The city of Yazd is located in the center of Iran, in a vast dry rain shadow desert valley overlooked by the Shir Kuh, Iran's highest mountain range. Yazd was probably founded by the Sassanids, and grew in eminence as a junction of trade routes linking the cities of Isfahan, Kerman and Neyshabur. It has, since the Arab conquest in 642, continued to be an urban settlement shaped and characterized by mud domes and wind tower architectural forms, extensive subterranean canal systems (qanats) and quarters of Zoroastrian and Jewish minorities. The earliest known descriptions, dating from the tenth century describe a well-built, fortified city with iron gates, then known as Kathah in the larger province of Yazd.
The Kakuyids established a series of villages and reinforced the network of qanats around Yazd. Hence greatly contributing to the rapid urbanization of the region in the eleventh century. Yazd under the subsequent rule of the Atabegs survived the Mongol invasion of Persia in 1220 to later become a refuge for Islamic culture and learning. The Il-Khanid rule under Sayyid Rukn al Din in the fourteenth century witnessed an increase in construction with the use of the waqf as an instrument for urban development. The Muzaffarid conquest in 1313 ushered in an era of prosperity and development as Yazd became capital to the provinces of Kerman, Fars and Shiraz.
Large urban design projects were initiated and the city walls were rebuilt in 1346-7, nearly doubling the size of the city. The complex of Vaqt va Sat comprising of a shrine, library, college and observatory was constructed next to the Atabeg Friday mosque, which was itself reconstructed half a century later in 1375.The Timurid conquest reinforced Yazd's status as an important military stronghold in central Iran when defense walls and fortifications were added to the city's southern limits in 1395. Yazd became a center of religious education under the reign of the Timurid governor, Amir Chaqmaq. Yazd passed into Safavid control in the early sixteenth century, as a city of little importance and alternately part of the provinces of Fars, Kerman and Khurasan. The invasion and unstable rule by the Ghalzai Afghans in the 1720s furthered the city's deterioration with little new development till 1747. A succession of able governors beginning with Mohammad Taqi Khan (1747-1798) partially restored the city's lost glory with construction and repair of qanats, villages, gardens, caravan-serais and defense outposts.
Yazd's existence in an arid region was made possible by an extensive system of sloping subterranean man made infiltration tunnels which conduit fresh water from the surrounding highlands. Some of these conduits, called qanats are as long as 50 kilometres in length, though the most do not exceed five kilometres. The extreme climate also evolved architecture obsessed with insulation by mud bricks and thick walls as well as cooling by ventilation structures called badgirs. A badgir is a vertical wind catching structure on the roof that directs and cools trapped wind over small water pools within the building.
Bonine, Michael Edward. "Yazd and its Hinterland: A central place system of dominance in the central Iranian plateau." Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 1975.
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Yazd Province." Iran Travel and Tourism Organization. http://www.yazdcity.com/english/indexen.htm [Site inaccessible as of 11 August, 2016]
"Iranian Architecture." http://www.irania.tv/city/yazd/ [Site inaccessible as of 11 August, 2016]
The Shamsiya Madrasa is a funerary madrasa designed and built by order of Amir Shams ad-Din (1329-1330), son of Rukn ad-Din (1277-1295). Built as a madrasa during his lifetime, upon Shams ad-Din's death in 1365, the Shamsiya Madrasa also served as his tomb. Historical records reveal that his wife had ordered his body to be laid to rest there. The date 1365 is inscribed on a marble tombstone that was ordered to be sent along with the body from Tabriz. The completion of the madrasa must have thus taken place sometime prior to 1365, the year of his death.
According to a survey undertaken in the 1970s by Renata Holod-Tretiak, a great portion of the Shamsiya was in ruins, with only the walls of the tomb chamber, the portal iwan, and the walls surrounding the court left standing. Robert Hillenbrand has published a reconstructed plan of the original madrasa, which is made up of a four-iwan courtyard surrounded by rooms, with each lateral side a mirror copy of the other along the axis terminating in the main domed chamber that projects from the perimeter of the madrasa proper.
The madrasa is organized around a small central courtyard 12 meters long by 10.5 meters wide. Although its composition reflects that of a typical four-iwan courtyard madrasa, greater emphasis is placed on the mirroring axis that culminates in the tomb chamber. It is entered from the north through a square chamber which opens onto the courtyard and was flanked by two large halls of equal size, now in ruins. In the courtyard, the portal iwan to the tomb chamber projects higher than the rest of the courtyard perimeter walls, while the lateral walls are articulated as tripartite arcades with the center arch of larger size. The lateral walls of each of the halls were also organized in a similar tripartite composition, with the center niche or arched opening of larger size than either of the flanking niches.
This reconstruction reveals that the portal iwan was vaulted, and had a doorway on each side leading to corner rooms. Each chamber around the courtyard was connected to the next with doorways, thus creating a circumambulatory space around the courtyard. Student accommodation was organized around upper level of the courtyard. Of these rooms, only the courtyard facades survive.
The main sanctuary space is rectangular in shape, measuring 9 meters by 6.5 meters. Wide apses project at the center of each of the sides, with the southeast apse containing the mihrab. These apses are framed with segmental pointed arches whose tympanum is decorated with a pattern of painted leaves. Although the ceiling and dome of the main chamber has not survived, it is believed that a small ornamental dome of plaster kite-shaped panels spanned the ceiling at the center, while four half-domes at each of the four arches reduced the rectangle to a square below it. The portal iwan is 8.8 meters long by 4.6 meters wide with a pointed barrel vault. It contains a gallery along its back wall that is accessed by stairs adjacent to the hall to the southeast, and five panels of pointed arches along each lateral side resembling an arcade. Both the dome chamber and the portal iwan are decorated with painted panels of carved plaster in low relief. Albeit now in ruins, the face of the portal iwan and the surfaces of the courtyard arcades are decorated with mosaic faience.
Hillenbrand, Robert. 2000. Islamic Architecture: Form, Function, and Meaning. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 224,226,520.
Holod-Tretiak, Renata. 1973. The Monuments of Yazd, 1300-1450: Architecture, Patronage and Setting. Ph. D. Thesis. Harvard University.
Pope, Arthur Upham and Phyllis Ackerman. 1977. A Survey of Persian Art. Tehran: Soroush Press, 1090-1091.
Pourjavady, N. (ed.) and E. Booth-Clibborn. 2001. The Splendour of Iran. London: Booth-Clibborn Editions, 167, 475.
Wilber, Donald N. 1955. The Architecture of Islamic Iran: The Il Khanid Period. New York: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 103,186.