2500 Years of Architecture
IRAN of the Master Builders
The purpose of this work is not to provide a history of Iranian architecture over the 2500 years since Cyrus the Great founded the Persian Empire. Its aim is simply to offer an interpretation of the more important works of each period, for, in Iran, more than anywhere else in the world, architecture has always been the essential means of expression.
The feeling for space, geometry and mathematics, which is the outstanding characteristic of Persian art, can be most clearly appreciated in its constructions. In fact the Iranian master builders were the first to introduce a number of fundamental and revolutionary solutions which influenced the art of the near and Middle East and were later to be adopted by the architects of the Mediterranean lands and the Orient.
Our aim is to outline the new formulas and technological solutions which formed the basis of Persians achievements. In so doing I shall endeavour to follow the general thread of architectural evolution without going into any great detail, except as regards the major monuments grouped on the sites of the ancient capitals of the Empire.
The fact of concentrating on a limited number of buildings—particularly as regards the photographs that illustrate this study—has two advantages. Firstly, only the most accomplished, best preserved and most adequately restored monuments have been taken into consideration. Secondly, and more important, for each site or monument it is possible to supply a set of documents in sufficient detail to give a relatively complete image. As you turn the following pages, then, pictures of the edifices will unfold before your eyes, enabling you to view them from different angles and so appreciate their prodigious variety of forms, their technological inventiveness. Their sumptuous decoration, their complex spatial solutions and their magnificent colours.
This survey, which touches only on the greatest achievements, starts out from the architecture of the Achaemenids, with the palaces and temples at Pasargad and Persepolis, and the necropolis of Naqsh-Rustam; then, leaving aside the Parthians-‘who are known only through few sparse remains, we come to the glorious Sasanian period, which elaborated a plastic language that spread beyond the frontiers of present-day Iran and reached its highest peak at Ctesiphon on the banks of the River Tigris.
The penetration of the Iranian uplands by Islam in about A.D. 650, was followed by two parallel architectural trends that continued for several centuries. One kept close to the original Arab tradition; the other constituted an Iranian resistance movement. The originality of this latter trend came to light during the Seljuk period. The architectural vocabulary elaborated after the year 1000 led to a splendid renaissance. At that time Isfahan was the capital both of Persia and of the immense empire of the Seljuks. In the early seventeenth century it became the capital once again under the Safavid dynasty, that made it one of the world's handsomest cities. Shah Abbas, cutting deep into the urban tissue of the ancient city, erected an incredible complex of monuments whose daring design was equalled only by the perfection of their execution.
Towards the end of the Safavid dynasty this grandiose trend developed into a sort of baroque. At the same time it made its influence felt in all the neighbouring countries and permeated the art of the Moguls in India where it became a determining factor in the development of Indo-Islamic art.
|Shah Ismail I
Even if the borders of Iran have changed over the centuries, the lasting influence of the imagination of her master builders can still be traced far beyond the present-day frontiers. It can be felt in towns such as Samarkand, Bukhara and Merv, in Ghazna, Jam, Nemroz, and Herat or even in Hatra, not to mention the distant echos from the Indian subcontinent dating from the Buddhist period of Asoka (273-232 B. C.) and the Islamic periods in Delhi, Lahore and Agra. All round Persia splendid buildings bear the mark of an authentic feeling for architecture that originated in the highlands of Iran and above all in Persepolis and Isfahan.
These, in the main, are the landmarks of this brief study devoted to the major contributions of the Iranian genius to the history of architecture through the 2500 years that have elapsed since the foundation of the Empire by Cyrus II, whom Herodotus dubbed "The Father of the People".
Incongruous elements, but an original synthesis that has resulted in an entirely new construction in which the distribution of forms produces a novel and harmonious effect. Achaemenid art, though founded on what already existed, created a new combination that was at the same time both daring and integral.
The Elamite Antecedents
In fact, the revolutionary aspects of Achaemenid art are more important than they appear to be at first sight. We must not forget that the first Iranian civilization did not begin at Pasargad. It was the Elamites who, between the fourteenth and the seventh centuries B.C., elaborated an architectural language of their own in the southern regions of the country. There is no denying that the Babylonians exerted a strong influence on them, but in the immense alluvial plain and the delta of the Ab-i-Diz (itself a tributary of the Shatt-el-Arab which originates from the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates,( the Elamites soon began giving a certain originality to their religious monuments. Like the great Mesopotamian ziggurats, that of Choga Zambil, near Susa, was built of brick. Founded in 1250 B.C,. it has five levels and rises like a stepped pyramid to what must have originally been a height of about 160 feet. The outermost of its three walls measures no less than two and a half miles in circumference. This huge structure, which encloses vaulted halls, was built on the inside of sun-dried bricks, with fired bricks for the facings.
|Choga Zambil, near Susa
The tradition of brick architecture seems to have been preserved until the Neo-Elamite period in the seventh century B.C. The city of Ecbatana (the present-day Hamadan) which was the capital at that time, offers us much interesting information about the state of architecture on the eve of the Achaemenid period.
A Technological Revolution
The edifices of Pasargad and Persepolis owe their revolutionary aspect first and foremost to the fact that the Achaemenids abandoned brick in favour of freestone, at least for buildings of monumental importance. Influenced probably by the Phrygians and the Lycians of Anatolia conquered by Cyrus, his grandiose tomb was built in the shape of a stepped pyramid topped by a funerary chamber with a double pitched roof. This mausoleum, derived from the gabled tombs of the nations that had come from the north, is composed of huge blocks of stone arranged in six colossal stages and dry bonded with amazing precision. Though 36 feet in height, it does not seem monumental. Its proportions are so perfect that only comparison with a human being enables one to appreciate its size.
The tomb of Cyrus at Pasargad is one of the major landmarks in the history of Iranian architecture. There, for the first time, stone cut in colossal blocks was the sole building material. What is more, the Elamite vault was abandoned in favour of robust lintels that are combined with a windowless garret which fills the space directly under the double pitched roof.
This formula, however, did not last long. After the reign of Cambyses II, whose unfinished tomb would have had the same shape as his father's, it was superseded by the rock-cut tombs at Naqsh-i- Rustam and Persepolis. These reproduce the front of the royal palaces set in a curious cruciform design.
Pasargad and Its Palaces
When Cyrus set up his new capital at Pasargad, he started by erecting a sort of citadel on a small hill. Nothing at Persepolis can compare with the esplanade formed by retaining walls in great blocks of stone, some of them over 13 feet long, arranged in regular courses. Among the palaces and state buildings erected by Cyrus there are there huge structures each characterized by the presence of a hypostyle hall .in two of these buildings this audience hall is flanked by porticos with double colonnades. The most important edifice at Pasargadae has an Apadana with eight columns, two corner towers designed to reinforce the structure and grand porticos on its four sides. This layout anticipates that which subsequently prevailed both hall 7000 square feet in area with. Five rows of six columns each. It is flanked on two sides by porticos that are far longer than the hall itself. The portico on the south, which has two rows of twenty columns each, extends for about 260 feet in manner of a Greek stoa. Indeed, one may well say that this immense Achaemenid composition was the forerunner of the finest civic edifices that surrounded the Hellenistic agorae. On the opposite side of the building there is a portico, also with two rows of columns but slightly less long because there are only twelve pairs, which is terminated at either end by corner towers of the type so common in the ceremonial constructions of the Achaemenids.
Thus, from the very start, the architecture of Cyrus’ reign offers original solutions that reached their full development at Susa and above all in the Apadana of Xerxes at Persepolis. This architecture is based on a technique of stone supporting members with tall shafts, whose elegant proportions could only be achieved with the use of timber beams for the lintels that sustain the roof. But in a land where trees are rare this formula was an innovation of considerable importance. It was only possible because the empire included Phoenicia and the forests of cedars that grew in what is now Lebanon. Consequently, there was nothing in common between the buildings Erected by the Elamites, with their fired and unfired bricks, their vaults and their maze of chambers of modest proportions, and the clear-cut organization of vast stone edifices with timber roof trusses introduced by Cyrus at Pasargad. This far-reaching revolution was still more strongly asserted at Persepolis with a virtuosity and an organic articulation that are even more extraordinary.
