A Glance at Iranian Art and Architecture

By: Mojtaba Rezayi

The art of each society is created within its philosophical, cultural, and religious context and in conformity with its historical, social, and geographical conditions. Therefore, in order to conduct research into and theorize on the fields of art and architecture, thinkers and researchers need to explore an extremely vast realm of knowledge. Such endeavors necessitate the presence of some philosophical and epistemological contexts, cultural and social backgrounds, and a systematic methodology for utilizing the sources and documents that society and art and cultural institutes and centers provide for thinkers and researchers.

A nation’s art represents the quality of its thoughts, worldviews, beliefs, and traditions. As one of the most important features of the emergence of cultures and civilizations, art plays a fundamental role in the development or destruction and deviation of human societies. It also enjoys a particular place in people’s everyday and cultural interactions. If the cultural bases of a nation are solid and enjoy firm and deep roots, their artistic manifestations will also remain immune to undesirable changes and disintegrations in the history of their development.

In order to embark on a discussion of Iranian art, we should first refer to the art of pottery which, according to archeological excavations, dates back to the eighth millennium BC. Pottery was the common art and industry of indigenous groups of various regions in Iran, such as Lorestan, the south of the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, Kerman, and Sistan and Baluchestan. Moreover, according to Xenophon’s reference to Iranian carpets or other woven floor coverings, the art of carpet and rug weaving also existed in the first millennium BC.

Iranian architecture also enjoys a special place in the world. From among its magnificent features, we can refer to high iwans (verandas), building designs in conformity to climatic and regional characteristics, tall columns, roof shapes, accurate dimensions, and various decorations and ornaments. Archeological investigations and excavations indicate that the history of architecture in Iran dates back to the seventh millennium BC.

Since then, this art has been expanding and developing under the influence of various factors, particularly religious ones. Undoubtedly, architecture is one of the most revealing manifestations of each nation and the best narrator of each country’s encounter with life’s problems and its people’s insight concerning the world of creation.

Iranian architecture also enjoys certain unique characteristics in some areas, which has resulted in the introduction of a number of innovations to the world of architecture. In this regard, we can refer to specific spatial arrangements such as iwans (verandas), domed chambers, and the Iranian courtyard, as well as some more advanced structures such as various types of two - and three - centered arches, domes, and pendentives and squinches.

There are also some particular uses of space, such as gardens, and the employment of certain concepts with different definitions, including geometrical ornaments, introversion, extroversion, design patterns, etc. Generally speaking, Iranian architecture can be categorized into the following seven classes or styles:

  • 1- The Parsian style (from the eighth century BC to the fourth century BC) including the Pre-Parsian, Median, and Achaemenid styles.
  • 2- The Parthian style (from the fourth century BC until the rise of Islam) dominant during the Seleucid, Parthian (Arsacid), and Sassanid eras.
  • 3- The Khorasani style (from the late 7th century until the end of the 10th century AD) dominant during the reign of the Saffarid, Tahirid, and Ghaznavid dynasties.
  • 4- The Razi style (from the 11th century AD to the Mongol invasion period) including the methods and devices of the Samanid, Seljukid, Khwarazmid, and Ziyarid periods.
  • 5- The Azari style (from the late 13th century to the rise of the Safavid Dynasty in the 16th century AD) dominant during the Timurid and Ilkhanate dynasties.
  • 6- The Isfahani style (starting from the 16th century AD until the middle of the Qajarid period in the 19th century AD).
  • 7- Contemporary style (from the middle of the Qajarid period onwards) including the approaches used in the Pahlavi era and the period after the Islamic Revolution in 1978 AD.

From among the first six Iranian architectural styles, the Parsian and Parthian styles belong to the Pre-Islamic period while the last four belong to the Islamic era. Western scholars use some other terms to refer to Islamic styles, such as the Umayyad and Abbasid styles.

In Iranian architecture, despite the existence of certain features such as the symmetry and beauty of frontpieces, domes, and iwans, the characteristic that deserves to be explored more than others is the jewel of Iranian architecture, namely its mathematical and gnostic logic. Iranian architects’ introversion and interest in courtyards, patios, lowered yards, hashtis (vestibules), and belvederes or pavilions surrounding shabestans (sanctuaries), have been parts of Iranian architectural logic since long ago.

The most ancient example of early structures and buildings in our country is the Elamite Choga Zanbil Temple in Khuzestan. This splendid house of worship, which was built around 1250 BC, is an extremely magnificent example of a developed form of architecture. This temple, which is built in the form of a square, consists of five floors, each with a smaller area compared to its lower floor, resulting in its pyramidal structure. The main center of the temple is constructed on the first floor, and the other floors functioned as dependent facilities in the past. The main construction materials of the temple included high quality baked bricks bound by means of hard mortar. Sun-dried Bricks were also used inside the walls and in places where it was necessary to fill the platforms of the structure. What is of prime importance regarding this spectacular temple is its several barrel-vaults, which have been made so skillfully that they still stand amazingly intact 3000 years after their construction. These arches, which are built on long corridors and on the top of the internal stairs of the temple, attest to the great level of advancement of the construction industry and architecture at such ancient periods in our country. In sum, this huge temple, which is considered to be one of the greatest Ziggurats of the world, is the best example in the ancient world of an architectural artistic work constructed on a vault foundation.

What is technically viewed as the foundation of traditional buildings and marks their method of construction is the surmounting of arches on walls or other load-bearing structures. Here, one of the most important reasons for erecting certain structures such as walls, piers, and columns is to provide a foundation for arches and not merely to bear the weight of the building’s roof.

The Qajar period must be considered the era of the annihilation of the Isfahani architectural style, in particular, and of the Iranian style in general. During this period, the beauty and subtlety of the Safavid architecture (Isfahani style) were replaced by some hurried and haphazard movements in architectural ornamentation and planning.

The instability of the central government, the introduction of western civilization, the surrender of the East, and the influence of the imported culture during the Qajar period destroyed what had been left from the native civilization and washed away everything like a devastating flood. Unfortunately, this process was also accelerated by the speed of modernization in the whole world.

General Figure of Art and Architecture Department