The Ali Qapu is located on the west side of the Shah Maydan (now Maydan-i Imam or Naqsh-i Jahan) facing the Mosque of Shaykh Lutfallah. Designed as a portal between the maydan and dawlatkhana, or royal precinct consisting of an assemblage of palaces, storehouses and government bureaus, the Ali Qapu was originally smaller in scale. However, the building grew with a series of additions over a sixty year period to accommodate court functions. In its final state, 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. The building began as a two-story gate structure, begun in 1590/1. The upper stories were added over a period of twenty years, with the five story tower begin completed in the year 1615. The front gatehouse and porch were added in 1644.
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.
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, 115-16f, 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. 428-433.
Michell, George. Architecture of the Islamic World. London: Thames and Hudson, 1978. 73, 254.