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The present territory of Iran comprises a large part of a sizeable geographical unit known as "Greater Iran". Given its climatic and biological variety, this natural zone enjoys certain characteristics that have resulted in the development of a unified culture and civilization in Iran. Undoubtedly, human civilization is indebted to the genius and creativity of the people who have settled this land for a very long time and created their history of culture and civilization through interaction with its geography and dominant natural conditions.

Before the immigration of Aryans to Iran, other races with different cultures lived there. The first civilized human activities in Iran began with the making of different stone tools during the Paleolithic Age. This age (beginning about 2 million years ago and ending in various places between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago) includes three successive divisions, namely, the Lower, Middle, and Upper Paleolithic. Most of the surviving artefacts of this age in Iran belong to the Upper Paleolithic age (40,000 – 10,000 years ago). These artefacts have been found in a few excavation sites such as Kashfrud in Khorasan, Ladiz in Sistan, Houmian in Kuhdasht, Halilan Valley in Lorestan, and Hunters Cave and Do-Ashkaf Cave in Kermanshah. Following the Paleolithic and Epipaleolithic periods, the residents of the Near East, including Iranians, established the Neolithic period (since about 10, 000 years ago) of culture and civilization. During this period, which continued until 5000 years BC, humans learned to domesticate animals, cultivate plants, and form villages.

During the Neolithic era, by making pottery, creating architectural spaces, and promoting the level of industry, mankind took another step forward on the path of development and progress. Remains from this period in Iran have been found in places such as: Silk Hill in Kashan; Cheshmeh-Ali in Tehran; Tappe Hesar in Damghan; Tappeh Giyan in Nahavand; Tappeh Bakoun in Fars; Sarab; Godin Tappeh, Guran, and Ganj-Darreh in Kermanshah, and Shush in Khuzestan. After leaving the Neolithic era behind, the land of Iran, like the other lands around it in Western Asia, entered a period marked by certain features such as the mass production of steel, the shift from rural to urban living, use of writing systems and a set of signs for communication, expansion of trade and architecture, and benefitting from historical, literary, and artistic works.

The discovery of a specific region for melting and processing steel in Erisman and for making engraved pottery in Silk in 4000-3000 BC reveals Iran’s important role in the growth and expansion of Man’s industrial knowledge. This process continued in future years with the beginning of the Iron Age and the entry of Aryan groups into the plateau of Iran. Some of the glorious structures of this land were erected during the Iron Age, such as Chogha Zanbil Ziggurat (1250 BC) and Babajan Temple. During this period, the most important pre-Aryan civilization in Iran was that of the Elamites, who ruled a large part of its south-western regions from 3000 BC until 700 BC.

There are different theories concerning the early history of the plateau of Iran, the Aryan migration to this region, and their land of origin. Some researchers believe that they stepped onto this plateau from the north (a region between modern day Lithuania and the Oral Mountains). According to Ghirshman, Aryan speaking ethnic groups were divided into two groups, one Eastern and the other Western. At the beginning of the second millennium BC, one group moved eastwards to the regions around the Caspian Sea and towards the Euphrates River and made their homes among the Asiatic peoples of that region. Ghirshman believes that Iranians immigrated to the Plateau of Iran from Transoxiana over three or four periods.

According to some researchers, the first residents of the "Greater Iran" lived in or near the Zagros Mountains. Pottery artifacts belonging to the late years of the second millennium BC found in Azerbaijan indicate that a people had resided there for some time. Whatever the exact truth, the Aryans entered a land where others had lived before. These people lagged behind the Aryans in terms of knowledge; however, they were more advanced concerning the material characteristics of their civilization, such as the tools and instruments they used. The first Aryans who came to Iran consisted of the Kassites, the Lullubi, and the Gutians. The Kassites founded a civilization that today we call the Tep Sialk civilization. The Lullubi and Gutians also made their homes in the Central Zagros region and later, after the arrival of the Medes, they joined them. Since the beginning of the great migration of the Aryans to Iran, three large groups of them came to this country and each settled a part of it: The Medes in the northwest of Iran, the Persians in the south, and the Parthians near present-day Khorasan.

At the beginning of the first millennium BC some governments, such as those of the Medes and the Elamites (new Elam), were established in various regions of Iran and started fighting against the transgressor Assyrian ruler in Transoxiana. These tribes gradually united with each other under the command of the Medes in order to confront the Assyrian rulers and their invasions into the land of Iran.

