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A Short Visit to Soltaniyeh Mausoleum

A General view of Soltaniyeh mausoleum

A General view of Soltaniyeh mausoleum

The ancient town of Soltaniyeh is located approximately 40 km west of Zanjan on the old road of Zanjan-Qazvin. Driving from any direction, you can redirect a bit into the present town of Soltaniyeh and pay a short visit to a fantastic World Heritage Site, Soltaniyeh Mausoleum. This town thrived under Oljayto, the Mongol king of Ilkhanid dynasty in Iran (14th century) and turned into the capital city of Iran.

He decided to build this burial structure in early 14th century because of his religious interest in Imam Ali, the first Shiite Imam as well as the rest of the Shiites’ imams. Eventually, he communicated with the religious leaders of Najaf and Karbala, today’s Iraqi cities, and got informed that exhumation weren’t allowed in Islam. According to many researchers, as he wasn’t allowed to bring back the bones of all the Imams to this mausoleum, he was the person who was finally buried there. Of course, some other researchers disagree with this assumption.

Historical Background

Although settlement had started in this area since first millennium, it was at the time of king Arghun of Ilkhanid dynasty around the end of 13th century that decision was made to further develop this area. He constructed a summer residence there due to the rich pasture for horses. Then, his son, king Ghazan came up with a decision to build a city there, of which little information is handed over to us. Later, his son, Oljayto, the first Ilkhanid king who converted to Islam, enlarged the city and called it Soltaniyeh, meaning imperial.

The ancient city was continuously inhabited until 16 and 17 century and together with Tabriz, Soltaniyeh turned into one of the main stops on Asia-Europe trade route. Several caravansaries were built along such routes. Some of them are close to this city which was a major stop on this well-known route.

The Monument of Soltaniyeh Dome

Inscription decoration at the ceiling under the Soltaniyeh dome

Inscription decoration at the ceiling under the Soltaniyeh dome

Soltaniyeh Dome, a highlighted accomplishment of Iranian architecture, is among the top three huge historic buildings in the world. The other two structures are Santa Maria Cathedral in Florence, Italy and Ayasofya Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey.

What distinguishes Soltaniyeh mausoleum, known as Soltanieh dome by many, is the substantial success of Iranian architects of that time. Building this burial structure, they had proved their achievement in innovative engineering creating spatial proportions, architectural forms and eye-catching decorative patterns using ground-breaking techniques at their time.

At the south west of the ancient city, a royal citadel was built with surrounding walls and watch towers with a moat around it filled with water to make sure it’s well-protected. The mausoleum was also built inside this royal citadel section. The construction continued for almost 10 years and resulted in an architectural masterpiece in central and western Asia.

There were three main sections in this mausoleum: The domed chamber, cellar and Torbat Khaneh. Most of the decoration have been applied to the inner part of the structure of the domed chamber. The cellar, the entrance of which is situated inside the domed chamber, is supposed to have accommodated the grave of the person(s) for whom the mausoleum is built. And Torbat Khaneh (meaning the house of holy earth), refers to the section attached to the domed chamber and originally allocated to the corpses of Shiite Imams.

Structure of Soltaniyeh Mausoleum

Islamic art if form of painted inscription of Koranic verses, holy names, etc.

Islamic art if form of painted inscription of Koranic verses, holy names, etc.

 

Obviously, like many other examples of Islamic architecture of 13 and 14 centuries, bricks and mortars have been the main construction materials used to build the monument. It’s built on a rectangular plan together with the spaces around the domed chamber. The space allocated to the domed chamber is in octagonal shape. Symmetry has been firmly observed in the construction. There are several ideas about the main and other entrances to this Mausoleum. Seemingly, there must have been three doors leading visitors to the inner part of the building. The floors have been treated with alabaster stone creating a clear white surface.

