ČEHEL SOTŪN, ISFAHAN, Safavid royal palace used for coronations and the reception of foreign embassies. It stands in the center of a large garden (formerly ca. 7 ha) extending between the Meydān-e Šāh and the Čahārbāḡ. The layout of these gardens, with three walks shaded by plane trees, dates from the period of Shah ʿAbbās I (996-1038/1588-1629). According to Engelbert Kaempfer (in Isfahan 1096-97/1684-85), “It is said that, in designing the Čahārbāḡ, he ruled the lines with his own hands—in that respect proving himself a legitimate and praiseworthy follower of Cyrus the Great, who, as one can read in Xenophon, considered the designing of gardens as a royal pursuit” (1712, p. 198; 1977, p. 226; Xenophon, however, is referring to Cyrus the younger).

The plan published by M. Ferrante (figs. 1, 6; cf. Figure 8) shows the main outlines of the structure in the time of Shah ʿAbbās II (1052-77/1642-66), who built it in 1057/1647, with a small pavilion (G) from the time of Shah ʿAbbās I, measuring only 57.80 × 37 m, as the nucleus. ʿAbbās II added the adjacent wing with the large ayvān (I1), two narrow side porticos on the north and south (S1 and S2), and a spacious tālār (columned porch) on the east with a rectangular pool (T1) in the center. To the east of the tālār, on the main axis of the building, is a long, narrow pool (115.50 x ca. 16 m), which helps to integrate the palace with the garden and extends it visually (Plate IX). Originally, according to Kaempfer (1712, p. 185; 1977, p. 214), there was also a pool on the west side, so that the building and garden formed a single continuous unit (for a plan of the garden, see Coste, pl. XLI). The four figural groups—maidens with lions—installed in the pool were originally in a palace of the early 13th/19th century, the Ḵalwat-e Sar-Pūšīda (private covered hall), built by Ḥājī Solṭān-Moḥammad Mīrzā Sayf-al-Dawla, a son of Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah; it is no longer extant (Wilber, figs. 37, 38).

The discovery of two inscriptions in 1336 Š./1957 and 1343 Š./1964 have helped enormously to clarify the history of the palace: It was completed by Shah ʿAbbās II in 1057/1647. Renovations were carried out after a fire in 1119/1706, during the reign of Shah Solṭān Ḥosayn I (1105-35/1694-1722; Honarfar, pp. 566, 574). Jean Chardin (1681, pp. 70-71) and Kaempfer (1712, pp. 42-43; 1977, pp. 60-61) have described the splendid coronation of Shah Solaymān (1077-1105/1666-94), which was held in the Čehel Sotūn on 6 Šawwāl 1078/20 March 1668 at about 9:00 in the morning; he had already been crowned as Ṣafī II in the Tālār-e Ṭawīla (the portico of the stable) two years earlier, but misfortune had fallen upon him and his country. Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (pp. 212 ff.) also reported on several ceremonies in the Čehel Sotūn. In the Qajar period the palace was used for part of the time as a workshop for the tentmakers of Prince Ẓell-e Solṭān, as Jane Dieulafoy observed in 1298/1881 (pp. 244-46). Nevertheless ten years later the garden palace was again being used as originally intended; Ẓell-e Solṭān held daily audience there. Today the building serves as a museum.

The Čehel Sotūn marks a high point in the development of the type of Persian palace with columned halls, in which the influence of Achaemenid palace architecture (see APADĀNA), transmitted through popular wooden buildings, is still discernible. In addition to the Čehel Sotūn the ʿĀlī Qāpū and Āʾīna-ḵāna were also built in the Safavid period; the latter no longer survives but was still in use in the late Qajar period.

