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date: 28 March 2020

Isfahan [Iṣfahān, Esfahan; anc. Gabae; Sepahan]free

  • Eugenio Galdieri,
  • Massumeh Farhad
  •  and Laura Groves

City in central Iran and capital of Isfahan province. Located within the basin of the Zaindeh River, Isfahan was the capital of Iran under the Saljuq (reg 1038–1194) and Safavid (reg 1501–1732) dynasties and has preserved an almost uninterrupted series of important buildings dating from the Sasanian period to the present day.

1. History and urban development.

  • Eugenio Galdieri

Known since ancient times as Gabae or Sepahan, the city was connected with the Achaemenid dynasty, but the first remains date from the period of Sasanian rule (c. ad 224–651): they include the remains of a palace, erroneously called a fire temple (Pers. ātishgada), on the Garladan Hill west of the city, and the piers of the Shahristan Bridge to its south-east. When the original administrative centre of Jayy (also called Shahristan, ‘the City’) declined, Yahudiyya (‘the Jewish quarter’) became the centre of the city. A Friday Mosque (see §3, (i)) was founded there by Arab settlers c. 771. Under the Buyid dynasty (c. 935–1030) the city was walled and the citadel of Qal‛a Tabaraq built to the north-east. The Buyids also built the Jurjir Mosque, known for its elaborately decorated brick portal, and a Musalla to the south of the city (see Islamic art, §II, 5(i)(a)). In 1050 Isfahan was conquered by the Saljuq ruler Tughril, and during the long period of Saljuq residence there the city was enriched with many buildings. Most, such as the Nizamiyya Madrasa (c. 1070), have been destroyed, but several minarets in the city (e.g. Chihil Dukhtaran, 1107; Saraban, late 12th century) and dozens of mosques and minarets in the environs at Barsiyan (1097–1134), Sin (1134–5), Ardistan (rest. 1158–60) and Zavara (1135–6; rest. 1156–7) attest to its important role (see Islamic art, §II, 5(i)(b)).

In the early 14th century, when the city became a provincial centre, several small mosques were built in the Zaindeh River basin at Dashti, Gaz and Kaj, and tombs were built in the city and surrounding region. The Pir-i Bakran at Linjan, 30 km south-west of Isfahan, is the tomb of the shaykh Muhammad ibn Bakran (d 1303); adjacent to the tomb is a single iwan with extraordinary decoration in carved stucco. The grave of the shaykh Amu ‛Abdallah Suqlha (d 1316) at Garladan is marked by an iwan that has transverse vaulting and supports a pair of minarets; their artificially produced vibration gives rise to the popular name of the tomb, ‘the Shaking Minarets’. The Imamzada Ja‛far (1325), an octagonal tower commemorating a descendant of the Prophet, has fine decoration in glazed tile. Several madrasas and mausolea were built in the later 14th century, when the city was under the control of the Muzaffarid dynasty. Although the main centre of power shifted elsewhere in the 15th century, the few mausolea, khānaqāhs (hospices) and restorations carried out in Isfahan and its environs show that the art of ceramic revetment, already widespread in the 14th century, reached its apogee. In almost every period the Friday Mosque was modified and enlarged.

Khwaju Bridge, Isfahan, Iran, 1650; photo credit: Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom

The major transformation of the city occurred in 1598, when ‛Abbas I (see Safavid family, §II, (2)) made it the capital of his empire (see Islamic art, §II, 7(ii)(a); and Garden, §V, 4). He relocated the centre from the old maidan near the Friday Mosque southward to a new 8 ha maidan (1a; see §3, (ii) below), which became the seat of religious, royal and commercial power. On the south of the maidan was erected a new congregational mosque, the Shah Mosque (1b; 1611–66; see §3, (iii)); on the east was the mosque of Sheikh Lutfallah (1c; 1603–19; see §3, (iv)); on the north was the portal (1619–20) to a long covered bazaar (1d; see §3, (v)), which connected the new centre with the old; and on the west was the entrance to the royal palace complex (1e; see §3, (vi) below), which contained at least 20 pavilions connected by hanging passageways. Beyond the palace complex, the Chahar Bagh, a wide avenue with trees and water channels, led south to the Si-o-sih pul (Bridge of 33 [Arches]; 1602) and to the Khwaju Bridge (1650), which has octagonal pleasure pavilions in the centre and sluices to regulate the flow of the river. On the far side lay the Armenian settlement of New Julfa (see §3, (ix)), remarkable for its fine painted houses and churches, and the hunting grounds of Hazar Jarib, an enormous country residence.

