Shaykh Abu'l-Fath Ishaq, known as Safi al-Din Ardabili (b. 1252/3), is the eponymous founder of the Safawiyya order of Sufiism and is hence considered the founder of the Safavid Dynasty. Upon his death in 1334, he was buried in a tomb tower adjoining his khanqah outside the city walls of Ardabil. His burial site became a center of pilgrimage soon after, one richly endowed by Safavid rulers, many of whom were also buried there. Caravanserais, hospices, khans, baths and soup kitchens were built in Ardabil to serve the pilgrims, supported by wealthy waqfs. Following the Afghan invasion of Iran in 1722 and subsequent divestment in the shrine and the city, pilgrimage traffic dwindled. The shrine fell into disrepair; neglect and war damage took their toll until repairs were undertaken in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Iran Archaeological Service undertook extensive restoration of the shrine in the 1940s; the site continues to draw over a hundred thousand pilgrims and tourists every year.
The overall plan of the complex was developed, modified and renovated over many centuries. It consists of tombs and shrine structures clustered around a single rectangular courtyard centered on a fountain. The exterior of the complex is irregular and features plain brick and tiled walls. The main entrance to the shrine courtyard is through a small forecourt, which is located at the end of a long and narrow walled garden established in the fifteenth century. The garden is aligned northwest-southeast, whereas the shrine buildings (with the exception of the Chinikhana) are aligned with qibla slightly east of south.
The original gate, a Safavid structure built in 1647-48 at the northwest end of the gardens, is replaced today by a contemporary brick structure containing shops. Entering the gate, a thirty-meter-wide garden centered on a tree-lined path extends southeast for one hundred and twenty meters before the portal of the shrine forecourt. The forecourt meets the gardens at a thirty degree angle and leads directly into the shrine courtyard.
The north and south façades of the courtyard are similarly composed, featuring tall central iwans flanked by arched niches. The central iwan on the south is used as the Dar al-Hadith, while that on the north leads into a large octagonal hall known as the Jannatara. Behind the eastern façade is the Dar al-Huffaz, a rectangular prayer hall adjoined by four halls of different sizes: the Chinikhana (east), the Tombs of Shaykh Safi and Shah Isma'il (south), and the Haramkhana (southeast). The latter three are articulated as cylindrical tomb towers with domes on the exterior. The west side of the courtyard, which contains the entrance, is occupied by the ruins of two Chilakhanas.
Dar al-Hadith and Masjid-i Jannatara: The north and south sides of the shrine courtyard were probably built around 1537 by Safavid Shah Tasmasb I (1524-1576), and have tripartite facades composed of a central iwan flanked by arched niches and decorated with polychrome tilework above a stone dado and a band of sandstone. The deeper iwan to the south is the Dar al-Hadith; it is blocked by a wooden lattice screen. It is flanked by smaller halls that were entered separately from the courtyard, now closed. The shallow iwan to the north is also enclosed with a wooden screen and leads into the Jannatara, a large octagonal structure covered with a shallow dome that projects into the Shahidgah cemetery to its north. Two smaller rooms on either side of the iwan provide alternative access into the room. Inside, the Jannatara is about twenty-one meters in diameter. Its walls, which are about six meters thick, are carved with deep semi-octagonal niches on five sides. Four of its niches face the exterior, while the northern niche, which is located across from the courtyard entrance, faces the interior. The plain exterior reveals a stone base and brick wall construction, while its interior is adorned simply with decorative brickwork. Two of the niches have doors leading out into the cemetery, while a third gives access to a staircase leading up to the roof. Known as the Masjid-i Jannatara, and used currently as a mosque, the hall may have been a funerary structure or a royal loggia.
Dar al-Huffaz: The Dar al-Huffaz was built after Shaykh Safi's death at the end of the fourteenth century by his son or grandson. The rectangular prayer hall is 8.9 meters by 5.8 meters, but with the approximately 3-meter-deep alcoves on either of the long sides, the dimensions of the entire structure are approximately 11.5 meters long by 6 meters wide. There are three equal alcoves along each of the long sides that have corresponding loggias on the top floor. In addition to the three bays of alcoves, there is an entrance bay at the north end, followed by a second smaller bay preceding the alcoved bays, and a bay at the south end which serves as a transition space between the prayer hall and the Shahnishin. In total, and as articulated by the courtyard façade, there are five bays that make up the interior space of the Dar al-Huffaz with a sixth bay as its entrance. At this entrance bay, the Dar al-Huffaz is entered perpendicularly from the northwest by a large pishtaq. There is a second story above the entrance bay that is accessed through a spiral staircase tucked in the wall of the room located directly behind the entrance pishtaq.
