Art and Architecture seem to go hand-in-hand in Iran.
Rarely did we see a building that wasn’t also in some way artistic – be it by its design, or by its decoration.
Setting aside the obvious (Persepolis) for this post, the most prevalent form of architecture is most definitely religious. There are mosques everywhere. Even the smallest of settlements have at least one – often more. Mosques are built everywhere and by everyone; the government, charities, individual patrons, wealthy families. And they are beautiful. The architecture and artwork is intricate, individual, hand-crafted, unique and filled with significance in each and every mosque. We visited mosques that had themes, mosques that were small, mosques that were large, new mosques, converted mosques – all sorts, and all beautiful in their own way.
Our introduction to Iranian mosques was the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini Mausoleum – which also doubles as a mosque, cultural centre, university. library, and various other things – including a shopping centre… It’s enormous. And still under construction.
Started in 1989 (the year Khomeini died), it covers 20 square kilometers (yes, seriously!! About 250 times the size of Buck House, for the Brits amongst us), it’s reportedly costing two billion US dollars to build. While not technically a mosque, there is a worship area for men and women within the main mausoleum area and Zarih (the ornate ‘house’ in which the coffin is displayed). It’s vast, intricately and beautifully decorated everywhere you look. It’s also surprisingly casual. People come here to sit and chat with their friends and families, kids play, and we even saw people having a snooze. It’s a community place, and – whatever your religious beliefs or lack of – there is a definite ‘feeling’ you get when you walk in. It impressed and awed me in one fell swoop.
Isfahan is the place for famous mosques but, despite that, the other headline mosque for me was the rose mosque in Shiraz (officially called the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque). It’s most famous for its pink tile work and flowery decoration. However, my favourite bit was the beautiful prayer room with a wall of stained glass windows, which cast a bewitching array of light over the already-colourful Persian carpets and vaulted ceilings. And of course we share a name…
I can’t do a blog post on architecture and mosques without mentioning Isfahan; as I said, it’s the place to be for famous mosques. Although it wasn’t my favourite city, it certainly has some of Iran’s most beloved mosques. The Jameh Mosque probably has the most diverse selection of architectural styles, being almost continually under construction for over a thousand years. However, it’s the Sheikh Lotfollah mosque and Abbasi Great Mosque (aka Shah Mosque [pre-Revolution] or Imam Mosque [post-Revolution]) that really take your breath away. Both lie on the famous Naqsh-e Jahan Square – also home to the bazaar, and itself a World Heritage Site.
The Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque was the first one to be built, and was only for the royals (who had a palace across the square) – it has no minarets for this reason, and there was even a tunnel underneath the square for them to access it without having to mix with the great unwashed… The tile-work is by far the most intricate and exquisite we saw, and is widely regarded to be much better than the Abbasi Great Mosque. They didn’t find out just how beautiful it was until the public were allowed access to it though – a few hundred years after the Great Mosque had been built – which must have been a bit annoying…
Not to say that the Great Mosque doesn’t have beautiful tile-work and calligraphy; it does. It also has the unique feature of the entrance portal and the dome being in different orientations. This is due to the Square (where the entrance is) not aligning with Mecca so, as you enter, you make a slight right turn before entering the worship area. It also means that from the square, you get a great view of both the entrance and the dome…
The tile-work and the ceilings are two or the real stand-outs when it comes to religious architecture in Iran – there were points when I had to stop myself from taking photos and just look at it rather than obsessively trying to record it. Look close, look from a distance; just look. It was breathtaking. And all handmade.
It’s not only mosques that are architecturally impressive though. Pigeon towers also ticked the box for me. Centuries ago, pigeons were kept in their hundreds to harvest their guano as an organic fertiliser. They were housed in towers – beautiful (although undoubtedly pungent) cylindrical buildings with a hole for each pigeon. We visited one in Meybod (near Isfahan), and were able to climb up onto the roof. I can’t imagine what an awful job it would have been to clean it out after the pigeons departed though.
Wind catchers also hit the design and architecture target – not unique to Iran, but both beautiful and functional. Tall towers that funnel air down, cool it over pools of water within the building, and circulate it around. Early air conditioning, essentially. But much prettier. Yazd had by far the most beautiful rooftops, punctuated by scores of wind catchers, but arguably the most famous ones are in Arbakooh. These ones feature on the 20,000 Rial banknote!
We also saw ingenious ice-storage facilities – also not unique to Iran, but some of the largest I have seen. Ingenious design and a good dose of history, and I was hooked on spotting these amazing conical-shaped buildings. We got the chance to visit one in the town of Meybod. Meybod is a small town between Yazd and Isfahan. Formerly the biggest producer of alcoholic drinks, since the 1979 Revolution, it has ‘rebranded’ itself as a town of history and pottery – most of which of features the town’s symbols of the sun and the sparrow! We got to try our hand at pottery here (Note to self: it’s a lot harder than it looks….), and we also got to see a fantastic example of an ice storage facility.
Outside the facility, there are two large oblong pools about a foot deep. During winter, these were filled with water and left overnight to freeze. The ice was then cut into blocks and stacked in the storage building (with straw in-between to prevent the blocks sticking to each other).
The process got repeated until the storage was full, and/or the weather warmed up. There’s a hole in the top of the dome that let the cold air in and kept the environment cool during the winter, it then got plugged in the summer to keep the warm air out. Once the weather warms, access was permitted once a day to take the required amount of ice for the town out, then the door was re-sealed until the next day and, thus, the town was supplied with ice to preserve food etc until the cold weather returned.
We also got the chance to see some construction work while we were in Kashan – a real treat for me, to be honest (no, I’m not even joking). Passing mosques under construction, we saw the re-bar in place for the form of the enormous domes. We saw how they plastered the walls with the red mud and straw (thermally very efficient), how they did the brickwork (small batch mortar that is almost liquid-y, but goes off quickly as it is literally poured over the bricks, for those brickies amongst you), and finally, how they decorated the finished walls. All by hand. We chatted (via Mohsen) to a couple of the women who were painting. Every single bit of decoration was hand-painted; the paint was naturally-sourced from red clay, indigo, and herbs. The whole courtyard would take about two weeks for three of them to complete.
Everywhere you go in Iran it pays to look – look into doorways (nosy, I know) look down at the pavements, look up at the ceilings. Look at bridges, walls, gardens. Look everywhere; you’ll be rewarded with beauty.