Ancient Persian architecture is known around the world for its intricate, geometric and symmetric layouts. Throughout history, Persian design elements have been affected by many cultural and religious changes in the region. Each ruler, Zorastrian or Islamic, brought his own touch to the Persian empire architecture.

In this article, we dive deep into ancient Persian architecture and its unique style.

Persian Architecture

Architecture can be defined as the art of designing and building habitable spaces. A lot of time, work, knowledge, tools, materials and money goes into this art form.

One of the most important characteristics of a settlement to be considered as a civilization, in ancient times, was the measure of their architectural prowess. Among the famous ancient architectural sites and techniques in the world, you can certainly include Persian architecture.

Today Persian architecture is known for its Persian arch doorways, huge domes, highly symmetrical buildings, and its use of bright colors. But Persian architecture was not always like this. The Persian architecture we know today has been in the making for thousands of years.

Before going into the details of Persian architecture, the architects, the materials, and the tools used, we must look at the history of Persia and its earliest rulers who envisioned the architectural evolution of this ancient empire.

History of Persia and Its Architecture

The first ancient Persian empire was founded by Cyrus the Great in the sixth century BC. He united the nearby kingdoms under the first Persian empire, also known as the Achaemenid empire.

Cyrus was a devout Zorastrian and led his empire under the ideologies of Zoroastrianism. After Cyrus came many Zorastrian rulers, among which the most prominent are Darius I the Great (522 – 486 BC) and Xerxes I (485 – 465 BC).

The Zorastrian period of ancient Persia saw a lot of progress in the architectural domain of the region. Government buildings and houses were elevated from mud-covered walls to proper plaster. Giant symmetrical and geometrically perfect structures are the main Persian architecture characteristics of this period.

The advent of Islam in the region with the Rashidun Caliphate in 633 AD led to the eventual decline of Zoroastrianism in ancient Persia. This advent is also known as the Arab Conquest of Iran. This was the period of extreme urbanisation in the region and has given us illustrious architectural establishments.

The caliphate brought the taste of Islamic architecture containing domes, minarets and arches. Arabesque art was also added to the Persian heritage.

Religion and Architecture

Now we know that the Persian empire has been influenced by two famous religions: Zoroastrianism and Islam. These religions molded the Persian society at different times and created a hub of beautiful and unique architecture.

The traditional Persian architecture can be categorized into five different eras based on the period they were implemented in:

  • Zoroastrian:
  1. The Parsian Era
  2. The Parthian Era
  • Islamic:
  1. The Khorasani Era
  2. The Razi Era
  3. The Azari Era

Each style corresponds to the religion and ruler of that time. We start from the Parsian style and with the advent of Cyrus the Great because with him started the Persian Empire. Before him, the architecture of the region was influenced by the Egyptians and Greeks. Now we look at each style in detail.

  1. The Parsian Era

The style of architecture explained in this section is a compilation of everything present before the advent of Cyrus the Great. In a way, it is a symbol of how he brought about an architectural reform in the ancient Persian empire, bringing the architectural styles of Egyptians and Greeks.

The kings of the newly formed empire wanted to show their control and authority through the architectural perspective.

The first focus of the architectural reform was the erection of lavish palaces, places that showed power and showcased the riches of the rulers. Then came the audience halls, high terraces, and square towers. The tombs of fallen kings and temples for worshipping were also erected.

The most notable architectures of the Parsian style in ancient Persia are as follows:

– The Tomb of Cyrus the Great

Also known as the Mausoleum, is one of the most important ancient Persian artifacts. The reasons are that it is the resting place of the founder of the great empire and also an architectural beauty. The monument is 11 meters tall, sitting on a platform that is about 5 meters tall.

The tomb is without a single inscription. The only decoration on it is a rosette situated at the top of the entrance.

– Persepolis

Persepolis, a magnificent palace multiplex, was founded under the rule of Darius the Great, another Zorastrian King of ancient Persia. This complex portrays the Persian heritage through huge decorated statues surrounded by mountains. Persepolis was reduced to rubble by Alexander in 330 BC, but its identity remained intact.

– Naqsh-e Rostam

Naqsh-e Rostam translates to Picture of Rustam. Rustam was a celebrated mythical hero in the city of Shiraz, in ancient Persia. This spectacular building is situated 6 miles away from Persepolis, in the province of Fars. This place is actually a collection of rock tombs of famous Persian rulers.

So far the tombs of Darius I, Darius II, Xerxes I and Artaxerxes I have been identified. Above each tomb is an elevated statue that resembles a cross.

