Persian/ Iranian Architecture

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“The meaningful Impact of Persian architecture Is versatile. New overwhelming and dignified, magnificent and impressive, charmingly fairy. like.”; A.U. Pope

Persian architecture can be considered through the age-old history of the land. It goes back to the late 6th and early 5th millennia BC Persian architecture has been a comprehensive embodiment of Iranian psychology and characteristics in different historical periods. In studying Persian architecture four distinc, protracted, but continuous periods are distinguished, as follows:

Persian prehistoric architecture till the formation of the first national governmet by the Medes.
Persian architecture from the Medes period till the end of Sassanians.
Islamic period architecture till the end of Safavi period.
Contemporary and present-Day Persian architecture.
In connection with the present review of Persian architecture, the reader is reminded of a varying range of other arts applied by the inhabitants of Iran to decorate their different constructions. In short, such arts are: stone carving, stucco carving and plaster work, painting, tile work, brick work, mirror glasswork, honey comb work, mosaic work, and several other ornamental arts.

On the other hand, one has to consider the exceptional multiformity of buildings in terms of design and application. This diversity has arisen as a result of particular requirements and the rich tastes of Iranian artists through different periods of history.

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Persian architecture can be considered through the age-old history of the land. It goes back to the late 6th and early 5th millennia BC Persian architecture has been a comprehensive embodiment of Iranian psychology and characteristics in different historical periods. In studying Persian architecture four distinc, protracted, but continuous periods are distinguished, as follows:

  1. Persian prehistoric architecture till the formation of the first national governmet by the Medes.
  2. Persian architecture from the Medes period till the end of Sassanians.
  3. Islamic period architecture till the end of Safavi period.
  4. Contemporary and present-Day Persian architecture.

In connection with the present review of Persian architecture, the reader is reminded of a varying range of other arts applied by the inhabitants of Iran to decorate their different constructions. In short, such arts are: stone carving, stucco carving and plaster work, painting, tile work, brick work, mirror glasswork, honey comb work, mosaic work, and several other ornamental arts.

On the other hand, one has to consider the exceptional multiformity of buildings in terms of design and application. This diversity has arisen as a result of particular requirements and the rich tastes of Iranian artists through different periods of history.

Iranian artists have proved capable of greeting a wide range of monuments in various branches of architecture, thus providing the world with their unique artistic talents.


It seems rather difficult to classify Iranian architectural works from the earliest periods till the present Day. But, the following arrangement might give a vista of such works: prehistoric huts, early villages and towns, fortresses and fortifications, temples and fire temples, mausoleums, massive ancient palaces, dams and bridges, bazaars, baths, roads, magnificent mosques, towers and minarets, religious buildings and sites from the Islamic period, as well as other monuments scattered all over Iran. Other significant aspects with deep influences on Iranian architecture were the vastness of Iranian plateau with differing climates, climatic conditions, and characteristics of people who had been scattered in various sites. As an example, the architectural styles at highlands and mountainous areas are different from those at coastal and desert areas. Now based on such an endless and marvelous versatility which may not be encountered in most countries, here we will have a transient look at Persian architecture to give a simple sketch of it. Despite its simplicity, the sketch too, would be a rich reflection of the unique aspects of Persian architecture.

A discussion of ancient Persian architecture will be impossible without making use of archaeological findings and referring to the comments given by the corresponding experts.

One of the oldest monuments discovered in the Iranian plateau is the painted building of Zaghe Tepe in Qazvin plain. Its history goes back to the late 7th and early 6th millennia BC Considering the availability of materials in prehistoric period, the painted building of Zaghe Tepe has been ornamented and decorated as far as possible. The building was intended and used for a sort of social gathering and holding of meetings. A great number of platforms and gardenias were provided for those attending the gatherings and meetings. A feature of the building is its fireplace used to heat the interior in cold season, plus a brazier used to roast skewed meat (kabob). This ancient building was provided with two depositories to keep the tools and equipment, and a smaller chamber as a living room. Walls are painted and decorated with images of wild goat. Most probably, the painted building of Zaghe Tepe had the function of a temple, religious place, and gathering center of the ne6lithic tribes in Iran.

Tepe Sialk, an important Tell near Kashan, represents another prehistoric site in Iran, whose inhabitants were the initiators of a simple and rudimentary housing technique. In its 5 phases of excavation, remains of buildings were unearthed the oldest of which belongs to the late 6th and early 5th millennia BC.

At the beginning of his settlement an Sialk, man didn’t know how to build a house yet, and used to live under huts made of tree branches. Soon, building began with handmade mud brick on the remains of previous settlements.

During the 4th millennia BC, Sialk settlements became more spacious and given doors the installation openings of which are clearly visible. These buildings were made of lumps of earth and mud brick. The rudimentary handmade mud bricks were oval in the shape and dried in the sun. The architectural decoration saw the walls of rooms painted red. Doors were small and narrow, their heights not exceeding 80-90 cm.

Tepe Hassan near Damghan, Tell-i-lblis within a 72-km distance from Kerman, and Tepe Hasanlu in West Azarbaijan, are among other prehistoric sites of Iran in which architectural monuments of various periods have been excavated and unearthed.

In excavations of Tepe Hasanlu, three massive buildings were discovered, which had been built on similar plans. Their history dates back from 800 BC to 1000 BC The buildings had been provided with entrance gates, paved courtyards, rooms, nooks, and smaller store rooms. In l-lasanlu architecture, buildings seem to have been wooden (for the first time), square, tower-like structures, with columns which may have been tree trunks and erected on uncut plinths. One room was found to be paved with mud bricks. The interesting point is that another room had been used as kitchen, with a row of platforms and fireplace around it.

