The journey to Isfahan without visiting Naqshe-e Jahan square is unfinished. Officially known as Imam Square, this work is considered the central square of Isfahan and is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Visiting this place you will be shown an important part of Isfahan treasure. What brings us to this place is a building on the west side the square telling us a fascinating story of history.
On the west side of the Square and right in front of Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque there is a fascinating and spectacular structure, a six-story building dating back to the Safavid dynasty and one of the most important architectural masterpieces of the early 16th century AD. What has made the building an astonishing attraction is not only its historical antiquity but its eye-catching decorations that dazzle every eye. The artistic plasterwork on this building has been done elegantly, depicting one of the masterpieces of Iranian art.
The history of the Ali Qapu palace
Aftrer that King Abbas the 1st relocated the Safavid capital from Qazvin to Isfahan, constructions began. Actually Ali Qapu was the entrance of some royal buildings next to Naqsh-e Jahan square. The palace was completed and expanded during 5 stages of architecture and between 70 and 100 years under the reign of the successors of Shah Abbas the 1st, especially Shah Abbas the 2end and Shah Suleiman. Even according to inscriptions during the reign of Shah Sultan Hussein, the last king of the Safavids, the third floor decorations have been enlarged or refurbished. The stages are:
1.Building an Entry
Ali Qapu palace was built only as an entrance to other buildings and collections of the royal palaces and was formed at the same time with the constructions of royal complexes. The palaces were buildings surrounded by gardens and used only by the king and courtiers for ceremonial, administrative, judicial and military affairs. These buildings also had space for the king’s living room, dormitory, royal stables, guards, royal clinic and more. Such a large complex needed a proportional entrance that would preserve both these buildings and the context of the new city chosen for the capital.
2.Expansion of the building
The expansion of the capital and the increase of the urban population and the necessity of making the headquarters important, have all contributed to the expansion of the capital and the addition of the constructions. The arches were expanded into the square and a floor was added. With these changes, a portico was created on the upper floor that changed the shape of the building. The vault around the square was two-storied and the third, fourth and half floors of the fifth floor were constructed at this stage.
At this point, a simple entrance was transformed into a ceremonial monument with a view of the square, a place where the king’s guests were welcomed and watched the parade of soldiers and matches performed in the square.
3. Building a music hall
New sections were added at this stage so that the palace could provide a short-term accommodation to court guests. The last floor known as the Music Hall was added to the building and the tower building was completed. This floor was very different in structure and was treated to extraordinary decorations and different uses.
4. Adding a porch
To increase the length of the palace, a section was created on the east of the building, with a porch facing the square. Of course the porch or royal booth was created with the creation of the first adjoining class, but with time and increasing use of the playground, it was no longer sufficient. The square, which was the sole host of merchants’ tents, was now also used as a soldier’s homestead, and the pavilion set up in the earlier stages with a porch and third floor lounge could not be a good place to watch these performances. The booth was too far behind to watch the soldiers line up and polo games and didn’t have a good view. So they decided to build another part about 7 meters ahead. At this stage, they also expanded the entrance to host a high level of celebrity guests and ambassadors during the festivities.
5. Final changes
18 columns were added to the porch, and a wooden ceiling was mounted on them. Royal staircases were also built to provide access to the area. The construction and completion of the water supply system for the transmission of water to the floors, especially the Copper Ivan Basin, was also undertaken at this stage. At this stage it was best completed and met all the needs of the court.
Architecture of Ali Qapu
When we speak about Ali Qapu, we refer to an architectural masterpiece that has certain characteristics.
Different views, different levels
As it mentioned construction on the building took years, even some other sections added to it later. All of these caused an interesting fact that Ali Qapu has different levels from different views. When you are looking at the palace from the square it seems to be a two-storey building, at the back it has five floors and from the sides 3 levels. But how many level does it actually have? To answer you have to enter to the palace then you will see it a six-storey building.