Madar-i Shah Madrasa, Isfahan, Iran, courtyard, 1706–14; photo credit: Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom

One of the richest, most modern and most visited capital cities of its time, Isfahan became the centre of royal patronage for the arts associated with architecture, such as mural painting and tile revetment. The great building fervour that marked the Safavid period in Isfahan lasted until the reign of Husayn (reg 1694–1722), under whom a large complex of caravanserai, bazaar and madrasa known as the Madrasa-yi Madar-i Shah (Madrasa of the Shah’s Mother; see fig.) was built. In the 18th century the city suffered repeated invasions and insurrections, and after the Qajars (reg 1779–1924) moved the capital to Tehran in 1786, the artistic importance of Isfahan declined. Today Isfahan is the third largest city in Iran and produces fine carpets, textiles, steel and handicrafts. It is a major centre of tourism. IsMEO (Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente) under Eugenio Galdieri restored three palaces—the ‛Ali Qapu, Chihil Sutun and Hasht Bihisht—in 1977 and was cited by the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1980 as a model for restoration.


  • M. B. Smith: ‘The “Manārs” of Isfahan’, Āthār-é Īrān, 1 (1936), pp. 317–58
  • A. Godard: ‘Isfahan’, Āthār-é Īrān, 2 (1937), pp. 7–176
  • A. Godard: ‘The Jurjir Mosque in Isfahan’, Survey of Persian Art, ed. A. U. Pope and P. Ackerman (London and New York, 1938–9, 2/1964–7), pp. 3100–03
  • D. N. Wilber: The Architecture of Islamic Iran: The Ilkhānid Period (Princeton, 1955/R 1969)
  • L. Hunarfar: Ganjīna-yi āthār-i tārīkhī-yi Iṣfahān [Treasury of the historical monuments of Isfahan] (Isfahan, 1965)
  • W. Blunt: Isfahan: Pearl of Persia (New York, 1966)
  • J. Carswell: New Julfa: The Armenian Churches and Other Buildings (Oxford, 1968)
  • G. Zander, ed.: Travaux de restauration de monuments historiques en Iran (Rome, 1968)
  • E. Galdieri: ‘A Hitherto Unreported Architectural Complex at Iṣfahān: The So-called “Lesān al-‛arz”: Preliminary Report’, East and West, n. s., 23 (1973), pp. 249–64
  • R. Holod, ed.: Studies on Isfahan, 2 vols, Iranian Studies, 7 (1974)
  • H. Gaube: Iranian Cities (New York, 1979), pp. 65–98
  • H. Luschey: ‘Der königliche Marstall in Isfahān und Engelbert Kaempfers Planographia des Palastbezirkes 1712’, Iran, 17 (1979), pp. 71–9
  • Quaderni del Seminario di iranistica dell’Università di Venezia, 10 (1981) [special issue devoted to Isfahan]
  • H. Luschey: ‘The Pul-i Khwājū in Isfahan: A Combination of Bridge, Dam and Water Art’, Iran, 23 (1985), pp. 143–51
  • R. Hillenbrand: ‘Safavid Architecture’, The Timurid and Safavid Periods (1986), ed. P. Jackson and L. Lockhart, vi of Cambridge History of Iran (Cambridge, 1968–91), pp. 759–842
  • R. D. McChesney: ‘Four Sources on Shah ‛Abbas’s Building of Isfahan’, Muqarnas, 5 (1988), pp. 103–34
  • R. D. McChesney: ‘Postscript to “Four Sources on Shah ‛Abbas’s Building of Isfahan”’, Muqarnas, 8 (1991), pp. 137–8
  • S. P. Blake: ‘Contributors to the Urban Landscape: Women Builders in Ṣafavid Isfahan and Mughal Shahjahanabad’, Women in the Medieval Islamic World: Power, Patronage and Piety, ed. G. R. G. Hambly (Basingstoke, 1998), pp. 407–28
  • S. P. Blake: Half the World: The Social Architecture of Safavid Isfahan, 1590–1722 (Costa Mesa, CA, 1999)
  • H. Walcher: ‘Face of the Seven Spheres: Urban Morphology and Architecture in Nineteenth-century Isfahan’, Iranian Studies, 33/3 (2000), pp. 327–47 and 34/1 (2001), pp. 117–39

