Thursday, June 30, 2011

Religious architecture in Iran: Madrasehs or Religious Schools

Reza, our guide, told us about the system of education in the madraseh or seminary as we sitting in the shaded courtyard of Madraseh-ye Khan in Shiraz. If you work hard and are academically talented, you can move through your education quickly. It is all about acquiring a thorough familiarity with a particular body of knowledge rather than taking a set number of classes or putting in a certain number of years. Usually the curriculum involves an advanced training in Shi'a theology and jurisprudence, although a number of other subjects may be included as well. Madraseh grew out of the custom of people gathering at mosques with a knowledgeable Muslim to discuss religious issues. In the Seljuk Dynasty in the 11th century, Nizam al-Mulk created a state system of madrasehs or nizamiyyehs.

Madraseh-ye Khan, Shiraz
This beautiful madraseh was built in Shiraz in 1615 by the Safavid governor of the province, but due to the prevalence of earthquakes, only octagonal entrance hall is original.



This is a perfect example of the traditional design for a madraseh: a large courtyard with a pool bounded by date palms and Seville orange trees. The courtyard is surrounded by arcades that lead to the students’ rooms.

A Madraseh of unknown name, close to the Public Bath House Museum, Esfahan
We stood outside this madraseh, whose name I never discovered, waiting for our bus. It had a beautiful example of angular Kufic calligraphy in tile work, shown above, and the stalactites on the entrance were some of the nicest I’d seen, primarily because the entrance wasn’t so huge or so tall.

Religious Architecture in Iran: Armenian Churches

The Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church was founded, according to tradition, by Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeas in the later part of the 1st century. Armenia was the first country to accept Christianity as the state religion in 301. Most Armenian Christians originally settled in the area around Jolfa, in northern Iran, close to the border with Armenia.

Shah Abbas of the Safavid Dynasty forcibly moved 10,000 Armenian families from the area around Jolfa to Esfahan in the 17th century in order to assist him in rebuilding his new capital. They settled across the river in a part of the city which they named New Jolfa. The Armenians were known as being particularly fine craftsmen and, to this day, Reza told us, you want your car mechanic to be Armenian.

Armenian Church of St. Stephanos, outside Jolfa
We traveled by bus from Tabriz to Jolfa, close to the border of the Republic of Azerbaijan, to see this magnificent church and monastery. There is speculation about the earliest construction on this site (founded by St. Bartholomew in 62 AD or by an Armenian king in the 9th century) but the oldest part of the current structure is from the 14th century and most was constructed in the 16th. The setting is spectacular.

The carvings on the outside of the church, including a bas-relief of St. Stephanos being stoned to death, are very well preserved.

The dome is encircled by angels. Look at the similarity of the painted angel below and the carved angel above.

This soot-coated room and dome may have been a Zoroastrian Fire Temple, but it also might have been the kitchen for the site.

The monastery is still under reconstruction but the garden in front of it is beautiful.

Armenian Vank or All Saviors’ Cathedral, Esfahan
The church was begun in 1606 but was largely rebuilt in 1650-53, following the arrival of the Armenian families from Jolfa. The bell tower was built in 1764. The sanctuary, where photography is not allowed, is lined with one gruesome painting of torture and bloodshed after another. I found the paintings oppressive and left to visit the museum.

The most memorable part of my experience at the cathedral was my conversation with a group of young teenage school girls in the adjacent museum.  They surrounded me and started with:
Can we ask you a few questions? Yes.
And continued:
Where are you from? America.
How do you like Iran? It is very beautiful.
Oh thank you. How do you like wearing the scarf? It is the law in your country. I want to visit your country so I must obey the law.
I decided to ask them some in return:
Do you have cell phones? Yes.
Do you talk to your friends on them? Yes.
What do you talk about? Our studies.
Do you ever talk about boys? Giggle giggle giggle. Oh no. We only talk about our studies.

