is generally called a ‘mihrab’ in the Islamic world. However, this term is used in Iran and refers to the cut-out space in the ground in front of this wall. According to some researchers the four-iwan design dates back to old Zoroastrians and refers to the four elements and the circulation of life.
These simple structures are often decorated so densely with geometric, floral, and calligraphic embellishments that visitors consider the architecture more complex than it really is.
Some walls are just decorated with mosaics forming arabesques, inscriptions, and other patterns like Islamic names of Allah, Mohammed and Ali.
Tile-work in Persian Architecture
The domes of Iranian mosques, covered with decorative glazed tile-work, are likely to make visitors some of the most memorable experiences on their trip to Iran.
The development of ceramic tile in Iran dates back to the Elamite period, but it peaked in 1502–1736, during the Safavid era. The tiles from the Safavid era come in two main forms: mosaics (kashi moarraq) – patterns and designs created using tiny pieces of tile-, and the seven-colored tiles named ‘haft rangi tiles’ in persian, first appeared in the early 17th century, which are square tiles positioned together, painted as a whole with very complicated designs, and then fired.
The colorful tiles employed in buildings constructed during Qajar era may lack in quality, but they often make up in quantity, for example, those used in Golestan Palace in Tehran, and the marvelous Takieh Mo’aven ol-Molk in Kermanshah. Do not miss them on your trip to Iran or on the cultural tours offered by Iranviva.
Domes & Minarets
Developing dome constructions in Iran is one of the greatest achievements of Persian architecture. Building a dome on top of a square chamber dates back to the Sassanians (AD 224–642), supported by two intermediate levels, or squinches – the lower one octagonal and the higher one 16-sided. Afterwards, domes gradually became more complex, incorporating an inner semicircular dome covered by an outer conical or an onion-shaped dome. The outer part of domes is often decorated with tiles with elaborate patterns.
The minaret was originally used for multiple purposes. The minarets were typically built in or adjacent to mosques, from which the muezzin recites the adhan (calls Muslims to prayer). However, they were built as tall, slender towers, which were more decorative than practical, during the Seljuk period (AD 1051–1220). Since the minarets overlook the private houses nearby, a separate structure is built on the roof in Shiite mosques, where the muezzin can make the call to prayer (these days it’s more likely to be a tape recording, though). Most minarets still have a light, in green color (a symbolic color in Islam). The minarets and these lights are indeed to attract visitors to come to pray in the mosque.
The most significant pre-Islamic architectural structures, remained from before the 7th century BC, are the elegant remains of Elamite ziggurat at Choqa Zanbil. The ancient Persians built characteristic pyramidal ziggurats to imitate the mountains as great religious symbolisms. Sun-dried mud bricks were used in building the earliest structures, but by the time Choqa Zanbil was built in the 13th century BC baked bricks were already being used to build the outer surfaces– the bricks seem like they have been out of the kiln last week.
The ruins from the Achaemenid era (550–330 BC) include the ruins of the grand ceremonial complexes and royal tombs at Pasargadae, Naqsh-e Rostam, Shush and the magnificent Persepolis. Visitors to Iran can visit these mesmerizing places that are decorated with bas-reliefs of kings, soldiers, supplicants, animals and the winged figure of the Zoroastrian deity Ahura Mazda. The buildings from the Achaemenid era were typically built with sun-dried brick and stone, and they are related to the old ziggurats in both style and decoration. Achaemenid architectural features are also taken from Egyptian and Greek architecture. Huge halls were built in these buildings which were supported by stone and wooden pillars typically with Persian bull’s head capitals.
By Alexander the Great’s conquest of Persia in 331 BC, Greek and Macedonian architectural styles were brought to Iran. As a good example of these structures is the ruins of Anahita Temple in Kangavar that was built with Greek capitals to honor a Greek goddess. A few characteristically Persian features, including the iwan, began to appear under the Parthians (from 247 BC to AD 224), though little remains.
The buildings became larger, heavier and more complex in the Sassanian era in 224–642 AD. Ardashir’s Palace in Firuz Abad is a good example. The buildings with four iwans and domed square chambers became more and more prevalent, and the typical Persian dome was seen for the first time. Fire temples were built during Sassanian Empire and the earliest simple plan was retained throughout the pre-Islamic period, even in churches.
* Buildings in the Islamic world were also strongly influenced by the Persian architecture, especially in Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Iconic building of Taj Mahal in India may be the most famous building of Persian origin that was designed by architect Ustad Ahmad Lahouri in Safavid era.
* Many Zoroastrian fire temples, built during pre-Islamic era, were changed into mosques after arrival of Islam.
