Guiding Design Patterns in Qajarid Architecture and Decoration

IQSA 2009 Conference: Architecture in Qajar Persia

IQSA and Institut für Iranistik

Vienna, Austria, 4-5 June


The paper provides proof for Gulru Nacipoglu’s hypotheses and findings in her book, The Topkapi Scroll: Geometry and Ornament in Islamic Architecture (1995). It takes up its claim that architectural plans and decorations in Iran (at least from the Safavid period onwards) followed preconceived design patterns. While Necipoglu pursues this argument on the basis of the analysis of architectural scrolls, the article approaches the question from the other side, showing how systematics of such scrolls can be found in actual buildings of the time. The cases studied are from the second half of the nineteenth century in Shiraz and Isfahan.

The Hypothesis

Studies on Iranian architecture have traditionally considered improvisation as being central to the design of Islamic buildings and their decoration. Some have even doubted if Iranian architects ever used architectural plans, suggesting buildings were rather conceived on site and plans directly laid down on the ground. The absence of architectural plans or models has been considered as a proof. However, as shown by Gulru Nacipoglu in The Topkapi Scroll (1995) such plans do exist although they might be few in number. By studying the existing scrolls and examining historical evidence, Nacipoglu suggests that the application of such plans was a common practice in Iran from the Safavid period onwards. One instance is where Engelbert Kaempfer speaks of Safavid architects at the end of the eleventh century AH who architectural plans in the form of scrolls in designing royal buildings. In a text dating back to 1660 AD, Raphael Du Mans confirms the use of plans by Iranian architects while reminding the reader that the architects are unable to draw elevations or perspective in a western manner ‘showing the building in its finished phase’.[1] The oldest set of architectural maps that exist today, according to Nacipoglu, is the Topkapi scroll belonging to an Iranian architect of the late ninth or early tenth century AH. (Fig.1) Similar scrolls pertaining to Qajarid period have been found in Iran. The case of Caspar Purdon Clarke is among the examples. A freemason and construction supervisor of Britian’s Embassy in Tehran, he managed to find access to the secrets of Tehran architects’ guild. In return for teaching the guild master’s son how to cast gypsum in gelatine moulds he acquired in Jan. 1876 the architectural scroll ascribed to Mirza Akbar, the architect of the Qajarid court, (Fig. 2) preserved today in Victoria and Albert Museum.[2] The secrecy through which such scrolls were kept explains why so few of them have reached our time. We know of one of the last traditional Iranian architects, Sha’rbaf, who refused to pass his scroll even to his son.[3]

Clarke explains how Iranian architects drew and used such plans:

So well concealed are the methods used by oriental craftsmen to produce the work, which often puzzles us by its complexity, that travellers have been deceived into believing that by some intuitive faculty the Eastern master-builder is able to dispense with plans, elevations and sections, and start the foundations of the various parts of his structure without a precise predeterminations of the bulk and requirements of the several parts. To all appearance the Persian master-builder is independent of the aid of plans. When engaged to build a house he first roughly levels the ground and then traces out the position of the walls (full size) with powdered “gatch” or plaster of Paris, apparently without other measurement than foot paces. Actually he has first of all worked out the general scheme, not as our architects do, on plain paper, but on a sectional lined tracing board, every square of which represents either one or four bricks. These tracing boards are the key to the mystery of their craft, and masons will understand the significance of the discovery that they represent in miniature scale the floor of the master-builder’s workroom…

The surface is ruled both ways with fine lines parallel to the sides, like the sectional paper used by engineers. It is protected by a coat of varnish, which allows the drawing to be washed off when done with. The system of planning is simple, as in Persia the bricks are square. A reed pen or brush is used to dot with Indian ink each small square which represents either one or four bricks, and when the design has been found to work out satisfactorily the squares are filled up with black and the plan is ready. It is then copied by an assistant on to similar squared paper and work is set out by laying bricks corresponding with those on the plan. Error is not possible, as the squares confine the sizes to brick dimensions, and as only one system of bond is used the number of bricks required for the intended structure is easily computed by counting the squares and multiplying by the height after deducing the openings. When transferred to paper for future references a curious custom is followed which bears the signs of great antiquity. These drawings are not kept separate nor bound as books, but are fastened together side by side with gum, like the Hebrew rolls of the Law, and are preserved in rolls which, when open, extend about 20 feet… . [4]

Figure 3 is a pictorial evidence of how such a tracing board was used by the architects as illustrated in a miniature.

On the basis of the same scrolls, Nacipoglu also concludes that Iranian architects must have been the designers of buildings decorations as well. This is because the scrolls also included decorative patterns and treated architectural design pattern and decorative ones in a same manner and alongside one another. Fig. 2 shows how these are juxtaposed.

In what follows, the paper considers nine prominent Qajarid buildings, three in Isfahan and six in Shiraz examining whether Nacipoglu’s hypotheses do stand while illustrating further characteristics of these guiding design patterns.


