IL-KHANIDS ii. Architecture




The architecture produced during the period of Il-khanid rule in Persia and Iraq is notable for its mammoth size, soaring height, sparkling color, and ingenious methods of covering space. Size and scale were seen as representative of power and authority, and the wider palette and increased surface of colored decoration served to further distinguish these buildings from the landscape. Builders in the Il-khanid period continued to use traditional materials such as brick, stone, wood, and plaster in standard forms and building types, which were often combined into larger complexes; but they incorporated new Chinese motifs into the standard decorative repertory. Both the buildings themselves and contemporary descriptions of them show that the new rulers deliberately manipulated architecture to connect themselves to the Persian past, both pre-Islamic and Islamic. The message resonated, for many of the Il-khanid structures served in turn as models for those built by the Timurids in Khorasan and even the Mughals in India.

The Mongol campaigns of the early 13th century devastated the countryside, and the first years of Il-khanid rule were devoted to reconstructing the land and economy. Only two major buildings date from the second half of the century (and both of them are known mainly through archeology), but their individuality already reflects the concerns of the new rulers. The first known act of architectural patronage by the Il-khanids after their conquest of Baghdad in 1258 was the construction of an observatory on a hill five hundred meters north of the summer capital at Marāḡa (Wilber, no. 9). Amply funded by Hulāgu /Hülegü (q.v.), the institution was set up in 1259 under the renowned astronomer Naṣir-al-Din Ṭusi and supplied with instruments by the Damascene Moʾayyad-al-Din Ordi. Excavations of the site by Parviz Varjāvand in the 1960s and 1970s (Varjāvand, pp. 527-36) revealed sixteen units, including a central tower containing a quadrant 45 meters in diameter, a foundry for the manufacture of astronomical instruments, five round towers, and several several large buildings (Plate I). The observatory’s importance is evident from both the quantity and quality of the materials found there (which included baked brick and glazed and luster tiles; Plate II) and the building’s enduring legacy (it seems to have inspired the Timurid ruler Uluḡ Beg to build another in Samarkand nearly two centuries later).

The Il-Khanids maintained the nomadic practice of winter (qešlāq) and summer (yeylāq) camps with elaborate tents, wintering in the warm lands of Mesopotamia around Baghdad and summering in the highlands of Azerbaijan. There, as part of their sedentarization, Hülegü’s son Abaqa (q.v.) began construction of a summer palace southeast of Lake Urmia (Huff, III, pp. 1-31). Completed under his son Arḡun (r. 1284-91, q.v.), the site, known as Taḵt-e Solaymān, stands on the foundations of the Zoroastrian sanctuary of Šiz, which had been favored by the Sasanian kings (see ĀDUR GUŠNASP and also INVESTITURE iii.). German excavations in the 1970s uncovered massive oval walls protected by towers and accessed by a new gate on the south (Plate III). The palace itself had a huge central courtyard (125 x 150 m) that was oriented north-south and encompassed an artificial lake. A portico with ayvāns (q.v.) on the four sides surrounded the courtyard. The north ayvān led to a domed room, which occupied the site of the Sasanian fire temple and probably served as Abaqa’s audience hall. The west ayvān led to a transverse hall flanked by two octagonal pavilions, and the many fragments found there suggest that this area, which had been the throne room of the Sasanian king Ḵosrow II Parvēz (r. 591-628), served as the living quarters of the Il-khanid ruler. The halls and pavilions were lavishly decorated in stucco, including elaborate moqarnas vaults, and tile, including six types ranging from underglaze painting and monochrome glazing to overglaze luster-painting and lājvardina (Qučāni, pp. 74-103). Along with traditional geometric, floral, and figural designs, the tiles were also decorated with new motifs such as dragons and phoenixes as well as scenes and verses from the Šāh-nāma. Both the choice of site and the themes of decoration suggest that the Il-khanid rulers were trying to link themselves to the glorious Persian past.

Ḡāzān’s official conversion to Islam in 695/1295 and the concomitant economic reforms carried out under his vizier Rašid-al-Din Fażl-Allāh led to an upsurge in architectural patronage. The prosperity of the Il-khanid state was based on long-distance east-west trade, and to support it caravansaries were built across the realm. The few that survive at Marand (ca. 1330), Sin (730/1330), and Sarčam (733/1333) show a typical rectangular plan protected by bastions and entered through a single monumental portal that led to a large open courtyard (Wilber, nos. 85, 89-90). This plan, which had already been standard in Saljuq times (e.g., Rebāt Šaraf, begun 508/1114-15), set the norm through the Safavid period.