One of the most significant 13th century BC architectural works of Iran is the Choga Zanbil Temple (1250 BC) located in 45 km from Susa, an ancient Iranian town on the bank of Karkheh river Province of Khuzestan, southwest Iran. It was built by Huntash Huban the Elamite king on the ruins of ancient Elamite city of Dur-Untash.

The temple represents a splendid symbol of a highly developed architecture. The building is square in shape and consists of five stories, each of which is smaller than the one below it giving a conic appearance to the building. The main temple is constructed on the last floor. Construction materials of the temple are mainly glazed kiln-fired bricks of high quality bound together with a very strong mortar (containing natural bitumen). The mud brick is used between walls and plates.

The western vaults of Choga Zanbil Temple were so skillfully built that at present, even after three thousand years, they are remaining in marvelously good conditions. The vaults are constructed on prolonged corridors and over internal staircases of the temple, and represent an extraordinary achievement in the architecture of ancient Iran.

What shocks one in the Choga Zanbil architecture, is the initiative of the artists of the period in devising and constructing a potable water treatment system. The water from refinery was used by the worshippers and other dwellers of the city.

No doubt, this system was man’s first invention for water treatment, which was first carried out by Iranians. Various researches and numerous detailed studies have been published by the archaeologists and scholars in this connection.

Dr. E. Negahban, Iranian archaeologist, writes in this connection: “Among important buildings to be observed in the Choga Zanbil system of buildings there is one used to treat drinking water for the inhabitants of Dur-Untash city. The water was craned to the system through a network of canals constructed on accepted scientific principles, where it was treated. The following is a short description of how water was transmitted to Choga Zanbil and treated therein:

“The engineers, having excavated a canal, transmitted water from Karkheh River in a distance of 35 km from the temple into a huge reservoir. The Karkheh river is muddy all over the year. The reservoir walls had been rendered with a layer of natural bitumen. The water was treated by passing through various layers of sand, gravel and coal. A certain percent of salt and lime, too, were added as bactericides. The treated water was transmitted to smaller basins through nine narrower canals from under the main reservoir. The system adopted the communicating vessels law. It shows that the communicating vessels law had been discovered and practically applied in Iran almost 3,700 year before Pascal. Professor Ghirshman, a French archaeologist who led the excavations at Choga Zanbil site, writes:

“Ziggurat is the Sumerian word for such massive buildings.”

Among Sumerians the word Ziggurat means a building reaching heavens. Ghirshman gives a height of 62m for the Ziggurat and a length of 105.20m for each side of the first floor.

Professor A.U. Pope, writes in connection with this temple: There existed throughout the ancient Near East a tendency to admire and worship mountain. Huge Ziggurats relieved the flat monotony of the Mesopotanian plain, ntual imitations of the familiar sacred mountains which ring the Iranian plateau. The Elamites were the first inhabitants of the present Day Khuzistan Province in southwest Iran, and their kingdom was established in 3rd millennium BC Perhaps the greatest of all Ziggurats, is the Choga Zanbil. This earliest known Iranian monument of imposing dimensions and character, rivaling the pyramids of Egypt, was built at Dur-Untash, a city near Susa, by Untash-Gal, King of Elam, about 1250 BC Here we see three worship places and a number of courtyards paved with baked bricks. The walls of the Ziggurat were extensively faced with glazed kiln-fired brick, blue and green and of a metallic shimmer. Invalid ivory mosaics were also used and wooden doors were decorated with opaque glass mosaics which depicted prancing animals.

The first Iranian kingdom was established by the Medes (800 BC). Their king, Cyaxares, chose Ekbatana (modern Hamedan, 336 km from Tehran) as his capital. Ekbatana had been one of the earliest Iranian towns built on architectural and urban principles.

Herodotus (480-428 BC), a Greek historian, writes that in building Ekbatana, Iranians have stuck to urban planning principles prevailing among them. The word Ekbatana means “a gathering place”. The city was built on a road through which the Assyrians could penetrate into the land of Medes. That is why the architecture played such an important role in preventing the enemy from penetrating into the city.

The first monument unearthed in archaeological excavations is the Royal Palace of the Medes Kings at Ekbatana. The palace is a two-story building surrounded by fortifications and tower. From this point of view, it can be considered a turning-point in Iranian architecture. Use of wood on the second story and installation of windows and other openings for rooms, are among the advantages of the Median architecture of the period. Although very few monuments have remained of the Median architecture, they suffice to clearly show its artistic values and characteristics.

In addition to the remnants of Ekbatana, we can see a number of rock cut tombs which embody the Median architecture and stone carving arts. These tombs are highly important, because some of their elements can be seen in later Achaemenid mausoleums and tombs.

Formation of the Achaemenid dynasty (560-330 BC) marks one of the brilliant ages in Persian architecture. The Achaemenid kingdom was a very vast empire; spreading from Indus river in India to Nile river in Egypt and Benghazi (present-Day Libya),from Danub in Europe to Central Asia.

Development of Achaemenid architecture can be searched for in such a vast empire. Among the best architectural monuments of the period, one might mention mausoleums, fire-temples, and palaces. Ruins of Achaemenid palaces already exist in Pasargard, Susa and Persepolis. Achaemenid palaces were built of a sort of gray and slender stones. Walls were of mud brick and stone facing. A striking feature of Achaemenid architecture were great dimensions of the halls. One of the main construction elements of the period is the existence of artificial platforms standing against a rugged mountain the Royal residence used to be built on such platforms The palaces and various buildings were built with the idea of creating a beautiful landscape in mind.” Apart from mud bricks, extremely versatile bricks including glazed bricks, were used in the buildings of Achaemenid period, which reflects the skills of the artists.

