Tall Buildings in Ancient Iran

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Tall buildings can be traced to many centuries ago when rulers built fortresses on hills to keep the surrounding areas under surveillance. Such a building was also useful for defending the city.

Ancient fortresses overlooking a vast expanse of land are found in most countries.

Pre-Islamic Period

One of the most impressive tall buildings in southwest Iran (Khuzestan province) is Choghazanbil Ziggurat built during the Elamite Empire in 1250 BCE. This temple was built in the shape of a stepped pyramid, originally having five stories. At presently, the building is 25 meters tall, though initially it had a height of 50 meters high.

During the Median Empire which followed the rule of Elamites, residential houses were often built in the lowlands whereas the highlands were selected for royal palaces.

The most notable tall remaining from that period are the ones situated on hilltops in an ancient town called Noushijan. Other specimens belonging to that era are the tombs of famous persons built on top of “Davoud-Akhtar” mountains.

During the rule of Achaemenid Empire, despite a strong central government and the division of the country into a number of authoritative governorships, roads and roadside resting houses gained increasing importance. This era gave rise to newer forms of tall buildings such as Pasargad and Persepolis (which served as the seat of the government), Zoroastrian temples and minarets that were erected for making public announcements.

In the Parthian Empire (or Arsacides), which followed the Achaemenid era, attempts were made to revive the architectural glory of the latter dynasty. Roadside minarets, fire temples, Zahak Citadel and Anahita Temple are among major buildings remaining from the Parthian period.

Parthians were succeeded by the Sassanid Empire. During the Sassanid era, Iran was actively involved in regional trade and the famous Silk Road, which extended eastward as far as the China Wall linked Persia to Central Asia and eastern regions of the continent.

Among the tall Sassanid buildings, Taqe-Kasra stands out as the most notable. In addition, a large number of fire temples built during the Sassanid rule are still extant in the provinces of Khorasan, Isfahan and Azarbaijan.

Fortresses built on hilltops are among other examples of the Sassanid buildings.

Islamic Minarets

Basically, a minaret is a slender tower built at the side or on top of a mosque from which the call to prayer is given for Muslims. A similar tall structure is also built on roadsides or near caravansaries, schools or other gathering places originally to serve as watch-towers from where public announcements were made and provided lighting for surrounding areas.

The word minaret is a derivative of “noor” meaning light and refers to a place from where light is emitted. Thus, minarets were initially light-towers purported to guide travelers at night.

The date when the first minaret was built in the Islamic era is not known to us. It is believed that minarets made their first appearance shortly after mosques were built in Islamic cities.

Until then, the “muezzins” or criers used the highest roof in the city to call the people to worship or to make their proclamations.

The construction of minaret in its present form was first introduced during the reign of the Omayyad caliphs. The earliest minaret is thought to have been built in late 7th century.

Parts of Minarets

1- Base: Characterized by an elongated and slender body, minarets impose a tall bearing pressure on their foundations. A poor foundation and loose subsoil can result in the collapse of the structure. Safety precautions require that the ground be excavated deep enough until hard soil is reached. Then, the excavated trench should be filled with gravel, and other hardening material before the main base is built. It sometimes happens that a minaret is mounted on the ground level without being supported by a base in subsoil.

2- Shaft: The size and contour of a minaret may vary from one Muslim country to another. Iranian minarets may be grouped in two categories: single and twin.

Single minarets usually have a more elongated body and come in three types: cylindrical, conic (tapering toward the top) and polygonal. The shaft, whether cylindrical or polygonal, forms the main part of a minaret and is encircled by a spiraling set of stairs running anti-clockwise all the way round the shaft up to the gallery. It is said that the spiraling stairs provide greater resistance against tremor and that the rounded shape of the shaft staves off the impacts of strong winds. Light ducts are openings along the sides of the shaft that let in natural light for inside stairs.

3- Gallery: A set of protruding cornices around the upper section of the trunk makes up a balcony--circular or polygonal in shape--from where the call to prayer is given by the ’muezzin’. This balcony is covered by a roof-like canopy often made in different styles.

4- Ornamentation: In the first years of Islam’s advent in Iran, minarets were explicitly plain but later became taller, more stylish and elaborately decorated with the advance of building techniques.

Ornamentation used in the construction of minarets included decorative brickwork, tilework, cornices, arches and inscriptions.

Minarets in Iran

Following the spread of Islam in Iran, social activities were largely influenced by the new culture. Minarets first appeared in the form of guiding poles before being developed into elaborate structures flanking mosques and the entrance of tall buildings.

The minaret of Shoushtar Grand Mosque built in the early 8th century is among the first minarets erected in Iran following the advent of Islam. In the 8th century, minarets were made with mud-bricks. It was not until the 9th century that the first brick minaret was built.

The earliest brick minaret remaining from the late 9th Century is the single minaret built during the rule of Yahya bin Es’haq between the new and old city of Qom so that the prayer call could be heard in both parts of the city. Minarets were later built in Shoush (Susa), Damghan and Qom. Jourjir Mosque’s minaret in Isfahan was built in the late 10th century.

Presumably, the oldest brick minaret is the one made 26 km from the city of Mashhad during the rule of Sultan Mahmoud Ghaznavi (998Ð1030 CE) and called Ayaz or Arsalan Jazeb minaret.

11th-12th Century Minarets

The Seljuk period is noteworthy in the development of architectural arts in Iran, especially with respect to minarets. Aside from the minarets of Qom, Semnan and Damghan, those built in this period alongside government building in the city of Kashan may be cited as outstanding examples. These minarets lacked decorative patterns.

The oldest and most well-known minaret in Iran is that of Red Mosque in Saveh built in 1087 during the Seljuk era. Two other outstanding minarets of this period are the Pamenar-Zavareh Minaret of Kashan’s Grand Mosque and the Barsian Minaret built in 1088 and 1093 respectively.

Isfahan’s Chehel-Dokhtar Minaret (1146), Mega Minaret (1150) Bastan Minaret (1159), Gaz Minaret (1165-1171), Ben Mosque Minaret, Ali Mosque Minaret, Sareban Mosque Minaret, Ziar Minaret and Hervan Minaret (1173) are among other minarets belonging to the Seljuk era.

Mogul, Timurid and Safavid Eras

Although Iran underwent large-scale destruction after the invasion of Moguls and Timurids, the later kings of those dynasties built mosques and shrines with towering minarets in large numbers. The difference evidenced in this period, however, is that the minarets came in pairs.

The minarets of the Ashtarjan’s Grand mosque, Isfahan’s Sultan Taht-Aqa Mosque, and Kerman’s Grand Mosque are among well-known Ilkhanid minarets. There is a famous minaret in Mashhad’s Goharshad Mosque belonging to the Timurid period.

During the Safavid period, which is known as the golden age of Iranian architectural arts, minarets were decorated with colored ’faience’ and patterned tiles. Imam (Shah) Mosque and Chahar-Bagh building in Isfahan display the most elegant minarets of the era.

With the fall of Safavids and the emergence of Qajar dynasty, Iranian architecture witnessed a decline and the number of minarets built or repaired in that period is insignificant. Measures should be taken to preserve these minarets by repairing them. They represent the Iranian and Islamic cultural heritage that should be preserved for future generations.

Source: Iran Daily

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