2. Art life and organization.

  • Massumeh Farhad

Isfahan is best known as the major centre of artistic production in Safavid Iran, and many details of its craft traditions were reported by foreign travellers to the capital. The arts of the book flourished (see Islamic art, §III, 4(vi)(a)). In addition to illustrated manuscripts, artists executed an increasing number of individual paintings and ink drawings, which often depict elegantly dressed men and women of the city. These single-page compositions enjoyed a fairly wide audience, as they were also commissioned by patrons beyond the royal élite. The most celebrated painter was Riza, whose name has become synonymous with the genre. Royal and commercial workshops in Isfahan also produced fine silk and wool carpets (see Islamic art, §VI, 4(iii)(c)). More importantly, the capital became a major centre for the manufacture of silks, velvets and gold and silver brocades; they were produced for local consumption but also exported to the West in large quantities (see Islamic art, §VI, 2(iii)(c)).


  • J. B. Tavernier: Les Six Voyages de Jean Baptiste Tavernier, 3 vols (Paris, 1679)
  • J. Chardin: Voyage en Perse, 10 vols (Paris, 1811)
  • I. Stchoukine: Les Peintures des manuscrits de Shah ‛Abbas Ier à la fin des Safavis (Paris, 1964)
  • Shah ‛Abbas and the Arts of Isfahan (exh. cat. by A. Welch, New York, Asia House Gals, 1973)
  • R. Holod, ed.: Studies on Isfahan, 2 vols, Iran. Stud., vii (1974)
  • A. Welch: Artists for the Shah (London and New Haven, 1976)
  • B. Gray: ‘The Arts in the Safavid Period’, The Timurid and Safavid Periods (1986), ed. P. Jackson and L. Lockhart, vi of Cambridge History of Iran (Cambridge, 1968–91), pp. 877–912
  • S. Der Nersessian and A. Mekhitarian: Armenian Miniatures from Isfahan (Brussels, 1986)
  • Woven from the Soul, Spun from the Heart (exh. cat., ed. C. Bier; Washington, DC, Textile Mus., 1987)
  • A. Taylor: Book Arts of Isfahan: Diversity and Identity in Seventeenth-century Persia (Malibu, CA, 1995)
  • S. R. Canby: The Golden Age of Persian Art 1501–1722 (London, 1999)
  • S. R. Canby, ed.: Safavid Art and Architecture (London, 2002)
  • A. Adamova: ‘Muḥammad Qāsim and the Isfahan School of Painting’, Society and Culture in the Early Modern Middle East: Studies on Iran in the Safavid Period, ed. A. J. Newman (Leiden, 2003), pp. 193–212

3. Buildings.

(i) Friday Mosque [Masjid-i jum‛a].

  • Eugenio Galdieri

Friday Mosque, Isfahan, Iran, begun c. ad 771, plan: (a) south dome chamber, 1086–7; (b) north dome chamber, 1088–9; (c) court with four iwans, early 12th century

One of the largest and most important buildings of the Islamic period in Iran, the mosque is a palimpsest of religious architecture, as it exemplifies the constructional and stylistic characteristics of all dynasties that reigned over the city (see fig.). The first mosque on the site (c. 771) was a relatively small building (c. 52×90 m) made of mud-brick with stucco decoration in a Syro-Mesopotamian style. In 840–41 this building was replaced by a larger one (88×128 m), orientated at an angle of 20° to the original mosque. The new mosque had a large central court surrounded by arcades and baked brick columns supporting a flat roof. A wider aisle led to the mihrab, and the external façade was decorated with blind arches. Towards the end of the 10th century, a row of columns was added around the court façade; the smooth plaster coating used in the earlier work was replaced by brick decoration in relief. The first real transformation of the mosque took place under the Saljuqs (see Islamic art, §II, 5(i)(b) and fig.).

