"Kashani architects were the greatest alchemists
of history. They could make gold out of dust"
November 3, 2004
>>> See 59
A few years ago, when I was intending to do my
graduate studies on the Islamic architecture of Iran, I applied
for the Houtan scholarship for graduate students. I was soon
sent a letter from their foundation telling me that: "there
is no such thing as Islamic architecture". I didn't get
the scholarship. Luckily, I later ran into a group of American
scholars who thought very highly of Iran's Islamic architecture.
Hence, the following is a summary of a paper I presented at this
year's annual meeting of the southeastern chapter of the Society
of Architectural Historians. Dr.
Marian Moffett, my advisor and an organizer of the conference,
unexpectedly passed away in the hospital only a few weeks ago.
She was very fond of Mashad's Goharshad mosque and had a keen interest
architecture. She was the best example of Americans who cherish
the heritage of Iran more than Iranians, despite creed, religion,
or political background. This study took place with her support:
Back in 1993, when visiting the 7,000-year-old city
of Kashan, the chairman of UNESCO remarked: "Kashani architects
were the greatest alchemists of history. They could make gold
out of dust". And he wasn't the first either to be struck
by the beauty of Kashan; 17th century British explorer Thomas
Herbert considered Kashan the second most beautiful of Iranian
cities, and many Safavi monarchs spent considerable leisure time
there. It was from here that the three wise men of the Bible
reputedly started their epic journey to Bethlehem.
The old quarters of Kashan contain a neighborhood that is still
enclosed by the 900-year-old fortress walls built on the orders
of Sultan Malekshah Seljuqi, who was killed by Hassan Sabbah's
notorious order of The Assassins. Clustered around the Sultan Amir
Ahmad shrine in these old quarters, are several spectacularly designed
houses remaining from the 1800s.
One of the most beautiful of these old houses is the Boroujerdi-ha
House. Currently owned by the government, its construction first
began in 1857, and took 150 craftsmen 18 years to complete. The
house was commissioned by a wealthy rug merchant by the name Haj
Seyyed Hassan Natanzi, who was nicknamed "Borujerdi" because
of the trade he did with the city of Boroujerd.
The house however was built not for himself, but for a bride, his
daughter-in-law. The story goes that Haji Borujerdi is said to
have asked for the daughter of a fellow wealthy merchant by the
name Jafar Tabatabaei for marriage to his son. Jafar Tabatabaei
owned a large magnificent house, also today owned by Cultural
The Tabatabaei family accepted the marriage proposal on the condition
that their daughter be built a home "worthy of her".
Haji Borujerdi therefore asked the same architect of the Tabatabaei
residence to design a house for the bride in the same neighborhood.
It is an unfortunate reality that craftsmen in Iran do not enjoy
the same respect and popularity of, say, poets or other artists.
If a beautiful structure was erected somewhere, it would be remembered
not by the name of the builders, but by the individual who provided
the financial means for its construction.
Such is the case for Timcheh Amin-o-dowleh, which
is located inside Kashan's Grand Bazaar, and which is remembered
not by the name of it's builder, but by the name Amin-o-Dowleh;
a wealthy individual with strong ties to the ruling monarchy.
Aminodowleh was once even sent as the King's envoy to the court
of Napoleon III. But the person who actually built the Timcheh
Amin-o-dowleh is in fact the same architect of Khaneh Borujerdi-ha.
The name of this brilliant designer was Ostad-Ali-Maryam. He picked
up the name "Maryam", after building a beautiful house
for a wealthy woman by that name. Mrs. Maryam's residence was so
elegantly constructed that she became his patron for the next few
years, hence he picked up the name Ali Maryam.
As a ten year old, Ali worked as a porter for his father, pulling
a cart full of large spindles to and from a factory every morning.
On his way each morning, he would pass by the great Agha Bozorg
Mosque under construction, and keenly watch its builders at work.
One day, as he was passing by, he became so fascinated
by the construction going on, that he lost track of time and
his duties while watching the craftsmen at work. His father eventually
showed up at the site, angrily pulling his son's ear for negligence.
Luckily, the architect came to the rescue and offered
the father to take Ali as an apprentice. Thus was the start of
the young Ali's career. And before long, he was able to earn
the title Ostad, attesting to his brilliant skills as an architect.
The interiors of the house, currently
under repair and preservation, were commissioned
to royal artists such as Sani-ol-Molk and Kamal-ol-molk,
who executed portraits of Qajari royalties on the
walls of the shah-neshin in the reception hall. Yet
the house was purchased by Iran's Cultural Heritage
Organization only in 1974, after the government recognized
its cultural significance.
Khaneh-ye Borujerdi-ha is a perfect illustration of how mud architecture
developed a distinctive style and maturity in 19th century Persia
as a result of the social, geographical and climatic conditions
peculiar to Kashan. And yet almost all of Kashan's masterpieces
were made of humble, local, earth.
As in many other cities throughout Iran, stucco was the most widespread
method of ornamentation in Kashani houses. One reason was the relatively
cheap price of the materials used (like gypsum for example) that
don't require a high temperature to be transformed into plaster.
Another reason is that it is easily shaped, molded,
or carved. Thanks to stucco, a wall of crudely fashioned stone
blocks or raw brick, gives an impression of great luxury. And
with a tradition of stucco technique going back to pre-Islamic
Iran, this is an art fully mastered by Kashani craftsmen.
The south ensemble of the house includes a large "Talar" which
is covered by the large dome features of yazdi-bandi and rasmi-bandi
decorations, and alternating light apertures which give it a distinctive
appearance, seen on many postcards from Iran.
In both the northern and southern sections of the mansion, there
are steps that take us to the lower level sardabs. These basements
are cooled by wind-catchers, which rise 40 meters from their base
and create natural ventilation and chilly temperatures even in
It is this same ancient Persian technology that
keeps water inside ab anbars at near freezing temperatures in
the middle of summer. It is no wonder therefore, that Achaemenid
kings were fed ice cream in the middle of summer, eons ago before
any electrical appliances came into existence (See here and here).
Visiting the the Borujerdi-ha House, the Tabatabaei
House, the Abbasian House, the Amerian House, the Al-e-Yaseen house,
the Sharifian House, and other buildings in the near vicinity,
one cannot deny that the Sultan Amir Ahmad neighborhood of Kashan
is a unique example of a local distinctive artistic heritage, where
well funded brilliant architects have created houses that exemplify
the superb level of Qajari aesthetics. Such heritage calls for
further research, preservation, and publicity, in spite of our
religious and political tendencies >>> See photos
.................... Spam?! Khalaas!