Caravansaries were also built within cities. The best example to survive is the superb Khan Mirjān (760/1359), ordered by the Jalayerid governor of Baghdad to support his nearby complex that included a madrasa, moṣallā (prayer hall), and tomb (Janabi, pp. 111-46). The building itself comprises a huge (45 x 27 m), two-story hall spanned by eight transverse arches supporting stepped vaults crowned with domes on squinches. The sophisticated roofing system, which allows light to reach the interior, shows that the governor considered the commercial construction on a par with the other parts of the complex that have not survived.

Secular structures tend to deteriorate through constant use, and much of the construction that survives from the Il-khanid period post-1295 concerns the new state religion of Islam. Ḡāzān ordered a mosque and bath built in every town, with the revenue from the latter to be used to support the former (Rašid-al-Din, p. 1087; tr., p. 743). Many standing congregational mosques were rebuilt or restored, as at Ardabil (early 14th century) and Isfahan (710/1310; Wilber, nos. 40, 48; van Berchem). In other cases, new mosques were constructed. The new ones take a variety of forms. Smaller examples, such as those built in the 1330s in the Isfahan oasis along the Zāyandarud at Dašti, Kāj, and Ezirān and perhaps as far downstream as Barsiān, comprise a single dome chamber (Wilber, nos. 69-71). Larger examples usually contain ayvāns, ranging from one or two (Aštarjān, 715/1315-16; Wilber, no. 49) to the standard four (Hafšuya, early 14th century; Ker-mān, 750/1349; Wilber, no. 97).

The most stunning is the mammoth single-ayvān mosque constructed by the vizier Tāj-al-Din ʿAlišāh (q.v.) at Tabriz around 1315 (Wilber, no. 51). Set on the qebla side of a large courtyard, the ayvān, which was flanked by a madrasa and ḵānaqāh (hospice for Sufis), sprang from walls 10 meters thick and 25 meters deep (Plate IV). Although the vault spanning some 30 meters has since collapsed, the walls still bear pockmarks from cannon shots lodged when it served as a citadel (arg) in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was lauded in its own time by Ḥamd-Allāh Mosawfi (Nozhat al-qolub, ed. Le Strange, pp. 76-77; tr. Le Strange, p. 80) as a congregational mosque with a ruined hall (ṣoffa) larger than the Sasanian palace at Ctesiphon, and was considered one of the wonders of the world (Kārang, pp. 240 ff.).

The best-preserved example of the standard, four-ayvān plan is the mosque constructed by a local family of viziers serving the ruler Abu Saʿid Bahādor Khan at Varāmin south of present-day Tehran (722-26/1322-26; Wilber, no. 64). The plan of four ayvāns set around a courtyard with a dome chamber behind the qebla ayvān had been standard since the renovations of the Friday Mosque at Isfahan under the Saljuqs in the late 11th and early 12th centuries. The dome chamber at Varāmin also shows the classic tripartite elevation developed in the Saljuq period of square base, zone of transition with four squinches alternating with four blind arches, and dome. The Il-khanid mosque at Varāmin is distinguished from its Saljuq antecedents, however, by its attenuated proportions, small courtyard, and extensive but routine use of tile mosaic.

Il-khanid builders also elaborated the standard, four-ayvān plan, and mosques in Yazd and its environs show a distinct variant with rectangular halls covered with transverse vaults added on the qebla side flanking the south ayvān and dome chamber. This plan appears in the congregational mosque at Yazd, rebuilt in 725/1324-25 by a local notable Šams-al-Din Neẓāmi and distinguished by a monumental tiled portal with two tall minarets (Wilber, no.66; Afšār, no. 32). As the patron had spent much of this time in Tabriz, where he married Rašid-al-Din’s daughter, such other new features as the galleries on the upper floor and the easy flow of space between sanctuary and side halls were probably copied from now-lost buildings in the Il-khanid capitals of northwest Persia. In the same way, texts (e.g., Jaʿfari, pp. 88-89) tell us that plans for other buildings in Yazd, such as Šams-al-Din’s own tomb funerary complex in Yazd, known as the Madrasa-ye Šamsiya (begun 727/1327; Wilber, no. 107; Afšār, no. 137), were sent from Tabriz (Jaʿfari, apud Afšār, II, pp. 591-92). The buildings in central Persia have survived better than those in the northwest, and their superb tile revetment also allows us to trace the development of tile mosaic from three or four colors (dark and light blue, white, and black) to the full seven-color palette (with yellow, green, and unglazed brick) and the gradual shift from angular to floral patterns.