Friday Mosque, Isfahan, Iran, zone of transition in north dome chamber, 1088–9; photo credit: Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom

A large dome chamber (c. 1086–7) was added in front of the mihrab and another domed square was built beyond the north end of the mosque in 1088–9 (see fig.). Slightly later, perhaps after the devastation caused by a fire in 1121–2, iwans were inserted on the sides of the court, a rectangular hall was built beyond the south corner, and cross-ribbed vaults were introduced. By the first half of the 12th century, the building had the appearance of the standard Iranian mosque, with four iwans and a dome.

Later changes were more modest. Under the Ilkhanid sultan Uljaytu (reg 1304–17) a splendid stucco mihrab (1310) was built abutting the west iwan, and the courtyard arcade was divided into two levels. Under the Muzaffarids, perhaps under Qutb al-Din Shah Mahmud (reg 1358–75), a madrasa was added on the east and a prayer-hall on the west, both beyond the old perimeter wall. Most work carried out in the 15th century was limited to rebuilding or repairing structures that were in poor condition. Many complex cross-ribbed vaults can be attributed to this period. A prayer-hall, based on a square plan, was added in the south-east corner, and the roof over the hall housing Uljaytu’s mihrab was reconstructed. The court façade was clad with tile revetment; the stunning tile mosaic on the qibla iwan, for example, was ordered by the Aqqoyunlu ruler Uzun Hasan in 1475–6. Almost all Safavid monarchs except ‛Abbas I, who was preoccupied with his own large mosque (see §(iii) below) on the new maidan, left their mark on the mosque. Several dozen columns were demolished to enlarge prayer-halls, a large winter prayer-hall was built on the site of the Muzaffarid one, and tilework was added to the iwans and minarets. Further repairs and restorations were carried out under the Afsharids (reg 1736–95) and the Qajars.


  • A. Gabriel: ‘Le Masdjid-i Djum‛a d’Isfahān’, Ars Islamica, 2 (1935), pp. 11–44
  • A. Godard: ‘Historique du Masdjid-i Djum‛a d’Isfahan’, Āthār-é Īrān, 1 (1936), pp. 213–82
  • E. Galdieri: Iṣfahān: Masǧid-i Ǧum‛a, 3 vols (Rome, 1972–84)
  • E. Galdieri: ‘The Masǧid-i Ǧum‛a Isfahan: An Architectural Façade of the 3rd Century H.’, Art and Archaeology Research Papers [AARP], 6 (1974), pp. 24–34
  • U. Scerrato: ‘Notice préliminaire sur les recherches archéologiques dans la Masgid-i Jum‛a d’Isfahan’, Farhang-i mi‛mārī-yi Īrān, 4 (1976), pp. 15–18
  • O. Grabar: The Great Mosque of Isfahan (New York, 1990)
  • S. S. Blair: The Monumental Inscriptions from Early Islamic Iran and Transoxiana (Leiden, 1992), pp. 160–67

(ii) Royal Maidan [Maydān-i shāh].

  • Eugenio Galdieri

Isfahan, Royal Maidan and surrounding areas, c. 1590–1707, plan: (a) Royal Maidan; (b) Shah Mosque; (c) mosque of Sheikh Lutfallah; (d) bazaar; (e) ‛Ali Qapu Palace; (f) Chihil Sutun Palace