Be that as it may, the hypostyle halls of the Achaemenids did not derive, contrary to common belief, so much from the sanctuaries of Pharaonic Egypt, as from the palaces of Anatolia, Armenia and Azerbaijan built by the Hittites of Boghazkeui in the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries B.C., by the Manneans of Hasanlu in the eleventh, and by the Urartians of Altintepe in the eighth. They were a typical tradition of those well-wooded lands, and this tradition penetrated as far as the Iranian plateau as a result of Cyrus’ conquests. If any proof is needed, it is this. The oldest palace at Pasargad was erected before Cambyses conquered the valley of the Nile. Its ground plan, with eight columns arranged in two rows, is closer to the palaces at Hasanlu than to the temples at Karnak. Moreover the originality of the Achaemenid buildings lies precisely in the fact that they stressed the importance of civic architecture in the Middle East in contrast to the magnificent buildings of Thebes, which were predominantly religious. This brings them closer, culturally, to the achievements of the Anatolian and Phoenician master builders than to the theocentric monuments of Egypt.
Persepolis or Solemn Organization
What strikes one most on a first visit to Persepolis is the curious choice of the site for the royal palaces. Why did the Achaemenids build their sumptuous capital—they spent the winter at Susa and the hottest part of the summer at Ecbatana—in a valley of modest proportions compared, for instance, with that of Shiraz which was no great distance away? And why did they erect their palaces and audience halls backed by a rocky ridge that dominated the monuments, and which dwarfed them instead of setting them off?
At Pasargad the buildings are erected on the rises, however unimpressive these may seem. Were strategic considerations perhaps taken into account at Persepolis? This seems rather farfetched where the site itself is concerned, for the cliff that dominates the palace was by no means impregnable. On the other hand, the valley had passes that would have been easy to defend. it is, however, most unlikely that problems of this sort influenced a universal monarchy that felt safe from attack
Was it perhaps the aesthetic factor that made the planners choose to set the edifices on terraces that are like bastions jutting out into the plain? This is plausible if we look at the buildings from the side. But those who crossed the valley to enter the presence of the Great King saw them from the front, and from that viewpoint, however colossal their proportions, they must have been barely distinguishable from the rocky background.
Maybe it was the existence of a spring—now dried up except during the rainy season-and of a rich, though small, irrigated valley that favoured the site selected by Darius in 518 B.C. In fact, water must have played an important part in the layout of the palatial precinct. Not only for everyday use, but also because it permitted the creation of vast lawns and plantations, the existence of which is demonstrated by the pine trees shown on the bas-reliefs at Persepolis. Some of the terraces seem to have been irrigated, and channels cut in the solid rock break up the rigorous organization of the open spaces that separate the palaces.
The strict organization of the plan of the terraces at Persepolis—literally levelled out of the rock—with all the buildings set close together and facing in the same direction, is one of the most distinctive features of the ensemble. At Persepolis, the Achaemenids developed a genuine system of town planning. Nothing of the sort ever existed at Pasargad, where the palaces are scattered in apparent disorder and without any mutual organic link, even through they all face in the same direction.
At Persepolis, standing on the high walls of the crenelated bastions that dominate the plain, one is reminded of a military encampment. Actually, it seems that some parts of the ensemble, built of sun-dried brick, housed the royal guard. But most of the edifices erected by Darius and Xerxes were huge halls designed to exalt the majesty and emphasize the power of the Great King. They lie close together, arranged in a strictly orthogonal layout, on lofty terraces that stretch about 440 yards from north to south and 275 yards from east to west, covering an area of about 25 acres.
The Hypostyle Edifices
When one examines this plan one is surprised to find that virtually every hall and chamber—from the largest, which measures over 220x220 feet, to the smallest, which hardly attains 26x26 feet—is based on the formula of the hypostyle. Here the system elaborated at Pasargad is raised to the level of an absolute principle." The supporting members may number 3, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 16, 20, 25, 32, 36, or even 100 (in the Throne Room), but there is a clear preference for a square plan with 4,36 or 100 columns.
As we have already seen, the austerity of this extremely rigorous plan was probably tempered by zones of greenery and still more by winding roads and carefully devised differences of level, joined by gently sloping stairways that give almost the same impression as ramps. The combination of these monumental flights of stairs with the widely varying height of the halls must have done much to enliven a townscape of such vast proportions.
In addition to the state apartments, this magnificent ensemble comprised offices, storerooms, barracks, stables, armouries, a treasury, the living quarters of the palace staff and the private suites of the kings and queens. It is entered through impressive propylaea. Twin stairways diverge at the foot of the high walls that support the terraces and rise in long, gradual flights. Their parapets are broken by recessed crenels. Half-way up, each turns back upon itself before
resuming its majestic ascent. They meet at the level of the esplanade. On reaching this point one discovers the great Gate of All Nations or Gate of Xerxes, a square edifice with entrances on three sides. To the east and west, pairs of colossal mythical beasts stand before the gate, like the human-headed, winged bulls of the Assyrian palace of Khorsabad (eighth century B.C.) from which they derived their inspiration. These propylaea form a spacious square hall measuring 70 feet each way, whose roof rested on four stone columns.
The vista from the gate is dominated by the vast hall of the Apadana, which is unquestionably the culminating point of Achaemenid architecture. Started by Darius the Great and finished by his son Xerxes, the construction of this hall brings together all the trends which characterize the Persian genius of that period, and which one can observe at Susa. On the north and east sides of the square terrace, pairs of stairways that face each other on different vertical planes lead to the remains of an audience hall that must have measured 250 feet square on the exterior. The enclosed space—not counting the porticos that flank it on three sides—is a square measuring close on 200 feet each way, sustained by six rows of six columns each. These 36 columns, 66 feet high including the bull protoma capitals, supported a cedarwood ceiling that covered an area of about 36,000 feet. Never before had a place come anywhere near attaining such vast proportions.
This hypostyle structure is preceded on three sides, as we have seen, by porticos with two rows of columns of the type already found at Pasargad. These porticos provide a subtle transition from the exterior of the building to the interior, by means of covered areas that are elegantly balance by the slender stone shafts of the twelve columns that supported the roof.
At each corner, the guardrooms form square towers that flank the relatively frail structure of the hypostyles. They serve to give solidity to the ensemble in the same way as we have seen at Pasargad and Susa.
Persian Art and Greek Art
The tall columns of the Apadana, unlike those of the Greek temples, did not support stone lintels, but cedarwood trusses. In this way it was possible to create a sensation of light and space at Persepolis. In fact, the intercolumniation attains over 25 feet, which would have been out of the question with stone architraves. Moreover, the columns themselves are extremely slim in proportion to their height. The ratio is 1:14 or 1:15. And even though we know that they were cut by Ionian and Sardian craftsmen—the Hellenic touch is clear to see in the fluting of the shaft and the torus of the base, which resemble those in lonic temples—the purpose they served was very different.
In Greek civilisation, architecture is first and foremost in the service of religion. The Hellenic temple comprises a peristyle surrounding a small cella designed only to house the statue of the god, though in proportion to the total volume of the building the interior space is virtually non-existant. In the halls of the Achaemenids, however, what really counted was precisely this interior space. They were designed as residences, for granting audiences and for holding assemblies. Consequently, the art of the Persian builders—unlike that of the Greeks, who created what might be termed a sort of sculpture in space—is architecture in the truest sense of the word.
The Function of Persepolis
Persepolis was a city designed to assert the unity of the immense empire founded by the Achaemenids. There the Medes and Persians brought together the most diverse influences, received from their remote dominions. We must not forget that in the days of Darius. Iran was the heart of a "great universal empire of the Iron Age", and that the archers of the Great King "camped on the laxartes and the Indus, on the Nile and the Danube". The grand festivities of Naw Ruz were organized with a view to giving cohesion to the immense territories united under the "Pax Persica".
Thus Persepolis was a politico-religious foundation created for the purpose of exalting the power of the sovereign. Evidence of this is the solid gold stele that commemorated the inauguration of the palace temple. It bore this inscription dictated by the king: "I built this palace. The materials were brought from afar. The bricks were moulded and baked by the Babylonians. The cedarwood beams were brought from Phoenicia by the Assyrians. The stones for the columns came from Elam and were cut by the lonians and Sardians. The sculpture that adorns the walls was carved by the Medes and the Egyptians. The gold came from Bactria, the silver and the ebony from Ethiopia and Sind. The ivory was brought from the region of Arachosia."
