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Art and Architecture in Iran

Massoumeh Farhad

Architecture: Pre-Islamic (pre-7th century)

Most of the surviving architecture of pre-7th century was built by order of kings of the Achaemenids or their successors, the Sasnians. The structures are primarily palaces, ceremonial buildings, tombs, and inscriptions on rock walls.

The most impressive example of ancient Iranian architecture is undoubtedly Persepolis or Takhte-Jamshid (see slide of Persepolis in the slide set), located in the south-western Iran near the modern city of Shiraz.

Persepolis was completed in the 5th century B.C. by three different rulers. It was constructed out of huge blocks of stone on a platform that measured about thirty-three acres and in some places reached sixty feet in height. The palace complex included a treasury, private royal residences and two very large audience rooms. One was called the Apadana, where the king could receive as many as ten thousand people, and the other, the Hall of a Hundred Columns, served as the throne room. It has been suggested that the Persepolis was built mainly to celebrate Noruz, the Persian New Year, held on the first day of spring.

Apart from its grand scale, Persepolis also stands out for its architectural decoration. Gigantic mythological creatures guarded various entrances, while processions of men bringing gifts from various parts of the vast Iranian empire were carved on the walls. The most impressive example of such a procession can still be seen on the large staircase leading to the platform. Originally, many of these low-relief carvings were painted gold, red, blue, and green, much like Greek architectural decoration.

When Alexander the Great invaded Iran in the 4th century B.C., he burned down Persepolis, but enough of the structure has survived to show how ancient Iranian kings used architecture to express the power and grandeur of their rule.

Architecture: Islamic architecture in Iran

The introduction of Islam to Iran called for the constitution of different types of buildings, primarily religious ones. Although royal palaces were still built, they were not on the same scale as Persepolis and a few of them have survived.

The most important religious buildings in Iran is the mosque where people gather not only for prayer but also to meet and rest. The earliest Iranian mosques were quite simple and consisted of a hall supported by columns. From the end of the 11th century, however, Iran developed its own mosque style. This consisted of an open courtyard surrounded by a vaulted arcade on all four sides (see slide of the Shah’s mosque in Isfahan). In the center of each side was a hall known as eyvan that opened into the courtyard. The eyvan’s arched entrance was set in a brick frame to add to its height. These eyvans have also given their name to this particular mosque-plan which is known as the four-eyvan plan.

During prayer, Muslims are required to face the direction of Mecca, the holiest site in Islam. This direction is known as the qibleh, and was marked by a niche, or mehrab, built on the qibeh wall. The chamber of sanctuary is reached through one of four eyvans which is usually larger than the other three as in the impressive Friday Mosque of Isfahan.

Another feature of Persian mosques are their tall minuets. People used to give the call for prayer from these towers. Finally, a small pool in the center of the mosque courtyard allows worshipers to perform the necessary ablutions (ritual washings) before prayer.

The most common no-religious structure in Iran was the caravanserai, providing accommodation for merchants and other travelers up into this twentieth century. Caravanserais were located either in town near the bazaar or along the various trade routes throughout the country. Like a typical Iranian mosque, the caravanserai had a large open courtyard in the center, often with a pool, surrounded by a one or two-storied arcade. It also included a larger hall (eyvan) with mehrab served as place for prayer. The building also had space for stables, stores-rooms, baths, and latrines to accommodate the travelers’ every need.

One of the most important characteristics of Iranian architecture is its decoration. For instance, baked brick was used not only for construction but also to create complicated geometric patterns and bands of calligraphy on the inside and outside of buildings. Another important decorative feature of some Iranian buildings is the muqarnas. Murqarnas are pointed niches placed in rows one above the other in order to hide the transition of a square hall to its domed ceiling. Because these niches appear to be hanging in space, they are often compared to stalactites.

In the 13th century, bricks glazed in a variety of colors such as blue, green, white, yellow were introduced to add color to Iranian architectural decoration. They were painstakingly cut, and like a mosaic, combined into a variety of designs and patterns. The most celebrated of these is called the arabesque. It consists of intricate, intertwined scrolls of flowers, buds and leaves, often covering entire buildings. Later, Iranian architects and craftsmen also decorated their buildings with multi-colored tiles. This second technique was less time-consuming and laborious then creating designs out of individual glazed bricks.