Choghazanbil Temple

Glazed bricks in blue, white, yellow, and green with animal and floral ornaments, were developments of this period. Also, cold or hot climate buildings, used appropriate technical principles. Splendid halls, wide hallways and massive stone columns seen in these buildings, are elements of a particular architectural school of the period.

One of the magnificent monuments of Achaemenid architecture is Pasargard palace at Shiraz. Pasargad is the oldest imperial capital city of the world. Remnants of the palace show that it had been one of the most splendid buildings of the world, the splendor of which can be observed even now after 2,500 years. The architecture of Pasargad is the art which culminated in the construction of Persepolis.

Pasargad palace is situated about 600m from the tomb of Cyrus the Great. With the exception of single enduring structure, Pasargad is now largely in ruins, but one can see that how imposing it must have been in many respects.

Pasargad palace consists of a central hall, four vans on four sides of the hall, and two rooms on both sides of its southern ivan. The hall floor was paved with marble. The slender columns of the palace were ornamented and crowned by striking bull or lion capitals. Entrances are of polished black stone.

Concerning Pasargad, Professor A.U. Pope writes: The building system of Pasargad is constructed on an area which is 2.5 km in length. Palaces are constructed with cut stones and relieves. The buildings were constructed in 550 BC, during the reign of Cyrus the Great. Massive black and white stones and colossal human-headed winged bulls or winged angels are used to construct and decorate the palace. Plaster work is also used in the palace, with paintings on it. On both sides of the 78 main gates, high relief images of the king are seen.

Behind the king, servants are holding an umbrella above his head. For the first time in Iranian sculpture, dresses are elegantly embodied. Relieves of the king’s dress are ornamented with gold.

Tomb of Cyrus the Great is situated in the south of Pasargad, in a rectangular chamber with walls of mud brick. The tomb is placed on top of a six-stage platform and surrounded by staircases. The whole building is of colossal cut limestone which is rather whitish, elegant and marble-like. The tomb ceiling is covered with five huge flat stones in the form of a peaked roof. Pasargad complex might be considered a complete manifestation of Persian architecture.

Persepolis is another architectural masterpiece of ancient Iran. This splendid and majestic building, the remains of which are scattered near Shiraz, Fars Province (south Iran), marvels its visitors.

Persepolis is constructed on a huge platform of 125,000m2, backed up against a rugged mountain. Its construction date goes back to about 516 BC The construction uses black limestones similar to marble, excavated and brought to the site from quarries in a distance of 40 km on the west of Persepolis.

Throughout the centuries, famous travelers, archaeologists and Iranologists who have visited the remnants of Persepolis, have described it with the most beautiful words. From their point of view, Persepolis is a symbol of Iranian architecture in the ancient period. The high relieves on its colossal columns, gates, and stairways of Iranian architecture.

Various artists from Media, Egypt and Libya had been employed to construct the numerous palaces of Persepolis. However, as Professor A.U. Pope puts it, what the Persian architects brought in from the outside was merged with and balanced in the Iranian art, giving rise to ensemble quite new and different from the art of those nations from which they might have been derived.



The greatest architectural and sculptural monuments of ancient Iran are remaining in Persepolis. In this massive building, the Achaemenid architects have managed to combine beauty and magnificence. Standing on its rock-cut podium, the great hall of Persepolis contained thirty-six columns (in six rows), 18.5m high. The walls were of mud brick and ornamented with painted and floral designs. Ivory, gold, and precious stones were among materials used in the mosaic works of the hall. Persepolis was not a political and administrative capital of the Achaemenids. It was a sacred national shrine, potent sensing for the spring festival, Now Ruz. The festival was celebrated on the first Day of spring, among certain formalities.

Representative of nations subjected by the Achaemenid Empire would offer their gifts in this palace. Apadana palace is one of the most attractive palaces of Persepolis. Golden tablets unearthed from under the plinths of the palace columns give its date of construction in 6th century BC The tablets, now kept in Ancient Iran Museum, were discovered inside stone boxes. Their inscriptions in the languages of old Persian, Ela mite, and Babylonian, give remarkable accounts of how Persepolis was built. Palace of Xerxes, Palace of Darius 1, Gate of All Nations, Treasury, Hall of a Hundred Columns, and Throne Hall of Xerxes are among the most significant structures so far discovered in Persepolis. Stone columns are among the main architectural elements of Achaemenid period. Four types of capital have been used in Persepolis: bull-headed, lion-headed, horned lion (a legendary animal), and man’s head.

The official arts of this ancient kingdom of Iran are completely embodied in Persepolis. Stone carving remained of Persepolis, too, are marvelous. Only in one stone carving more than a hundred soldiers known as “eternal guards” are seen in military gestures. In another stone carving, the courtiers and noblemen are attending Now Ruz ceremony, as well as representatives of various subjected nations and tribes from different parts of the empire offering their tributes and gifts to the court. Among these, representatives of 28 different nations and tribes can be distinguished from their dresses.

persian soldier

The stairways of Persepolis are another reflection of the majesty and splendor of Achaemenid architecture, cut out of huge stones. Each row consists of 111 steps. The steps are so low in height that one can ascend them mounted on a horse.

The Gate of All Nations in Persepolis is a gate through which the representatives of all Iranian nations and tribes used to arrive and proceed towards the Audience Hall Persepolis, the greatest architectural treasure of Iran, was destroyed and burned down by Alexander in 330 BC However, it remnants are the most valuable heritage of Persian architecture for other nations of the world.