These different origins of materials and techniques, of men and slaves, are proclaimed by the bas-reliefs. There we can see not only the Made and Persian warriors marching side by side in processions and military parades, but also the carriers of offerings who brought the tribute from the remote provinces to lay at the feet of the omnipotent Achaemenid. Susians, Babylonians, Lydians, Phrygians, Scythians, Sogdians, Gandahrians, Cappadocians and many other peoples travelled to Persepolis in order to present the products of their lands and crafts. Nothing could evoke the worldwide supremacy of the Persian Empire better than the procession of tributaries that unfolds around the base of the Apadana.
This superb cosmopolitan art was far more than the simple sum of formulas lumped together by more chance. It was the result of a masterly process of integration, an extraordinary creative synthesis that brought fifth-century architecture to one of its highest peaks of perfection.
However, this masterpiece disappeared in a single night in the year 330 B.C., swallowed up by the flames of an all-devouring fire started by some of Alexander the Great's drunken soldiery who were celebrating their victory over Darius III.
The destruction of Persepolis marked the end of a style of architecture. In fact, that art left no heirs. None of the features that constituted its originality survived, except perhaps as a distant echo in the great pillars of Asoka, topped by Persian capitals, at Sarnath, Mathura and Sanchi, where the last memory of the world-wide fame of Persepolis still lives on.
From the Parthian Renaissance to the Sasanian Culmination
The Achaemenids had achieved the synthesis of the knowledge of their age and raised architecture to a level it had never before attained. Now Iran, conquered and mutilated, withdrew within itself under the Seleucids after the death of Alexander, whose ephemeral empire soon fell apart. Pillage and famine scourged the remnants of a world in ruins. Where architecture was concerned. The Greek column failed to force itself on an impoverished Iran, where building activity was restricted to ordinary dwelling houses in mud or beaten earth.
From now on the nation turned back towards its natural sources, towards a popular art that had been all too absolutely rejected in the huge imperial projects of the Great Kings. lt rediscovered the virtues of brick, the vault and the dome. And it is these three elements that were destined, in the ultimate stages of their development, to produce the great masterpieces of Iranian architecture.
Seleucus I Nicator, the founder of
the Seleucid Empire.
The last relics of the presence of the Greeks and Macedonians can be seen in the palace of Hatra (near Ashur, on the Tigris), where the semicircular barrel vault is combined with the engaged column and the pilaster. This example of late. Corrupt Hellenistic architecture displays ardly a single Iranian trait. Buildings in the same provincial style can be found in all the countries of the Near East.
Hatra, a city founded by Vologaeses I (A.D. 51-78), seems to have been more interesting, to judge from its ground plan. It was circular, and surrounded by a well over three miles in circumference. This formula apparently derived from the military encampments of the Assyrians and was employed seven hundred years later by Al-Mansur when he founded Baghdad. It also occurs in other Parthian cities, for instance in Ctesiphon, which later became the capital of the Sasanians, in Takht-i-Suleiman and in Gur, later named Firuzabad, which was built by the founder of the Sasanian dynasty, Ardashir. Lastly, the same principle can be found in the first city of Isfahan which, if we are to believe lbn Rasta, measured about 2 miles in diameter.
When Trajan came to blows with the peoples of the east the fortifications of Hatra withstood his most vigorous attacks. The enmity between Iranians and Romans continued for centuries. It resulted in the defeat of the Emperor Valerian by the Sasanian sovereign Shapur l in A.D. 260 and still made itself felt in the wars between Byzantines and Muslims.
It was apparently during the Parthian era that vaulted ivans arranged around a court were employed for the first time. This formula first occurs in a palace at Ashur which dates from the first century A.D., having previously been a feature of popular dwellings. It was destined to have a great future not only under the Sasanians, but in the majority of the Islamic monuments in Iran. In addition to this, all the developments of systems of vaults and domes that were the
boast of Iranian architecture at a later date were anticipated in the fire temples of Mazdaism. The dome on squinches supported by four pillars joined by arches is the key to all subsequent research, the problem of contriving the transition from the square chamber to the circular roof 'loading to a great variety of vaulting systems.
A New Iranian Empire
|Coin of Ardashir I.
In A.D. 224, Ardashir, a member of the Sasanid dynasty, defeated Artabanus V, the last of the Arsacid kings, and conquered Ctesiphon. The result of this was the rise of a new Iranian Empire that soon spread over an immense territory which ranged from Tashkent to Antioch and from the River Indus to the Black See. It was in this vast country that the prophet Mani began to preach Manicheism in the year 242. The foundation of the new empire ushered in a period during which architecture advanced by leaps and bounds.
At Firuzabad, Ardashir I built a palace that measures 330 feet by 170 and comprises a huge vaulted ivan and three domed halls, behind which is a court with two axial ivans. The complex was ringed round by crenelated walls. This was probably the first realization on a monumental scale of a type of vault which had been employed by the peasants from time immemorial and is characterized by a slightly elliptical profile.
This formula was further developed in the palace built in the fifth century by Bahram Gur at Sarvistan, where the dome is lighter, and the elliptical shape, that later rendered possible the most amazing Sasanian achievements, is more in evidence. The great audience hall already attains a diameter of 45 feet and a height of 70. It is the centre of a palace that covers an area of 15,000 square feet, and containing a great many domed halls.
Certain techniques borrowed from the Romans—-such as the rubble filling that occurs in the palace at Bishapur in the province of Fars built by Shapur I—probably helped to provide the Sasanians with new building methods. We know, in fact, that when Valerian was defeated and captured at Edessa, his legions remained as prisoners of war in Iran. That workforce of seventy thousand men may well have been employed on civil engineering projects. In the third century the armies of the Roman emperors had an unequalled experience in the matter of building roads, bridges and dams. On the other hand, as regards architecture in the strict sense of the word, the Romans do not seem to have made any real impact on local forms. It is true that Rome was at the peak of her power at that time and virtually no roofing technique based on the round dome and the groined vault held any mystery for her. But those are not the formulas we find applied in Iran.
The most fantastic example of all Sasanian architecture is the great palace at Ctesiphon, which must be ascribed to the reign of Chosroes (Khusraw I) in the sixth century. The facade is almost 320 feet long and the elliptical vault of the immense ivan spans 90 feet, is about 135 feet deep and rises to a height of 115 feet above the which pavement. This huge hall is built of baked brick throughout. Its elliptical dome, besides giving it great elegance, permitted it to be buttressed relatively low, at the level of the extrados, by a series of perpendicular vaults this formula is a prodigious technical achievement outrivalling the solutions discovered by the Romans. It led by degrees to the pointed vault, which has the same static properties, and spread throughout the Arab world in the eighth and ninth centuries. It also formed the basis of the great art of the Cistercians and the achievements of the Seljuks at Rum in Anatolia.
Thus, beginning during the Parthian epoch, a renewal of native sources can be clearly seen. From then on, under the Sasanians, techniques characteristic of the Middle East based on original and daring formulas, spread throughout the ancient world. The vast motion of systole and diastole—the Achaemenids borrowed from their nieghbours to nurture their art, while the Sasanians disseminated their knowledge of the vault—could still be felt in the western world up to the Middle Ages.
From the Arab Invasion to the Seljuk and Timurid Periods
|Winter sasanid palace-Iraq
In 637 Arab horsemen burst upon the Sasanian empire and took the capital, Ctesiphon, less than twenty years later occupying all the Iranian plateau. The result of this was a collapse similar to that which the Achaemenid empire had suffered at the hands of the troops of Alexander the Great, though it took the invaders a very long time to reduce the military resistance in some northern districts and in the mountainous regions. Meanwhile a cultural resistance set in. Instead of adhering to the Sunnism of the Arab troops, the Iranians who were converted to Islam joined the Shi'ite sect, almost as if they were deliberately intent on distinguishing themselves from their invaders. What is more, refusing to adopt the Arabic of the Koran, they continued to speak Farsi or Persian. This antinomian nationalistic attitude was soon reflected in their religious architecture.
In the early days of the Islamic conquest the Arabs introduced a new type of building throughout the country. This was the mosque, which was the focal point of the religious activity of the Muslim community. There, five times a day, at the call of the Muezzin, the faithful assembled to pray together facing Mecca. The type of mosque introduced into Iran was characterized by the Omayyad plan, which consists of a vast court surrounded by porticos with a hypostyle hall for prayer. This plan is common to all the great mosques that were erected in the ninth century, during the Abbasid period, on the banks of the rivers of Mesopotamia, near Ctesiphon, at Samarra and at Abu Dulaf. Their vast enclosures and the brick vaults that cover the parallel naves of the hypostyle are identical to those we find at Qairwan and Cordova and in the Mosque of Amri at Cairo.