The Art of the Object

Except for the surviving sculptural decorations of pre-Islamic period, Iran never developed an art of sculpture such as exists elsewhere. Instead, artists concentrated on portable objects made in ceramic, wood, metal, glass, and decorated these with calligraphy, arabesque designs, human and animal figures.

The best known Iranian portable “objects” are the famed rugs and textiles (see rugs in slide set) that have been appreciated in the west for a long time. Iranian carpets are made up of knotted strands of wool, silk, or a combination of the two; the smaller the knot the finer the quality of the rug. Some rugs have a pile, while others, known as kilim, are flat woven, much like a tapestry.

Rug designs show a tremendous variety: They can be geometric as in the case of kilims or carry intricate arabesque designs. Others resemble a typical Iranian garden with a “waterway” dividing the carpet into squares filled with different types of real or imaginary flowers and plants. Still others combine figures, animals and abstract designs in most imaginative ways. In traditional houses, these rugs were used not only as the main floor but also as the main furnishing. Rugs also served as floor covering outside the house.

The Art of the Book

The book holds a special significance in Iran because of its association with the Koran, the Muslim holy script that contains God’s revelation to the Prophet Muhammad. The central importances of the Koran to the Muslims meant that utmost care went into its writing or calligraphy is the most highly regarded art in Iran and other Muslim countries.

The earliest copies of the Koran were written in an angular script known as Kufic. Later this script was replaced by the more legible cursive script that is still in use today. The Koran was never illustrated but its pages, in particular those at the beginning, were often decorated with abstract designs in gold. These decorations are known as illumination and ca also be seen in texts other than the Koran.

Contrary to common belief, the Koran itself does not prohibit the painting of human figures. Some later theologians, however, did try to ban such representations in order to prevent idol worshipping. Figural painting never appeared in religious buildings, but could be seen in royal palaces and private houses. Most importantly, they were included in manuscripts (hand-written books), except the Koran and other purely religious texts.

Traditional Iranian painting consists primarily of book illustrations. (Iranian artists only began painting with oil paints in the18th century when they became increasingly familiar with Western art.) Because the size of traditional Iranian paintings depended on that of the book, they were relatively small and are commonly known as miniatures. These illustrations were either set in a “window” within the text itself or filled an entire page.

Among the most outstanding features of these paintings are their rich colors and last minute details. Instead of creating the effect of light and shade as in Western works of art, the Iranian artists showed their figures in bright, even light, creating jewel-like surfaces. Elegant figures, dressed in sumptuous costumes, were shown in lush landscape setting or in elaborately decorated buildings. Hunting expeditions, scenes of battle as well as royal receptions were also common. Unlike Western or Chinese artists, Iranian miniature painters rarely painted pure landscape compositions.

The most frequently illustrated work in Iran was the Shahnameh or the Book of Kings, the Iranian national epic. Its stories deal with the life and deeds of real and mythical kings and heroes of Iran’s ancient past. Other poetic works, medical, and scientific texts and histories were also illustrated.

Copying and illustrating a Shahnameh or any other work was very time-consuming and expensive. These manuscripts were usually specifically ordered by the ruler, his family or other important and wealthy individuals. Many Iranian kings and princes had their own team of painters, calligraphers, and illuminators who were attached to their library. They were supervised by the head librarian.

The production of the manuscript was very much a collaborative effort and involved numerous members of the library. First, the paper was chosen and burnished with a smooth stone or agate. The calligrapher would then press thin lines into the surface in order to help him write. After he had made his ink and cut his reed pen, he would start copying the text, leaving room for the illustrations. Once he had completed his work, either he or another artist would decorate the boarders of the text with fine colored rulings. At this stage, the blank pages were handed over the painter.

Like the calligrapher, the painter was also responsible for his materials. He had to prepare his colors, which included grinding gold, copper, semi-precious stones such as lapis lazuli. He also made his own paint brushes and some of these consisted of only a few squirrel or kitten hairs, set into a quill (the main shaft of a feather).

The artist would first paint a faint outline of the composition and only then start applying color leaving the details to the end. If he wanted to correct his initial design, he could use white paint. Once his composition was completed, he would burnish the surface of the page for a last time in order to bring out the brightness of the colors, in particular the metallic ones. Having completed the text and its illustrations, the pages were sown into a beautiful binding, also carefully tooled and decorated. Only then was the illustrated manuscript ready for presentation.