Religious Architecture in Iran: A Zoroastrian Fire Temple and Towers of Silence

Zoroastrianism was the primary religion of Iran from the early 500s BCE. It seems that Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) preached the message of one omnipotent, invisible and creator god, Ahura Mazda, represented by the burning flame in Zoroastrian temples, from as early as 1400 BCE. Life is a struggle between good and evil, darkness and light, according to Zoroaster, in which the good will ultimately triumph. The Achaemenians and the Sassanians proclaimed it the state religion, the priests assumed a great deal of power, and it remained dominant until the Arabs invaded in the 7th century bringing Islam with them. There are only 10,000-15,000 Zoroastrians living in Iran today, according to one set of statistics, mostly in Yazd and Tehran.

Zoroastrian Fire Temple
We visited a relatively modern Fire Temple in Yazd dating from 1940, but, according to tradition, the flame of this temple has been burning since 1174 in various places in Iran. Only the priests are allowed behind the glass through which we saw the flame.

You can see the Zoroastrian symbol above the door. A bird-man holds a ring which symbolizes loyalty in one hand, with the other hand held up as a sign of respect. The three layers of feathers in the wings represent the belief that you should think, speak, and act decently.

Towers of Silence
Up until the 1960s when the city of Yazd started to encroach on the Towers of Silence, the Zoroastrian population of the city carried their dead up to the Towers of Silence in a solemn procession led by a priest, carefully set the body on a large stone slab and left it there to be eaten by the vultures. Because they believed in the purity of the elements (water, earth, air, and fire) they didn’t believe in burying or burning the bodies for fear of tainting the earth or polluting the air.

It was a bleak and sorrowful place and the elderly man with his donkey did nothing to dispel the mood.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Monumental Architecture in Iran: Palaces, Gardens, and Water

Most of the 17th, 18th and 19th century palaces we saw in Iran were used as reception halls and entertainment venues. They have several features in common: they are often set a garden with flowers, fruit trees, and cypresses and with some sort of water feature; and the buildings themselves are quite elegantly designed with pavilions, domes, tile or mirrored work or both, and various other kinds of ornamentation. We saw remnants of Cyrus the Great’s palace, garden, and water channels and ponds, built at Pasargadae around 500 BCE. So this idea of a palace set in a garden with flowing water goes way way back, as you'll see in the following six examples.

Chehel Sotun Palace, completed in 1647, Safavid Dynasty, Esfahan
This is a truly lovely palace. The name means 40 columns: 20 in the actual palace and 20 more reflected in the pool in front. Mirrored stalactites in the front entrance and beautiful Safavid paintings (and two much less refined Qajar paintings) in the reception area of the palace add to the richness and texture of the place.

Hasht Behesht Palace, completed in the 1669, Safavid Dynasty, Esfahan
This palace whose name translates as Eight Paradises, is set in Nightingale Garden. You can see the fellows cleaning out the pool in front of the palace; and we saw others replacing the still-blooming pansies for impatiens.

This palace is not as elegant on the outside as Chehel Sotun, but it is more amusing: check out the tiled story of the man with a fly on his forehead being assisted by his pet bear who is about to throw a large rock at his master’s forehead to kill the fly. No one needs to have the moral spelled out. It is here that we heard the fellow playing his tar in one of the small first floor rooms.

Ali Qapu Palace or Magnificent Gate, early 17th century, Safavid Dynasty, Esfahan
Originally built as a Timurid (15th century) palace, it was enlarged by Shah Abbas, the Safavid builder extraordinaire. A big thank you to the internet for the outside photo of Ali Qapu. You can also see it in the miniature. We paused in the pavilion to look out over Imam Square in the photo to the left.

And then we trudged our way up to the sixth floor to see the Music Room, so named because of the vaults cut into niches in the shape of musical instruments and vases. It was well worth the effort but we wondered how in the world the shah climbed all the steps. Apparently he would have been carried but the narrow twisting of the stair wells makes this hard to fathom.

Bagh-e Dowlat Abad, 18th century, Zand Dynasty, Yazd
I talked about this palace (or house) in connection with the wind tower or badgir. It was built in 1750 by Karim Khan Zand.

Bagh-e Eram Garden, 19th century, with a Qajar palace, Shiraz
This is a beautiful garden. The College of Law of Shiraz University has taken over the Qajar palace and hence it is not open to the public. We wandered through the garden admiring the cypress trees for which it is famous as well as the roses, pansies and other flowers. I loved the nice touches like the light posts. It was in this garden that I saw a group doing calisthenics one morning.

