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Middle East Brian Dispatch

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Persian Architecture, And All Before Dinnertime
April 8, 2000

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Let's go back in time and see who built these cool mosques!
When we visit mosques here in Iran, I often have trouble believing that human beings built these structures. They are so beautiful, so bright and so intricately decorated that it seems more likely that aliens dropped them on Earth and then flew away.

The mosques here rise in brilliant contrast to the surrounding landscape -- with colors that can be seen from miles away. It's the domes that first catch my eye: blue-green and made of turquoise tiles or gleaming yellow and made of gold bricks that catch the light and throw it in all directions.

The entranceway looms above us with calligraphy and geometric designs traced along every square inch. Maybe you've seen photographs of Persian architecture with the big onion domes and intricate tile work. I had seen pictures before we arrived here, but I'm still amazed when I see them in person. My eyes almost pop out when I try to take it all in. Just one section of a single wall in a single mosque might take years for one person to decorate, and by then they would probably go crazy! The designs are so intricate and geometric that they seem to turn in endlessly upon themselves, inviting your own mind to do the same. Who is responsible for such magnificence?

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larger view
The center of this design is actually calligraphy - the repeated name of Ali, the son of the Prophet Mohammad
The answer is simple. Then again, it's not so simple. The Persian people are responsible for these amazing buildings. This is known as Persian architecture, and it is regarded as one of Persia's greatest contributions to the world. The buildings we are visiting now have inspired and influenced architects in much of the world, and their influence can be seen as far as India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. That's the simple part.

Persian architecture didn't spring from one brain of a brilliant architect or get dropped into the desert of Iran by a wandering spaceship. No, Persian architecture evolved over the course of many centuries, and that is not so simple to explain.

But let's take a ride in time and see if we can trace that wandering path that brings us to the present day. Instead of spaceships, we'll use a time machine. We'll start at the beginning and fly right on through time until we are all back in the present just in time for dinner.

So hop on board and buckle up! The ride will be a fast one, so hold on tight! There will be a couple major bumps as our path takes some surprise turns, but I promise you won't fall off! I'll just push a few buttons here and off we go.

Okay, we have surfaced in southern Iran along the Dez River. I hope you're feeling all right; we went all the way back to the 12th century BCE! We are flying over a tiered temple at Chogha Zambil that rises to the sky like a mountain. This style of temple is known as a ziggurat. Look closely-it's made entirely of mud bricks dried by the sun.

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larger view
One characteristic of Persian architecture is simple construction combined with lavish use of surface ornementation and color
We are moving quickly now through the years. As the ground speeds by below, I see the influence of Greek and Egyptian architecture from 559 to 330 BCE, known as the Achaemenian Period. There are still some temples built in the ziggurat style, but most show a mixture of foreign influences. People are importing materials and designing much bigger halls. Great palaces like Persepolis are being built.

WHAM! We just ran into one of the biggies in history. It is 331 BCE, and Alexander the Great is conquering Persia and changing everything, destroying Persian temples and bringing an end to the style of the Achaemenian Period. Persepolis is burning. He is introducing Hellenism and the influence of the Greeks.

But it's hard to keep good ideas down, and as we move forward we see distinct Persian styles rising again and merging with those of the Greeks. It is the period of the Parthians, from 190 BCE to 224 CE, and many characteristically Persian elements can be seen emerging. Look at the grand barrel-vaulted halls that lead into the interior courtyard of the temples; these are called eivans and they were developed during this time.

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Abeja poses outside the holy shrine of Imam Reza. Do you see the turquoise AND the gold dome?
Woohoo! Things are speeding up now as these guys begin to perfect their craft. It is the Sassanian Period now, so we are zooming through the years 224-637 CE. Their buildings are becoming larger, and decoration is becoming more adventurous and colorful. Most of the buildings are built to honor the fire-gods of Zoroastrianism, which is still the predominant religion at this time. Look down and you will see one of the most enduring and unique characteristics of Persian architecture--those fabulous domes. This is when they first figured out how to build a satisfactory dome on top of a square chamber. This is a great achievement, but look out because here comes the biggest bump of all...

KA-BAM! Nothing packs a punch like a new religion, and you can see that Islam is now sweeping the land. Most of those fire temples are being converted to mosques, and new mosques are being built throughout the region as centers for everyday life. It is the Arab Period of 637-1050 CE, and Islam is literally changing the face of Persian architecture. You will see that all pictures of humans are removed from the walls and that alternative methods of surface decoration are being developed.

I know that you must be home soon, so I'll hit the jets and we'll be home in time for dinner...


intricate - arranged in a complex way
calligraphy - beautiful handwriting
Hellenism - the civilization and culture of ancient Greece
predominant - most important

As we skim over the 9th through 11th centuries, we see the modern Persian style emerging from the structural achievements of the Sassanian Period, and the intricate designs of the Islamic artists who are searching for new ways to decorate these holy buildings. Instead of paintings of people you will now see calligraphy covering the mosques with holy inscriptions from the Koran.

The Persians have a good recipe going now, and the primary elements of Persian architecture are now in place. The two most important elements are:

1. Simple floor plan combined with lavish use of surface ornamentation and color;

2. The development and refinement of domes and minarets.

Over the next few centuries new rulers add their own ingredients to this construction casserole. The Seljuqs build higher minarets, the Mongols introduce vast entrance portals, and the rulers of the Timurid Period develop more advanced tiles.

The time machine is barreling toward home now, but we can still catch a glimpse of the Safavid Period, the Golden Age of Persian Islamic architecture, which lasted from 1502-1722 CE. This is the time when all of the knowledge of previous centuries is unified into one distinctive style. Shah Abbas I is building the royal city of Esfahan, and the finishing touches are being put on the holy shrine of Imam Reza. For more on the shrine of Imam Reza, read Monica's dispatch about our visit to this holy site.

Want to know more about Persian architecture?

How about a photo tour of Isfahan and its religious architecture?

Okay, it is time to head home. The death of Shah Abbas I in 1629 CE was the beginning of the end, and few mosques were constructed again on such a grand scale. But they are still here today for everyone to see…okay, here we go . . .

Whew! We made it back, and I must say that was quite a trip. We covered over thirty centuries; so I imagine you will all be quite hungry by now. I am glad we have the use of a time machine to tell such a long tale. You can see that these beautiful buildings did not spring up overnight or get dropped here by aliens, but rather developed over thousands of years through millions of minds and billions of ideas. Maybe you will visit these awesome buildings someday and see them for yourself. Maybe your eyes will bug out too. I am sure you will see many pictures of the mosques here in Iran in our future dispatches, and I hope that you now have a better understanding of how these unique buildings developed.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Abeja - Iran: Where Houses Have No Furniture
Monica - Flowers, Words, and Shapes: Islamic Art in Iran
Abeja - In the Name of Allah
Team - Turn Off That Faucet! Water Doesn't Grow on Trees, You Know

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