In a poem honoring the construction of the Chehel Sotoun (fourty columned) palace by the Safavid king Shah Abbas Il, Säéb Tabrizi describes the palace as the fairest of all monuments in the world. And the description is well-deserved: the play of sun, water and mirrors, the green coolness of shadows spread across earth by tall plane trees, dazzling paintings, magnificently decorated rooms and a world of memories from the past, legendary kings all combine to make up the essence of the palace-museum of Chehel Sotoun. Read on to learn more about this gem — and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A Brief History of Chehel Sotoun Palace
Ample water resources and its location at the heart of Iran – far removed from the influence of the Ottomans, not to mention in a privileged position vis-å-vis the Persian Gulf – made Isfahan an ideal city for Shah Abbäs to declare his capital in 1598, according to Michel M. Mazzaoui’s book on Safavid History. Yet, even before this move, a series of building campaigns, which lasted for eight years, were inaugurated in Isfahan in 1590/1 of iron will and passionate work. One of the areas which underwent construction and renewal during this period was the royal precinct of Isfahan, Extending from the Naqsh-e Jahän (image of the world) square to the Chahar Baq (four gardens) promenade. The royal precinct included the vast garden of Naqsh-e Jahän which formed the basis of the Chehel Sotoun garden and palace,
After the unstable reign of Mohammad Khodä-bandeh, Iran saw the emergence of a sharp strategist who was to bring great changes to Iran: Shah Abbäs the Great. One of Shah Abbās’ passions – during his fervent building campaigns in Isfahan – was to build gardens; a passion which would associate him with the great Achaemenid emperors and re-enforce his image as the king of Iran.
At the time, the garden of Naqsh-e Jahän was used to host audiences and royal ceremonies. To accomplish these tasks, Shāh Abbās built a pavilion, surrounded by a number of small rooms in the middle of Bāq-e Naqsh-e Jahān (Naqsh-e Jahän Garden).
The royal ceremonies had by then turned into political and cultural symbols that represented the authority of the king and, as a consequence, these changes necessitated a renewal of form in designing the royal palaces: spacious palaces were needed to hold both the king’s court and his lofty ceremonies. The key to solving this problem was a man known as Sārū Taqi (Mirza Mohammad Taqi), the grand vizier of both Shah Safi and Shih Abbās II.
Sārü Taqi combined the idea of the wooden, columned talars (porticos) of monuments in Mazandaran with the halls and palaces existing in Isfahan to solve the issue of much needed larger spaces.
With the advent of Shah Abbas II’s rule, Naghsh-e Jahan Garden underwent major reconstructions. Preserving Shah Abbas I’s pavilion as the nucleus of the new building, Shāh Abbäs Il added two porticos on the northern and southern sides of the pavilion, an adjacent wing with a large iwan (terrace) on the east and a spacious columned at the front, according to Ingeborg Lugchey-Schmeisser. After the addition of columns, the garden of Naghsh-e Jahän and the palace inside it became known as Chehel Sotoun.
In 1668, the splendid coronation of Shih Soleyman was held in the Chehel Sotoun palace. However, disaster befell the palace after the auspicious coronation: during the month of Ramadan 1707, the palace was lit with numerous lamps to commemorate the religious ritual of Shab-e Qadr. The ceremony went on normally until a curtain caught fire and the flames began to devour the wooden talar. The servants rushed to inform Shah Soltän Hosein, but he replied: “let it be! It is a misfortune that should pass.” And so, the talar burnt to ashes.
Sometime later, Shah Soltan Hossein rebuilt the talar, but darker days were vet to come. In 1722, Afghan troops arrived at Isfahan and besieged the city. After several months of hardship and famine, Shah Soltän Hosein surrendered Isfahan to the Afghans. When Mahmoud Hotaki, the leader of the Afghans, entered Isfahan he went to the Chehel Sotoun Palace, destroyed the royal throne and married the daughter of Shāh Soltān Hossein.
The story of Chehel Sotoun palace became complicated during the Qajar period in the 19th century. For some time, it was used as a workshop for the tent-makers of Masoud Mirza Zell-e Soitan, the governor of Isfahan. Later, just as his son Sārem al-Dowleh Akbar Mirza was about to destroy the whole place – he had even removed some plinths from their place — the Constitutional Revolution took place and the palace was redeemed from its fate, according to Jalal al-Din Homai’s History of Isfahan. Between the years 1906-08, known as the first period of the Constitutional Revolution, the palace was used by the Sacred National Council of Isfahan and therefore became the most important center of power in the city.
Fred Richards (1878-1932), an English painter, described the garden during the first days of Reza Shih pahlavi. He wrote: “the garden has lost its previous greenness for lack of care and nothing has survived but the trees and the pool.” As available documents show, the garden was being used as a military base at the time. Then. in 1931, the municipality of Isfahan, or Baladiye, took possession of the palace. Later, the Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, Rome (IsMEO), came to Isfahan and renovated the palace based on its old photographs. In 1948, the museum of Chehel Sotoun palace was inaugurated. After eighteen years, in order to undertake further renovations, items in the museum were moved to the banquet hall. They were displayed in this hall for five years after which they were transferred to storerooms, and no longer displayed.