Bagh-e Naranjestan, Orange Garden and Qavam House, 19th century, Qajar Dynasty, Shiraz
The garden here is full of flowers and of people enjoying them and each other. You can see the fountain spouting water. The house was built by an upper class merchant family, the Qavams, who worked their way into government. There are some great examples of “tea house” portraits of Qajar nobles done in tile and the mirrored porch, behind the spout, is truly something. We spotted the Qashqa’i nomad in her bright red and gold dress in this garden.

Golestan Palace or Palace of Flowers, 19th century, Qajar Dynasty, Tehran
This was the first palace we toured on our first day in Tehran. The Qajars moved their capital to Tehran and consequently constructed various palaces and buildings suitably extravagant. We walked past the water in front of the reception area and the mirrored room with an outrageously large throne.

I heard for the first time about Seven Color Tiles. The Qajars introduced “western” subject matter into the painting of tiles, as exemplified in the tile of two women. The Lion and the Sun was the Qajar dynasty’s royal emblem.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Introduction to Traditional Domestic and Functional Architecture in Iran

In addition to the monumental buildings we visited, we also saw a number of buildings which were in one way or another useful to the citizens of the city in their daily lives. The designs of these buildings are often quite ancient but none we saw was much older than the 17th century. Some of these buildings would have been made from unglazed bricks and covered with a combination of mud and straw. If they were not kept in good repair, the weather, both rain and heat, would over time destroy them. This photo shows the town of Meybod, on the road from Yazd to Esfahan, looking out from the citadel in the middle of town.

Because lumber was not readily available in the desert, domes were often used in building houses, public structures, and even chicken coops. Domes are well suited to a desert climate because the airflow in a domed room is far superior to that in a rectangular one. Particularly important in a chicken coop. I love the bumpy domes in the foreground above.

 These arches in the old town of Yazd, in need of constant repair I'm sure, were too beautiful not to capture.

Ice House in Meybod

A great example of imaginative architecture is the ice house, a very useful structure for dry hot desert towns. The one we saw was located in Meybod, on the road from Yazd to Esfahan, and possibly dates from the Safavid Dynasty, 17th century.

During the winter, ice would be collected from rivers or pools and brought to the ice house, whose walls were often four feet thick. The pieces would be placed in layers in the underground bowl-shaped area. The layers would be interspersed with hay or other forms of insulation.

The dome, to the left, had a very small opening so as to keep the sun and the heat out. The ice stored in this manner could last through the summer.

Wind Towers or Badgirs in Yazd on the Edge of the Desert

Wind towers or badgirs still grace some of the homes in Yazd in the old part of the city. Traditionally, they would be located over a pool of water so that as the wind came down it would pass across the pool, cooling it, vaporizing some of the water and carrying the cool moisture to the room and to the house. The introduction of air conditioning has diminished the use of wind towers, I’m sorry to say.

They were also often built along with cisterns which would store water delivered to the city via qanats, an extensive system of wells and underground tunnels which brought water from the mountains to desert towns and cities. The wind towers would help to keep the water cool.
The wind tower of Bagh-e Dowlat Abad, a palace and garden built by Karim Khan Zand in 1750, is one of the tallest in town. You can see the outside of the dome, shown below, just in front of the wind tower to the left.


The dome located inside the house is just beautiful.


As I mentioned in a previous post, caravanserai dot the countryside, either in ruins, in some partial state of repair, or completely rehabilitated as a guest house or hotel for travelers. Many are from the Safavid Dynasty, 17th century, as Shah Abbas set out to build 999 of them along the Silk Road(s) to encourage traders to bring their wares through Iran.

As you can see from the plan to the left, there was only one entrance to the courtyard. Shops and storerooms faced the courtyard and the corridors and arcades on the inside were used as housing for travelers.

Public Laundry Museum in Zanjan

This public laundry was built by the mayor of the town in 1926 as a nice place for the women of Zanjan to do their laundry and enjoy each other’s company. The beautiful brick arches and barrel vaults are a far cry from our sterile and utilitarian laundromats here.

We saw three museums which featured wax models to illustrate the use of the particular places: a kitchen museum associated with the White Palace in Tehran, this public laundry, and the Public Bath Museum in Esfahan below.