Construction Materials and Techniques

The use of plaster instead of mud was seen in this style for the first time. Mud was still greatly used for common buildings and as a base. The Parsian style made heavy use of stones for color impartment and also to give a unique look to each building. Even though the buildings were gigantic, very little work was done on decorating them.

The Parsian style can thus be summarized as extravagant buildings covered in plaster with high sitting statues.

  1. The Parthian Era

This style belongs to the era that came after the Alexander conquest of the Persian Empire. Alexander brought Hellenistic designs from Greece. Even though he brought culture and art with him, the people and the existing Persian architecture saw a great fall.

After the death of Alexander in 323 BC, the Sasanian empire took control. The Persians began to rebuild their homeland with whatever was left behind and whatever they could use. The Parthian style is therefore famous for architecture made of stone and rubble. This period marked the last breath of the Zorastrian empire after the Islamic conquest of Persia.

– The Palace of Ardeshir Pāpakan

The Palace of Ardeshir Pāpakan is one of the most important establishments of the Parthian style. This palace was built by the Sassanid ruler, Ardeshir I. The contemporary city of Firuzabad, in Iran, was once the city where this palace was erected to its glory. The palace was built on the slopes of mountains and contains domes and arches which were not native to the Persian architectural heritage.

The palace contains a picturesque pond and spacious gardens. This palace surely defines the living style and taste of the ancient Persian Kings.

Construction Materials and Techniques

During the Parthian style period, the people were starting to regain and bring back their neglected heritage after the Alexander conquest of Persia. The use of large baked bricks set in the mortar was increased. These bricks were carved, molded, glazed and colored. They became the sign of Persian architecture.

  1. The Khorasani Era

The Khorasani Period started with the advent of Islam in the region and the fall of Zoroastrianism. This era includes some new features in the architecture, brought by the Muslims.

The most striking additions to the Persian architecture in the Khorasani period are the Mosques and Maqbareh.

The most notable examples of architecture in this era is as follows:

– Jame’a Mosque of Isfahan

This Great Mosque of Isfahan is one of the earliest Muslim establishments in ancient Persia. It is constructed on the layout plans found in the Sassanid empire. The mosque is said to be built with techniques beyond its time, as it contains architectural wonders that can compete with modern buildings. The mosque was built by the Abbasid Caliphate and was later modified by many ruling parties.

The mosque has open halls and tall ceilings as in the past it was a hub of religious and social activities. It is equipped with courtyards, tombs, minarets, and water fountains for ablutions.

Construction Materials and Techniques

In the Khorasani style of architecture, mud bricks were used for construction purposes along with stucco. Stucco was used to make decorative exteriors as it cannot be used for building purposes. Stucco was molded into intricate arabesque patterns and stuck on the exterior surfaces of the buildings.

  1. The Razi Era

The Razi style of architecture is a combination of authentic Muslim architecture with the addition of Mongol architecture. Sunni Muslims built many more mosques in this period, along with public baths and ablution sites. Tombs were constructed for the fallen leaders. These tombs had a characteristic shelter on them that covered the tomb from all four sides.

The important examples and feature of architecture in this era are as follows:

– Samanid Mausoleum

Samanid Mausoleum, commonly known as the Jewel Box, is one of the most interesting ancient Persian buildings. It is a cuboid with a tomb. Its compact size is the reason that it is normally referred to as the Jewel Box. The building itself is a multifaceted structure with a resemblance to different architectural techniques.

The tomb of the mausoleum sits on an eight-cornered structure. The whole structure is made up of baked bricks and is carved throughout to give it an elegant look.

– Gonbad-e Qabus

Gonbad-e Qabus is a tower that was built to mark the grave of a Persian leader, Qabus. It is a 60 yards long tower that can be seen from 18 miles away. This tower is the most famous tom tower in all of ancient Persia. The inscription on it narrates that Qabus himself ordered its construction in his life and wished that he would be remembered by it.

– Kharraqan Towers

Also known as Kharaghan Towers, they were huge geometric structures in the city of Kharraqan. They are best known for having double domes i.e. a smaller dome on top of a dome. The Seljuks were the architects behind this marvel.

The interior and exterior of these tombs are a wonder. The interior contains storytelling paintings and fresco decorations. The exterior has carved bricks and inscriptions that narrate the architectural details. Like the Gonbad-e Qabus, this tomb tower is also built on an octagonal base.