The Medes were the same Aryan tribe that came to power on the plateau of Iran. After the final defeat of Ashur and the demolition of Nineveh in 613 BC, they founded their own government in the West of Iran. In 559 BC, Cyrus established the second Aryan government by overthrowing the Median King and conquering Hamedan, the capital of the Medes. Upon the foundation of the great Achaemenid Empire, which stretched from parts of the Balkans and Thrace-Macedonia in the West to the Indus valley in the East, Cyrus issued the first declaration of human rights enshrined in 30 Articles. This Empire reached its peak of power and glory during the period of Darius through the defeat of the Greeks and the building of Takht-e Jamshid. During the reign of Darius the Great, the Royal Road was built, some laws were promulgated, and tax rates were accurately calculated and enforced. During the Achaemenid era, the religion of Mazdaism was introduced and spread throughout the Empire by Zoroaster. This resulted in even greater unity in this land. In 424 BC, the Achaemenid king Artaxerxes died, which led to the decline of the great Empire and, eventually, to its collapse after Alexander’s attacks in the course of a series of battles. However, the rule of Alexander did not last for more than 13 years. He died in 323 BC, and the legacy of the Achaemenids fell in the hands of his commanders and successors, the Seleucids. During the Seleucid Era, Hellenism influenced the Achaemenid culture and civilization to some extent. Finally, the Seleucids were banished by the Parthian tribe, which founded the Arsacid Dynasty in 247 BC.

The Arsacids were from the Aryan race and ruled over Iran until 226 AD. During the Arsacid Era, commerce flourished, and the famous Silk Road was used by several tradesmen and travelers. Finally, after five centuries of ruling the country, this dynasty began its decline as a result of a series of wars. In 224 AD, the Arsacids were defeated by the Pars government which protected the Temple of Anahita and, following this, the Sassanid Dynasty came to power. The Sassanid capital was the city of Tisfun located in the present day Iraq. During this period, the monarch ruled over the country with absolute power, and Zoroastrianism was adopted as the official religion of the Empire. In this era, clergymen (mobeds) regained great power and had considerable influence in society.

Iranian Historical Periods (Before Islam)

Historical Period

Date

Elamite

3200-640 BC

Aryan Migration

From ca. 2000 BC

Median Empire

678-550 BC

Achaemenid Empire

550-330 BC

Seleucid Empire

312-129 BC

Parthian (Arsacid) Empire

247 BC – 224 AD

Sasanian Empire

224-651 AD

The long wars between the Sassanids and Romans, on the one hand, and extreme class distinctions and discriminations, Mobedan religious dogmas, and the imposition of heavy taxes, on the other, resulted in the fast defeat of the Sassanid Empire by Muslim Arabs, who advocated brotherhood and equality. Two centuries after the arrival of Muslim Arabs in their country, Iranians began to rise up against the Abbasid Caliph and established various dynasties, such as the Tahirids in Khorasan, the Saffarids in Sistan, the Sassanids in Marv, and the Buyids in the Center of Iran. This period is known as the Period of Concurrent Governments in the history of this land. Some of these governments promoted the Persian language and supported some prominent poets such as Roudaki and Daqiqi. During the Buyid era, Izzuddawlah Deylami revived the traditions of the ancient kings and minted coins in the name of the monarch of the time. Local independence from the Abbasid caliphs reached its zenith during the Ghaznavid, Seljuk, and Khwarezmian periods.

The Ghaznavids were the first group of Turks who initially served the Samanids but, later, Mahmud Ghaznawi (the king during whose reign Ferdowsi wrote his Shahnameh) established the Ghaznavid dynasty in 351 AD in Ghaznah, which survived up until 583 AD. In 429 AD, the Seljukid Dynasty was established upon Toghrol’s ascension to the throne in Nishabur. During the period of Malikshah, the realm of this dynasty stretched from Central Asia to Transoxiana and Damascus. In this era, political unity dominated Iran, and this country became a safe place for artists and other people of culture.

Khwajah Nizam al-Mulk, the Vizier of Malikshah the Seljuk Sultan, established an efficient system of education in the country. In his famous book, The Book of Government, he interpreted political philosophy and the principles of statesmanship using beautiful language. During this period, Omar Khayyam, the distinguished mathematician, astronomer, and poet, conducted some studies in the field of astronomy and presented an invaluable calendar to the world.