At the outset the Iranians were unable to resist this trend, which was responsible for the mosques at Damghan (eighth century) and Nayin (tenth century). Soon, however, a movement of national revival began to make itself felt. This found expression in architectural forms derived from Iran's splendid past. The result was the creation of a new plan in which the kiosk, derived from the Mazdaist fire altar, and the ivan derived from the Sassanid audience hall were adapted to the architectural needs of Islam. The typically Iranian formula developed through the palace to the madrassa or Koranic school. At the start the Persian mosques had only a single ivan, which was already a typical Iranian feature. But the palaces. And later the madrasses, had a square centre court with an ivan on each of its four inner faces. This cruciform plan, to which the Muslim architecture of Iran owes its originality, first appeared in the eleventh century under Malik Shah, a member of the Seljuk dynasty. Thus, almost three centuries elapsed amid wars and migrations before Iran recovered its identity, its creative power and its own idiom in the domain of architecture.
The Search for New Solutions
We have seen the Iranians resumed their link with the past by borrowing the formula of the ivan from the Sasanian palaces. While at the same time maintaining some of the fundamental precepts of the mosque. Thus, the end of the prayer hall is closed by a wall perpendicular to the direction of Mecca termed the "qibla", in the centre of which the "mihrab"—a sort of niche—representes the holy of holies. This mihrab, framed by a curbed arch, may perhaps have symbolized the idea of prayer by analogy with the churches of primitive Coptic Christianity in which, even before the dawn of Islam, the vaulted apse crowned the pre-eminently consecrated spot—the altar.
In Iran the great vault known as the ivan was destined to reach an enormous architectural development and attain vast proportions. The four ivans of the mosque embrace a huge expanse of open sky and their covered area provides a link with the interior of the edifice. What is more, the ivan is surrounded by a vertical frame, like a triumphal arch, that offered an opportunity for ornamentation of even greater wealth and variety.
Iranian architects took advantage of the huge vaulted niches of the ivans, as well as the domes of the halls that precede the qibla and mihrab, to give their prodigious formal inventiveness a free reign. Those curved surfaces came to be the scene of a veritable orgy of forms that were as varied as they were ingenious, in which the most cunning solutions obtained by Middle Eastern architecture crystallized.
Architects found great stimulation in the rivalry between the purely Arab and the Iranizing trends. The latter claimed descent from native sources and aimed at expressing the permanence of the national character. The result was a display of originality that demonstrates an interest in research giving rise to constant renovation and improvement. The forms evolved very rapidly, though they never abandoned the basic precepts derived from ancestral traditions.
From the Square to the Circle
It is perhaps in the architecture of Islamic Iran, rather than in any other of the past, that vaulted spaces such as domes, ivans, hypostyle halls and the like, were the object of the most refined, elaborate research. For the Iranians, the dome built of brick had always been the basic feature of the popular dwelling house. We have already seen that, starting with the Parthian and Sasanian periods, research, which aimed at extending the applications of those small "domestic "domes to the great palaces and the Mazdaian temples erected for the celebration of the fire cult, gave birth to forms of steadily increasing perfection. The Muslim architects of Iran, while keeping faith with the past, aimed at advancing still further in the technical accomplishment of their vaulting.
The focal point of their research and of the resulting formulas was the link between the hemispherical dome and the square base on which it rests. The transition from the square plan to the circular plan was first achieved empirically. The builders erected a conical squinch over each of the four corners of the edifice. Between these corner squinches, elements of masonry that grew more and more warped as they rose above the vertical walls provided the transition from the walls to the circular base of the dome. This resulted in imprecise forms that could not be reduced to a simple geometrical expression.
The Iranian architects concentrated their utmost attention and untiring efforts on improving this hybrid solution and on developing a set of purely geometrical elements in the transition zone between the square plan and the circular base of the dome. This concern with geometry is one of the typical features of the Persian spirit. And we shall see the master builders push it to a virtuosity which at times transforms an endless abundance of detail into an exercise of style. Indeed, their buildings seem to have been the pretext for engaging in a game that consisted of never employing exactly the same type of vaulting twice, simply to demonstrate the architect's consummate skill.
This justifies the use of the term research in connection with this phase of Iranian architecture, which never tired of seeking new solutions. But the frenzied concern for technique, the unbridled passion for ever greater complexity and refinement in vaults, domes, pendentives, networks, stalactites and honeycomb cells, was finally transmuted into a mannerism in which decoration was all important and the original functions based on structural requirements were entirely lost.
Elaboration led from the first tottering steps of empiricism, through rigorous structures achieved by clever combinations of ribs and Cells. To end up in a sort of "art for art's sake". Or, to put it differently, in a technicality so extreme that its functional purposes disappeared, giving place to a superficial ornamentation that had lost the support of any organic need.
Isfahan, a "Research Laboratory"
If we want to trace the evolution of architectural research in Persia, we must consider the great achievements of the city that was the focal point of Islamic Iran, namely Isfahan. There, in fact, we can trace the development of building techniques without a break from the eleventh century to the eighteenth. Isfahan was the capital of Iran under the Seljuks and again under the Safavids. For that reason the most perfect palaces and sactuaries in all Persian history are assembled on its exemplary site.
We shall, therefore, turn to Isfahan in order to study, first some achievements of the Seljuk period, and then those produced by the developments of the Sefavid epoch.
The oasis of Isfahan lies in the very heart of the Iranian desert, encircled and protected by a ring of mountains, and has been inhabited since prehistoric times. The existence of a river, the Zayinda Rud, though its flow is very capricious, has endowed the site with a wealth of greenery. For thousands of years lime trees, willows and poplars have attracted caravans towards this water point, at the same time a refuge and a haven of rest. Little wonder that its situation in the centre of the Iranian plateau at an altitude of close on 5000 feet and its agreeable climate, attracted the attention of the monarchs who chose it as their capital.
The city started to develop under Malik Shah in 1073. This expansion can be seen first and foremost in the Masjid-i-Jami, or Friday Mosque, erected by the Seljuks. During the reign of Malik Shah the Seljuk empire covered an area similar to that of the Achaemenid and Sasanian. In fact, it stretched from the borders of China to Syria and from Transoxania to Arabia. That was a golden age for all the arts, the great post Omar Kayyam being one of its leading lights.
The Friday Mosque at Isfahan is built to the traditional Iranian plan. The vast edifice comprises a four—ivan court and includes elements of many different periods, ranging from 1073 to about 1800. The earliest portions are two domed chambers situated on the north and south sides of the ensemble and dating from the Seljuk period. The first of these domes that precedes the mihrab was built by Malik Shah, who reigned from 1073 to 1092. It has a diameter of 45 feet and is supported on the south by the qibla wall and on each side by pairs of huge piers formed by four bundle columns between robust corner pillars. Like the north dome, which dates from 1088 but is only slightly more than 30 feet in diameter, it displays a brickwork technique that sets off the vaulting system to perfection.
The transition from the square to the circle is achieved in a similar way in both domes. The conception of the squinches that produce the octagonal structure is extremely complex. A small corner squinch is prolonged by a pointed barrel vault projecting on the 45-degree axis and corresponding to the diagonal of the square. This vault is flanked on either side by a shallow triangular panel resembling a half-squinch. These four elements, the squinch, the projecting vault and the two lateral triangles, are enclosed in a big pointed arch that marks one side of an octagon. On the next higher tier these big arches are topped by a series of small arches of exactly half their span that project very slightly and straddle the corners of the octagon. These small arches form a sixteen-sided polygon around the entire circumference of the dome. This polygon consists alternately of flat arches, namely arches that have no depth because they coincide with the sides of the octagon, and deeper arches that span the eight small squinches. The north and south hemispherical domes have decorative motifs that consist of bricks in large star designs.
It is clear that the Seljuk architects had developed an extremely elaborate technique as early as the eleventh century. The combination of forms that provides the transition from square to circle passing through an octagon and a sixteen-sided polygon is perfectly satisfactory both intellectually and structurally. The transition zone at the level of the drum may be reduced to elements, all of which are rigorously geometrical. The concave triangular panels that constitute the pointed-arch squinches were the decisive discovery of the Seljuk master builders.