The greatest architectural projects from the period are tomb complexes. The first Il-Khanids, like their Mongol forebears, concealed their grave sites; but Muslim rulers beginning with Ḡāzān followed local Islamic practices in building monumental domed tombs, which were typically incorporated into sizeable pious foundations with public services such as mosques, madrasas, hospices for Sufis, hospitals, residences, and the like. The complexes for Ḡāzān and Rašid-al-Din at Tabriz are substantially destroyed (for a reconstruction of the later, see Blair, 1984, pp. 67-90). The best surviving example is the one built by Sultan Oljāytu/Öljeytü at his new capital of Solṭāniya, 120 kilometers northwest of Qazvin on the road to Tabriz (Wilber, no. 47; for complete bibliography, see Akhavan Tavakoli). The tomb itself is an enormous octagon, measuring some 38 meters in diameter and oriented almost cardinally, with a rectangular hall (15 x 20 m) appended on the south. Crowned by eight minarets and surmounted by a dome almost 50 meters high, the octagon contains a vast hall surrounded by eight arched openings with balconies overlooking the interior (Plate V). On the exterior, blocked off from the interior, is another ring of galleries, which display a bewildering array of carved plaster motifs painted in red, yellow, green, and white. Many of the designs there resemble those found in contemporary book illumination, suggesting that Il-khanid designers were the first to use paper patterns to execute similar designs on different scales (Plate VI). The lofty interior of the tomb, one of the largest uninterrupted spaces of medieval times, and the subtle interpenetration of volumes make this building a landmark of world architecture in which the sultan’s desire for immortality was deftly realized, and the tomb provided the model for the Gur-e Mir, Timur’s tomb in Samarkand, and ultimately the Taj Mahal in Agra.

Il-khanid royal tombs are marked by enormous size (and prodigious endowments), but other dignitaries and notables built smaller versions, both for themselves and for local saints and Sufis, some living and some dead (Golombek, pp. 419-30). At Naṭanz, in central Persia, for example, in the first decade of the 14th century, the vizier Zayn-al-Din Mastari refurbished the local mosque and added a three-story minaret and ḵānaqāh around the tomb he built for the Sufi shaikh ʿAbd-al-Ṣamad (d. 699/1299?; Blair, 1986). The glory of the tomb is the moqarnas vault, the finest to survive from the period. Marks in the plaster show that the tomb’s lower walls were once revetted with luster tiles made at nearby Kāšān, and many tiles, including a concave hood that once surmounted the prayer niche (meḥrāb) and a large frieze with birds whose heads were later defaced by a zealous iconoclast, can be traced to museums around the world. The upper walls of tomb and mosque were decorated with superbly carved stucco, part of it signed by the master craftsman Ḥaydar, who also designed the finest sculptural achievement of the age, the stunning meḥrāb added to the winter prayer hall in the mosque at Isfahan in Ṣafar 710/June-July 1310, following Sultan Üljeytü’s conversion to Shi’ism (van Berchem, pp. 367-78; Blair and Bloom, 1994, fig. 12).

Smaller, freestanding tomb towers were also built. The octagonal one at Solṭāniya known as the tomb of Čelebi Oḡlu marks the grave of the crypto-shamanic dervish Barāq Bābā (d. 708/1308; q.v.; Wilber, no. 80). To judge from its form and details, it served as the model for the Emāmzāda Jaʿfar at Isfahan, built to commemorate the grave of an ʿAlid Shaikh and descendant of the Fifth Imam, who died in 725/1325 (Wilber, no. 68). A tower’s form therefore did not mark sectarian affiliations. Such similar buildings also show that specialized workers moved from site to site. These included not only builders but also tile workers. The ones employed at Naṭanz in the first decade of the 14th century, for example, then went to Solṭāniya in the second. The interiors of the fanciest tombs and shrines, like the palace at Taḵt-e Solaymān, were revetted in luster tiles imported from Kāšān, which were used to cover the walls, meḥrāb, and cenotaph. The breakup of the Il-khanid empire following the death of the last major ruler Abu Saʿid in 736/1335 heralded the end of luster production. On the later pieces the quality of the painting declines, and the inscriptions on one tile dated 739/1338 ask God to protect the city from the accidents of time. Such a plea, perhaps in face of declining commissions, went unheeded, for a single tile dated 740/1339 marks the end of 140 years of production.



