Islamic Persia

After the Arab conquest in the middle of the 7th century, the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism gave way to Islam and the art, architecture and culture of the country changed dramatically.

Persia continued to be overrun by foreign powers for another thousand years. These invaders all had an influence on the culture of Persia. Through all these centuries of foreign domination, however, a distinctly Persian culture of learning, art and poetry flourished. This mixture of cultures has produced some of the most fascinating art and architecture that can be found anywhere in the world.

The Seljuq Turks arrived in the eleventh century, followed by the horrific atrocities of the Mongols under Genghis Khan and his grandson Hulagu Khan in the thirteenth century and Tamerlane (Timur) in the fourteenth century. The Seljuq Turks, in particular, were great builders and the architecture of this era is characterized by the elaborate use of brick and the beginning use of glazed tiles. The tenth century tomb of general Arsalan Jazeb in Khorassan Province, the ornate tomb towers (the Gonbad-e Sorkh and the Gonbad-e Kabud) in Maragheh and the magnificent Friday mosque in Isfahan show examples of fine brick work that has never been surpassed.

Another Turkish dynasty, the Safavids, took control in the sixteenth century. The greatest builder of the Safavid era was Shah Abbas, who built the magnificent structures that line Imam (formerly "Royal") Square in Isfahan. Safavid-era architecture took tile work to new heights. Although the tiles appear at first glance to be painted, in many cases the designs are actually composed of intricately cut tiles forming a mosaic. Because different colored glazes have different optimum temperatures for firing, by using mosaics (instead of painted patterns) each color tile could be fired at its optimum temperature for durability and assembled into a finished mosaic that would outlast painted tiles fired at a compromise temperature. Such elaborate tile work is used on the Sheikh Loftollah Mosque in Isfahan and the mausoleums of Shah Nemotollah Vali (in Mahan), Sheikh Safi al-Din (in Ardabil) and Khaje Rabi (near Mashhad). Although the Imam Mosque in Isfahan is also covered with ornate tiles, these were painted to speed up construction of this gigantic structure.

Surprisingly, it was also during the Safavid era that the mud-brick city of Bam in southern Iran was built. Although there are few, if any, tiles in this sprawling city, the domes, Islamic-style arches and massive crenelated walls make this site a "must see." It's amazing what can be done with mud!

Yet another Turkish tribe, the Qajars, assumed control of Persia in the eighteenth century and ruled until the 1920s, when they were deposed by "Machine Gun Reza," an army officer who led a coup and later founded the Pahlavi dynasty (which was overthrown in 1979 by the Islamic Revolution). The Qajar Shahs (kings) were unable to raise a credible army or enough tax money to support their opulent lifestyle. Instead they sold "concessions" to foreign powers that eventually led to domination by Great Britain (seeking to protect its land and sea routes to India and later to obtain oil) and Russia (coveting a warm water port on the Persian Gulf). The art and architecture of the Qajar era became so ornate that many today view it as garish.

For convenience, the slide show above (which includes all of the "Islamic Persia" photos) has been divided into three shorter shows below that will run in a separate pop-up window. All of the shows present the photos in roughly chronological order based on the dynasty that constructed the archeological site.

To view archeological sites from earlier Persian dynasties, go to: Ancient Persia. The tour of modern Iran begins in Tehran.

[More photos in the Pop-Up Slide Shows below.]


More Photos From Iran:

Ghaznavid and Seljuq Dynasties:  This era is characterized by the intricate use of bricks and the beginning of glazed tiles. (9 photos)  [Preview This Slide Show]

Timurid and early Safavid Dynasties:  During this time, architects increasingly used ornate tiles and domes. Also in this set, the mud-brick city of Bam. (15 photos)  [Preview This Slide Show]

Shah Abbas (Safavid Dynasty):  Persia's greatest builder and the Shah responsible for the magnificent and well-preserved structures of Isfahan. Also, a couple of structures from the Qajar era. (15 photos)  [Preview This Slide Show]