This three-dimensional triangular link found innumerable applications. First, in a series of small domes in which the octagonal plan is subdivided into eight identical squinches whose bases are located in the centre of each side of the octagon and which develop in projection to form an eight-pointed star. Additional small squinches, shifted half a width relative to the lower tier, link the points of the star to the upper tier. Theoretically, this formula could permit as many superimposed tiers as the architect might wish, with squinches that diminish in size from one tier to the next. It offers a rational solution to the problem of progressively covering an area with a warped surface subdivided into triangular "facets". This is the origin of the famous stalactites that were used with such a remarkably decorative effect during the Safavid epoch. Each tier of squinch-like elements supports the next, which projects beyond it, and the whole forms a honeycomb of cells that give rise to a succession of thrusts which buttress each other and so cancel each other out.
The Honeycomb Ivans
The remarkable potentialities that this formula involves is demonstrated by a clear example in the west ivan of the Friday Mosque at Isfahan. It is entirely covered with cells of this type, combined with shallow triangular panels and inverted pendentives. The structural part of this extraordinary achievement dates from the end of the Seljuk period in the mid-twelfth century, but the enamelled decoration that surrounds the ivan was probably applied not earlier than the fifteenth. It is also worth noting that the rear of the ivan displays a structure in which the lines of force of the thrusts are clearly visible in the great flying buttresses embedded in the mass of masonry. The salient ribs express most clearly the functional aspects of a technologically perfect architecture that anticipated the structuralism of a Nervi as well as the most advanced research on prestressed structures. It was not till far later that western architects experimented so boldly in that direction: namely, in the heyday of the High Gothic, from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century, and during the Baroque period.
The south ivan, which precedes Malik Shah's domed chamber, dates from the same time as the west ivan and its structure is based on the same principle. But here the problem is still more complex, even if the solution is plastically less satisfactory. In fact, the ivan is articulated in two phases: it opens on the court through a sort of shallow niche covered with large cells, but is followed immediately, without a break, by an octagonal dome which is supported by a series of squinches and triangular panels. The connection is achieved imperceptibly through a sort of wide-open cusped arch with broad vaults that rise in tiers. The bearing structure dates from the twelfth century, like that of the west ivan, but the base and the entire triumphal arch, which is flanked by two minarets, were added in 1475. These latter parts are completely covered with faience mosaics that are easily distinguished from the Seljuk decoration because in the letter the pale buff of the natural brick is contrasted by only a few coloured highlights.
The two hypostyle hells, celled quincunxes, that open on either side of the ivan and of the south dome, also date from the twelfth century. These halls mark the adoption by Iran of part of the layout of the Arab mosques of the primitive Omayyad type. Two similar hypostyle halls flank the north dome but are more recent. They date apparently from the fourteenth century. This system of areas covered with little brick domes offered the master builders an opportunity to display their prodigious virtuosity and inexhaustible imagination. There are about a hundred different types of vaulting. Every possible formula is tried o out-hemispherical, ribbed, pendentive, honeycomb, radiating. Stellar, conical-shelled, and so forth. The small size of these domes permitted every licence, and their decoration consists of the varied arrangement of the bricks in accordance with a tradition that dates back to the tenth century and reached its peak at Damghan, Kharagan, Jam and Ghazna.
|Jame Mosque Oljaito Mihrab.
The Friday Mosque, however, also offers other highly original solutions. For instance, during the Mongol epoch, Sultan Uljaitu (1304-1316) built a hall whose vaulted roof resumes a number of Seljuk techniques, while adding a quantity of innovations in a formula that involves five extremely taut transverse spans which cover an area about 65 feet long and 25 feet wide. This hall is adorned with a very finely sculptured stucco mihrab, in which decorative tracery is combined with stylized Arabic characters treated as elegant ornamental motifs.
This hall is followed by the Winter Hall, which was erected in 1447 and belongs to the Timurid epoch. It measures 160 x 90 feet and is covered by a series of groined vaults that intersect diagonally and extend down to the floor in ten stout piers. The low, squat, unadorned, dimly lighted structure gives an extremely modern impression. In its strict lines and the interplay of clear, sharp forms illuminated by minute vents closed by alabaster panels that diffuse a yellow light, this Winter Hall, with its three naves and 18 groined vaults, testifies to an amazing knowledge of internal spaces. It may perhaps have derived from the shape of the nomads’ tents, with which the Mongols were familiar.
The arcades of the portico that surround the court also date from the Timurid period. There, in all its splendour, we find the faience mosaic decorated with brightly coloured arabesques, that from now on becomes a characteristic feature of Iranian architecture. This glaze protects the brick and gives an extraordinarily intense colour and plasticity.
This polychrome skin spreads over entire edifices, being no longer limited to the discrete touches that characterized the architecture during the Seljuk epoch. This evolution continues with increasing momentum until the end of the Safavid period.
The Third and Fourth Ivans
So far we have discussed only two of the four ivans that surround the court. We must new deal with those on the north and east sides. The first consists of a simple pointed barrel vault and dates from the Seljuk period after 1121. The decoration, however, does not seem to be earlier than the reign of Shah Suleiman (1667-1694), and might even have been applied during the Qajar dynasty of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The east ivan, on the other hand, seems to have been erected far later. Its facets or cells are much smaller than those of the Seljuk period and reveal a totally different style. The structural and functional elements are completely hidden under the ornamentation, based on the same combination of triangles and squinches. This makes it seem to derive from the ornamental system of the Safavid period, being probably the result of a restoration that aimed at imitating the Seljuk style but which had forgotten the lesson of grandiose simplicity and austerity received from the twelfth century.
The Period of Shah Abbas
Shah Ismail, founder of the Safavid dynasty, was crowned at Tabriz in 1502 and reigned until 1524. Before ascending the throne he had already conquered the whole of Azerbaijan, including Baku. After his accession he continued his triumphal progress, occupying Baghdad in 1508, and later Khurasan. Ismail was decisively defeated by the Ottoman Turks at Chaldran in 1514, but Persian expansion was resumed under Shah Abbas (1587-1628), who once again made Iran into a great empire by conquering Balkh, Laristan and the islands of the Persian Gulf and recapturing Tabriz and Baghdad from the Turks. Even more than being a great soldier, Shah Abbas was a great builder. "He considered the prosperity of his vast States as the noblest objective of his new conquests. There is no counting the bridges, caravanserais and other buildings of public utility that he erected ". His reign ushered in a period of great glory for Iran.
It was Shah Abbas who transferred the capital of Persia from Qasvin to Isfahan in 1598. There, he undertook colossal urbanistic and architectural projects, beginning with the Maydan-i-Shah or Royal Square, which was to become the new centre of the city. During the forty years of his reign, the enlightened monarch never ceased to improve and embellish his capital, which he wanted to endow with all the splendours of an architecture worthy of his power.
He cut through the narrow alleys, demolished the jumble of dusty hovels that encumbered the centre of the city, and created the immense open space known as the Royal Square. The new heart he grafted onto the ancient town of Isfahan measures about 550 yards by 165. It is ringed round by arcades that house shops, and its perimeter is dotted with the most splendid monuments erected by the Safavids. On the south stands the Masjid-i-Shah, the Great Mosque of the Shah, the culminating point, both for its size and for the perfection of its execution. On the west, over the gateway to the palace quarters, the Palace of Ali Qapu contains state apartments, assembly halls and the terrace from which the emperor used to watch the polo games that were played on the Maydan. On the north lies the great bazaar, with its shady courts and its maze of vaulted alleyways. On the east, finally, is the Shaykh Lutf Allah Mosque, the first sanctuary erected by Abbas, its name commemorating one of the most famous doctors of Islam.
The Shaykh Lutf Allah Mosque
This Mosque, of relatively modest proportions, has a very non-Iranian character. It has neither a four-ivan court nor a minaret, but merely a prayer hall with a single dome supported by a drum with sixteen windows. This hall is built to a square plan and the transition to the circular base of the dome is achieved by means of a formula as simple as its lines are pure. The four great unadorned squinches that extend down to floor level are matched on the four sides of the square by four large arches of the same dimensions as those that frame the squinches. These eight arches provide the regular arcading of the octagon. The transition from this octagon to a sixteen-sided polygon is achieved with the help of small triangular facets which divide the pendentives. Each of these small facets coincides with a window. Thus the edifice displays a perfect geometrical regularity in which all the elements are arranged with absolute plastic harmony. The profiles of the dome, of the ribs that divide the squinches, and of the arcading of the octagon derive from the four-centred arch already found in the tenth century mosque at Nayin. The shoulders of the arch are curves of very short radius, whereas its tense sloping sides have a very long radius. In addition. The arch is completely inscribed in a semicircle and the ratio of its height to its span is the same as in a round arch.