The building studied here pertain to the second half of the nineteenth century are buildings which, although eclectic in style, still follow traditional designs. Construction dates and duration of the studied buildings can be found in Fig. 4. Commissioned by local authorities and local in style, they were intended to be seen by a large number of people and as such, had some kind of urban functions. However, none of them are governmental and are not built by the order of the central government. The architectural evidence remaining from this period is fortunately not so scarce as to leave in complete ambiguity, as it is the case with many buildings of earlier periods, the artists and craftsmen who built the buildings or the way their construction was executed. Thus, for the researcher the Qajarid architecture enjoys this special merit that can prove helpful in forming a better understanding of methods that might date centuries back.

It took very long for some of these buildings to be completed: in the case of Seyyed mosque, for instance, the building decoration remained unfinished even after 56 years after the construction had started and continued. When the budget was gradually supplied, so was the building design. However, this is not to say that such buildings were improvised.

If, as stated by Nacipoglu, building plans were drawn using a grid system then it should be possible discern such grid in the actual buildings of the time. Figures 5 and 6 show how this was tested on the studied buildings. Courtyard boundaries and column axes were taken as reference points and the distance between them were divided into different modules and tried on the plan until grid would fit. All nine buildings fit into grids. In some cases, the grid needs to be rotated so as to keep harmony with the rest of the site plan. There are also slight discrepancies, due to execution, surveying and drawing errors; however, the result is too consistent to be accidental. Now, if each square in the architects’ tracing-boards corresponded to one or four bricks, the grid modules (shown in Table 1) should also conform to brick sizes in actual buildings. Again, the results are consistent. Even the extra-large Moshir Mosque bricks conform to grid dimensions thus regenerated. During the construction of Moshir Mosque, Shiraz experienced a horrible earthquake in 1853 which led to the choice of large-size baked bricks, half a meter in length, for a safer and more solid construction. The grid module of the original plan shows how brick dimension was considered by the architect in the design phase.

There also seems to be some relevance between the built area in these buildings and the modules applied. In Fig. 7, built area for every 10000 sqms is compared with the module length in meters.

If scrolls were used to design both buildings and decorations, samples of patterns in the existing scroll should match their counterparts in the existing buildings of the time. Such instances can be found both in the case of Mirza Ali Akbar’s scroll, originally from nineteenth century Shiraz, as well as the Topkapi scroll. Figures 8 and 9 show examples of this.

Further Proposals

Apart from conforming to the scrolls, similarities found between different architectural decorations in the studied buildings show further design patterns and principles. The two hypotheses that can be formed accordingly is that, a) similar patterns are in many instances used in similar ways regardless of the material to which they are applied, and b) patterns have travelled freely in time and location. While a widespread application of similar patterns is a reoccurring theme in classical art, it is to be considered that in the case of Qajarid architecture it is more than an arbitrary resemblance resulting from a general style of an era, but a conscious decision on behalf of the artists and craftsmen who drew inspiration from other works. There are historical and literary as well as objective proofs. For instance, we read in Tarikh-e-Isfahan (History of Isfahan) by Mirza Hassan Khan Jaberi Ansari, a historian contemporary to the buildings here studied, that copying earlier works was considered a kind of practice. He writes,

… [B]ut Ashraf Building had magnificent patterns. [It had] a couple of rooms at the western wing and some other on the south. As I have described in Agahi-ye-Shahan, in 1308 [AH/1890 AC], Zel-ul-Sultan imprisoned Mirza Habibollah Khan Moshir-ul-Molk Ansari in it for a couple of months. For two months I used to watch with much fascination the paintings on walls. Prominent painters would come to copy their patterns and make sketches (or “gartah” as they used to call it) of its unparalleled gypsum works with floral and bird patterns.[5]

In Isfahan, we have the example of Rokn-ul-Molk mosque where a complete epigraph of one Ivan has been copied from Seyyed mosque including the date of construction which precedes more than half a century that of Rokn-ul-Molk mosque!

Figure 10 shows how patterns are quite independent from the material to which they are applied. Figure 11 shows how a similar floral pattern, originally used in Karim Khan Mosque, was used in different buildings in Shiraz. The mosque was known for its perfect architecture which would encourage and justify such copying. The same carvings are also seen in Golestan Palace in Tehran where Qajarid craftsmen from Shiraz were put to work. (Fig. 12) One can even go further and trace resemblances between these patterns and those used in an earlier time, however with some Indian touch, in Taj Mahal which also had its architect from Shiraz. It can be suggested that the forms would move with architects and craftsmen who might have recorded them in scrolls or copied from other buildings. As in the case of other classic Iranian arts, in Qajarid architecture too we confront a system of design that too often applies a common alphabet of forms and individuality of the design is to be sought in the way it is composed.


[1] Gulru Nacipoglu Topkapi Scroll: Geometry and Ornament in Islamic Architecture (Santa Monica: 1995): 11.

[2] Ibid., 20.

[3] Hossein Poornaderi, Sha’rbaf and His Oeuvre: Gereh and Karbandi, vol. II (Tehran: 2000)

[4] Gulru Nacipoglu, ibid., 20-21.

[5] Haj Mirza Hassan Khan Jaberi Ansari, Tarikh-e-Isfahan (History of Isfahan), Jamshid Mazaheri (ed.) (Tehran: 1999): 156.