The Ali Qapu is located on the west side of Isfahan’s main square,
the Maydan-i Shah, also known as Naqsh-i Jahan (“Half the World”) and now
called Maydan-i Imam. It is situated directly across
the square from the Mosque of Shaykh Lutfallah. The
building is at heart a monumental gatehouse, originally conceived as a
two-story atrium communicating between the public maydan and semi-private dawlat-khanah or royal precinct consisting of an assemblage of palaces, storehouses and
government bureaus located to the west of the square. However, it grew to
accommodate other courtly functions, including administration and entertainment.
The building was constructed in several phases.1The original building
consisted of a two-story atrium built flush with the western wall of the square.
The date of this initial building is probably 1590-1595/1000-1004 AH and
corresponds with the first construction of the maydan itself under Safavid Shah
‘Abbas I.2 The first addition was a second tier that doubled the height of
the building and included two more floors. It likely corresponds to a large
renovation of the square that took place from 1602-1604/1011-1012 AH.3 A
fifth and final floor was then added to the tower at some point before 1614/.4
The last major addition to the building occurred some decades later during the
reign of Shah ‘Abbas II, possibly in 1643/1053 AH according to a textual source
that mentions a “talar,” or columned porch, being constructed in this year.5
Thus, in its final form, the building consisted of a five-story
tower fronted by a two-story gatehouse supporting a large columned porch
(talar), affording views over the square. The five-story tower rises
substantially higher than the two-story galleries of the maydan's surrounding
wall that flank it, and is thus visible from afar.
Today, the building is entered through the later two story
gatehouse, rectangular in plan. The ground floor is dominated by a central
vaulted iwan-formed corridor that rises two stories in height. This central
iwan-corridor is bisected toward the back of the building by another corridor
running perpendicular to it. Two rectangular rooms that also open onto the maydan
flank this central vaulted corridor toward the front of the building. These
side rooms are surmounted by second-story galleries that offer vistas onto the
maydan through arched openings.
At the end of the vaulted entrance corridor, one comes to the eastern
wall of the five-story tower, flush with the west side of the maydan, which
originally served as the building's facade. The floors of the five-story tower
served different functions, which are reflected in the varying floor plans. The
ground story, which housed government bureaus is based on a central rectangular
domed chamber with iwans on the south and north sides. Doorways on the north
and south iwans give onto smaller side chambers. On the third floor, a large
rectangular audience hall with vaulted ceilings gives onto the talar porch on
the east and affords views of the royal precinct to the west. Flanking this
room are smaller side chambers. The crowning element of the assemblage is the
so-called "music room" of the fifth floor: a high, airy, cross-shaped
space giving onto smaller side chambers. This cross-shaped central space is
most famous for its ceiling, which is decorated with muqarnas niches carved
with vessel and instrument-shaped perforations and crowned with a lantern vault
bathing the hall with light.
The third-story audience hall opens onto the tall talar porch
surmounting the two-story gatehouse. The porch is supported by eighteen wooden
columns and boasts an ornate ceiling in addition to a central fountain, to
which an elaborate plumbing system brought water from ground level up to the
third story of the building.
Along with the Chihil Sutun and Hasht
Behesht, the Ali Qapu was restored by IsMEO - Istituto Italiano per
il Medio ed Estremo Oriente for NOCHMI - National Organization for Conservation
of Historic Monuments of Iran. The project, completed in 1977, received an Aga
Khan Award for Architecture in 1980.
For archaeological evidence
and relative chronology, see Galdieri, 9-35.
Galdieri, 39 and Babaie, 182f.
Babaie, Sussan. Isfahan and its Palaces: Statecraft and
Shi’ism and the Architecture of Conviviality in Early Modern Iran.
Edinburgh Studies in Islamic Art, edited by Robert Hillenbrand. Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press, 2008. 84-86, 115-116, 182-186.
Blair, Sheila S. and Jonathan M. Bloom. The Art and
Architecture of Islam. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994. 190.
Galdieri, Eugenio. Esfahan, Ali Qapu: An Architectural
Survey. Rome: IsMEO, 1979.
Hillenbrand, Robert. Islamic Architecture: Form, Function,
and Meaning Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000.
McChesney, R. D. "Four Sources on Shah Abbas's Buildings of Isfahan." Muqarnas 5 (1988): 103-134.
Michell, George. Architecture of the Islamic World.
London: Thames and Hudson, 1978. 73, 254.
Necipoglu, Gulru and David Roxburgh. “International Trade and the King’s Silk Monopoly Part Two.” Lesson 20B/22 presentation developed for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture Education Programme, 2019.
The twentieth lesson (part 2 of 2) in a 22 lesson course on Monuments of Islamic Architecture developed by Professors Gulru Necipoglu and David Roxburgh at the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard University. This lesson explores the architectural and social formation of Safavid Isfahan that was shaped by the political and economic aims of Shah ʿAbbas and his successors and the sociopolitical reorganization shared in the alliances and competitions among vested groups. This included a royal monopoly in the silk trade, and their Armenian and European facilitators, as well as the “capitalist” ventures of the new mercantile communities that engaged in long‐distance trade.