Susa Palace is another important architectural monument of Achaemenid period. A valuable inscription was discovered at Susa which gives a good account of its construction by Darius I. Ruins of this palace show how skillfully the stones were carved and ornamented for architectural purposes at that period.

After the fall of Achaemenid Empire, we are witness to a period of stagnation in the development of Parthian architecture, which resulted from a hundred years of domination by Alexander and his successors – Seleucids.

Parthians managed to oust Seleucids from the mainland Iran after successive fights against Macedonian forces, and establish the Parthian dynasty (174 BC – 224 A.D.). Diakonov, a Soviet archaeologist, considered the Parthian architecture to be under the influence of Greek art. However, the idea cannot be applied to all aspects of Parthian architecture. An architectural form known as Ogee to the European and zigzag molding to the Iranian architects, is of Parthian origin.Parthian architects used to construct palace walls with cut stones. They also used stucco to render the walls. The themes of their stuccos were geometrical lines and floral designs. In stone carving, attention was paid to the creation of equestrian statues in relief. sphinx iran Parthians

Some of the relieves created by great Parthian artists are remaining in Behistan (Bisotun) and Susa. Sasanians (224-642 BC) were from the Province of Pars, who revived the glories of Achaemenid Persia and created a national art. The Sasanian architectural style can be distinguished from the existing ruins of palaces, worship places, fortifications, bridges, and dams. Sasanians built big towns the remnants of which remind us of their remarkable achievement and breadth of mind. An outstanding feature of their architecture is the construction of high-rising brick vaults wider than any vault in the known world of the period. Taq-i-Kisra at Ctesiphon (present-Day Iraq) with a great open vault which spans 75 feet, is 90 feet high and nearly 150 feet deep, and considered one of the most splendid palaces of Sasanian period. Artists used stone and strong gypsum as their construction materials and ornamented their creatures with unique stucco or mosaic works.

The Sasanian architecture went further beyond the borders of Iran and left its impacts on the arts of India, Turkmanistan, China, Syria, Asia Minor, Constantinople, the Balkans, Egypt and Spain.

Construction of huge gates and massive domes was a common practice in Sasanian architecture, which reappears in the mosques and palaces of Islamic period. Vaults of baked bricks, are among the innovations of Sasanian architects. Stone was not used as a constant construction material by these architects. However, they have shown their skill in making use other materials, particularly brick and gypsum. They took new steps in developing vaults and domes. Ctesiphon was the largest and most splendid Sasanian capital city, the ruins of which are already standing on the bank of Tigris River.


The greatest stone carving monument of Sasanian architecture is situated near Darab Gerd (Fars Province) and known as Naqsh-i-Rustam. This magnificent monument is an embodiment of the victory of Shapur I over the Roman Emperor Valerian (260 AD). Here, similar to Pasargad, there are two stone fireplaces which were used in fire worshipping ceremonies. The most remarkable stone carving at Naqsh-i-Rustam is seen on the upper front of the tomb of Darius the Great. The statue of Darius is carved as a 2.70m high profile looking right, in the most artistic way. Darius is standing on a three-step platform with a crenellated crown on his head. Besides, two Parsi military commanders are also carved on the tomb wall.

Bishapur was another town of Sasanian period built by Shapur I in Fars (Province), the remnants of which are existing at the site. The sculpture of the period can be sought for in Bishapur relieves, which reached its peak of development in that period. Some of the relieves are among the masterpieces of sculpture art. The Bishapur relieves are portrayals of the king’s investiture by Ahura Mazda, his victories, his enthronement, his wars and huntings.

During Sasanian period, stucco art achieves a higher rank. All Sasanian palaces are decorated with stucco. The artists have mainly used geometric designs and floral patterns to complete their stucco ornaments.

Wall painting too, had been used during this period. Murals had existed in ancient Asia Minor. Outstanding indications of this art were found from the 4th millennium BC onward. Its beginning in Apadana, Susa, and Persepolis can be traced in the 2nd millennium BC.


Achaemenid art. It was widely used in Parthian period, and Sasanian artists proved to be loyal successors to Parthian art of painting. A remarkable example of this art is a hunting scene at Susa grated by Sasanian artists.

As put by the archaeologists, the early Sasanian kings used to carve their bias relieves on rocks near Persepolis, but their successors selected Taq-i-Bustan rock mean Kermanshah, west Iran, for this purpose.

Kermanshah was situated on the old Silk Road, at a site which was called “the Gate to Asia” by Professor Herzbeld.

The coronation scene of Ardashir II (279-383 A.D.) has been carved on two lateral fronts of the great cave of Taq-i-Bustan. The imperial hunting grounds are also portrayed in bias relief. A boat is floating ahead on a leaf. The king is standing on it and hunting the boards. Behind the king’s boat, other boats are moving ahead, wherein are sitting the musicians while playing and signing. In another scene of this huge rock carving, the hunted animals are shown on the back of huge elephants.

The Sasanian artists were propagating the artistic achievements of many thousand years of Persian plateau from India through Pyrenees. Shami is another Iranian temple of the period situated on the left bank of Karun river, at the foot of Bakhtiari mountains, southwest Iran, wherein a number of valuable art works of Sasanians have been unearthed.

Sasanian art as used in architecture is not limited only to the construction of towns, palaces, and massive rock carvings. Sasanian artists were also great masters in constructing arch dams and bridges, (to be reviewed later). Several Iranologists have written a Jot about the splendor of Sasanian art and its impacts on other nations and artists.