Different parts of the palace
In the past, Ali Qapu Palace had five entrances, the most important of which was overlooking the square , and today visitors come through it. According to historical texts, its wooden door originally belonged to the holey shrine of Imam Ali (AS),the first imam of Shia Muslims, in Najaf, and was brought by Shah Abbas. During the reign of Shah Abbas, this was of particular sanctity among Iranians. No one should have put their foot on it, and if anyone did, they would have been punished. Whenever the king favored anyone, the person would come up to the palace with special rituals, kiss it, and prayed loudly for the king’s greatness and power. The king himself had a great respect to this, he never passed it riding a horse . It had another feature, If anyone had been humbled here, no one except the king could have ousted him.
After the entrance, we reach the vestibule, which has a high dome. This part is decorated with astonishing paintings in floral and arabesque design. The most interesting point in this section is to observe the exact mathematical dimensions and proportions of the architect and builder in the construction of the dome that has brought two features to this section:
A. In terms of structure and strength, it acts as a base for the upper floors.
B. If you sit in one corner of the space and say a word slowly, the other person in the corner will hear your voice clearly.
In front of the entrance there is another gate, which has two platforms on both sides and is a path to the backyard. Above this door, there are openings that provide light. Moreover the rooms around the vestibule used to be guard’s room or servicing rooms and even official parts of the Building. Also, there are stairs leading visitors to the upper levels.
3. The portico
After ascending 45 royal stairs, on the third floor, at the height of 28 meters, we reach one of the most beautiful parts of the palace, a large veranda with 10 meters height and 18 long wooden columns known as the Hall of Stones. The columns are in 6 rows of 3 each using a plane tree.
The walls of the hall have two decorative overlays, the former formed during the reign of Shah Abbas the 2end and the latter during the reign of Shah Sultan Hussein.
According to the comments of tourists such as Tavernier – traveler and the famous French merchant – and Chardonnay in the distant past, the columns and the wall of the porch were decorated with mirror works and astonishing paintings.
In the middle of this porch there is a copper basin measuring 7 x 5 meters with the depth of 60 cm and 79 pieces of copper riveted in its center. Looking up, we notice that the pond is reflected in the decorations below the ceiling.
Supplying water and operating of fountains became an important issue. As a result, a very interesting and technical water supply system was developed that starts from the second half floor in the north part of the building, reaches the third floor, then the fourth floor. To put this system into operation, they would draw water from inside a well to move it to a large source on the second floor. At this level, high pressure was applied and water flowed. The water went to the highest part of the fourth floor, where it flowed into a large pool with a copper pipe. The surface difference between the highest point of the water source and the fountain tube was 6 meters and this height was suitable for jumping water from the fountains.
Some believe that the system was operated using a water wheel and in the presence of animals, but this seems unlikely here, due to technical and space-based research. The reason is that the presence of animals near the Shah, king, and his guests might cause discomfort.
Most foreign tourists and representatives of different countries refer to this porch as a place to watch various competitions and games of the time, such as polo, fireworks and field performances. In fact, this area was the king’s place of contact with the people and was sometimes used as the seat of the king’s meeting with the people.
4. The music hall in the sixth floor
The largest rooms in the palace are on the top floor of the mansion, with Shah Abbas welcoming special guests. On this floor we come across one of the masterpieces of Iranian architects: a music room, a sound chamber or an auditorium, the central part of which is cruciform in shape and is about 63 square meters.
Here you can see many paintings that cover the surfaces of walls, shafts and walls, and almost all of the surfaces of walls are painted. They determined the dimensions and size of the paintings according to the surface of the wall in different contexts and themes.
All the walls and the ceiling have different types of Stalactites or Muqarnases, about 20 different types of plasterworks. Moreover they are all decorated with amazing paintings in different styles.
The fact is that these forms control acoustic energy. These walls act like sound absorption plates and absorb the inappropriate bass sounds. The sounds of the musicians were absorbed by these shapes and because of the lack of echo in the environment, the sounds were natural and non-reflective. As a matter of fact, this room, like a recording studio, would remove the extra sound to make the sounds smooth.