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 The employment of decorative tiles in the monuments of the Islamic period in Iran - as it also prevails today - dates back to the second half of the 5th Century AH/11th Century AD. At a time when the use of brickwork in architecture had reached the peak of its beauty and splendor, Iranian architects experimented with a new technique by applying strips of single-colored enameled bricks, often turquoise, among the complicated but beautiful designs of brickwork and in this way marked the beginning of tile-work in Iranian architecture. The minaret of the Damghān Jāme’ Mosque (450 AH/1058 AD) is an example of this attempt. In the next stage, a harmonious combination of tile and brick decorations in outstanding buildings such as the Red Dome of Marāgheh (Gonbad Sorkh; 452 AH/1060 AD) was successfully applied, resulting in the widespread employment of tile and tile-works in Iranian architecture. The production of mud tiles, both, simple as well as molded ones and the evolution of flat and applied-relief decorations as well as various designs and the application of engraved inscriptions on the tiles, particularly in the religious monuments including the mosques, in the 6th Century AH/12th Century AD, along with progress in ceramic works turned the tile into the most important item for the decoration of buildings. The tiled prayer-niche housed in the Cairo Islamic Art Museum (583 AH/1187 AD) is an outstanding example of this work during that period. The Rey city was one of the most important centers for tile-making of that period. As a matter of fact, the close similarity between the manufacturing of tiles and ceramic resulted in common techniques of production in these two branches of Iranian art. In the 6th and 7th Centuries AH/12th and 13th Centuries AD golden tiles and rarely, enameled ones, in star and cross shapes with various designs, were made in Kāshān and the privilege and honor for making the most beautiful examples of this item went to the Abu Tāher family. The most lasting collections of prayer-niches covered with golden tiles, made by the Abu Tāher family, are today preserved in the holy sites of Iran as well as some of the greatest museums of the world. The prayer-niches housed in the Islamic Art Museum of Cairo, the Berlin Museum (632 AH/1235 AD), the Museum of the Imām Rezā Shrine Complex in Mashhad (640 AH/1242 AD), as well as a number of other prayer-niches are some examples of the tile-work of this period.

By the end of the 6th and the beginning of the 7th Century AH, a new trend, known as inlaid-tiling began in Khorāsān. The tile-works of the Zuzan Mosque is an example of this technique but with the onslaught of the Mongols this trend came to a standstill for about a century.

Attention to the construction of great buildings – a trend that had declined with the onslaught of Tamerlane –picked up once again by Tamerlane and his descendents who had now turned into patrons of art under the influence of the Iranian culture, bringing about the revival and burgeoning of tile-work and its various styles. A number of splendid monuments in Samarqand, Herat, Esfahān, Tabriz, etc. came to be built with decorations mainly in tile-work, and inlay tile-work in particular. Painters and calligraphers contributed to the creation of new designs and outstanding epigraphs and inscriptions. The tomb of Tamerlane and the Goharshād Mosques of Herat and Mashhad are among such monuments.

The zenith of the competence of Iranian artisans skilled in tile-work and tile cutting can be observed in the application of inlay tile-works in the Kabud Mosque of Tabriz, which was built in 870 AH/1466 AD, during the reign of Jahānshāh Āq Quyunlu. The inner and outer walls of the mosque are adorned with inlaid tiles. Among the other monuments decorated with inlaid tiles, only the southwestern portico of the Jāme’ Mosque of Esfahān, can to some extent, be compared with this monument which was constructed in 880 AH/1475 AD on the orders of Ozun Hasan Āq Quyunlu and as a contemporary building of the Kabud Mosque of Esfahān was under the influence of its style.

The appointment of Esfahān as the capital of Iran during the reign of Shāh Abbās I marked the beginning of great endeavors in architectural activities, which inevitably left an impact on the architectural decorations, and on tile-work in particular. The newly constructed buildings in Esfahān, including the religious monuments such as mosques, seminaries, and churches as well as other buildings such as palaces, bazaars, public baths, and caravanserais called for the expansion of the production of tiles. In the tile-works of the early monuments of this period such as the Shaykh Lotfullāh Mosque of Esfahān, both, the techniques of inlay tile-work as well as mud tile-work came to be employed. The accomplishments of the artists and tile-work artisans of this period in the creation of designs, beauty, and diversity in attractive patterns are commendable.

The collapse of the Safavid dynasty led to the qualitative and quantitative decline of tile-making and tile-work. The transfer of the Iranian capital from Esfahān to Shirāz during the reign of Karim Khān Zand was accompanied with a new style in tile-making, particularly with regard to the application of colors. The application of white, pink, yellow, and green as well as a transformation in the area of designs, including the depiction of larger subjects like the battle between Rostam and the White Demon, that came to be employed in Karim Khan’s Citadel in Shiraz, in comparison with the elegance of the tile-works of the Esfahān School demonstrates the differences between the styles of the two periods. Although fresh efforts were employed in the 13th Century AH/19th Century AD in the construction of various buildings such as mosques, bazaars, palaces, etc. these efforts could not compete with the achievements of the earlier periods, and particularly as regards tile-work.

The second half of the 13th Century AH/19th Century AD witnessed more palpable progress in tile-work compared to the first half of this century. In the tile-works of the Sepahsālār Mosque and School, both, inlaid as well as mud tiles were applied with greater skill. A new change appeared in the tile-works of non-religious monuments which included the employment of fresh and diverse images of flowers, fruits, and human and animal faces (tile-tableaus), the emergence of which was under the influence of the import of European made handiworks and Western paintings. The most prominent examples of this work can be seen during the reign of Nāser al-Din Shāh in the buildings of the Golestān and Saltanatābād Palaces as well as the Shams al-Emārah. This trend continued until the beginning of the 14th Century AH/20th Century AD.


* source: Semsar , Mohammad Hasan " Iran Entry " The Great Islamic Encyclopedia . Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V.10 , pp.640- 642

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