Domes - an Essential Part of the Islamic and Iranian Architecture

By Marta Colburn for Middle East Studies Center, Portland State University

Iran is located in southwest Asia at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, India, and Arabia. It is about one-sixth the size of the United States, and is the home of 50 million people. Iran has had a long and eventful history. Villages that dotted the Iranian hills and valleys more than 8,000 years ago are among the world's oldest settlements. From about 3,000 years ago until the mid-20th century, Iran was often called Persia, because the inhabitants of a region called Fars, or Parsa, in southwest Iran were called Persians by their Greek enemies. Over the centuries Persia was the center, or part, of many great empires.

Persian architecture includes buildings with many different functions, utilizing various building materials and styles which span thousands of years. From humble dwellings to spectacular monuments the architectural traditions of Persia have produced some of the most beautiful and majestic structures in the world. Throughout its ling history, Persian architecture has been characterized by simple and noble forms richly embellished. With the exception of the costly mosaic faience, the materials used in Persian building, and the methods employed permitted rapid and inexpensive construction, so that Iran was able to create a disproportionately large number of important monuments.

Photo Gabriele Ross 2007

Architecture in Iran has had an aim, both physically and symbolically, to bridge the gap between the material world and the spiritual by means of structures that reached toward the sky. The continuity of Persian architecture was not severed with the Islamization of Persia. The architectural styles throughout the various Islamic empires influenced Iranian built traditions, for example in the use of calligraphy as a primary decorative motif. However, the strength and beauty of Persian art and architectural traditions continued, and their influence spread throughout Asia, Africa and parts of Europe. The pavilion, a dome over a square chamber, was an adaptation to the Zoroastrian fire temples. In later periods, the vault of heaven was reproduced by magnificent domes, permanently supplementing the magic ritual that sought always the gifts of fertility, abundance, and power.

While the dome is not exclusive to Persian architecture, certainly in that tradition it took on unique features and became highly refined. The dome presented many challenges and has taken many forms in Persia. The principle problem in the placing of a vault or dome over a square plan, is how to transition from square below to circle above. A dome cannot simply be placed upon a square base. The earliest solution reached by Persian engineers and masons was the development of a third section, a zone of transition, which involved building an arch across each corner thereby reduction the square to an octagon.

The primary function of decorative forms and patterns is to emphasize, suggest and correlate apparent constructive forces, and thus give the impression of continuous and harmoniously balanced energies. This decorative principle was also applied to the dome in Persian architecture. Elaborate mosaics, tile work, and gypsum decoration, in geometric and organic patterns was used on the interior and exterior of the dome in Persian architecture. Today's dome decorating activities are designed to echo this exquisite decorative tradition.

Submitted by goudarz on Wed, 03/26/2008 - 2:54pm.