However, the most concise remarks in this connection were made by the late A.U. Pope renowned Iranologist, as follows: “Sasanian art is the culminating phase of ancient east arts. As a message from a global Empire, it is the product of an eastern resurrection and bridges the gap between ancient Asiatic as well as modern Islamic and Medieval civilizations. Sasanian Iran, by transmitting its inherited traditions to the Islamic world, and by relying on its artistic heritage, newer civilizations.

Advent of Islam in Fran (635 A.D.) gave rise to great upheavals in architecture, and laid the foundations for Islamic architecture all over the world. To be sure, no Persian building from the first two Islamic centuries have survived, but from third center onward, Islamic building flourished rapidly and marvelously expanded during the next centuries.


naghshe rostam necropolis

A great surge of building works together with unique decorations and calligraphy appeared in these centuries. To learn more about the Islamic period refer to the

The new chapter which was opened in the Islamic period led to the creation of remarkable religious buildings. Iranian arts such as calligraphy, stucco, mirror work, and mosaic work, became closely tied together in this new era. Islamic architecture and building decoration are among the most beautiful means of expression. Decoration does not play such an important role in any other type of architecture.

The archaeological excavations have provided sufficient documents in support of the impacts of Sasanian architecture on the architecture of Islamic period. According to a classification suggested by Zaki Mohammad Hossain, the fourth period of Iranian architecture (from 15 through 17 Centuries) is the most brilliant period. Various structures such as mosques, mausoleums, bazaars, bridges, and different palaces have mainly survived from this period. In the old Iranian architecture, semi-circular and oval-shaped vaults appeared and Iranians showed their extraordinary skill in making massive domes. Domes can be seen mainly in the structure of bazaars and mosques, and particularly in the historic buildings of Isfahan. Iranian domes are distinguished for their height, proportion of elements, beauty of form, and roundness of the dome stem. The outer surfaces of the domes are mostly mosaic faced, and create a magical view.

According to Dr. D. Huff, a German archaeologist, the dome, similar to Iran itself, is the dominant element in Persian architecture. This statement, applies fully to Iranian architecture; because when one looks at lrano-lslamic buildings, huge halls and massive domes are the first elements which immediately attract one’s attention. The art of tile work used to decorate all sorts of ivans, domes, and portals, is so interesting that each part of it seems, to be a magnificent piece of painting.

Professor A.U. Pope, who had carried out extensive studies in ancient Iranian and Islamic buildings, believed: “The supreme Iranian art, in the proper meaning of the word, has always been its architecture. The supremacy of architecture applies to both pre-and post-Islamic periods.

Islamic architectural monuments of Iran are extremely versatile. Different valuable samples of such monuments are already surviving in smaller and larger towns of Iran. One of the richest artistic centers of Iran is the city of Isfahan. In some art works created in Isfahan, such doors, seven famous arts of joinery, gold beating, embossing, lattice work, inlay, raised work, and painting are used at once. Extremely fine doors are decorating various religious buildings in Iran, Najaf, Karbala, Damascus, and other sacred towns of the Islamic world. Even some of these doors are kept in major local and foreign museums because of their high artistic values and decorative arts used in them. Shrine of Imam Reza, 8th Shi’ite Imam at Mashhad, Shrine of Fatemeh the Immaculate (Hazrat-i-Ma’sumeh) at Qum, Shrine of Shah Abdul Azim at Shahr-i-Rey, and Shah-iCheraq Shrine at Shiraz, as well as numerous splendid mosques, open up new vistas of the Islamic art of Iran to the visitors.

Shrine of Imam Reza consists of 33 buildings embodying Iranian Islamic architecture through 5 continuous centuries. Halls, porticos, ivans, minarets, and belfries of religious buildings and mosques have been decorated with a great number of arts such as tile work, inlay, mirror work, stucco carving, stone carving, painting, illumination and muqarnas (honey comb work). Muqarnas is a sort of stalactite work, and an original Islamic design involving various combinations of three-dimensional shapes, corbeling, etc. which was used for the decoration of mosque portals. It can be of terra-cotta, plaster, or tiles.

minaret iran

architecture_iran architecture_iran

The value and respect given by Iranians to their religious leaders, have deeply penetrated in their traditional and Islamic architecture. The Iranian Muslim artists have decorated the interior and exterior surfaces of religious buildings, domes, belfries, and mosque minarets with the most beautiful tiles in terms of color and design. During the Islamic period, several palaces, bridges, avenues, and gardens were either built or reconstructed in various towns of Iran, particularly in Isfahan. Historic monuments of the latter town are so numerous that Nowadays it is compared to huge museum of art works. Foreign travelers called it “Half of the World”. Sir Jean Chardin (161713) a dependable observer and a French traveler who made journeys to Persia and visited Isfahan during Safavid period, said in 1666 that the town had 164 mosques, 48 madrasas (schools), 182 caravanserais, and 373 baths.

The great maydan (square) at Isfahan called Naqsh-i-Jahan (world image) contains a galaxy of excellent architectural works of Iran. The square is situated in the center of the present city of Isfahan, and has been described as unique by world archaeologists in terms of architectural style, dimensions, and splendor.

No doubt, by the end of 16th century, no such maydan had been constructed neither in Iran, nor in other countries of the world. This unique phenomenon of art and architecture is a creation of experienced and creative Iranian architects.

The most famous architectural works of Maydan Naqsh-i-Jahan are Masjid-i-Shah (now Imam Mosque),. Shaykh Lutf’ Allah mosque, and the Al Qapu Palace – seat of government – situated in their full splendor at the north end, east and west of maydan, respectively.

tile iran

The southern side of maydan leads to the great bazaar of Isfahan, which is one of the most attractive and beautiful bazaars of the east, representing the great era of Islamic architecture with its buildings, the maydan and its historic monuments during the Safavid period (1491-1722).