Construction Materials and Techniques

Related to all the previous construction styles, the Razi style stands out the most. The reason is that in this era there was increased use of geometry in the construction of buildings. The Muslims introduced many different materials for decoration purposes as well.

  1. The Azari Era

This era is known for being the most illustrious, huge and architecturally perfect establishments in all of Persian history.

Some of the great architectural wonders belonging to this style are as follows:

– Arg of Tabriz

Also known as Arg Alishah, it is a large remainder of city walls in Tabriz, a city of Persia. These remnants are thought to be once a part of a bigger infrastructure. It has a large pool, with courtyards and a mosque. It has the basic elements of Muslim architecture, containing arched entrances and highrise ceilings.

– Jame’a Mosque of Varamin

This mosque is located in the city of Varamin. This Congregation mosque is one of the oldest buildings in Varamin city. This infrastructure consists of a large brick dome with ten small arches along with one large arch in the middle. This structure portrays the art and culture of Persia in a very beautiful manner.

– Goharshad Mosque

Goharshad Mosque is a grand Congregational mosque in the Khorasan province. This mosque has an array of mosaic patterns all over the building. This is the first building to portray the famous blue and white color combination. The building has a massive dome and minarets with characteristic arch doorways.

Construction Materials and Techniques

Many different and advanced forms of materials and techniques were used in this era. Vibrant-colored stones and marbles and wood were generally used. Many establishments made use of inscriptions to forever mark the sanctity of the place.

Ancient Persian Architects

Persia is recognized by UNESCO as one of the cradles of civilizations. This would not have been possible without the talented Persian architects that had the ability to create establishments beyond their time. In ancient Persia, architects were not as recognized as they are now but surely they deserved all the recognition and more.

World Heritage Sites From the Persian Empire

Some of the ancient Persian architecture stands tall today and is on the list of UNESCO world heritage sites. The reason ancient Persian empire buildings and architecture lasted this long lies in the techniques and tools used by the Persian architects at that time.

These sites are open to the public and a good amount of time and money goes into keeping them in their original shape and order by the Iranian Government.

Following is a list of all the important UNESCO recognized World Heritage Sites in Persia, modern-day Iran:

  • Arg-é Bam Cultural Landscape, Kerman
  • Naghsh-i Jahan Square, Isfahan
  • Damavand, Mazandaran
  • Pasargadae, Fars
  • Persepolis, Fars
  • Tchogha Zanbil, Khuzestan
  • Takht-e Soleyman, West Azerbaijan
  • Dome of Soltaniyeh, Zanjan
  • Behistun Inscription

These heritage sites follow the same basic patterns explained above.

Modern Persian Era: Iran

Iran’s architecture has developed its own distinct image as a result of its complex cultural past and occasionally turbulent political environments. The modern architecture of Iran, as seen in the news and films, reflects an aesthetic link to the country’s spiritual past while also attempting to find its place in the new world.

The Iranian architects have surely outdone themselves and now stand in the line of some of the best architects in the world.

Conclusion

All that we know about ancient Persian architecture is either through the remnants of the establishments or through the paintings, artifacts and ancient literature and some UNESCO-protected sites.

Here are the highlights of architecture in ancient Persia:

  • Ancient Persian Architecture is famous for its geometrical and symmetrical layouts.
  • The ancient Persian architecture can be distributed into two eras: pre and post-Arab Conquest of Persia.
  • The pre-Islamic period of Persian architecture is influenced by Greek and Egyptian designs.
  • The post-Islamic period of Persian architecture contains the characteristic use of blue and white color.
  • Persia is recognized by UNESCO as one of the cradles of civilizations.
  • The ancient Persian architecture was based on symbolism.
  • Arched hallways and entrances, domes, carved mud bricks, stucco and intricate patterns are the main characteristics of ancient Persian architecture.

We owe a great debt to the archaeologists that have managed to unearth many historical Persian architectural sites. Who knows, maybe there are still some arched hallways waiting to be unearthed.

References:

  • https://www.worldhistory.org/books/0300169329/
  • https://www.worldhistory.org/books/0500516421
  • https://www.persiansarenotarabs.com/persian-architecture/
  • D. H. Gye, “Arches and Domes in Iranian Islamic Buildings: An Engineer’s Perspective,” Iran 26, 1988, pp. 129-44.
  • Pope, Arthur Upham. “The Historic Significance of Stucco Decoration in Persian Architecture.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 16, no. 4, [Taylor & Francis, Ltd., College Art Association], 1934, pp. 321–32, https://doi.org/10.2307/3045552.
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