An enormous open space fringed by architectural monuments (see fig.), this royal square was laid out by ‛Abbas I between 1590 and 1602. Lying to the south-east of the old city, it is an elongated rectangle (c. 525×159 m in its final stages) edged by a continuous double order of piers decorated with polychrome glazed tiles. The long modular façades are broken only by the monumental entranceways to four buildings (see fig.): the Shah Mosque (see §3, (iii)) on the south, the mosque of Shaykh Lutfallah (see §3, (iv)) on the east, the portal to the bazaar (see §3, (v)) on the north and the ‛Ali Qapu Palace (see §3, (vi)) to the west. The creation of the maidan was part of the transformation of the city into the new capital of the Safavid empire and was designed to encourage urban development south towards the Zaindeh River. The square represents an early example of a multi-functional space. A stone channel ran around its perimeter at a short distance from the arcade and separated the space for walking from the central area, which was originally unpaved and covered with gravel. The covered walkway and the outer arcades acted as a bazaar. The great central space generally housed the temporary stalls of merchants, craftsmen, barbers and entertainers but was often cleared for military parades, drill by the shah’s personal militia, archery contests and polo matches. For a few years the square also housed a curious horological mechanism with moving figures built for the amusement of the young ruler ‛Abbas II (reg 1642–66). In addition to its exceptional dimensions and architectonic significance, the square, which was called naqsh-i jahān (‘Image of the world’), also invoked the political and social philosophy of ‛Abbas I, who dreamed of raising his kingdom to the level of the other great monarchies of his day.


  • E. Galdieri and R. Orazi: Progetto di sistemazione del Maydan-i Šāh (Rome, 1969)
  • E. Galdieri: ‘Two Building Phases of the Time of Šāh ‛Abbas I in the Maydān-i Šāh of Isfahan: Preliminary Note’, East and West, n. s., 20 (1970), pp. 60–69
  • H. Luschey: ‘Der königliche Marstall in Iṣfahān und Engelbert Kaempfers Planographia des Palastbezirkes 1712’, Iran, 17 (1979), pp. 71–9
  • E. Galdieri: ‘Esfahan e la Domus Spectaculi Automatorum’, Proceedings of the First European Conference of Iranian Studies, Societas Iranologica Europaea: Turin, 1987, ii, pp. 377–88
  • A. Jabalameli: ‘Meidan Eman en Isfahán’, Patrimonio Mundial, 19 (2000), pp. 20–31

(iii) Shah Mosque [Masjid-i shāh].

  • Eugenio Galdieri

This monumental mosque was begun in 1611 by ‛Abbas I and finished c. 1630 by his successor, Safi (reg 1629–42). The entrance vestibule is aligned with the southern side of the maidan, but the rest of the building is rotated 45° to align with the qibla and face Mecca (see fig. above). The building consists of a large central court with iwans on the four sides. The iwan on the north-east is a natural extension of the entrance vestibule; those on the south-east and north-west provide access to smaller domed oratories; the one on the south-west leads into the vast domed sanctuary, which is adorned with a monumental mihrab (completed 1666) and alabaster minbar.

The sanctuary communicates with flanking rectangular chambers, each covered by eight domes, and they in turn lead to two rectangular courts in the corners. Paired minarets flank the entrance portal and the sanctuary iwan. Above a continuous marble dado, all vertical surfaces, both interior and exterior, are clad in polychrome glazed tiles, most of which were replaced in the 1930s on the basis of extant remains. The predominant colour is blue except in the rectangular halls, which are revetted in later tiles of yellowy-green shades. The smaller domes have brick exteriors, while the double-shelled sanctuary dome, with an onion-shaped exterior dome covering a hemispherical one, is covered in glazed tiles. Despite its large size (diam. 25 m), the dome with its high drum achieves an effect of great lightness, as it rests on two imposing side arches and an octagonal zone of transition pierced with smaller niches and arches.


  • L. Golombek: ‘Anatomy of a Mosque: The Masjid-i Shāh of Iṣfahān’, Iranian Civilization and Culture, ed. C. J. Adams (Montreal, 1972), pp. 5–11

(iv) Mosque of Sheikh Lutfallah [Masjid-i Sheikh Luṭfallah].