After the downfall of the Seljuks, the Khwarazmian Dynasty came to power. At the end of this period, Iran and the world of Islam suffered greatly from the great disaster of the Mongol invasion. As a result, the Khwarazmian Dynasty collapsed, several cities were totally destroyed, and great numbers of people were killed. Following these events, Hulagu Khan the grandson of Genghis, invaded Baghdad, looted this capital city, and overthrew the Abbasid Caliphate system. Ghazan Khan, who was the most competent member of the Ilkhanate Dynasty, turned to Islam and chose an Islamic name for himself. Following his example, many Mongols converted to Islam following him.

After the death of Uljaytu (the last Mongol king), the Mongols lost their power, and the rule of Ilkhanate in Iran came to an end. This Mongol king chose Sultaniyyah, which was world famous as a center of art, as his capital.

At the same time as the end of the Ilkhanate period, the Jalairids or the Ilkhanate established their rule in Azerbaijan and Iraq, and the Muzaffarid Dynasty ruled Isfahan and Shiraz. During the reign of Shah Shuja of this latter dynasty, Hafiz of Shiraz, the most renowned Iranian poet, immortalized the name of this king in some of his poems. Upon Timur Gurkani’s attack against Iran, the life of localized governments came to an end. Two of the most prominent features of Amir Timur Gurkani (Tamerlane) were his military skills and love of art. He changed his capital city Samarkand into a shelter for artists and, through employing some architects and craftsmen from neighboring countries, he turned it into a uniquely beautiful city. During the reign of Timur’s successors (Shah Rukh, Ulugh Beigh, and Baysonghor), Persian poetry, architecture, and painting were greatly popularized.

Following this, two rival Turkoman dynasties, the Kara Koyunlu and the Aq Qoyunlu, were involved in a series of long battles in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan. At first, the Kara Koyunlus made some advances in these lands; however, later the Aq Qoyunlus, led by Uzun Hassan, gained victory by defeating Jahanshah Kara Koyunlu, which resulted in the collapse of that dynasty in 874 AH.

The successors of Shaykh Safi al-Din Ardebili gradually came to power under the leadership of the Qizilbash, a Shi’i militant group whose members had been chosen from among the Turks of Azerbaijan and Asia Minor. Isma’il, one of the leaders of this group and the founder of the Safavid Dynasty, defeated their enemies in less than three years and expanded his realm as far as Mazandaran. He also successfully defended his realm against the Uzbeks to the East and Ottomans to the West. After him, Shah Tahmasb I and, then, the Great Shah Abbas the most renowned Safavid King came to the throne. Shah Abbas personally supervised all state affairs and improved the conditions prevailing in the country in every respect. For example, he had some bridges, caravanserais, water reservoirs, bazaars, and roads built in different regions of Iran. He left Armenian tradesmen in charge of trade-related missions and, because of his passionate love of art, he created a beautiful capital city in Isfahan. During the reign of the last two kings of the Safavid Dynasty, Shah Suleyman and Shah Sultan Husayn, the government became weak and the country suffered from chaos created by Afghan revolts. The short rule of Nadir Shah Afshar and his successors also failed to establish a permanent peace in Iran.

During this period, there were several civil wars in the country. Moreover, in its western and northwestern regions Iran was under continuous attacks by the Ottomans and Russians, respectively. This era began with Nadir Shah’s defeat of the Afghans and expelling them from the country. After seizing power, he began a fight against the Ottoman invasions and freed the cities of Tabriz, Hamedan, and Nahavand from their rule. He also freed some cities in Caucasia from the hands of Russians. During this historical period, Iran regained its independence, which immortalized the name of Nadir Shah Afshar in the history of this country.

Following this, during its short-lived rule the Zandiyeh Dynasty was able to establish peace and welfare to some extent in the Fars province. However, this peace also had a short life-time and came to an end after Karim Khan’s death. Lotfali Khan, the grandson of Karim Khan and the last surviving descendant of this dynasty, was defeated and killed in 1109 AH in battle against the army of Aqa Muhammad Khan, the chief of the Qajar tribe. Following the downfall of the Zandiyeh Dynasty, the Qajar Dynasty was established and continued its rule until the early 14th century AH.

During the 50-year rule of Nasir al-Din Qajar, Iranians became familiar with European civilizations and the advances made in European countries. Amir Kabir, the Prime Minister of Nasir al-Din Shah, established the Daralfonun a school with, as its primary purpose, to train military officers and civil servants to pursue the regeneration of the state that Amir Kabir had begun. They employed some European teachers to teach a variety of courses to the students. Among the most important events of the Qajar era were the wars between Iran and Russia, which resulted in victory for the latter and the loss of a large part of the lands in the north-west of the country. One of the other major events that occurred during the reign of Mozaffar ad-Din Shah was the Iranian Constitutional Revolution. This revolution had gained victory with the slogan of establishing the "House of Justice", but ultimately came to an end with Reza Khan’s coup d'état in 1299 AS, and a new era began in the history of Iran.