Early Persian-Islamic Architecture
The Muslim conquest of Persia did not supplant the highly developed Sassanian architectural style, but it introduced the Islamic style that influenced Persian arts so extensively. Not only has the basic architectural plan of religious buildings been shaped in the Islamic period (AD 642–1051), special types of decoration were also defined in this period. Mosques, designed as centers of daily life for ordinary people, came instead of royal palace complexes.
A distinctly Persian-Islamic style of architecture was evolved by the combination of the Sassanian and Islamic styles. There was a rebirth of Persian nationalism since the mid-9th century. Among the architectural innovations include the high, pointed arch, and focusing on balance and scale. Calligraphy was used as the principal form of architectural decoration. Masjed-e Jameh in Na’in can be a good example.
A series of remarkable towers, more secular than religious in purpose, also began to appear in this period. There was a development of ornamentation, like elaborate basket-weave brickwork to deflect the intense sunlight, in building towers with round bricks. These towers are commonly known as tombs today, but some, such as Radkan Tower, were significant early astronomical observatories.
* These towers (minarets) are quite tall in desert cities, such as Yazd and Isfahan, since they were traditionally used as landmarks for caravans crossing the desert. However, most minarets are short in mountainous areas or places surrounded by hills, such as Shiraz.
Architecture in Seljuk, Mongol & Timurid Era
Seljuks era (1040–1157) was the period of material and cultural prosperity in Iran, and the brilliance in architecture and the arts during this period had a remarkable influence on later architectural developments. In this period, double domes, expanded vaults, developed squinch and refined glazed tile-work became prevalent. Integrity of structure, form and decoration, based on rigorous mathematical principles, began to appear for the first time. Stucco, incorporating arabesques and Persian styles of calligraphy, was more and more applied in buildings in this period.
New developments happened in Persian architecture during Mongol period (1220–1335), although known as a dark period in Iranian history. Genghis Khan’s conquest of Iran was initially completely destructive, and many architects fled away from the country, but later the Mongols patronized the arts, too. A characteristic of the Mongol style that really impresses the visitors was towering entrance portals, huge domes, and very high vaults. There was also a refinement of tiling, and calligraphy, often in formal Kufic scripts imported from Arabia. More attention was paid to the interior decoration of domes, in this period.
The Seljuk and Mongol styles were more and more improved during the Timurids era (1380–1502). The architectural features in this period were employing the exuberant color and great harmony in structure and decoration. They avoided the monotony of large empty surfaces by using translucent tiling, even in buildings of colossal scale. The courtyards surrounded by arcaded cloisters, open galleries and arches within arches were some of the remarkable developments.
* Caravanserais (roadside inn where travelers could rest and recover from the day’s journey, usually consisting of a courtyard surrounded by rooms) all along the great trade routes from east to west, were established to facilitate trading. Although the earliest caravanserais date back to Seljuk era, many of them date back to the reign of Shah Abbas I. Caravanserais were built either at regular distances along trading routes (almost every 30km, a day’s camel ride), or in the cities near the bazaars. This is easily seen in historical desert cities like Isfahan and Kerman, in particular. On your trip to Iran, in the hot deserts in south of the country, you will see the remains of yakhdans (mud-brick ice houses) built to store ice during summer. In winter, water was left out to freeze– the ice was scraped off and moved to a building nearby, often a stepped dome. The yakhdan in Meybod near Yazd is similar to a circular ziggurat outside and a huge hollow egg inside.
Architecture in Safavid Era
The final refinement of styles that marked the culmination of the Persian Islamic school of architecture was in the reign of Safavid rulers, most notably Shah Abbas I. The greatest manifestation of the architecture of this period is Shah Abbas’ royal capital city, Isfahan, the best example of town planning with the most splendid collection of monuments – the mesmerizing Naqsh-e Jahan (Imam) Square.
There are other fine examples of Safavid architecture in Qazvin, and much of the present magnificence of Haram-e Razavi in Mashhad obtained in Safavid period.
* During the Safavid era, 999 caravanserais were built under the orders of Shah Abbas the Great. Only two of them were circular, one near the city of Isfahan and the other in Zein-o-din, south of Yazd. The latter has been renovated and changed into a beautiful hotel.
Architecture in Qajar Era
The rather unhappy period between the golden age of Safavid architecture and the creeping introduction of Western-inspired architecture from the mid-19th century is Qajar period (1795–1925).
Some fine buildings, including the Golestan Palace in Tehran and the magnificent mansions in Kashan are some examples of the colorful Qajar architecture, now widely regarded as tasteless, flimsy and unimaginative style.