Architectural monuments of Isfahan are known for better in western countries compared to other architectural masterpieces of Iran. They enjoyed a legendary fame in European countries at the time of their construction. Foreign merchants, travelers, and ambassadors have appreciated the beauties of Isfahan in their own languages. During the recent centuries, too, many famous Iranologists and archaeologists have traveled to Iran from all over the world and carried out deeper studies concerning the architectural monuments of Isfahan. As the result of such- studies, numerous books and articles have appeared in connection with the Islamic art of Iran, particularly its architecture.

The Masjid-i-Shah (Imam Mosque), begun in 1612, and, despite Shah Abbas’ impatience, under construction until 1638, represents the culmination of a thousand years of mosque building in Persia, with a majesty and splendor which places it among the world’s greatest buildings..

In designing and constructing domes, minarets, ivans, halls, Shabistans, and Mihrabs of this mosque, Iranian architects have made use of their utmost degree of taste and artistry. Inscriptions of the mosque have been written on colored tiles by the most famous calligraphers of Safavid period. The massive dome of the mosque is of double shell type, the highest exterior point of which rises 54m above ground. Its interior and exterior facings are decorated as beautifully as possible with plain and patterned tiles.

The mosque of Shaykh Lutf Allah (1601-28), one of the most beautiful architectural monuments of Iran, is situated on the east side of the Naqsh-i-Jahan square. Designs and colors used in the dome mosaics are among the most elegant designs and colors existing in Iranian architecture.

According to A.U. Pope, there is no weak point in this building. Its plan and design are so strong and attractive. It is a combination of excitement and passion, glorious calm and rest which originates but from religious faith and divine inspiration.

Masjid-i-Jameh (FriDay Mosque) is another valuable architectural work of Islamic period displaying experiences of more than nine hundred years of creativity. Thirty various historical inscriptions give details on different architectural structures of the mosque.

Apart from Iranian archaeologists, some European archaeologists like All A.U. Pope, Andre Godard, Myron Smith, etc., have made extensive studies about various architectural aspects and decorations of Masjid-i-Jameh at Isfahan. The result has been several books and specialized scientific articles dealing with the marvelous architecture of this mosque.

The mosque has been restored and changed several times and by several generations of artists and architects. Skillful Iranian tile makers have embellished its walls and vaults with astonishingly beautiful tiles and mosaics. The tiles are decorated with floral designs in arabesque style and phrases from the Holy Quran.

iran mosquie


The splendor and architectural beauty of the Iranian mosques belongs to their tile work and artistry of tile workers. Tile making and tile working are among the most spectacular Iranian arts which culminate in the tile work of mosques and historical structures of Iran,

The tile makers of Isfahan, Kashan, and Rey used to be unique master of their trade. Tiles were designed, painted and decorated in various types. Various tiles were used in the embellishment of mosques. Tiles contained floral designs in Arabesque and phrases of the Holy Quran in different Arabian calligraphy known as Sols, Nastaliq, Kufic, etc., all on tiles of deep azure blue or other colors. Tiles used in non-religious buildings were designed and painted with brighter floral and animal, and sometimes human images.

Development of Iranian architecture can be traced also in mosques of other towns such as Masjid-i-Jameh Nayin (mid-tenth century), Masjid-i-Jameh Ardistan (circa 1180), Masjid-i-Jameh Zawareh (1153), Masjid-i-Jameh Golpayegan (12th century), and historical mosques of Tabriz and Yazd.

Stucco is another decorative art of Iranian architecture. The Islamic period architects were unparalleled in the art of stucco.

An outstanding example of stucco fulfilled with extraordinary precision, is observed in the mihrab of Nayin Mosque. The stucco belongs to tenth century A.D. During the 1h century (Seljoogh period: 1000-1157) A.D., majority of mihrabs were decorated with the most beautiful stuccos.

Stone and stucco carvings have played a significant role in the internal and external decorations of Seljoogh buildings, the most remarkable examples of which are the magnificent inscriptions in kufic and nastaliq calligraphy as well as stucco carvings of mosques. The stucco and stone carving techniques of Seljoogh architecture can be observed in the majority of 12th century buildings and monuments. Mihrabs of Masjid-i-Jameh Qazvin (1116 A.D.) and Masjid-i-Jameh Ardistan (1160 A.D.) are extremely valuable examples of stucco carving art. During Seljoogh period, stucco carving was used not only for the decoration of mosques but also for palaces and houses of the nobility, with themes varying from landscapes or hunting scenes of kings accompanied by their courtiers and princes.

Seljoogh decoration techniques was carried further until a certain time when it was replaced by a new technique during Mongol period (1211334 A.D.). The Mongol technique of decoration can be observed in some structures of Azarbaijan. A good sample of Mongol stucco carving is surviving at Hedariya Madrasa (mosque), Qazvin (early twelfth century).

The power and nobility of Mongol stucco carving is probably best exemplified by the mihrab of Masjid-i-Jameh Isfahan built in 1310 AD. during the reign of Ulyaitu and known as the Uljaitu Mihrab with the archaeologists.

In addition to religious structures, there are a number of old houses in various towns of Iran which were decorated with unique stucco carvings, already being preserved as historic buildings.

Suitability of brick for plaster facing, had been the main reason for the spread of the finest stucco carvings in the decoration of Iranian architectural buildings.

Stuccos using carving, molding and painting, constitute one of the main decorative elements of Iranian architecture, and have a long history of development. Types of stucco decoration have been tested by Iranian architects since approximately 2000 years ago.