The Pahlavi Dynasty was the last royal dynasty that ruled over Iran. It came to power upon the downfall of the Qajar Dynasty in 1304 AS under the leadership of Reza Shah and was overthrown in 1357 AS by the Islamic Revolution.

Historical Periods of Iran(Islamic Period)

Arabs’ arrival in Iran

651 AD

Tahirid Dynasty

205-259 AH

Saffarid Dynasty

247-393 AH

Samanid Dynasty

287-389 AH

Ziyarid Dynasty

316-475 AH

Buyid Dynasty

320-447 AH

Ghaznavid Dynasty

351-583 AH

Seljuk Dynasty

429-590 AH

Khwarezmid Dynasty

470-617 AH

Mongol Empire

616-654 AH

Ilkhanate Dynasty

654-750 AH

Timurid Dynasty

771-916 AH

Kara Koyunlu Dynasty

780-874 AH

Ak Koyunlu Dynasty

780-908 AH

Safavid Dynasty

907-1135 AH

Afsharid Dynasty

1148-1161 AH

Zand Dynasty

1163-1209 AH

Qajar Dynasty

1209-1345 AH

Pahlavi Dynasty

1304-1357 AS

In general, in the course of the rise and fall of different governments, a part of the artistic achievements of Iran were carved on the surface of rocky mountains as memorials carved in stone and many exquisite royal palaces were constructed. Moreover, during the most recent periods, several unique and precious works of painting, illumination of manuscripts, and carpet-weaving were created by Iranian artists and craftsmen and women.

After the rise of Islam, different styles of religious architecture were developed, and the traditions of masters, workmen, and craftsmanship were revived. Following this, some dazzling decorative arts such as illumination of the Holy Qur’an, different types of calligraphy, giri tiles, measured brick coursing (brick rag-chin), tiling with geometrical designs, colorful cloth-weaving, pottery with beautiful marks and carvings, metalwork decorated with engraving, painting of manuscripts, and luxurious book cover making became highly popular.

The Research Department of History of Iran intends to undertake some projects in the near future on various topics such as a compressive history of Iran, a history of science, a history of art, a history of agriculture, and the economic history of Iran in the mould of Iranian bazaars, with the cooperation of researchers in various fields of history. So far, this group has published some books on the topic of Iranian bazaars under the following titles: "History of the Great Bazaar of Tehran, the Bazaars and Mini-bazaars around it During the Past 200 years", "Bazaar of Yazd and the Bazaars around it During the Past 200 years", "The Great Bazaar of Tabriz and the Bazaars around it During the Past 200 years", and "Daily and Weekly Bazaars of the Northern Coastal Regions of the Country". These books have been published by the Publication Center of the Iranology Foundation.

 

The art of each society is created within its philosophical, cultural, and religious context and in conformity with its historical, social, and geographical conditions. Therefore, in order to conduct research into and theorize on the fields of art and architecture, thinkers and researchers need to explore an extremely vast realm of knowledge. Such endeavors necessitate the presence of some philosophical and epistemological contexts, cultural and social backgrounds, and a systematic methodology for utilizing the sources and documents that society and art and cultural institutes and centers provide for thinkers and researchers.

A nation’s art represents the quality of its thoughts, worldviews, beliefs, and traditions. As one of the most important features of the emergence of cultures and civilizations, art plays a fundamental role in the development or destruction and deviation of human societies. It also enjoys a particular place in people’s everyday and cultural interactions. If the cultural bases of a nation are solid and enjoy firm and deep roots, their artistic manifestations will also remain immune to undesirable changes and disintegrations in the history of their development.

In order to embark on a discussion of Iranian art, we should first refer to the art of pottery which, according to archeological excavations, dates back to the eighth millennium BC. Pottery was the common art and industry of indigenous groups of various regions in Iran, such as Lorestan, the south of the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, Kerman, and Sistan and Baluchestan. Moreover, according to Xenophon’s reference to Iranian carpets or other woven floor coverings, the art of carpet and rug weaving also existed in the first millennium BC.

Iranian architecture also enjoys a special place in the world. From among its magnificent features, we can refer to high iwans (verandas), building designs in conformity to climatic and regional characteristics, tall columns, roof shapes, accurate dimensions, and various decorations and ornaments. Archeological investigations and excavations indicate that the history of architecture in Iran dates back to the seventh millennium BC.

