Persian architecture has a very long and complex history, and is often regarded as the field in which Persia made its greatest contribution to the world's culture.
There are excellent collections of Persian art in Tehran; the Metropolitan Museum; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Although earlier civilizations are known, the first archeological finds of artistic importance are the superb ceramics from Susa and Persepolis (c.3500 B.C.). On tall goblets and large bowls are symmetrical designs that cover the surfaces with stylized abstractions of animals, particularly water birds and ibex. The choice of subjects from nature, simplified into almost unrecognizable patterns, may be called the formative principle of Persian art.
The art that comes from mountainous Luristan has aroused a good deal of controversy. Probably dated 1200-700 B.C., the many small bronze objects are thought to be mostly weapons and horse trappings-bits, bridle ornaments, rein rings, and pole tops.
Dated c.700 B.C., this remarkable collection of objects illustrates the heterogeneity of types and sources in early Iranian art.
The Achaemenid Period
A unified style emerges in the Achaemenid period (c.550-330 B.C.). Influenced by the Greeks, the Egyptians, and those from other provinces of the Persian Empire, the Achaemenids evolved a monumental style in which relief sculpture is used as an adjunct to massive architectural complexes. Foundations of the palace of Cyrus at Pasargad, of Artaxerxes I at Susa, and above all extensive remains of the magnificent palace complex of Darius I and Xerxes I at Persepolis reveal plans that characteristically show great columned audience halls. In front of the halls were colonnaded porticoes, flanked by square towers and set on high terraces. The palaces were approached by double flights of steps converging at the top. Although there are marked analogies to Egyptian, Greek, and Assyrian architecture, the style as a whole and the feeling for space and scale are distinctive.more...
Parthian and Sassanid Contributions
In reviving, the glories of the Achaemenian past, the Sassanians were no mere imitators. The art of this period reveals an astonishing virility. In certain respects it anticipates features later developed during the Islamic period. The conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great had inaugurated the spread of Hellenistic art into Western Asia; but if the East accepted the outward form of this art, it never really assimilated its spirit. Already in the Parthian period the peoples of the Near East were interpreting Hellenistic art freely and throughout the Sassanian period there was a continuing process of reaction against it. Sassanian art revived forms and traditions native to Persia; and in the Islamic period these reached the shores of the Mediterranean.
The splendor in which the Sassanian monarchs lived is well illustrated by their surviving palaces, such as those at Firuzabad and Bishapur in Fars, and the capital city of Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia. In addition to local traditions, Parthian architecture must have been responsible for a great many of the Sassanian architectural characteristics. All are characterized by the barrel-vaulted iwans introduced in the Parthian period, but now they reached massive proportions, particularly at Ctesiphon. The arch of the great vaulted hall at Ctesiphon attributed to the reign of Shapur I (AD 241-272) has a span of more than 80 ft, and reaches a height of 118 ft. from the ground. This magnificent structure fascinated architects in the centuries that followed and has always been considered as one of the most important pieces of Persian architecture. Many of the palaces contain an inner audience hall, which consists, as at Firuzabad, of a chamber surmounted by a dome. The Persians solved the problem of constructing a circular dome on a square building by the squinch. This is an arch built across each corner of the square, thereby converting it into an octagon on which it is simple to place the dome. The dome chamber in the palace of Firuzabad is the earliest surviving example of the use of the squinch and so there is good reason for regarding Persia as its place of invention.
The unique characteristic of Sassanian architecture was its distinctive use of space. The Sassanian architect conceived his building in terms of masses and surfaces; hence the use of massive walls of brick decorated with molded or carved stucco. Stucco wall decorations appear at Bishapur, but better examples are preserved from Chal Tarkhan near Rayy (late Sassanian or early Islamic in date), and from Ctesiphon and Kish in Mesopotamia. The panels show animal figures set in roundels, human busts, and geometric and floral motifs.
Ornamental architectural panels with pamette motifs, from houses at Ctesiphon, Iraq.
At Bishapur some of the floors were decorated with mosaics showing scenes of merrymaking as at a banquet; the Roman influence here is clear, and Roman prisoners may have laid the mosaics. Buildings were also decorated with wall paintings; particularly fine examples have been found at Kuh-i Khwaja in Sistan.
The Coming of Islam
Little remains from the early centuries of Islam in Iran, but the influence of Persia on Islamic art and architecture in Syria and Palestine is very strong. A significant innovation by the Persians is the raising of a dome over a square hall by means of squinches. Also influential was their use of cut-stucco decoration, various intricate motifs, and ever-apparent symmetry.
The earliest important Islamic monument extant in Iran is the mausoleum of Ismail the Samanid at Bukhara. Dated 907, it is a solid, square building in cut-brick style, covered by a dome. During this early period, ceramics were raised to a major art form. The finest were the "calligraphy wares of Nishapur and Samarkand. The star-shaped tomb tower of Qabus (1006) presents a form with far-reaching influence. Both pottery and metalwork were further developed under the Seljuk Turks in the 11th and 12th cent. Luster and "minai ceramics-using overglaze enamel colors including leaf gilding-both with intricate scenes of court life, were produced at Rayy, Kashan, and elsewhere.
The Mongol and Timurid Periods
The Mongol invasions of the first half of the 13th cent. destroyed many towns and much art.
The Blue Mosque at Tabriz, named for its brilliant faience casing, is contemporary. Mosaic faience-covered architecture reached its height in 16th-century Isfahan in the great building complex Maidan-i Shah.
The Safavid Dynasty
Under the Safavid dynasty (1499-1722) palaces were decorated with mural paintings, which have been heavily restored.
The Safavid empire was the second of the three Islamic empires that flourished in early modern Asia. The empire included Iran and nearby areas throughout the 16th and 17th centuries CE.More of Safavid Architecture...
The Qajar Dynasty
Qajar (Kadjar) architecture still defines, in the minds of many, the quintessence of Persian architecture. Qajar (Kadjar) architecture is the heir to the great building tradition of the Safavid era, which found its most glorious flowering in Shah Abbas' Esfahan. Qajar (Kadjar) architecture will build on this long and glorious tradition and will add its own refinement and unique flavor to an already aromatic garden of roses, that of the Persian art of building and masonry.
Unfortunately, both through malice and through eagerness to modernize and also through sheer neglect and lack of appreciation, many beautiful Qajar (Kadjar) era buildings have disappeared or have been destroyed. However, the Golestan Palace, the Bagh-e Eram Palace in Shiraz and other palaces, gates, and gardens still stand as a shining example of what once was the glory of Qajar (Kadjar) architecture, and form today's Iranian national cultural heritage.More pictures of Qajar
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