The paper is devoted to discussing the history and peculiarities of Iranian Ali Qapu palace. It is a bright example of Iranian architecture due to the combination of the basic arch elements that have their peculiarities, namely: great iwan with a pound, murals of famous painters of that time, special acoustic effects, ceramic tiled masonry, and carved wooden ceilings, making it a brilliant representative of Isfahan style. Ali Qapu is especially interesting as it was a residence of the Shah Abbas I the Great. Besides, it was incredibly high for its epoch.
This paper also investigates characteristics of Isfahan style, which was developed in the eleventh-nineteenth centuries during the rule of Safavids.
Ali Qapu: Formal Description
Ali Qapu palace is one of the most famous attractions of Iran. This solid rectangular structure with a height of 48 meters is located at Imam Khomeini square. It is called “the first Iranian skyscraper.” The Ali Qapu palace was built in 1644 by the order of King Abbas I the Great as a grand entrance to the Shah’s monumental complex situated behind the square. Ali Qapu in Turkic means “high gate.” The building has six floors and a separate large terrace. Its ceiling is supported by the massive wooden pillars, and each of those pillars is embellished with decorative carvings. The structure of the palace resembles a huge palatial room, the walls of which are covered with gold leaf. Inside, it is decorated with paintings in the form of fish, seaweed, and starfish. Some of the walls and ceilings retain traces of the old ornaments. A large number of murals were saved until the restoration.
Interestingly, the palace also includes a music room and a hall, the ceiling of which is decorated with carved silhouettes of vessels and vases. The primary colors of the Palace belong to the shades of brown. As far as the materials for construction are concerned, these were mainly stone (walls and floors) and wooden ones (columns and ceilings). Other materials used for building the palace were ceramic tile, marble (facing the pond at iwan), and ganj (a mixture of plaster and clay for stucco in niches).
Historical and Art Background
At the beginning of the sixteenth century Iran became the united country under the rule of the Safavid dynasty (1502-1736). It was the time of foundation of the Iranian state in its present borders. In the centralized state art and culture experience a new rise, and construction work is underway (Newman, 2009). Having established his rule, Abbas I the Great (1586-1628) eliminated the possibility of civil wars by forming a special “Shah squad” and a permanent army with firearms. Searching for allies against Turkey, the Portuguese and the British established diplomatic relations with Western Europe and caused resettlement of people from the Caucasus (Newman, 2009). Within the state, Abbas tried to improve trade and build many roads, bridges, caravanserais, and bazaars. Thus, Shah managed to complete Shi’ite hierarchy (Newman, 2009). In addition, he invited 300 Chinese potters to Iran.
The period of the Safavid dynasty rule was the “golden age” in art of Iran. A new capital – Isfahan became one of the largest cities. The miniature, wood carving, jewelry, and production of carpets were developed there.
The architecture of the period of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was presented with highly artistic monuments (James-Chakraborty, 2014). A special style of Isfahan appeared and developed in almost all the arts. This style in architecture is presented with large buildings strengthened with a central courtyard and four iwans (terraces) on the sides. The vast majority of the buildings in Isfahan style are simple projects, where simple geometric shapes and broken lines are used (Petruccioli & Pirani, 2002). At the same time, one may observe the repetition of acute arches in many works (Bosworth, 2007). In Isfahan style, there were large spaces between the ceiling and the floor, and between the tall windows and interior decoration. This style in architecture is characterized by the use of decorating pottery in seven colors and durable high-quality building materials (Grabar, 2006).
The main colors of ceramics were azure and blue. The walls were covered with polychrome tiled panels painted with scenes, while the interiors were decorated with carpets and velvet silk with the inclusion of silver threads. During Safavids’ rule miniature schools in Tabriz, Mashhad, Qazvin, Shiraz, and Isfahan thrive. This was the period when refinement and colorful decoration appeared. Reza Abbasi, an artist of the second half of sixteenth and the first third of the seventeenth century, worked in Qazvin and then in Isfahan. In the prime of his youth, he has achieved the greatest elegance, picturesqueness, and similarities in his work.
Miniature painting had a strong influence on the artistic decoration of fabrics and carpets. Silk and velvet were decorated with a variety of floral motifs and figural compositions, which are repeated many times horizontally and diagonally, thus blended into a rhythmic pattern (James-Chakraborty, 2014). The unity of style combines various kinds of works of applied art, including metal products. The samples of this era have complex ornamental compositions that include images of people and animals together with various inscriptions.
Analysis of Ali Qapu Palace
Ali Qapu has a simple form of parallelogram, what is traditional in Isfahan style. Doors, ceiling, and walls of all six floors are decorated with inlaid wood, which was also typical for those times. The murals of Reza Abbassi and his disciples, which depict scenes and landscapes of nature as well as human and animal life, emphasize the importance of the palace as the historical site, because it contains the masterpieces of the greatest painters of those times (Kia, 2016). Apart from this, there are also carved wooden pillars and semiprecious stones on the ceilings, what is important to understand the architectural traditions of that time.
This palace demonstrates the tradition of large portico with stucco decorations from plaster. After passing through the portico that was made entirely of stone, one can get into the palace and climb the two ladders to the upper floors, what is also peculiar to Iranian palaces.
On the third floor there is a huge iwan, a traditional part of Iranian architecture, surrounded by eighteen columns. A beautiful pond lined with marble is located in the centre of iwan. This is a unique feature of the palace architecture, since traditions are combined with a new look. The balcony under the portico is covered with an elaborately carved wooden roof and supported by elegant wooden columns. There is a series of chambers inside, which were designed for listening to music or storing the Shah’s collection of Chinese porcelain, which became very popular within the Safavids’ rule. Luxurious, though faded paintings depicting the court during games in the gardens have not only aesthetic but also historical value, because they demonstrate traditions and dresses of that time.
Royal receptions and banquets were conducted on the sixth floor, so there are the biggest halls decorated with murals in traditional style. This floor was called “music room,” because various ensembles played for the king there. Carved silhouettes of vessels and vases on the ceiling represent idiosyncratic pattern of Isfahan (Newman, 2009). Furthermore, they improve acoustic of this hall. There is the chain of justice near the entrance to the Ali Qapu palace. It is important, since it is one of the traditional parts of Iranian culture as such chains were at almost every administrative building. An accused man could seize the chain and judges often revised the sentence. Moreover, this palace has a special acoustic feature: in one room two persons can hear each other standing in opposite corners with their face buried in the wall. It represents a very popular tradition to hide some acoustic tricks in palaces and churches in Iran at that time.
Territorial expansion, the organization of the standing army, and the military successes of the Safavid state turned it into a powerful state. This period is characterized by the construction and decoration of luxurious palaces, places of worship, and the pomp of the court household. The development of culture in Safavid Iran occurred mainly within the narrow frame of the court and the highest aristocratic circles. Rich floral or geometrical ornaments, moldings, and ceramic mosaic decorated the building. Ali Qapu palace is a massive rectangular structure that is 48 meters high. The building has six floors that overlook a spacious terrace. The ceilings of the palace are supported by carved wooden pillars decorated with semiprecious stones. Ali Qapu frescoes are made by Reza Abbassi – a court painter of the Shah Abbas I. The main themes of these murals are floral motifs and images of trees and animals. Ali Qapu palace has great importance for the present culture, because it is not only a brilliant representative of the architectural traditions of antiquity but also the embodiment of many unique innovative ideas of Iranian architecture.