  • Eugenio Galdieri

This building lies on the maidan facing the ‛Ali Qapu Palace audience chamber (see fig. above). The mosque was ordered in 1603 by ‛Abbas I, who entrusted its building and decoration to Muhammad Riza ‛Abbasi. Work was finished in 1619, according to the inscription on its beautiful mihrab. The building was originally called the Mosque of the Pontiff (Pers. Masjid-i ṣadr) and was entrusted to the theologian Shaykh Lutfallah, who had accompanied the Shah to Isfahan to preach Shi‛ite doctrine. Although less famous than the nearby Shah Mosque, the building is distinguished as the only Safavid mosque to diverge from the established norm. It comprises a single domed prayer-hall (interior diam. 19 m) with simple service areas and without any external court, side galleries or minarets. Its spare space is comparable to that of the single-domed mosques built under the Ottomans (see Islamic art, §II, 7(i)) or to a private oratory. The prayer-hall, which is not aligned with the maidan, is reached through a gloomy corridor that runs along two sides of the prayer room to open opposite the mihrab. The visual and psychological impact achieved by the vast glowing square of the interior, the geometry of which is both emphasized and disrupted by vibrant turquoise tiles, is unforgettable. The only light is filtered through the double ceramic grilles that cover the 16 windows in the drum under the dome. Below the prayer-hall another area, almost of the same dimensions but very low and covered by vaults resting on four octagonal piers, serves as a winter mosque. The exterior of the dome, with its pleasing pointed silhouette, is covered in glazed tile (rest.), with an unusual ochre-coloured design of arabesques. The revetment around the entrance was executed in 1937 on the basis of the few remaining original tiles.


  • M. Ferrante: ‘La Mosquée de Šaiḥ Luṭfullah à Ispahan: Relevé planimétrique’, Travaux de restauration de monuments historiques en Iran, ed. G. Zander (Rome, 1968), pp. 421–40

(v) Bazaar.

The main covered bazaar stretches nearly 2 km from the old maidan near the Friday Mosque to the Royal Maidan built by ‛Abbas I. The bazaar is a spacious vaulted passage flanked by shops. At short intervals domed intersections (Pers. chahārsū) give access to more than 100 service structures, including caravanserais, baths, madrasas, shrines and mosques. The layout probably dates back to medieval times, but the brick fabric and many of the structures have been repeatedly restored and rebuilt. At the south end is the royal bazaar (Pers. qayṣāriyya) built by ‛Abbas I, laid out with two north–south lanes intersecting three east–west lanes. The entrance from the Royal Maidan (see fig. above) is marked by an elaborate portal with wall paintings and galleries that once housed the royal music pavilion (Pers. naqqāra khāna). The two-storey lane behind the portal served in the 17th century as a royal market for fine textiles. The first domed intersection led on the right to the royal mint and on the left to the royal caravanserai. This caravanserai is the largest one in the city, with 140 rooms for cloth merchants on the ground floor, and jewellers, goldsmiths and engravers on the upper storey. A second domed nodule provides access to another caravanserai, now ruined, behind the first. To the north ‛Abbas built a hospital and caravanserai (both destr.), the revenues of which were used to fund the hospital. These buildings mark the extent of ‛Abbas’s constructions, for buildings further north are orientated slightly differently to conform to the medieval street scheme.


  • A. Bakhtiar: ‘The Royal Bazaar of Isfahan’, Studies on Isfahan, ed. R. Holod, 2 vols, Iran. Stud., 7 (1974), pp. 320–47
  • H. Gaube and E. Wirth: Der Bazar von Isfahan (Wiesbaden, 1978)

(vi) ‛Ali Qapu Palace [‛Alī Qāpū].

  • Eugenio Galdieri

‛Ali Qapu Palace, Isfahan, Iran, vault of the Music Room, begun c. 1597; photo credit: SEF/Art Resource, NY

