Iranian architecture or Persian architecture is the architecture of Greater Iran that has a continuous history from at least 5000 BCE to the present, with characteristic examples distributed over a vast area from Syria to North India and the borders of China, from the Caucasus to Zanzibar. Persian buildings vary from peasant huts to tea houses, and garden pavilions to “some of the most majestic structures the world has ever seen”.
Iranian architecture displays great variety, both structural and aesthetic, developing gradually and coherently out of prior traditions and experience. Without sudden innovations, and despite the repeated trauma of invasions and cultural shocks, it has achieved individuality distinct from that of other Muslim countries”. Its paramount virtues are several: “a marked feeling for form and scale; structural inventiveness, especially in vault and dome construction; a genius for decoration with a freedom and success not rivaled in any other architecture”.
Naqshe Jahan square in Isfahan is the epitome of 16th century Iranian architecture.
Traditionally, the guiding, formative, motif of Iranian architecture has been its cosmic symbolism “by which man is brought into communication and participation with the powers of heaven”. This theme, shared by virtually all Asia and persisting even into modern times, not only has given unity and continuity to the Persian architecture, but has been a primary source of its emotional characters as well.
The pre-Islamic architecture draws on 3-4 thousand years of architectural development from various civilizations of the Iranian plateau. The post-Islamic architecture of Iran in turn, draws ideas from its pre-Islamic predecessor, and has geometrical and repetitive forms, as well as surfaces that are richly decorated with glazed tiles, carved stucco, patterned brickwork, floral motifs, and calligraphy.
As such, Iran ranks seventh in the world in terms of possessing historical monuments, museums, and other cultural attractions and is recognized by UNESCO as being one of the cradles of civilization
Each of the periods of Elamites, Achaemenids, Parthians, and Sassanids were creators of great architecture that over the ages has spread wide and far to other cultures being adopted. Although Iran has suffered its share of destruction, including Alexander the Great’s decision to burn Persepolis, there are sufficient remains to form a picture of its classical architecture.
The Achaemenids built on a grand scale. The artists and materials they used were brought in from practically all territories of what was then the largest state in the world. Pasargadae set the standard: its city was laid out in an extensive park with bridges, gardens, colonnaded palaces and open column pavilions. Pasargadae along with Susa and Persepolis expressed the authority of The King of Kings, the staircases of the latter recording in relief sculpture the vast extent of the imperial frontier.
With the emergence of the Parthians and Sassanids there was an appearance of new forms. Parthian innovations fully flowered during the Sassanid period with massive barrel-vaulted chambers, solid masonry domes, and tall columns. This influence was to remain for years to come.
The roundness of the city of Baghdad in the Abbasid era for example, points to its Persian precedents such as Firouzabad in Fars. The two designers who were hired by al-Mansur to plan the city’s design were Naubakht, a former Persian Zoroastrian who also determined that the date of the foundation of the city would be astrologically auspicious, and Mashallah, a former Jew from Khorasan.
The ruins of Persepolis, Ctesiphon, Jiroft, Sialk, Pasargadae, Firouzabad, and Arg-é Bam may give us merely a distant glimpse of what contribution Persians made to the art of building.
The fall of the Persian Empire to invading Islamic forces led to the creation of remarkable religious buildings in Iran. Arts such as calligraphy, stucco work, mirror work, and mosaic work, became closely tied with architecture in Iran in the new era.
Archaeological excavations have provided sufficient documents in support of the impacts of Sasanian architecture on the architecture of the Islamic world.
Many experts believe the period of Persian architecture from the 15th through 17th Centuries to be the most brilliant of the post-Islamic era. Various structures such as mosques, mausoleums, bazaars, bridges, and different palaces have mainly survived from this period.
Safavi Isfahan tried to achieve grandeur in scale (Isfahan’s Naghsh-i Jahan Square is the 6th largest square worldwide) knowledge about building tall buildings with vast inner spaces. However, the quality of ornaments was decreased in comparison with those of the 14th and 15th centuries.
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In the Old Persian architecture, semi-circular and oval-shaped vaults were of great interest, leading Safavi architects to display their extraordinary skills in making massive domes. Domes can be seen frequently in the structure of bazaars and mosques, particularly during the Safavi period in 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. In the words of D. Huff, a German archaeologist, the dome is the dominant element in Persian architecture.
Another aspect of Persian architecture was the harmony it presented and manifested with the people, their environment, and their beliefs. At the same time no strict rules were applied to govern this form of Islamic architecture.
The great mosques of Khorasan, Isfahan, and Tabriz each used local geometry, local materials, and local building methods to express in their own ways the order, harmony, and unity of Islamic architecture. And thus when the major monuments of Islamic Persian architecture are examined, they reveal complex geometrical relationships, a studied hierarchy of form and ornament, and great depths of symbolic meaning.
In the words of Arthur U. Pope, who carried out extensive studies in ancient Persian and Islamic buildings:
“The meaningful Impact of Persian architecture is versatile. Not overwhelming but dignified, magnificent and impressive.”