Vibrant jewel-like colors, intricate geometric patterns, graceful arches, majestic domes, and delicate latticework. These are some of the features we associate with Iranian (or Persian) architecture, which is undoubtedly some of the most beautiful in the world.
Iran is a country rich in history and tradition, and nothing makes that more obvious than its wealth of stunning buildings. Four features especially stand out on these monuments: stonework, stucco, brickwork and, of course, incredible panels of mosaic tiles.
This elaborately decorated ceiling, with shades of blue, brown, yellow and red, is a typical example of Iranian tilework. This particular vault and ceiling is from the iwan (or three sided chamber) of an Imamzadeh (a shrine-tomb), found at the tomb of the poet Omar Khayyam.
The tomb at Shah Cheragh, where this picture was taken, has a name that translates as “King of Light”. Indeed, this ceiling of an iwan within the tomb seems to positively radiate color. Both the interwoven tile pattern and the architecture are amazing, and we can only imagine how long it must have taken to create.
The magnificent Mo’aven ol Molk is a ‘Hosseinieh’, or shrine, where plays commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hossein at Karbala are performed. In this photograph, you can see the tile-patterned ceilings and walls as well as an illuminated stained glass window.
The dome of Mo’aven ol Molk is seen here encircled by its colored windows. As well as being adorned with its complex tile mosaics, the shrine is also decorated with scenes from the battle at Karbala and from the Quran as well as, inexplicably, European villages.
Still in Mo’aven ol Molk, this glorious dome is decorated with tiles in a swirling pattern. Trade secrets about creating tile mosaics were handed down orally from father to son and master to apprentice, so there are few written records about the craft.
This unusual pattern on the ceiling of another Imamzadeh in the tomb of Omar Khayyam looks like something from the 1970s. It still follows the traditional arrangement known as ‘girih’, which, according to art historian Terry Allen, is composed of “geometric (often star-and-polygon) designs composed upon or generated from arrays of points from which construction lines radiate and at which they intersect.”
Here’s a fitting description of this astonishing ceiling written by Islamic art experts Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom: “The apex of the dome is filled with a giant sunburst, from which descend tiers of ogival medallions (the pointy ovals) filled with floral motifs, which swell in size with the curve of the dome.” Certainly, this beautiful piece of architecture alone would make it worth a visit to the Lotfollah mosque in Isfahan.
This lattice window is an early and beautiful form of climate control. The latticework allows air to circulate through the room, while at the same time providing shade from the harsh summer sun. As an extra feature, it also makes lovely shadowed patterns on the walls.
If you were looking for a monument to showcase the artistry and style of Iranian architecture, this 17th-century mosque would be it. The Imam Mosque, built by Persian ruler Shah Abbas, was intended to be the crowning jewel of his new capital in Isfahan, and 400 years later, many would say it still is.
Here’s the Imam Mosque from the outside. The 475,000 tiles used in its construction cover every surface of this magnificent building. It’s the use of tiles on the exterior of Iranian domes which distinguishes them from the domes of Christian or Ottoman architecture.
Let’s take a closer look at some exquisite glazed tiles from Isfahan. As the photographer who took this picture says, “The unique blue tiles of Isfahan’s Islamic buildings, and the city’s majestic bridges, contrast perfectly with the hot, dry Iranian countryside around it.”
In order to achieve larger designs, artisans would place square tiles together and paint the pattern on top of them. The tiles were then fired separately, after which they would be assembled again to form the desired arrangement.
In this close-up, you can see the interlocking geometric pattern so commonly used in the tile mosaics of Iran. Given their obvious craftsmanship, it’s not surprising that Iranian tile-makers were sought after in all corners of the Islamic empire. Although invasion by the Mongols in the 13th century had an adverse effect on the local arts at the time, the situation normalized again when the new rulers converted to Islam.
This photograph of a vaulted roof in Masdjed-e Nasr Al Molk makes us think of a beautifully woven basket. Bricks as well as tiles of various sizes and shapes were used to create this impressive ceiling.
This kaleidoscope of color is from the roof of the 19th-century Nasir Ol Molk Mosque. The painted roses in concentric circles make quite an eye-catching pattern. The circle is an important geometric shape in Islamic art, symbolizing one God, Mecca (the geographical center of Muslim worship), and the eternal.
The beauty of this vaulted ceiling isn’t just in the tilework but also the interesting arched shapes built into it. The Masjid-i Jami, or Friday Mosque, in Isfahan is one of the oldest mosques in Iran; or rather, part of it is. The mosque has been built, rebuilt and renovated for centuries from around 770 CE. And according to historians of architecture, the brickwork in this mosque makes it a masterpiece.
Once again, we can’t help but marvel at the complexity of this multicolored tile mosaic adorning the ceiling at the Nasir al-Mulk mosque. Like circles, stars (those radiating from the center of this vault, for example) are another important and much used motif in Islamic art. The rays of the star as they branch out are believed to symbolize the spread of Islam.
The detail in this single tile is amazing. The colors of the bird’s feathers and the tiny claws stand out as intricate examples of the kind of detail that goes into tilework. Now imagine this tile multiplied by hundreds, if not thousands, and you get an idea of the amount of work involved in some of the tile mosaics of Iran.
This is what happens if you don’t line up your mosaic tiles according to the pattern. Whether this mismatched panel from the Al-nabi Mosque in Ghazvin was created like this accidentally or on purpose, we don’t know. Either way, though, the effect does have a certain charm.
It’s said that within the Shrine of Shah Nematollah Vali, in a small room on the southwestern side, the famous Iranian poet spent 40 nights in prayer and meditation. Calligraphy, which is considered the highest art form in Islam, decorates the tiles of the walls and ceilings with poems and verses from the Quran.
This fantastic spider-web like roof is part of the Bazaar of Tabriz, one of the oldest bazaars in the Middle East and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to UNESCO, “Tabriz has been a place of cultural exchange since antiquity and its historic bazaar complex is one of the most important commercial centres on the Silk Road.”