Architecture. The tālār (Plate IX; Dieulafoy, p. 247), with its eighteen multifaceted (octagonal, according to Kaempfer, 1712, p. 184; 1977, p. 213) wooden columns (13.05 m high), is similar to that of the ʿĀlī Qāpū, which is also attributed to Shah ʿAbbās II. In the 11th/17th century Chardin (1711, p. 75) described the columns as “turned and gilded,” and Kaempfer mentioned that they were blue and gold like the columns in the tālār of the ʿĀlī Qāpū (pp. 181, 185; 1977, pp. 209, 210, 213). They rest on stone bases and have moqarnas (oversailing courses of small niche segments) capitals; lions are carved on the bases of four of the columns, those at the corners of the central pool. In 1133/1721, however, the Carmelite bishop Barnabas described “columns, the shafts of which must be of wood, but externally are altogether covered with small pieces of looking-glass like the whole porch. . .” (Blunt, p. 143; cf. ĀʾĪNA-KĀRĪ). This glass sheathing must have been added as part of the restoration in 1119/1706. In the 13th/19th century J. J. Morier (p. 164) spoke wonderingly of the tālār: “The first saloon is open towards the garden, and is supported by eighteen pillars, all inlaid with mirrors, and (as the glass is in much greater proportion than the wood) appearing indeed at a distance to be formed of glass only. The walls, which form its termination behind, are also covered with mirrors placed in such a variety of symmetrical positions, that the mass of structure appears to be of glass, and when new must have glittered with most magnificent splendour.” R. Ker Porter also expounded on the splendors of the Čehel Sotūn, especially the tālār (I, p. 412): “The exhaustless profusion of the splendid materials reflected not merely their own golden or crystal lights on each other, but all the variegated colours of the garden; so that the whole surface seemed formed of polished silver and mother of pearl, set with precious stones.” Some of this decoration had apparently already disappeared when Lord Curzon visited the building in 1892 (repr., p. 33 and fig. 247): “The outer row of these (columns) were originally covered with small facets of looking-glass, set diamond-wise in perpendicular bands, the inner rows with glass set in spirals” (cf. Höltzer, pp. 171-74: Dieulafoy, pp. 244-46 and fig. 247). The coffered ceiling of the tālār is ornamented in blue and gold. Large brocaded hangings were suspended from the roof of the portico as protection from the heat of the sun, and costly carpets covered the floors (Morier, pp. 165-66; Chardin, 1711, p. 76).

Two additional columns separate the tālār from the adjacent room with its raised throne recess. Kaempfer described the three levels of the palace: the lowest, the tālār, for guests of the shah; the second for the notables of the kingdom, with sofas for banqueting and a second pool; and the third, the palace proper, with an elegantly constructed ayvān containing the throne platform and surrounded by arched niches: “ceiling, columns, walls . . . and vaults—all surfaces have been decorated and painted by skillful hands, primarily in shades of blue highlighted with gold ornamentation” (1712, pp. 184-85; 1977, p. 213). Chardin, who was in Isfahan in 1077/1666-67 and 1083-88/1672-77, called the Čehel Sotūn (1711, pp. 74-75) “the largest and most sumptuous building in the entire royal palace . . . . The walls are faced to half their height with white marble, painted and gilded, and the rest is made from crystal frames in every color.”

From the throne recess three small doors lead into the large rectangular banquet hall, which is roofed by three shallow cupolas between two transverse vaults, recalling Sasanian palace structures (e.g., Fīrūzābād), in contrast to the tālār, with its wooden columns and flat roof, which are reminiscent of Achaemenid architecture. The roof of the banquet hall is especially richly decorated with fine stucco work in low relief, painted with ornamental designs. The predominant colors are ultramarine, cobalt blue, scarlet, emerald green, and gold. It is possible that this domed ceiling dates from the time of Shah ʿAbbās I, in contrast to the brightly colored wall paintings, which belong to the periods of ʿAbbās II and the Qajars.

Four small rooms flank the banquet hall; they have been designated by Ferrante as P1-4.

