Iranian Architecture
Pre-Islamic Architecture Iranian architecture has a continuous history of more than 7,000 years. The earliest-known phases of building in Iran belong to Neolithic communities, and date back to the late 7th and early 6th millennia B.C. Relics from that period have been disclosed by excavations at the Zagheh mound in the Qazvin Plain, Ali Kush in the Deh Luran Plain, and many other prehistoric sites of the Iranian Plateau and its bordering regions. The houses there were built of handmade bricks of local mud, cut into rectangles and sun-dried. The buildings at the Zagheh mound were painted, and equipped with a fireplace.

One of the most important prehistoric complexes has been excavated at the Sialk mounds near Kashan. The oldest settlement there, dating from the 5th millennium B.C., evidently consisted only of huts made of tree branches. In the next stage, however, building began with handmade, sundried mud-bricks, oval in shape. The modern brick - rectangular, flat-sided, made in a mold - appeared in the 4th millennium. The latest research at Sialk has revealed that the city had the oldest ziggurat yet discovered, thus suggesting that ziggurats may be of Iranian origin, and not Mesopotamian as previously believed.

Sialk Hill 6000 years ago - Kashan

The most imposing ziggurat*, however, has survived in ChoghaZanbil near Susa and is the most ancient Iranian monument still standing. The ziggurat*, serving as both temple and mausoleum, represents a splendid example of a highly-developed architecture. It is composed of five separately-built, concentric towers with a complex of chambers, vaults, tunnels, arches, stairways, and drains. The water supply system of the building is astonishingly elaborate. The building had every feasible decorative treatment, including inlaid ivory mosaics, and glazed, colored bricks. Elamite architecture at Susa included temples with an interior square or rectangular sanctuary, sometimes more than one story high, and covered with a wooden roof supported by brick columns; these temples stood on huge platforms.
The most conspicuous remains of Median architecture have been excavated at Ecbatana (Hamedan). The strongly fortified city was built following a well-thought-out urban scheme. Among its structures was a two-story royal palace with windows and columns; the palace was built around a central courtyard. According to ancient historians, it was richly polychromed and adorned with tiles and plates of precious metals. In excavations of Hasanlu, the most famous Mannai settlement dating from 1,000 B.C., residential buildings surrounded by cyclopean walls topped with high towers were discovered. Religious structures, however, were conspicuously different - steeply gabled, with large columns that formed a portico.

Chogha Zanbil is an ancient Elamite complex in the Khuzestan province of Iran.

The most famous Achaemenid monuments are located in Pasargadae and Persepolis. Another site of importance was Susa, but Achaemenid structures there, ravaged by enemies, again and again, are little more than piles of rubble. These, however, reveal some typical features of Achaemenid architecture, including the great dimensions of the hypostyle halls and their elevation on artificially-built platforms. Achaemenid funerary architecture is best presented in Naqsh-e Rostam.
The little that has remained of Parthian structures is mainly located outside Iran proper. The contribution of Parthian builders to Iranian architecture, however, can hardly be overestimated, for it was the Parthians who introduced two elements that have been used repeatedly in Iran up to the present time: a dome on squinches and a vaulted eivant structure.

Samples of Sasanid architecture can be observed in Firuzabad, Bishapur , Sarvestan, and Takht-e Soleiman in West Azerbaijan. There are also a great number of palaces, temples, fortresses, bridges, and dams from this period, scattered all over Iran. Taq-e Kasra, Khosrow I's palace at Ctesiphon, now in Iraq, is also ranked among the most splendid of the Sasanid structures. Distinctive features of Sasanid monuments were high, extremely wide brick vaults, wider than any other vaults in the world of that period, and massive, domed chambers. Rubble stone and brick, bonded with strong gypsum mortar (containing natural bitumen), were common building materials, while stucco moldings were the most favorite decorative elements.
The most ubiquitous Sasanid structure was a chahar-taq - a simple, open pavilion with a dome carried on squinches and pierced by four open arches. Although isolated chahar-taqs are more common, there are also several more elaborate complexes, comprising a small, closed fire temple and a chahar-taq. The majority of the known fire temples are built by the usual rubble and gypsum mortar technique. There is very little evidence of decoration; the most important feature seems to have been the niches carved above the entrance gates. Many Sasanid features were fully deployed in subsequent Islamic architecture and even exerted a marked influence on many Eastern and Western cultures.

Islamic Architecture
The advent of Islam in Iran was followed by the appearance of new building types, of which the mosque (Masjid in Arabic and Persian, literally "a place of prostration”) was the most important. Larger mosques were called congregational (Masjed Jame) and intended for Friday prayers. Because attending the Friday sermon is mandatory for Sunnite Muslims and recommended for Shiite Muslims, every Muslim town has a Congregational, or Friday, Mosque. Moreover, the Congregational Mosque is usually the most splendid religious building in any Islamic city.


