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Humble earth
"Kashani architects were the greatest alchemists of history. They could make gold out of dust"

Nima Kasraie
November 3, 2004
>>> See 59 photos

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 in Safavi 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 Heritage Organization.

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 summer days.

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

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