Mirror work is another decorative element of Iranian structures during Islamic period. The finest examples of skillfully fulfilled mirror work can be seen in the religious buildings of Mashhad, Shiraz, Qum, and Rey. The technique has been used in palaces and magnificent traditional houses as well, and follows architectural elements such as domes, minarets, and towers in terms of significance.

Minaret is a slender and tall structure (tower) constructed on both sides of a mosque dome or domes of religious buildings. Some minarets are constructed independently. The oldest known Iranian minaret, Mil-i-Ajdaha, was built during Parthian period in Nourabad Mamasani, Fars Province, to guide the caravans. In remote past, minarets were used as guide posts. Caravans moving on the vast Iranian plateau, could find their routes in endless deserts and plains only by mean of such minarets.

mosquie ian qom

Minarets were signs of nearly caravanserais, towns, or inns. Minarets built along Persian Gull’ coastline and main ports, served as light houses. Land caravan and ship arrivals or departures, and possible attacks by pirates were signaled through these minarets by fire or smoke.

In Islamic period, minarets appeared shortly after mosques. Mosque minarets had mostly tile facings, while a grate number of minarets were built using brick alone. Their brick decorations were extremely fine and artistic.

The finest and tallest Iranian minarets are standing in Isfahan and certain towns in Kavir. Brick work as decorative art of Iranian architecture developed to its highest triumph in many ancient structures, towers, and minarets.

In his description of the Iranian artists’ brick work, Sir Edwin Lutyer said: One should never talk of Iranian brick work, but mainly of the magic of Iranian brick work. Endless variety of arches and cross vaults with their exciting shapes, all stem from the artistic taste of Iranian brick work architects.


The quality and skills of Iranian brick work architects can be distinguished in monuments they created and left for us. Altogether 12 slender and very tall minarets survive in Isfahan region, which are unique in their architecture and beauty. Little has remained of minarets built of mud brick. Construction date of some brick minarets are given on their inscriptions: Damaqan minaret in 1209 A. D., Isfahan Chehel Dokhtaran Minaret in 1107 A.D., and Isfahan Qushkhaneh Minaret in 15th century A.D.

Unique architecture and first clan brick and mortar used in the construction of minarets have resulted in their surviving after 9 centuries in the earthquake prone land of Iran.

Huge brick tower construction represents another creative aspect of Iranian architecture. Gunbad-i-Qabus is one of the greatest and most beautiful brick towers of Iran built approximately thousand years ago, which stands in perfectly good condition. Under the shadow of the eastern Alborz mountains, facing the vastness of Asian steppes, stands in stark majesty a supreme architectural masterpiece: The Gunbad-i-Qabus, the tomb of Qabus-ibn-Washmgir. It rises a full 167 feet, with another 35 feet or so underground. It was built in 1006 A.D. and is the earliest and most expressive of a series of some fifty monumental towers still standing. Tuqrol Tower near Rey (1139 A.D.) and Bistam Tower (1314 A. D.) are among such towers, each representing a masterpiece of architecture and brick work.

imam reza

Palaces and gardens of Islamic period introduce us to other aspects of Iranian architecture. Because of the multiplicity of such works and monuments, we give only a few examples here.

The Chehel Sutun palace at lsfahan stands amid a garden called Jahan Nama. It was built in 16 century A.D. during the reign of Safavids. The wooden columns of the palace are placed on stone plinths. The ivan ceiling has been decorated by fine wooden frames of different geometrical shapes. A vast water pond was built immediately in front of the building which gives a mirror-like image of it.

The interior of the palace is covered with beautiful miniature paintings which portray the wars and other ceremonial receptions of Safavid kings. Here one could see the finest paintings of Safavid period. Mirror work designs and latticed windows too, are unique in themselves.

Ah Qapu palace at Naqshi-i-Jahan square, Isfahan is another architectural monument of Safavid period built in six stories. It contains various masterpieces of stuccos and murals. Chardin, who visited the palace during Safavid period, described it as the greatest palace to be found in any capital city. The sixth floor was used for Safavid kings’ official receptions. The palace is also unique in terms of its stuccos, murals, rooms, and halls.

Altogether 6 palaces and 34 historical gardens had been built in Isfahan, a number of which are serving toDay and the rest have disappeared through the ages. The Iranian architecture can be further traced in historical and famous bazaars of great towns of Iran. These bazaars have enjoyed a great reputation among Europeans travelers and merchants.

]The bazaars, known as Eastern Bazaars, apart from being centers of commercial and civic activity were mostly surrounded by public facilities such as the mosques, baths, and caravanserais to meet the requirements of travelers, merchants, and nearly inhabitants. The handsomest traditional and historical bazaars of Iran built in Isfahan, Shiraz, Tabriz, Yazd, Mashhad, and some other towns, are highly important in terms of structure and texture.

tilework iran

In introducing Iranian architecture, one should never overlook the architectural techniques used in the construction of madrasas, baths, and historical caravanserais, a number of the most significant examples of which have survived until our Day. Examples of historical baths of the country have already been changed into anthropological museums, with the intention of being well preserved as well.

yazd mosquie

Architectural monuments and buildings of older times remaining on the vast exauses of Iranian Kavir (desert), too, have always attracted attention of archaeologists and aestheticians. Inhabitants of Kavir have constructed various settlements villages, 102 and towns in margins of Kavir, which give a clear picture of their original architecture and arts. These buildings, apart from being strong in structure, brought about the best and most bearable conditions of living in extremely dry and hot weather of Kavir. Necessity of living in the margins of dry and arid Kavir, and existence of a native art, red to the rise of Kavir architecture in Iran.

According to the archaeological researches carried out so far, the oldest Kavir towns of the world have been built in the margins of Iranian Kavirs.