The double-shell dome is approximately 50 meters high with a diameter of approximately 25 meters. This indicates how heavy it is – 200 tons! Various sections of the structure have been joined to one another using dented wooden beams made from pine trees saturated with particular kinds of oil to make sure they could reduce the structure’s tension. The incredible fact about the structure is that its foundation is maximum 90 centimeters deep into the ground, not more. It has resisted against more than 300 earthquakes so far suffering some damages, but it still stands there with its entire splendor.

Plaster work decoration of the balcony under the dome at Soltaniyeh

Plaster work decoration of the balcony under the dome at Soltaniyeh

On top of the octagonal structure, what you see from outside is a series of eight minarets standing at the corners of this 8-corner structure. The blue dome is shining inside the space surrounded by these minarets. You won’t see much decoration on the façade of the structure from outside. As a matter of fact, you will notice the magnificence of the monument when you visit inside the building.

Decorations inside Soltaniyeh Dome

Inscription by plain & glazed bricks inside Soltaniyeh mausoleum

Inscription by plain & glazed bricks inside Soltaniyeh mausoleum

 

The Islamic arts used at this monument are of various forms. The decorative elements applied in Soltaniyeh Mausoleum are:

  • Brick decorations
  • Plasterwork decorations
  • Inscriptions
  • Tile works
  • Painted decorations
  • Stone decorations
  • Wooden decorations

The interior walls have been largely decorated by plaster and glazed bricks. The fascinating inscriptions and motifs have been made with plasterwork. The ceiling of the balcony just under the dome, which can be seen from outside, has got unique orange-color plaster works in form of geometric and plants patterns and inscriptions.

Orange-color decoration of Soltaniyeh balcony under its dome

Orange-color decoration of Soltaniyeh balcony under its dome

 

There are religious inscriptions uniquely worked out in small and large sizes and particular scripts of kufic and Thuluth. Sometimes plaster has been used for this art and sometimes glazed bricks. The study of the content of these inscriptions indicates the political-religious developments of Oljayto’s ruling period.

 

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Explore Sheikh Safi al-Din Khangah & Shrine Ensembles in Ardabil

Allah Allah Domes at Sheikh Safi al-Din Khangah & Shrine Ensembles

Allah Allah Domes at Sheikh Safi al-Din Khangah & Shrine Ensembles

 

Shah Ismail ascended to power in early 16th century and founded Safavid dynasty in North West of Iran. He and his successors were the followers of a Sufi who had died three centuries before their time, but had kept his popularity and respect among the people. The World Heritage Site I’m going to explain here is the burial place of Shah Ismail and Sheikh Safi as well as a few other dignitaries of Safavid Era. It’s named after this Sufi: Sheikh Safi al-Din Khangah & Shrine Ensembles.

Who Was Sheikh Safi al-Din?

Courtyard between various structures of Sheikh Safi-al Din Shrine Complex

Courtyard between various structures of Sheikh Safi-al Din Shrine Complex

 

This Sufi used to live 700 years ago, meaning 3 centuries before Shah Ismail came to power. He was the son-in-law of the Grand Master of Sufi orders in Iran, Sheikh Zahed Gilani. As a spiritual leader of his time, Sheikh Safi inherited Zahediyeh from his master, a Sunni Muslim, and transformed it into his order called “Safaviyya”, believing in twelve Imam denomination of Shiite branch. As he’d been given the Ardabil and its dependencies, Safaviyya managed to gain authority over all those areas.

Eventually, the followers of this order managed to obtain the political and military control over that area. In early 17th century, a group of his followers headed by Shah Ismail founded Safavid dynasty in Iran and brought a religious government to power. This was the second time in Iranian history that religious-political leaders ruled the country. The name of this Dynasty comes from the name of this Sufi. So, the monument I introduce here is called “Sheikh Safi al-Din Khangah & Shrine Ensembles” after him.

Who Was Shah Ismail?