The Shaykh Lutf Allah Mosque is a closed space whose height is equal to the diagonal of its square ground plan. In some respects it recalls the research undertaken by Sinan, the great architect of Ottoman Turkey, whose major works were erected between 1550 and 1575. The mosque built by Shah Abbas dates from 1603, so it is quite possible that it reflects the trend towards regular spaces and pure forms we find at lstambul. However, Turkey can boast no example of such simple plastic evidence as the Shaykh Lutf Allah Mosque. The Turks have always preferred great corner pendentives to squinches, following the example of Saint Sophia built a thousand years earlier.
Although this sobriety results in a rigorously plain, almost compact space, it does not exclude a subtle refinement of detail. This is perceptible in the corridor that starts behind the handsome, stalactiteadorned portal of the entrance ivan situated on the Mayan. This corridor, a sort of narrow passageway with three bands, helps to give an impression of mystery, which is enhanced by its darkness. The tortuous course of this approach is certainly not due merely to the necessity of orienting the building towards Mecca. Its aim is first and foremost to give the visitor a physical shock at the sudden realization of the spaciousness of the prayer hall, when at last he reaches it, by contrast with the oppressive, gloomy narrowness of the approach. Nor is it by mere chance or for any technical reason that the great portal is entirely out of line with the dome. The asymmetry of the facade of the edifice, viewed from the Royal Square, can only be explained by the urge to enliven masses and volumes in order to make up for the relatively modest proportions of the mosque, whose chamber measures less than 50 feet across.
The vaulted portal of the ivan is entirely covered with little cells or stalactites and offers a perfect example of the technique that was the glory of the Safavid epoch. From now on, the stalactites, which derive from the more ample formula of the Seljuks, are completely encrusted with a decoration of faience mosaic that clothes the buildings in splendid colours. The structures are complicated to a certain mannerism by a cascade of arches projecting into the void, and networks of cells that have lost all structural function.
For Safavid art there now begins a period of virtuosity, which, though sometimes unjustified, takes the place of structural requirements. The effect produced by decorative refinements, that are often carried to an extreme, overrides technological considerations. The most complex problems are tackled with such ease and assurance that the plethora of triangular squinches, after the manner of the great ivans of the Friday Mosque, ends up by dissolving in a mass of facets in which the original elements, though certainly still present, are reduced to the rank of mere ornaments.
This decorativeness does not lack a certain grandeur and monumentality, for the network is so tenuous, the motifs of the mosaics are so fine and delicate, that the eye rediscovers unity through a sort of "Pointillism" in which lines, volumes and masses lose none of their simplicity. In this way plastic unity is preserved irrespective of the means the architect adopted. The minutest detail is perfectly integrated with the purity of the general lines. On these grounds the portal is far from being inconsistent with the crystalline simplicity of the interior space, despite all its richness. The admirable way the two modes of expression balance each other can be seen on a far grander scale in the Great Mosque of the Shah which closes the Maydan on the south side.
The Masterpiece: The Great Mosque of the Shah
In the Masjid-i-Shah, which was begun in 1613, the monarch reverted to the traditional Iranian layout: a court surrounded by porticos that are balanced by four axial ivans. Thus the edifice is in keeping with the greatest examples of Persian architecture. But if innovations are in abeyance in the general layout, they abound in the details. The monument produces a prodigious effect. One is fascinated by its harmony, particularly if one analyses the means employed to attain it.
In this mosque, Safavid art showed what it was capable of doing, displaying a technical mastery and an amazing freedom in the solutions adopted. The entire construction, including the centre court, is absolutely symmetrical. The two ivans on the east and west are identical and each gives access to a domed chamber. The south ivan, which is bigger than the two others, leads to the sanctuary that contains the mihrab and is topped by the huge green faience bulb of the horseshoe dome. The great chamber itself is flanked by two hypostyle halls. Thus the layout is rigorously symmetrical with respect to the axis that points towards Mecca. The two minarets that rise one on each side of the main ivan and provide a visual frame for the dome, stress the perfection of this distribution.
And yet in this concert of symmetry there is a note that adds a daring accent and disturbs the mathematical precision of the whole. The break in the symmetry occurs at the point where the north ivan joins the Maydan. The entrance from the Royal Square consists of an immense portal with an ivan-like niche which, as in the Lutf Allah Mosque, is completely covered with magnificent stalactites. It is framed by two minarets, one on either side. So there is nothing asymmetrical in the facade that fronts the Maydan nor in the north ivan, which opens onto the central court. It is between these two features that the ingenious formula occurs. The axes of the square and of the mosque form an angle of 45 degrees. This angle had to be compensated and it was essential that the solution of the problem should not emphasize the displacement of the axis of the passageway but rather should conceal it. In fact the visitor who enters the Masjid-i-Shah hardly notices the change in direction; he instinctively knows that something is happening but does not understand what that something is. Let us see how the architect managed to contrive this effect.
Between the entrance portal and the north ivan there is a vestibule roofed over by a small dome. The ivan itself faces the court and. instead of having a rectangular groundplan like the other three, it ends in a triangle. The vestibule is connected to one side of this triangle through a big open arch that is balanced on the other side of the triangle by a second arch, identical in shape and size but blind. To prevent the bend in the passageway from being immediately apparent, the ivan is not entered along the bent axis. The passage under the open arch is blocked by a stone bench that obliges the visitor to make a detour around the north ivan through two vaulted corridors, one on each side, that lead to the court. Through the corridor on the right the court is reached after a short distance; through the other the distance covered is greater owing to the change in direction.
Structures and Vaultings
The vaulting of the triangle that closes the north ivan presents an extremely interesting interplay of ribs, pendentives and facets that develops on an eight-point star design. This design is derived from the octagon, and is based on two interwoven squares one of which has been rotated through an angle of 45 degrees with respect to the other. Half of this octagonal motif is utilized here for the half-dome that covers the triangular end of the ivan, the rectangular portion of which has a keel-shaped vault.
It is precisely in the vaulting of the half-domes which surmount the ends of the ivans, that the Persian architects have displayed all their skill. The infinity of different solutions they proposed, demonstrates their virtuosity. Thus, though the west ivan has the same eight-point star design derived from the octagon and based on two interwoven squares, the formula is treated in a totally different manner. In fact, whereas in the north ivan the vault covers a triangle, in the west ivan it is built over a rectangle. Both, however, are based on a semi-octogonal plan. The two formulas differ considerably where their details are concerned. In one case the four pendentives between the arches are simply divided into two triangular panels forming a concave surface. In the other, the areas between the arches are filled with four pendentives and eight small lozenges that constitute a network of ribs.
In the east ivan, however, the octagonal scheme is abandoned in favour of a new design that involves an asymmetry in the two big squinches. The subdivision of the dome is based on an angle of 36 degrees instead of 45. This means that the fundamental figure is a decagon and the half-dome is articulated on half a ten-point star. The formula adopted for the great central ivan that gives access to the sanctuary is still more complicated. The two corners at the end of the rectangle, to the right and left, are treated like a complex squinch and are enclosed in a design which appears to be square when viewed from above, but viewed in elevation along its axis displays an elegantly pointed arch. The summit of the vault of this ivan is subdivided into a network of ten lozenge-shaped facets. This corresponds to the division of a full circle—here only half is employed—into a twenty-point star achieved with the help of angles of 18 degrees.
It is no exaggeration to say that the master builders employed by Shah Abbas were not afraid of trying out solutions of exceptional complexity. If I have analysed these few examples of the roofing of the ivans, it is solely to demonstrate the abundant resources and the virtuosity of their art. It must be noted, however, that this interplay of ribs and facets is based on a simple geometrical design in which lines that are curves in three-dimensional space appear straight on the architectural plans. Hence, despite the apparent complexity of the networks of intersecting lines, the curve of each concerns only a single plane in space. The arches and ribs can always be reduced to a relatively simple stereometric design. Each of these curves may be represented graphically as a straight line, both in plan and in an elevation, which. Viewed from a certain angle, coincides with the radius of the curve.