Iraj Afšār, Yādgārhā-ye Yazd, 3 vols., Tehran, 1969–75.

Farnaz Akhavan Tavakoli, A Bibliography of Sultanyeh, Iranian Cultural Heritage Foundation, Tehran, 2002.

Max van Berchem, “Une inscription du sultan mongol Uldjaitu,” in Mélanges Hartwig Derenbourg, Paris, 1909, pp. 367-78.

Sheila S. Blair, “Il-khanid Architecture and Society: An Analysis of the Endowment Deed of the Rabʿ-e Rashidi,” Iran 22, 1984, pp. 67-90.

Idem, The Il-khanid Shrine Complex at Natanz, Iran, Harvard Middle East Papers, Classical Series 1, Cambridge, Mass., 1986.

Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom, “Architecture in Iran and Central Asia under the Il-khanids and Their Successors,” in idem, ed., The Art and Architecture of Islam 1250-1800, New Haven and London, 1994, pp. 5-20.

Idem, “Islamic Mongols: From the Mongol Invasions to the Il-khanids: Architecture,” in Markus Hattstein and Peter Delius, ed., Islam: Art and Architecture, Cologne, 2000, pp. 392-99 (good color pictures).

Lisa Golombek, “The Cult of Saints and Shrine Architecture in the Fourteenth Century,” in Dickran Kouymjian, ed., Near Eastern Numismatics, Iconography, Epigraphy and History: Studies in Honor of George C. Miles, Beirut, 1974, pp. 419-30.

Dietrich Huff, “Takht-i Suleiman: Vorläufiger Bericht über die Ausgrabungen im Jahr 1976,” AMI, N.S. 10, 1977, pp. 211-30.

Idem, “Taḵt-e Solaymān,” in Moḥammad-Yusof Kiāni, ed., Šahrhā-ye Irān: Irān: naẓar-i ejmāli ba šahr-nešini o šahr-sāzi dar Irān/Iranian Cities: General Study on Urbanization and Urban Planning in Iran, 4 vols., Tehran, 1986-91, III, pp. 1-33.

Jaʿfar b. Moḥammad Jaʿfari, Tāriḵ-e Yazd, ed. Iraj Afšār, Tehran, 1959.

Tariq Jawad Janabi, Studies in Medieval Iraqi Architecture, Baghdad, 1982, pp. 111-46.

ʿAbd-al-ʿAli Kārang, Āṯār-e bāstāni-e Āḏar-bāyjān: āṯār wa abnia-ye tāriḵi-e šahrestān-e Tabriz I, Tehran, 1972.

Tomoko Masuya, “Il-khanid Courtly Life,” in Linda Komarof and Stefano Carboni, eds., The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Persia, 1256-1353, New York, 2002, pp. 74-103.

Bernard O’Kane, “Monumentality in Mamluk and Mongol Art and Architecture,” Art History 19/4, 1996, pp. 499-522.

ʿAbd-Allāh Qučāni, Ašʿār-e fārsi-e kāšihā-ye Taḵt-e Solaymān, Tehran, 1992 (with English summary).

Rašid-al-Din Fażl-Allāh Hamadāni, Jāmeʿ al-tawāriḵ, ed. Bahman Karimi, 2 vols., Tehran, 1983; tr. Wheeler M. Thackston as Rashiduddin Fazlullah’s Compendium of Chronicles, Cambridge, Mass, 1999.

Parviz Vardjāvand, “La Découverte archéologique du complexe scientifique de l’observatoire de Maraqé,” in Akten des VII. Internationalen Kongresses für Iranische Kunst und Archäologie, Munich 7-10 September 1976, Berlin, 1979, pp. 527-36.

Idem, Kāvoš-e raṣad-ḵāna-ye Marāḡa wa negāh-i ba pišina-ye dāneš-e setāra-šenāsi dar Irān, Tehran, 1987.

Oliver Watson, Persian Lustre Ware, London, 1985.

Donald Wilber, The Architecture of Islamic Iran: The Il-Khanid Period, Princeton, 1955; repr., New York, 1969.

(Sheila S. Blair)

Originally Published: December 15, 2004

Last Updated: March 27, 2012

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Vol. XII, Fasc. 6, pp. 654-658