Situated in the middle of the western side of the Royal Maidan (see fig. above), the ‛Ali Qapu (Lofty Gate) was begun by ‛Abbas I c. 1597 as a simple entrance hall for the royal palace complex but was gradually modified and extended until it reached its present form c. 1660 under ‛Abbas II. Its function evolved from a guard house to an audience hall and later an official tribune from which to inspect military manoeuvres and games held in the maidan below. The building consists of a main block with a tower and a lower extension crowned by a raised columnar hall (Pers. tālār). The towered section (20 m sq., h. 33 m) is subdivided into five levels. Because of the differing elevations of the rooms, the floors had different layouts, and many of the structural elements lack continuity from one floor to the next. The main supporting structures, which are heavy and massive on the lower floors, become lighter towards the top, fading into hollow pilasters on the third floor and ending as a network of thin arches that support and cover the Music Room (see fig.). There they are hidden by a skin of plaster muqarnas niches painted and pierced for acoustic as well as decorative purposes in shapes typical of Chinese porcelains. The building is richly decorated with wall paintings and small scenes of a mildly erotic nature, which are almost indecipherable. Most of the walls and ceilings are clad in a layer of painted, ornamental plaster, which creates a sculptural effect through a technique similar to champlevé.


  • M. Ferrante: ‘Dessins et observations préliminaires pour la restauration du palais de ‛Alī Qāpū’, Travaux de restauration de monuments historiques en Iran, ed. G. Zander (Rome, 1968), pp. 137–206
  • E. Galdieri: Eṣfahān: ‛Alī Qāpū: An Architectural Survey (Rome, 1979)

(vii) Chihil Sutun Palace [Chihil sutūn].

  • Eugenio Galdieri

Isfahan, interior of the Chihil Sutun Palace, completed 1706–7; photo credit: Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom

The only great ceremonial pavilion to have survived from the many built during the Safavid period as part of Isfahan’s royal complex, the Chihil Sutun (Forty Columns) comprises a large reception hall (23×11 m; see fig.) covered by three domes with two symmetrical projections that form a U-shape with the main room. The three sections are preceded on the east by a vast colonnaded porch (Pers. tālār) open on three sides and covered with a flat wooden roof. The pavilion is situated at the centre of an enormous garden (7 ha) with a long pool (110×20 m) on the east–west axis. The building and pool were surrounded by fountains and stone canals with jets of water. The central hall with high ceilings and broad windows is surrounded by smaller rooms arranged on two levels. Inscriptions suggest that the pavilion was begun by ‛Abbas II in 1647, but the original nucleus, perhaps with a different architectural function, may date from an earlier period. The construction of the colonnaded porch in 1706–7 marked the completion of the building. The Chihil Sutun is unusual but not entirely satisfactory in terms of its external architecture and owes its reputation to three factors. First, it gives an idea of what other, now vanished or radically altered official pavilions in the royal Safavid complex were like. Second, it provides an important example of the theatrical nature of Safavid court architecture, achieved by the changing shapes and colours of the 20 wooden columns reflected in the pool and the shimmering decoration of mirror fragments and full-length Venetian-glass mirrors donated by the Doge. Finally, it contains an important series of decorative and figural wall paintings (see fig.), including a number of later historical paintings showing official receptions and banquets, battles and visits by European ambassadors.


  • M. Ferrante: ‘Čihil Sutūn: Etudes, relevés, restauration’, Travaux de restauration de monuments historiques en Iran, ed. G. Zander (Rome, 1968), pp. 293–322
  • E. Grube: ‘Wall Paintings in the Seventeenth Century Monuments of Isfahan’, Studies on Isfahan, ed. R. Holod, 2 vols, Iranian Studies, 7 (1974), pp. 511–42
  • S. Babaie: ‘Shah ‛Abbas II, the Conquest of Qandahar, the Chihil Sutun, and its Wall Paintings’, Muqarnas, 11 (1994), pp. 125–42

(viii) Hasht Bihisht Palace.