Ceiliing decoration inside Sheikh Safi-Al Din Shrine

Ceiliing decoration inside Sheikh Safi-Al Din Shrine

He was born in Ardabil and turned into a fervent follower of Safaviyya militant order and founded Safavid dynasty. He unified Iran at a time when foreign invasions and political influence had strongly weakened Iranian authority over its territory. This was the largest and mightiest empire established in Iran after the Arabs’ invasion leading to the Iranian political decline.

Shah Ismail brought together different parts of Greater Iran – all the countries ruled by major powerful Iranian empires from Medes to Qajar era. These countries and territories included Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, North Caucasus, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, and even some parts of today’s Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Syria, Turkey, and parts of Turkmenistan. Iran became a strong nation again. He converted Iran from Sunni Islam to Shi’a Islam. This differentiated religious and national identity of Iranians and helped Iran’s territorial integrity. Many argue this was a wise political movement strengthening Iran as a nation.

He was also a prolific poet composing poems in both Azerbaijani and Persian. His pen name was Khatai.

Sheikh Safi al-Din Khangah & Shrine Ensembles

Khangah is a spiritual retreat in the Sufi order. This UNESCO site is a complex consisting of several sections with different functions: a mosque, mausolea, a library, a school, a hospital, a cistern, kitchens, a bakery, and some offices. Iranians refer to it all as “Sheikh Safi Shrine in Ardabil”. In addition to its historical significance, the site is of high value in Iranian architecture. Also, from Islamic architecture point of view, it’s a landmark of Safavid era.

Entrance to Sheikh Safi al Din Shrine in Ardabil

Entrance to Sheikh Safi al Din Shrine in Ardabil

 

The ensemble in this complex refers to a series of spectacular inherited items including:

  • A series of richly decorated and preserved facades and interiors, and
  • An exemplary collection of antique artifacts.

Altogether, it constitutes a rare collection of unique elements of medieval Islamic architecture.

The construction of Sheikh Safi al-Din Khanghah & Shrine Ensembles started in 16th century and continued till the end of Safavid rule, 18th century.  It’s an artistic and architectural accomplishment of Iranians setting an example for all such Sufi retreats built later in Iran. Aesthetics and religion have come together and created a beautiful complex in Ardabil. The dark blue tiles, gilded ceilings of the interior and space allocation for various functions in carefully devised plan and proportion have made it a unique collection of structures.

 

The ceiling inside the Sheikh Safi al-Din Shrine

The ceiling inside the Sheikh Safi al-Din Shrine

afavid architecture is the heir of its predecessors, Ilkhanids and Timurids. Therefore, their arts and architectural features are clearly distinguishable. The delicate ornamentation and spacious inner sections at Sheikh Safi al-Din Khangah & Shrine Ensembles represent the new architectural style of this era.

The social, religious and cultural influence of the Safavid period have lead to the formation of Safavid architecture. The other Sufi shrines built after that have been largely inspired by it.

Other Details About Sheikh Safi Shrine in Ardabil

The famous Ardabil Carpet is in Victoria & Albert Museum

The famous Ardabil Carpet is in Victoria & Albert Museum

 

The famous “Ardabil Carpet” was an Iranian masterpiece and the best carpet woven in Safavid period for this complex. It’s now in Victoria and Albert Museum in London. A copy has been recently woven in Iran, which is kept by this shrine.

Chinaware at Chini Khaneh of Sheikh Safi Shrine Complex in Ardabil

Chinaware at Chini Khaneh of Sheikh Safi Shrine Complex in Ardabil

Chini Khaneh is the name of a section of this Sheikh Safi Shrine that accommodates several Chinaware from a collection imported from China during Safavid era. A lot of them were plundered at the time of Russians’ invasion to Iran. Most of the vessels displayed here bear the seal of Shah Abbas indicating he had endowed them to this shrine.

Conclusion

Sheikh Safi al-Din Khangah & Shrine Ensembles is  collection you don’t want to miss if you travel to Iran one day. It’s a magnificent set of buildings with circular dome chambers accommodating tombs of Safavid kings, princes, Sufis, etc. The domes themselves known as Allah Allah are quite spectacular.