Tomb Tower of Shaykh Safi: The tomb tower is connected to the Dar al-Huffaz prayer hall by a semi-octagonal bay known as the Shahnishin. The Shahnishin is believed to have been built together with Shaykh Safi's tomb tower, revealing the tomb tower to have been a freestanding structure that was entered from the north through the open exterior portal (now the Shahnishin). The Shanishin is raised thirty centimeters from the floor of the Dar al-Huffaz and has two windows on either side, with the one to the east serving as an entrance to the tomb of Shah Isma'il. The second oldest element of the complex, the tomb tower of Shaykh Safi himself, was built in 1345. Although Shaykh Safi had requested to be buried in a cemetery west of Ardabil, Sadr al-din Musi, his son and successor, chose instead to bury the Shaykh at his zawiya, following the advice of elders. The cylindrical tomb tower, with a 22 meter circumference and a total height of 17.5 meters, including its dome, stands in its place. It is easily recognized from its height and decoration: it is the tallest of the cluster of three domes to the southern side of the complex, and its exterior glazed brick decoration spells out "Allah" in large hazarbaf script. The cylindrical brick body of the tower is raised on a 1.5 meter tall stone plinth, and although there is a door facing the south cemetery side of the complex, this height implies that it is not a door to be entered, but was instead representative of the direction of the qibla.
Tomb of Shah Isma'il: Located between the tomb tower of Shaykh Safi and the Haramkhana, and recognizeable from the exterior as the smallest of the three domes to the south of the complex, is the tomb of Shah Isma'il. It was built by his wife, Tajlu Khanum, sometime between 1524 and 1529. The tomb tower of Shah Isma'il is articulated from the exterior by a tall octagonal drum, a transition zone of a circular drum, and a dome. Both the cylindrical drum and the dome are ornamented with glazed tile, while the octagonal body is of glazed plain brick. The interior space is entered through an opening on the east side of the Shahnishin. The interior is a small square in plan, and most of the space is occupied by the wooden cenotaph of Shah Isma'il. One small window faces the tomb tower of Shaykh Safi. Dark blue tiles with gold painted floral medallions cover the walls up to two meters, above which are bands of painted stucco floral decoration and epigraphy. The ceiling is also painted blue stucco with gold floral motifs. The transition between the octagonal body and the dome is articulated in the interior by corner squinch arches that are subdivided into kite arches, rising to form a star-shaped canopy at the center.
Haramkhana: The oldest element of the complex was built by Shaykh Safi himself, as a tomb for his oldest son, Muhiy al-Din, who died in 1324, during the Shaykh's lifetime. Now known as the Haramkhana, it is unusual in one aspect: three-dimensionally, it is articulated by a five-square-meter plan, and its dome is separated by two distinct transition zones: a circular band and then beveled squinch arches that expose the transition from square to circle on the exterior. Presently (2006) the exterior is decorated with glazed turquoise colored brickwork, while the interior is whitewashed with an inscription band around the circumference stating the name of Muhiy al-Din. In addition to Shaykh Safi's eldest son, his wife, daughter, and perhaps other relatives are also buried in the Haramkhana. It can be assumed that the structure already functioned as a memorial during Shaykh Safi's lifetime.
Chinikhana: Another element of the complex which was originally freestanding, but which is now connected to and entered through the Dar al-Huffaz, is the Chinikhana (also known as the "Dome of the Princes" or the "Porcelain House"). As a whole, its exterior is expressed as a solid octagonal extrusion of baked brick on a stone foundation with two openings (one above the other) on every other side. Semi-cylindrical buttresses are attached to the alternate sides between openings. The structure is topped with semi-circular domes on each of the fenestrated sides and a large central dome. The point where the Chinikhana connects to the Dar al-Huffaz was originally an entrance iwan facing west. Within, deep alcoves are found below the semi-circular domes, and the central space is square in plan with beveled corners. While the exterior lacks any decoration and is articulated only with backed brick and a slightly projecting, thin perimeter band dividing the elevation horizontally into two equal parts, the interior is lavishly articulated. A dado of glazed tile encircles the room up to almost six feet in height, and above this are numerous plaster-carved niches of different sizes and shapes, presumably meant to house and display various artifacts. Notably, the Chinikhana (unlike the rest of the complex, which is oriented to qibla, slightly east of south) is oriented east-west. Although the Chinikhana is believed to have originally been the mausoleum for the princes, following the seventeeth century renovation ordered by Shah 'Abbas I, it became a kind of museum for the display of china.
The Chilakhanas: West of the courtyard and opposite the Dar al-Huffaz are the ruins of the two Chilakhanas, both believed to have been built in the 14th century by Sadr al-din Musa. The southernmost one was renovated in the 16th century. Nothing remains of the northernmost Chilakhana, but a square enclosure belonging to the southern Chilakhana still stands. The wall facing onto the shrine courtyard has large windows, and it is believed that this Chilakhana was composed of two stories of small rooms around its square perimeter with a large dome covering the entire footprint. According to historical texts, the Chilakhana had a total of forty rooms and served both as a hostel and trading centre.
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