The Double-Shell Dome
For the great dome that covers the main sanctuary hall and measures no less than 70 feet in diameter, the architects had recourse once again, purely and simply, to the four-squinch formula that had given such good results in the Shaykh Lutf Allah Mosque. But they combined the four squinches forming the octagon with four arches located on the axes of the hall. In this case they did not, as in the Shaykh Lutf Allah Mosque make use of three blind arches and only a single open one with a bay to light the upper level. Instead, they reversed the order. Three arches open on the exterior through buys. Those on either side are wide open, while the one in front has a smaller window with a ceramic grille. Only the fourth, which frames the mihrab, is blind. On the other hand, there are eight windows on seem to open in the curve of the dome; viewed from the outside, they seem to be cut in the drum. This difference is explained by a constructional method based on two superposed domes.
In fact, the Great Mosque of the Shah is an example of a vaulting technique which involves a double-shell dome. This technique was inherited from Timurid architecture, and especially from the mosque of Gur—i-Mir at Samarkand (1434). The same formula had already been employed, though more diffidently, in the Lutf Allah Mosque, where the two shells are located at the same level and develop in parallel. It was also the method employed in the fourteenth century in the huge dome of the mausoleum of Uljaitu at Sultaniya. In these two cases, however, the double-shell solution derives from technological considerations: it aims at lightening the structure while increasing its rigidity. At Gur-i-Mir, though, as in the Mosque of the Shah at Isfahan, the formula was adopted for aesthetic and symbolic reasons. The principle of the double-shell dome consists of superposing two shells separated by a large empty space. The bases of the two shells are not at the same level, and the external and internal aspects of the dome are totally different. The former is more slender, often stilted and bulbous, whereas the latter is squatter, sometimes even surbased and can become almost flat, as is the case among the Moguls of India, who inherited it from Iran.
The origin of this double vaulting system is still an unsolved question. It first occurs, in the shape of a real dome. In the wooden Mosque of Omar in Jerusalem, also known as the Dome of the Flock, which was built in 691. It seems to have derived from certain ancient funerary constructions in which an upper chamber contained the sarcophagus. Examples are provided by Palmira, the tomb of Theodoric at Ravenna, and the Seljuk Turks with their turbe or gunbad. But the formula reached such an extreme—in the Taj Mahal, for instance—that it led to the creation of an inaccessible blind space at roof level that was larger than any of the accessible spaces of the monument.
Whatever its origin, this solution was almost certainly adopted in the Mosque of the Shah at Isfahan for aesthetic reasons alone. Viewed from the exterior, the magnificent onion dome rises like an emerald green banner above the body of the edifice. If the interior of the sanctuary had extended to the level of the upper dome, it would have been totally out of proportion. That is why the lower shell was indispensable. On the other hand, were this latter not crowned by the upper shell, the mosque would lack the splendid elevation to which it owes its monumental perfection.
It should be pointed out, finally, that between the two shells a rigid system of stanchions helps to support the stilted dome, whose construction is a challenge to the laws of statics.
Volumetry and Elevation
The Mosque of the Shah incorporates many other exciting formulas. Its dimensions make it truly colossal but there is not a trace of clumsiness. The entire ground plan measures no less than 480 feet by 430 but the court (215x170 feet) gives sufficient distance for the visitor to appreciate the lofty ivans in all their grandeur. The pool for ritual ablutions mirrors the brilliant colours of the faience facing.
Yet this ceremonial architecture reveals a flaw. The Seljuk, Timurid and Safavid master builders never succeeded in finding a satisfactory solution to the problem of linking the facade of the ivan—that huge, shallow triumphal arch—to the dome it precedes. Actually the triumphal arch is simply a two-dimensional decorative feature, a screen erected for the purpose of masking the joint between the rear of the ivan and the main edifice. It is a bodiless structure that gives the impression of having been conceived on the drawing board. Handsome when approached from the front, it becomes insignificant when viewed from three-quarters.
None the less, this art is not based on superficial effects. The best proof of this is that the facades shun all facile monumentality. They tend towards an assymetry that enlivens the forms, and whose subtlety we have already observed in the Shaykh Lutf Allah Mosque. The Mosque of the Shah presents the same rejection of four-square simplicity in the change of axis between the portal and the main building. As a result the two minarets of the portal are not aligned with those that flank the principal dome. Since their base lines form an angle of 45 degrees, the two pairs stand neither one behind the other, nor in the same vertical plane. Hence the entire edifice is shifted towards the right. From the Royal Square, the portal is viewed from the front, the rest of the building from three-quarters. Another fundamental principle of this architecture is the notion that it must be viewed along a given route. Being a place of mystery, the prayer hall must not be visible directly from the exterior. This explains the tortuous access and the impossibility of seeing the mihrab from the main entrance. Thus the introduction of zig-zag approaches, screened entrances, passages that shrink to narrow defiles and prepare for the sudden explosion of space and balanced surprises that have been so subtly chosen.
The art of Shah Abbas marks a new approach in that, from then on, the entire surface of the most important monuments is covered in faience. This dazzlingly bright, clean glaze stresses forms, strengthens lines and defines planes with tremendous force. During the Seljuk period, only a few coloured accents heightened the buff tones of the backed brick. Under the Timurids, as we have seen, the triumphal arches of the ivans and the domes were adorned with a rich mosaic in deep blue, ocre and yellow and covered with erabesques of script in black and white. As far as refinement of execution and intensity of colours are concerned, polychromy attained its peak in the fifteenth century. The Safavids, however, went one step further when they extended the coloured areas to the curved surfaces of the most complicated stalactites. Moreover the domes, which the Timurids as a rule embellished with simple geometrical motifs, limiting the meandering script to the plain surfaces of the drums, were now covered with immense arabesques, giving them a rhythm of incredible complexity and refinement.
The art of architectural polychromy in Iran was a distant derivation from the mosaics of Rome and Byzantium, though those were limited to the pavement and the interior surfaces of the buildings. Under the Safavids it flourished as never before. The Mosque of the Shah, and the Shaykh Lutf Allah Mosque before it. Show hardly a square foot of visible surface that is not covered with a brightly coloured glaze. But Shah Abbas was in so great a hurry to terminate his colossal monument that he did not employ for its facing the mosaic technique which he had used with splendid results in the smaller edifice and the porch of the larger one. instead of minute pieces of coloured material cut out by hand in shapes that were often extremely complicated he had square faience tiles made, on which the motifs were painted. This solution had been discovered by the Ottoman Turks, though they used tiles exclusively to decorate the interior of their mosques. The method had the advantage of speeding up the job enormously.
From now on, colour covers all the surface, both inside and out, of the brick buildings erected by the Safavids at Isfahan. Only the areas not intended to be seen were left unglazed. No architectural style in the whole history of art can rival with the Persian where polychromy is concerned. In this respect, as in many others, the city of Isfahan displays the final result of fruitful, innovative research.
From the Secular Monument to the Baroquization of Safavid Art
Arthur de Gobineau, who visited the capital of the Safavids in 1855, wrote: "Isfahan might have been conceived and realized by kings and architects who spent their days and nights listening to wonderful fairy tales. "The fact is that the monarchs of that dynasty lived in a voluptuous setting that reminds one of the thousand and One Nights. In their palaces they developed an extremely refined way of life which inspired a style of architecture totally different from that of the sanctuaries. Their frail wooden pavilions are reflected in pools of placid water in whose centre fountains play. The inner walls are embellished with decorations in painted stucco, and the verandahs are supported on tall timber pillars whose slender elegance seems to be a reminiscence of the Achaemenid era. But the building is merely the heart of a complex scheme in which gardens and landscape are closely integrated. Indeed these palaces are so closely linked with their environment that it would be impossible to study the first without considering the second. The Persian master builders were unrivalled in contriving ingenious transitions between exterior and interior spaces.
The palace of Hasht Bihisht, for instance—its name means "Eight Paradises '—is a two-storey rectangular building. On its four sides, pillared verandahs subdivide the apartments into four groups around a vast central hall, whose dome in painted wood is topped by a lantern. This reception room is entered from the exterior through great arches that open onto the garden; in its centre an octagonal pool fed by a fountain reflects the painted dome. There is another fountain in the middle of the largest of the four verandahs. The entire palace is ringed around by a canal broken here and there by still pools and murmuring fountains. All this is linked up with the water system of the city. This type of garden divided into four parts by pools and canals is called a Chahar Bagh. The ingenious arrangement is a feature of the Persian pleasure grounds in which the Grand Moguls of India found their inspiration.
it must be remembered, in this context, that in the days of Shah Abbas, Isfahan was a city where every little street and alleyway had a canal overshadowed by tall and leafy trees, and the high walls that separated the family homes hid from view not only dwelling houses but also formal gardens whose splashing fountains cooled the air. Another palace, the Chehel Sutun or "Pavilion of the Forty Columns" --actually there are only twenty, but they are mirrored in a vast pool—is particularly interesting from the architectural point of view. The tall, slender columns support the roof of the verandah, in the centre of which is a jasper pool fed by a fountain. Behind the verandah rises an ivan built of wood, whose stalactites are entirely covered with fragments of glittering silvered glass that reflect the light in all directions, and create a mysterious atmosphere.