Since, it is rumored that Persians have green fingers, gardens are part and parcel of the national psyche, and horticulture runs in the veins of the country. Flowers, especially roses, are highly used in poetry, in the iconography of rugs, in tiles of mosques, and as dressing in Iranian cuisine. Emphasizing on straight lines, ornamental pools in the middle of the courtyard and rigid symmetry, Persian palaces and gardens have traditionally tended to be quite formal, but later, they became more attractive, odorous affairs in the courtyards of even the modest homestead. One of the unquestionable enjoyments for a visitor, who has a trip to Iran, especially central Iran, is the opportunity to pick a bitter orange from a tree in winter, smell the fragrant narcissus and roses in spring, and enjoy and appreciate the perpetual shade of towering cypresses in summer.
In 2011, a group of nine Iranian gardens were added to the World Heritage list by UNESCO, as the best examples of the traditional Persian garden form. Traditionally, regarded as the Paradise, Persian gardens are divided into four sections, representing the four elements of Zoroastrian culture: earth, water, air, and fire.
The nine gardens included in the World Heritage list date back to different periods since the 6th century BC. Five of these gardens are located in central Iran that are easy to visit for every visitor who is traveling to Iran, especially those using Iran tours provided by Iranviva Group:
- Fin Garden in Kashan
- Chehel Sotun Garden in Isfahan
- Dolat Abad Garden in Yazd
- Eram Garden in Shiraz
- The ancient Persian garden of Pasargadae near Persepolis
So much life coming out of the heart of the desert, irrigating towns and villages and orchards with delicious fruit, is largely due to wonders of engineering. For at least 2000 years, Iranians have been digging qanats (underground water channels) to transport water from a water well to surface for irrigation and drinking, acting as an underground aqueduct that allow the communities to sustain themselves in such inhospitable environments.
Finding an underground water source is the first challenge in building a qanat. This water source could be more than 100m deep, but since the whole system works based on gravity, the source must be higher than the final destination.
The other challenge is that the tunnel should be so wide that the water can flow down a slight slope to its destination.
Because of the risks and cost of building a qanat, there are complex laws governing their use and maintenance. It is estimated that Iran has more than 50,000 qanats, and while modern irrigation systems are applied more than the traditional methods of now, qanats are still highly appreciated. Qanats are still the only water supply systems in hundreds of towns and villages in Iran, including Kashan and Mahan.
Iran World Heritage Sites in UNESCO
Most of the 24 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Iran are significant architectural landmarks, listed below chronologically.
- Choqa Zanbil, 13th century BC
- Pasargadae, 6th century BC
- Susa, 5th century BC
- Persepolis, 5th century BC
- Shushtar Historical Hydraulic System, 3rd century BC
- Armenian Monastic Ensembles, 7th to 14th centuries
- Masjed-e Jameh, Isfahan, 9th century
- Takht-e Soleiman, 13th century
- Oljeitu Mausoleum, Soltaniyeh, 14th century
- Sheikh Safi-od-Din Mausoleum, Ardabil, 16th to 18th centuries
- Naqsh-e Jahan (Imam) Square, Isfahan, 17th century
- Tabriz Bazaar, 18th century
- Golestan Palace, Tehran, 18th century
For the full list of UNESCO World Heritage sites in Iran and more details, see http:// whc.unesco.org.
Examples of Iranian Architecture in the World
Throughout history, this land has witnessed the events and powerful empires with the largest territory. Due to its strategic location, this land has always been threatened and invaded by different governments and ethnic groups. However, the all the ethnic groups, who came into Persia, were influenced by its art and the beauty of this land.
Iranian architecture has always attracted every art lover and artist. This has allowed the Persian architecture to be seen all around the world. Among the monuments built under the influence of Persian architecture is Taj Mahal in India:
Taj Mahal is one of the wonders of the world that is located in India.
Taj Mahal is a magnificent mausoleum built with white marble that is the symbol of purity, love and pain. Rabindranath Tagore, poet, philosopher and Nobel Prize winner, said: “The Taj Mahal is like a tear on the face of time”.
Shah Jahan, Mughal Emperor, built Taj Mahal in memory of his third Iranian wife, Mumtaz Mahal (her Iranian name was Arjumand Banu). Arjumand Banu died in childbirth and Shah Jahan constructed this building to commemorate his late Iranian wife.
Over a period of 22 years (1632 to 1653), Taj Mahal was built by architects from Iran and other countries, and now it is known as one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. What is notable about this building is that elements of Persian architecture and arts like calligraphy can be seen around the building.
Taj Mahal is one of the manifestations of Persian architecture in other countries.
You can visit and enjoy the splendid architecture of Iran on your trip to Iran. Now after reading this article, have a look at Iran tours page and choose the perfect tour from all the fascinating Iran tours provided by Iranviva Group.