Islamic Culture in Iran: Colorful Tiling the Key Feature of Safavid Architecture

  April 08, 2021   Read time 2 min
Islamic Culture in Iran: Colorful Tiling the Key Feature of Safavid Architecture
The Safavid Empire was established in Iran in the 16th century after the dynastic fragmentation that followed Timur’s death. A Safavid ruler, Shah Abbas I, moved the capital of his empire from Qazvin to Isfahan in 1598 in an effort to avoid assaults by the Ottomans and to control the Persian Gulf.

This use of colourful tiling became characteristic of Safavid architecture in Isfahan, Iran. Isfahan underwent massive urban planning, producing the Naghsh-i Jahan Square (“Image of the World”, later known as Imam Square after the 1979 Iranian Revolution) surrounded by the monuments built during Shah Abbas’s rule:

  • Shah Mosque, now known as the Imam Mosque – located south side of the square
  • Ali Qapu Palace – west side
  • Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque – east side
  • Qeysarie Gate, which opens into the Isfahan Grand Bazaar – north side (the Friday Mosque is also located in this area)

The massive constructions were funded by the wealth Shah Abbas brought into the royal domain through retaking land held by the Kizilbash, Turkmen tribes who supported the Safavid dynasty, and increasing trade with Europe.


The Imam Mosque, built between 1611 and 1630, is considered an architectural masterpiece and a treasure of Islamic architecture. Like the Friday Mosque, it was built in the four-iwan style. It also features haft rangi tile ornamentation. The Imam Mosque was the second congregational mosque built in Isfahan, and with its grandeur and massive scale was designed to replace the much older Friday Mosque as the site of the weekly Friday prayer service in the city. The Naghsh-i Jahan Square itself is not aligned with Mecca, so the Imam Mosque had to be angled at 45 degrees so it faces the correct direction. This also ensures that the mosque was visible wherever the viewer is standing on the Square. Both the mosque and the square are listed by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.

Standing on the eastern side of the square is the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, named after Shah Abbas’s father-in-law. It was built for the private use of the Shah and his family, and resembles a large maqsura than a traditional congregational mosque, according to Babaie. A maqsura is a demarcated area closest to the mihrab (where the imam stands to lead the prayer and give his sermon) that is reserved for rulers and their retinue. The Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque has no courtyard nor minaret or tower from which the faithful are called to prayer, as this is a private royal mosque. Its portal faces the royal residence, Ali Qapu Palace (ali=”great”; qapu =”gate”). The mosque is now open for visitors

Ornamentation continued into the late modern era. The 19th century Nasir al-Mulk Mosque in Shiraz, Fars Province, Iran was constructed between 1876 and 1888 during the Qajar dynasty. The Qajars were a Turkic tribe who held ancestral lands in present-day Azerbaijan (then part of Iran) and Agha Mohammad Khan in 1786 established his dynasty’s capital in Tehran, Iran’s present-day capital.

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