This art of charm and joy may seem light-hearted and unconcerned, but it is founded on carefully thought-out techniques. On all sides the light is reflected by pools and mirrors, and fountains play even on the highest terrace of the All Qapu. But to raise the water under pressure to the upper storeys of the palaces required hydraulic machines powered by oxen.
In the field of hydraulic engineering the Safavid epoch has left some interesting achievements. One is the Kadju Bridge on the Zayinda Rud, which also serves as a darn. it was built by Shah Abbas II (1641-1666) This bridge stands on the outskirts of Isfahan on the old road to Shiraz. To prevent their being undermined by water, its 24 arches rest on a thick slab of masonry. They are arranged in two tiers. The lower ones have sluice-gates that make it possible to accumulate a reserve of water for supplying the city, besides regulating the flow of the river. The upper part of the bridge forms a high parapet on each side, whose weight serves to give the piers greater stability. The entire structure is traversed lengthways by a series of arches that support the road. This complicated design results in a vaulting of great complexity and elegance still further enhanced by three pleasure pavilions, one in the middle and one at either end.
Another important bridge, that of Allahvardi Khan, has 33 arches and is over 300 yards long. This makes it bigger than the Khadju, but the latter is more complex because of the sluice-gates. However, it is based on the same principle and the high vaulted parapets of the second stage help to consolidate the piers.
The long list of public works for which Shah Abbas was responsible would not be complete without mention of the vast highway system that criss-crossed his immense empire. What is more, the monarch took the trouble to build a chain of caravanserais 20 to 25 miles apart along all the major roads. Many caravanserais of this famous network were simple brick forts built to a square plan with four corner towers and a centre court surrounded by stables and common rooms. But on occasion the layout was far more complicated, and some of the Safavid inns displayed considerable refinement.
The Complex Built by Shah Sultan Husayn
An example of this is the great royal caravanserai at Isfahan, part of which has been transformed into an ultra-modern hotel. The complex occupies a vast quadrilateral which also comprises a madrassa and a bazaar and was the work of Shah Sultan Husayn, the last monarch of the Safavid dynasty, who reigned from 1694 to 1722. His architects succeeded in
reproducing a truly organic ensemble that offered travellers a wide range of amenities. In addition to the sumptuous common rooms and the private apartments of the caravanserai, there were shady gardens, gay with fountains and ivans, where travellers could talk far into the night, or listen to storytellers or soft music in the dim light of oil lamps. There was also an immense vaulted bazaar with forty booths on either side of the central axis, over 230 yards long. Where supplies for the journey could be purchased. Last but not least, the mosque of the madrassa served pilgrims as a restful place of meditation and prayer this last grandiose achievement, which covers an area of over 200,000 square feet. Displays considerable differences of style as compared to the classical edifices of Shah Abbas. The madrassa in particular, named Madrassa Madir-i-Shah (Madrassa of the Shah's Mother), built between 1706 and 1714, is a very handsome edifice characterized by a number of important innovations. These may escape notice when one first enters the building but are obvious when one studies the plans in detail and devotes some care to an analysis of the vaulting techniques. For instance, the ivans are far more complex than those of the Mosque of the Shah. These latter, in the sober simplicity of their forms, involve on lyrectangular, or very occasionally, triangular bases, and result in pure, well-balanced elevations with broad expanses of well. Decorated only by panels of enamelled ceramic tiles. While the Mosque of the Shah displays smooth, restful rectangular planes, the Madrassa Madir-i-Shah has canted angles and recesses that form small ivans inside the big ones. Every space is subdivided into an infinity of little panels. The niches comprise what might be termed transepts, in the corners of which are smaller niches surmounted by separate vaults that are divided into stalactites, networks, pendentives and facets.
This abundance of detail is always controlled by rigorous logic. There is nothing arbitrary in the multiple articulations of these spaces unless. perhaps, it is a tendency to carry to an extreme the principles formulated during the classical Safavid period.
The ornamentation, too, has a certain calligraphic dryness that breaks up the networks with dark bands that follow the lines of force. Their purpose, however, is purely visual, not structural, because the vaulting techniques have become so highly developed that the pendentives and facets are virtually without relief and therefore do not perform any load-bearing function. The stalactites no longer obey a technological need. They are simply attached to the smooth surface of the vaulting by means of wooden frameworks covered with stucco panels that support the faience mosaics.
Thus. a trend that could already be observed during the reign of Shah Abbas in a few buildings, has now become generalized. The same lack, of relief can be noted in the pendentives and networks of the load-bearing structures of the domes. These latter do not necessarily present the typical profile of the Persian arch inscribed in a semicircle, which we have already discussed and which has been defined with remarkable clarity by Auguste Choisy following in the footsteps of Dieulafoy. They are flatter by as much as one third of their height. This trend towards "flat" domes with very taut profiles is still more in evidence under the Moguls in India. There too, decoration lost almost every trace of relief, leaving only the painted design to occasionally suggest the structural the members that no longer exist.
Nevertheless, the vaulting of domes and ivans continues to be the object of interesting research. Thus the great niche that frames the mihrab in the Mosque of the Madrassa Madir-i-Shah incorporates the very same solution as was adopted in the great south ivan of the Mesjid-i-Shah. The two corners are limited by squinches that form a square in plan, whereas the peak of the half-dome has a network derived from half a twenty-point star based on angles of 18 degrees. Further, if one still finds forms based on the octagon derived from two interwoven squares of which one is rotated through an angle of 45 degrees, the ivan to which they are applied no longer consists of a simple rectangle. It is a canted structure that forms a semi-octagon and permits the complete elimination of the squinches.
Lastly, unlike the networks, the system of stalactites assumes a far bolder plasticity than in the past. The pendent knob-bosses project boldly, and frame deep cells. The arcades that surround the great court are no longer covered with pointed vaults, as in the Mosque of the Shah, but are roofed over with half-domes adorned with decorative networks in very low relief.
One also observes, in the matter of ornamentation, a decided regression to geometrical designs executed in a new type of mosaic, whose elements are simplified and consist exclusively of pieces moulded in simple geometrical shapes, such as squares, rectangles, triangles, hexagons and octagons. In this way production was standardized to some extent and a new style in the interior facing of domes, stalactite niches and ivans was developed. This sometimes resulted in a certain dryness in the motifs but also presented a calligraphic severity, contrasting the decorative panels which still display the sinuous, intricate vine-tendril tracery that adorns the frames of the great ivans. True, in the square faience tiles decorated with these motifs, the sober tints and the forceful classical designs have given way to a certain affected daintiness. But, though little bunches of pastel-tinted flowers have replaced the vast compositions in three or at most four colours, the faience decoration can in no way be said to render mawkish this last example of Safavid architecture.
What we witness in the lavish abundance of the public buildings erected by the last sovereign of the dynasty is the swan song of Safavid art. The creative, authoritarian phase of the Seljuk are, which displays all the force of ancient art, was followed by the splendid, stately classicism of Shah Abbas. In the early years of the eighteenth century that grand, controlled mastery developed into baroque virtuosity under Shah Sultan Husayn.
The cycle is brought to a close by the last magnificent examples of an architecture which was still in full possession of its faculties, but displayed a weakness for airs and graces that was a symptom of decadence. In fact, much of the sobriety, purity and simplicity of the classical style was abandoned in favour of a mannerism which, though perhaps not lacking in charm, engendered a certain confusion. But if art for art's sake sometimes made them lose sight of functional requirements, the Persian architects never lost the feeling for logical articulation and spatial inventiveness that were the fruits of their rich imagination.
Thus, right up to the end of the Safavid period, Isfahan never ceased to be the source of an architecture that spread throughout the Orient and above all to India, which was conquered by Nader Shah in 1737. There, the evolution of Persian forms continued under the last descendants of the Great Mogul until its final extinction in the mid-nineteenth century.
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