Yazd, the town of graceful high rising Badgirs (wind towers), is one of the oldest Kavir towns of Iran. The Islamic and traditional architectural monuments existing in this town are extremely versatile. Badgirs and great Anbars (water stores) of Kavir are among the most interesting architectural developments of Iran. Badgirs were invented in Yazd to cool the people’s residences many centuries ago. In other words, they are traditional coolers of Yazd. Architects of Kavir towns have employed the wind energy in order to overcome the unbearable hot weather of Kavir.

Badgirs are inventions of unknown architects whose creative imaginations and taste developed to the highest peaks in architecture. Most houses in Kavir are equipped with Badgir which brings cool air into large rooms and halls in hottest day of summer.

Considering the rarity of water in Kavir regions, people have devised ab-anbars (water stores) as water storages. There is an interesting technique for the construction of anbars in Yazd. One of the most valuable and well-preserved ab-anbars in this town is the one with six huge badgirs used to cool its water. Several examples of badgirs and anbars survive in Kavir towns of Iran.

Iranian architecture at Kavir towns is not limited to the construction of ab-anbars and badgirs, but its main importance lies in house building and city planning. Another manifestation of Iranian architecture in Kavir lands is the construction of Quanat (underground water channel). It consists of a series of wells connected to each other through an underground channel, carrying water from underground depths to its surface. Excavation of quanat presupposed mastery of certain techniques of which only Iranians were fully aware.


Heroclotus writes that Iranians were inventors of quanat. “Iranians were the first nation to carry water from underground channels, to the surface. They were inventors of quanat. Iranian architects have also created extremely valuable monuments in areas such as water and irrigation, dams, canals, and bridges or rivers. The Soviet archaeologists discovered remnants of one of the oldest irrigation canals of the world near the town of Van urkey) which was constructed by the Urartu people in the late 9th century A.D. A cuneiform inscription unearthed from the rubble walls of the canal describes how it was built.

Excavation of Suez Canal between the Nile river and the Red Sea during the reign of Achaemenids was carried out under the supervision and initiation of Iranian engineers and architects. In the vicinity of the canal a stone inscription was discovered from the time of the Achaemenid king Darius I together with an account of how the canal was constructed.

The Athos canal in Greece, too, had been another masterpiece of Iranian architecture. Remnants of the canal stand up to this Day.

iran ancient

Numerous bridges and dams had been built during the Achaemenid and Sasanian period in Provinces of Fars and Khuzistan, as well as Mesopotamia. Some of these monuments are standing even toDay.

Shushtar dam on Karun River, is a dam building masterpiece from Sasanian period in Khuzistan. Dam building techniques continued even during the Islamic period in Iran. Many pre-Islamic dams were repaired by Muslim engineers of Iran, and they applied their own innovation in the construction of newer dams and bridges. Arch dams and diversion canals were first built by Iranian engineers and architects on various rivers. Their methods are used in the construction of the greatest dams of the world even toDay.


The oldest bridge the remnants of which have survived to our Day, is the one built by Urartu people on Araxes River, North West Iran. It was built in 8th century BC.

An example of the most magnificent bridges of Iran are standing in absolutely good conditions in the city of Isfahan. Zayandeh Rud is the greatest river flowing into central plateau of Iran. It flows through the city of Isfahan dividing it into two north south pans. Twelve samples of historic bridges built from Sasanian through Safavid periods stand on it even toDay. Shahristan bridge is the oldest of those bridges with a minimum history of one thousand years, which belongs to Sasanian period. There are two other world-famous complex bridges built during the Safavid period: (1) Allahverdi Khan or 33-span bridge, which is 360m long and 14m wide, It has 33 spans, and was built by the artful engineers of Isfahan in 1602 A. D.; and (2) Khadlu bridge (in two stories) built during the reign of Shah Abbas II, serving both as a bridge and a dam. It is one of the most elaborate combined bridges of the world, 133.5m in length and 12m in width. It can be changed into a temporary dam by blocking its spans. Wide and thick timbers (stop – logs) had been prepared to be used for this purpose and create a beautiful reservoir on one side of the bridge. The second floor, constructed on the main spans, includes its most fascinating feature, i.e., the pavilions set into its width called “Princes Pariours” and once decorated with faience stucco carvings, and inscriptions. The main parlor was used for the king’s receptions and festivals. In terms of architectural style, it is unique all over the world. Majesty and splendor of the historic bridges of Isfahan are vivid manifestations of the creativity of Iranian architects.


The endless variety of architectural monuments in Iran shows that Iranian architects enjoyed highly valuable creativities and experiences in various fields. Despite intervals due to wars, military expeditions, and foreign offensives, Iranian architecture has continued to develop and flourish through the ages. Artists have enriched their previous styles and methods and built on them. Although temporarily influenced by foreign art styles, they proved capable of dissolving such influences in their own arts and creating new forms of Iranian art, even influencing the architecture of other countries.

Architecture in Iran has a continuous history of more than 6,000 years, from at least 5,000 BC to the present, with characteristic examples distributed over a vast area from Syria to North India and the borders of China, from the Caucausus to Zanzibar. Iranian architecture has manifested its own particular characteristics and originality throughout its prolonged history. It was based on a multi-thousand years of experience which, according to A.U. Pope, was popular. Despite being at the service of kings and rulers the main agents of Iranian architecture were artists arising from among the people.

Religious beliefs, particularly during the Islamic period, played a decisive role in giving birth to the majority of Iranian architectural monuments.

Faith, thinking, and creativity were three elements out of which rose Iranian architecture.

33 pol isfahan



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