Wall paintings. The walls of the banquet hall are divided into three zones, a dado up to about eye level, the main decorated zone immediately above it, and the upper zone. The most striking decorations in the hall are the large wall paintings in four niches in the upper zone, with scenes of court ceremonial and battle: Shah Ṭahmāsb I (930-84/1524-76) receiving Homāyūn from India (Plate X); Shah ʿAbbās I with Walī Moḥammad Khan, Uzbek ruler of Turkistan; Shah ʿAbbās II with the Uzbek ambassador; and the victory of Esmāʿīl I (907-30/1501-24) over the Uzbek Šaybānī Khan. This last painting is the only one of the four in which there is no discernible European influence. In the others such influence is clear from the use of single-point perspective, a receding landscape framed by a window (Plate IX), and plastic modeling of the faces. In these paintings, which were intended to glorify the Safavid rulers, the courtly world and its splendid pageantry, with large retinues, musicians, and dancing girls, predominate, just as they have been described by European travelers. The paintings fill less than half of the space in the niches in which they are set; below them are wall paintings of an entirely different kind, from the time of ʿAbbās I. They are either ornamental or, like those in rooms P3 and P4 (see below), represent animated landscapes (cf. the paintings in the ʿĀlī Qāpū in Isfahan and the palace at Tājābād, ca. 20 km from Naṭanz; Luschey-Schmeisser, 1983, p. 284, figs. 10, 11; idem, 1980, p. 198, figs. 53/2 and 53/4). In contrast, the niches in the center of the eastern and western walls are completely filled with two battle scenes painted in the Qajar period: on the east Nāder Shah’s victory over the Mughal emperor Moḥammad of India (1152/1739) and on the west Shah Esmāʿīl’s triumph over the Janissary aga at the battle of Čālderān (Zander, figs. 44-45).

A band of decoration separates the upper zone from the main zone below. The latter is filled with smaller wall paintings of courtly picnics alfresco, with relatively few figures. They correspond to those in room P4 but are perhaps not so early, dating from around the middle of the 11th/17th century. Many problems are still to be solved in connection with the decoration of the Čehel Sotūn. There must have been a dado faced with painted tiles, almost overwhelmed by the powerful paintings of the wall niches. In 1910 Friedrich Sarre (p. 92) wrote that, in both the Āʾīna-ḵāna and the Čehel Sotūn, the dados of the back rooms had been faced with tiles painted with representations of flowers and animals on a yellow ground; at that time they had already been largely destroyed. As an experiment, the antiquities service has placed a tiled scene of a picnic in a garden on the west wall; it is a copy, with some changes, of a large tile composition in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London (Survey of Persian Art, pl. 547). The distinctive interlocking of the upper corners of these garden scenes with the wall paintings is an argument in support of this choice.

During careful restorations sponsored by the Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, Rome (IsMEO), a surprising number of extraordinary wall paintings were discovered in the small flanking rooms, where they had been hidden under a coat of whitewash applied in the Qajar period. Only two niches, in P3 and P4, were decorated with landscapes, flowering trees, birds, and deer, while all the other surfaces in the upper zone of the wall were covered with large and small figural compositions. In room P4 banquet scenes are represented, with Shah ʿAbbās I and his retinue in the open air and in other courtly settings. The compositions and colors reflect those in contemporary miniature paintings, particularly those of Reżā ʿAbbāsī and his school. Similar wall paintings are to be found in the music room of the ʿĀlī Qāpū. In room P3 paintings of scenes from Persian poetry are preserved: Ḵosrow and Šīrīn and Yūsof and Zolayḵā (as at Nāʾīn; Luschey-Schmeisser, 1969, p. 184, pls. 70-72).

Large paintings also cover the walls of the two wooden-columned porticos at the ends of the banqueting hall. Floor-length windows in the northern and southern walls of the banqueting hall open onto these porticos. The wall paintings resemble those in the ʿĀlī Qāpū, with representations of Europeans. Also there are remains of a wall painting in the western ayvān.



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Figure 8. Plan of the Čehel Sotūn (after Ferrante, fig. 1)

Plate IX. View of the tālār from the east (after Dieulafoy, p. 247)

Plate X. Detail of Shah Ṭahmāsb receiving Homāyūn, from the banquet hall (after Beny, pl. 241)

(Ingeborg Luschey-Schmeisser)

Originally Published: December 15, 1990

Last Updated: December 15, 1990

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