  • Eugenio Galdieri

A small pavilion from the Safavid period, the Hasht Bihisht (Eight Paradises) is situated within the royal palace complex, although it was never intended for official use. An octagon with a cruciform plan, it is arranged on two levels, each with four small rooms at the corners of a central hall. The hall is two-storey and acts like an inner court; it is covered by a dome of almost ovoid shape, richly adorned with painted plaster muqarnas. The building has two axes: a north–south one with an arched iwan and an impressive colonnaded porch, and an east–west one with two smaller iwans. The building can be attributed to Sulayman (reg 1666–94), although the Qajar monarch Fath ‛Ali Shah (reg 1797–1834) made a few superficial alterations, such as four large painted ceramic panels (destr.) depicting the ruler seated on his throne. During the 1920s more drastic alterations effectively destroyed the spatial characteristics of the interior and hid the original plaster decoration beneath ornamental yellow stucco in Rococo taste, but restorations since then have revealed fragments of wall painting, some richly decorative and some delicately descriptive. The complex hydraulic system includes an unusual cascade (Pers. ābnāma) of alabaster slabs and ceramic tiles in Turkish style in the south iwan, a large basin and fountain of pierced marble in the north porch and another cascade in stone and alabaster outside the north porch. The surrounding Garden of the Nightingale has also been refurbished. The skilful spatial layout and interplay of different levels visible to passers-by makes the Hasht Bihisht an effective example of theatrical court architecture and dynamic building. It embodies the Iranian way of life in which indoor and outdoor spaces, and natural and man-made environments, are harmoniously integrated.


  • D. N. Wilber: Persian Gardens and Garden Pavilions (Tokyo, 1962), pp. 107–11
  • M. Ferrante: ‘Le Pavillon de Hašt Bihišt, ou les Huit Paradis, à Ispahan: Relevés et problèmes s’y rattachant’, Travaux de restauration de monuments historiques en Iran, ed. G. Zander (Rome, 1968), pp. 399–420

(ix) New Julfa.

  • Laura Groves

In 1604 ‛Abbas I ordered the valley of Ararat on the Ottoman frontier to be evacuated, and several thousand Armenian families from the region were established in a suburb of Isfahan south of the Zaindeh River. Known from 1606 as New Julfa, after the town they had been forced to leave, this quarter of Isfahan flourished as an Armenian Christian community, and between 27 and 30 churches were built there. The 13 surviving examples, dating between 1606 and 1728, combine Safavid style and building techniques with elements imported from the Armenian homeland. Liturgical requirements dictated that the plan developed for churches in Julfa be retained in the new buildings. Traditionally, the exteriors of Armenian churches were relatively plain, and the impact of the buildings derived principally from their form and massing. In New Julfa, the form of the churches, apart from the belfries and crosses crowning the domes, was derived from the Persian architectural tradition, with shallow ovoid domes and pointed arches. The construction of these churches also followed local traditions: baked brick replaced the stone typical in Armenia. The interiors of some churches were richly decorated, and cycles of wall paintings survive in a few of them, notably the Bethlehem Church (1627) and All Saviour’s Cathedral (1656), while paintings on panel or canvas survive in many. Like contemporary paintings and book illustrations made for the Safavid court (see Islamic art, §III, 4(vi)(a)), these works show the impact of European modes of representation, through either the presence of European artists or works of art in the Safavid capital. Many of the churches also have underglaze-painted polychrome tile panels or friezes depicting scenes from the New Testament, landscapes and animals. In addition to Armenians, such foreign Christians as Carmelite and Capuchin missionaries lived in New Julfa. The finest residences, such as those along the Chahar Bagh Avenue, were garden villas modelled on detached royal pavilions. Even modest dwellings were enriched with refined decoration in tile and paint. The house of Petros Valijanian, for example, has murals depicting the Seven Wonders of the World.


  • T. S. R. Boase: ‘A Seventeenth-century Typological Cycle of Paintings in the Armenian Cathedral in Julfa’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes [prev. pubd as J. Warb. Inst.], 13 (1950), pp. 323–7
  • J. Carswell: New Julfa: The Armenian Churches and Other Buildings (Oxford, 1968)
  • V. Gregorian: ‘Minorities of Isfahan: The Armenian Community of Isfahan, 1587–1722’, Studies on Isfahan, ed. R. Holod, 2 vols, Iranian Studies, 7 (1974), pp. 652–80
  • K. Karpetian: Iṣfahān, New Julfa: Le case degli Armeni/The Houses of the Armenians (Rome, 1974)
Encyclopaedia of Islam (Leiden, 1954–)
E. Yar Shater, ed.: Encyclopedia Iranica (London, 1986)