Chehel Sotoun Palace is situated to the east of Ostandari Avenue and south of Sepah Street. The garden has three entrances: one on the northern side, one on the western side and its old, main one on the eastern side. The eastern gate, in Ostandari Street, is once again being used as the entrance to the garden. This recessed entrance is flanked by two buildings: Talar-e Teimuri and Jobbeh khäneh.
Behind th’S gate lies the garden and palace ofChehel Sotoun_ The garden is rectangular with an area of about 67,000 square meters. Stretching from east to west, the garden is divided into two halves: one to the north and one to the south. On the eastern side of the garden, fronting the pavilion, there is a long pool, 110 m long and 16 m wide. At each of the four corners of the pool, four statues are displayed; each one a figural group including four angels (symbols of protection) and four lions’ heads (symbols of power), which were brought from the Safavid Sar-Pooshideh (roofed) Pavilion. This pool, as Ingeborg Luschey-Schmeisser explains: “helps to integrate the palace with the garden and extends it visually.”
The pavilion is situated in the western third of the garden and stands on a rectangular stone platform, The talar includes three rows of six polygonal columns, each made of a plane-tree trunk with a height of 13.05 m. These columns are adorned with muqarnas (stalactite) capitals and stone bases. In the 17th century, the traveler Jean Chardin described the columns as ‘turned and gilded’ and the explorer Engelbert Kaernpfer reported them as blue and gold, but the Carmelite bishop Barnabas told of the shafts as “covered with pieces of looking-glass” in the 18th century.
The eighteen columns of the talar and the two columns of the Shah-neshin (king’s room) make up twenty columns together. When these twenty columns are reflected in the long pool in front of the pavilion, the number of columns appears to be forty. It is believed that this is why the palace and garden bear the title “Chehel Sotoun” that means “forty Columned’. The true reason, however, is that forty is both a sacred number and a number that signifies abundance in Persian culture, and that is why Safavid kings chose this appellation for their royal palace and garden.
Two further columns, two wooden balustrades and a slight elevation separate the columned talar (from the adjacent hall, which is sometimes called the Mirror Hall, or Shah-neshin). The hall is formed by two flanking rooms and a further elevation, which divides it in two parts. In the middle of the first half of the Shah-neshin, there used to be a three-tiered marble pool. The wooden ceiling, above the previous pool, is decorated with a chequered panel, inlaid with mirrors of various sizes. The second half of the Shah-neshin houses the throne platform. The ceiling above the throne platform displays decorative muqarnas, filled with mirror work are attributed to this fresco outlined in fine golden lines. From a dado, half way up, the walls are also covered with mirror work.
The banquet Hall is a spacious rectangular room, flanked by two-storey rooms at each corner. The most striking feature of this wall is its wall-paintings, which narrate stories of power, glory, humiliation and love.
To the west of Banquet Hall, there is portico identical to the Shah-neshin on the eastern side of the hall. The portico is embellished with muqarnas decorations and delicate stucco work. Fine miniatures adorn this iwan and its flanking rooms, too.
The walls of the banquet hall are divided into three zones: from the ground up to an eye-level dado: the main decorated zone above this; and, finally, the upper zone. The most eye-catching wall paintings in this hall are the four frescos and the two Ghahve khanei (coffee-house) paintings in the upper zone.
Below these paintings, in the main decorated zone, there is a band of other smaller wall paintings. Representing courtly picnics with few figures, these paintings date to the middle of 17th century. As Sussan Babaie points out: “there must have been a dado faced with painted walls, almost overwhelmed by the powerful paintings of the wall niches.”
The rooms flanking the banquet hall are also covered with frescos from the Safavid era; these were discovered under a coat of whitewash, which was applied to them in the Qäjär period. In these rooms, only two paintings represent landscapes, birds, trees and deer. In the northeastern room, off the banquet hall, there are some frescos representing Shah Abbas and his I and his retinue in the open air and in other courtly settings, celebrating and enjoying themselves. In a symmetrical room on the other side of the hall, which is called Chahar Shanbeh Suri (an ancient Iranian feast celebrating the last Wednesday before Nowruz), there is a fresco which gives its name to the room.
Two stories are attributed to this fresco: one story claims that it depicts the wedding ceremony of Reza Qoli, son of Nader Shah Afshar, to an Indian girl; the other connects it the painting to a tragic historical event in which a girl set herself on fire after the siege of Bukhara by Shah Abbas II. There are also scenes inspired by Persian love poetry: Khosrow and Shirin by Nizami Ganjavi and Yusof and Zoleikha.
In the Garden of Chehl Sotoun there are further other objects from the Safavid period; such as portals, inscriptions and tile work from the Qotbiyeh, darb-e Jubareh, Pir-e Pinehduz and Darb-Kooshk mosques, installed on the Western and Southern walls of the garden.