No relics survive of the earliest mosques in Iran. We know, however, that just as everywhere else in the Muslim world, the first mosques here were copied from the House of the Prophet Mohammad in Medina, and followed a very simple, austere design. The ancient mosque was an enclosure surrounded by mud-brick walls which were covered by a flat, wooden or reed mat roof, which rested on wood or brick supporting pillars on the qibla" side (the side facing Mecca), and occasionally on other sides as well. Except for a few crumbling walls and archaeological revealed ground plans, the oldest existing Islamic structure in Iran is the Tari-Khaneh in Damghan, built about 760. The layout is a typical inner-court plan: a large, almost square, court surrounded by arcades of tunnel vaults set on huge, round piers. The whole design is simple and unmistakably Sassanid; the only innovation lies in the slightly pointed arches, the first recorded in Iran.
Although it emerged from a single source, Islamic architecture integrated itself with pre-existing local forms of architecture. Throughout the Islamic world, which stretched from Spain to India, the structure of the mosque was influenced by local materials and architectural techniques. Within Iran, a distinctive mosque type, stemming from the heritage of its Sassanid predecessors, developed. This mosque consisted of large prayer halls arranged around a courtyard and entered through eivans. In the earliest mosques, usually converted from Sasanid fire temples, one eivan was commonly built. It marked the qibla* side, and led to a domed sanctuary,
another legacy from Sasanid architects. Soon afterwards, the opposite, northern wall of the mosque's inner courtyard was also emphasized by the eivan. In its final form, the Iranian mosque evolved into a four-eivan" structure. It consisted of a central courtyard, usually surrounded by two-story arcades, which are interrupted on each side by an eivan. The south eivan" of the mosque was customarily the most sumptuous, as it led to the mosque's main, domed sanctuary. In addition, hypostyle prayer halls were also often annexed to the mosque. Although the mosque has undergone many architectural changes, its main section has remained much the same. It is essentially an open space, generally roofed over, containing a mihrab* and a minbart, with a minaret* sometimes added. An ablutions pool containing running water is usually attached to the mosque, but may be separate from it.

Zavareh mosque with its old Minaret

The Iranian mosque took its final form during the Seljuk period in the 12th century, with the Congregational Mosque of Zavareh being the earliest example. Seljuk architecture, with a repertory of about fifty extant buildings all over Iran, is one of the world's great architectural styles. Its power and nobility are best exemplified by the Congregational Mosque in Esfahan, first built during the early years of Malek Shah's reign, and later rebuilt on a four-eivan plan under the late Seljuk kings. Seljuk architecture is also represented by a great number of mausoleums, some of the most beautiful of which are located in Maraghe. The most conspicuous features of Seljuk monuments are elaborately-ornamented portals; double domes; and tall minarets, now appearing in pairs. In decoration, Seljuk architecture is characterized by stucco mihrabs*, opulent arabesque networks, decorative masonry, and the prolific use of Kufic script.

Soltaniyeh Dome near Zanjan

Under the Ilkhanids, basic plans remained traditional, but these were now executed on a larger scale: domes of immense size, lofty minarets, exceedingly high portals became the characteristic features of Ilkhanid architecture. The most impressive Ilkhanid monument is the Soltaniyeh Dome near Zanjan, built at the order of Oljeitu. The mausoleum, octagonal in form, was crowned by a beautifully poised, high-profile dome, once completely covered with light blue faience tile. A gleaming, blue patterned minaret* rose from each of the eight angles to frame the dome. The second-story galleries open outward - a pioneer feature later copied in many buildings both in Iran and abroad. Despite its size (it has the world's highest brick dome), the monument seems as light and buoyant as the vault of heaven which it symbolizes. Just as 14th-century Persian architecture was based on Seljuk forms and construction, but on a new scale and displaying greater magnificence, similarly the architecture of the 15thcentury maintained the principal forms of the Ilkhanids, but carried them out with more skill and refinement.

The greatest surviving Iranian monument of this period is the Gowhar Shad Mosque in Mashhad. Its portal is built in the arch-within-arch style. The thick, tower-like minarets*, which merge with the outer corners of the portal screen, extend to the ground; together with the high foundation revetment of marble, they give the ensemble a look of solidity that combines well with the building's use of exuberant color. The entire court facade is overlaid with enamel brick and mosaic faience of the finest quality. The architect of this building was Qavam al-Din, of Shiraz. The Safavid period was a culmination of Iranian architecture. Esfahan, designated capital by Shah Abbas I, was rebuilt with so many new structures that both its natives and European travelers referred to it as "half the world” and wrote rapturously of its beauty. Naqsh-e Jahan (“Pattern of the World”) Square, laid out at the royal order, is considered to be the site of the greatest magnificence. It is bordered by two sumptuous Safavid mosques, the Royal Mosque. It is bordered by two sumptuous Safavid mosques, the Royal Mosque and the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque.

The Royal Mosque (today called the Imam Mosque) is often cited as the final perfection of the art of mosque building in Iran. It is particularly famous for its tile ornamentation of both mosaic and polychromed faience, which covers all the mosque's surfaces. The mosque is also famed for the elaborate design of its entrance section, sometimes unappreciated by the unenlightened visitor unaware of the architect's great achievement in aligning the mosque with Mecca while maintaining the integrity of the square.
The Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque is the most unusual of the Iranian mosques and is undoubtedly the most splendid of all. The layout of the mosque has a very non-Iranian character since it has neither a four-eivant courtyard nor a minaret*. The absence of these can be explained by the fact that the mosque was not created as a place of public worship, but was intended exclusively for the shah and his harem. Although the building has many other architectural peculiarities, its greatest source of renown is its unrivaled tile decoration, and particularly the golden sun medallion at the apex of its dome.
Under the Safavid kings, the greatest religious complex in Iran, Imam Reza's Mausoleum in Mashhad, was greatly expanded and beautified. The complex consists of some thirty structures representing more than five centuries of building: mosques, oratories, colleges, libraries, sanctuaries, and caravanserais - all connected by huge courts, which are surrounded by double-tiered arcades faced with enamel tile. A golden dome and two golden minarets, enriched with white inscriptions on ultramarine bands, are serenely reflected in pools. A succession of courts punctuated by portals and twelve high eivans proclaim with dazzling opulence the Shiites' veneration for the martyred Imam. The most beautiful building of the late Safavid period is the Chahar-Bagh Madreseh in Esfahan. The architects of the post-Safavid era further developed traditional forms and techniques, gradually merging them with the Western style, which has almost completely replaced traditional architecture in present-day Iran.

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