Since then, this art has been expanding and developing under the influence of various factors, particularly religious ones. Undoubtedly, architecture is one of the most revealing manifestations of each nation and the best narrator of each country’s encounter with life’s problems and its people’s insight concerning the world of creation.

Iranian architecture also enjoys certain unique characteristics in some areas, which has resulted in the introduction of a number of innovations to the world of architecture. In this regard, we can refer to specific spatial arrangements such as iwans (verandas), domed chambers, and the Iranian courtyard, as well as some more advanced structures such as various types of two - and three - centered arches, domes, and pendentives and squinches.

There are also some particular uses of space, such as gardens, and the employment of certain concepts with different definitions, including geometrical ornaments, introversion, extroversion, design patterns, etc. Generally speaking, Iranian architecture can be categorized into the following seven classes or styles:

  • 1- The Parsian style (from the eighth century BC to the fourth century BC) including the Pre-Parsian, Median, and Achaemenid styles.
  • 2- The Parthian style (from the fourth century BC until the rise of Islam) dominant during the Seleucid, Parthian (Arsacid), and Sassanid eras.
  • 3- The Khorasani style (from the late 7th century until the end of the 10th century AD) dominant during the reign of the Saffarid, Tahirid, and Ghaznavid dynasties.
  • 4- The Razi style (from the 11th century AD to the Mongol invasion period) including the methods and devices of the Samanid, Seljukid, Khwarazmid, and Ziyarid periods.
  • 5- The Azari style (from the late 13th century to the rise of the Safavid Dynasty in the 16th century AD) dominant during the Timurid and Ilkhanate dynasties.
  • 6- The Isfahani style (starting from the 16th century AD until the middle of the Qajarid period in the 19th century AD).
  • 7- Contemporary style (from the middle of the Qajarid period onwards) including the approaches used in the Pahlavi era and the period after the Islamic Revolution in 1978 AD.

From among the first six Iranian architectural styles, the Parsian and Parthian styles belong to the Pre-Islamic period while the last four belong to the Islamic era. Western scholars use some other terms to refer to Islamic styles, such as the Umayyad and Abbasid styles.

In Iranian architecture, despite the existence of certain features such as the symmetry and beauty of frontpieces, domes, and iwans, the characteristic that deserves to be explored more than others is the jewel of Iranian architecture, namely its mathematical and gnostic logic. Iranian architects’ introversion and interest in courtyards, patios, lowered yards, hashtis (vestibules), and belvederes or pavilions surrounding shabestans (sanctuaries), have been parts of Iranian architectural logic since long ago.

The most ancient example of early structures and buildings in our country is the Elamite Choga Zanbil Temple in Khuzestan. This splendid house of worship, which was built around 1250 BC, is an extremely magnificent example of a developed form of architecture. This temple, which is built in the form of a square, consists of five floors, each with a smaller area compared to its lower floor, resulting in its pyramidal structure. The main center of the temple is constructed on the first floor, and the other floors functioned as dependent facilities in the past. The main construction materials of the temple included high quality baked bricks bound by means of hard mortar. Sun-dried Bricks were also used inside the walls and in places where it was necessary to fill the platforms of the structure. What is of prime importance regarding this spectacular temple is its several barrel-vaults, which have been made so skillfully that they still stand amazingly intact 3000 years after their construction. These arches, which are built on long corridors and on the top of the internal stairs of the temple, attest to the great level of advancement of the construction industry and architecture at such ancient periods in our country. In sum, this huge temple, which is considered to be one of the greatest Ziggurats of the world, is the best example in the ancient world of an architectural artistic work constructed on a vault foundation.

What is technically viewed as the foundation of traditional buildings and marks their method of construction is the surmounting of arches on walls or other load-bearing structures. Here, one of the most important reasons for erecting certain structures such as walls, piers, and columns is to provide a foundation for arches and not merely to bear the weight of the building’s roof.

The Qajar period must be considered the era of the annihilation of the Isfahani architectural style, in particular, and of the Iranian style in general. During this period, the beauty and subtlety of the Safavid architecture (Isfahani style) were replaced by some hurried and haphazard movements in architectural ornamentation and planning.

The instability of the central government, the introduction of western civilization, the surrender of the East, and the influence of the imported culture during the Qajar period destroyed what had been left from the native civilization and washed away everything like a devastating flood. Unfortunately, this process was also accelerated by the speed of modernization in the whole world.