The Sacred in Iconography and in Architecture

This panel was compiled by the Conference Program Team from independently submitted paper proposals.


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The multifarious contribution of Baha’ al-Din ʻAmili (1547-1621 CE) to the intellectual revitalization of Persia during the Safavid period might equally well be considered as a catalyst of modern Islamic thought in Iran as well as an adjustment of traditional wisdom, or hikmat, to institutionalized Twelver Shi’a. His literary output forms part of the Iranian canon of mysticism, and some of his works, such as the Nan va Halva and Kashkul, remain popular to this day.

Far less well researched is the tradition which, based on his prowess in mathematics and engineering, imparted to him the quasi-legendary attributes of a builder. On account of their coincidence with the physical and spiritual redevelopment of the new Safavid capital Isfahan, his activities as a mathematician earned him an aura of demiurgic creativity, yet the origins and development of the latter in popular imagination have received little attention in scholarship.

In the first part of the paper, an attempt will be made to clear away fictive sediments from the factual core of Baha’i’s architectural and engineering output. The second part is intended to explore an even less-known aspect of the Shaykh’s influence on art, namely his iconography in the visual arts as well as illustrated copies of his work and objects inscribed with texts from it. This preliminary survey of Baha’ al-Din ʻAmili’s iconography and its hagiographic significance will discuss partially unpublished material – including manuscripts, ceramics and metalwork – from international collections, both public and private.

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During the reigns of the Qajar rulers Muhammad Shah (1834-1848) and Nasir al-Din Shah (1848-1896) Shi’ite imagery soared in popularity. Extant examples in a variety of media range from large and even monumental canvases to small objects of painted lacquer. They sometimes include images of the Prophet Muhammad, but more frequently give prominence to Imam ʿAli and his family (his wife, Fatima and his sons, Hasan and Husain) also referred to as the Ahl al-Bayt.

During this period a curious layer of imagery appears on these objects, one pertaining to Niʿmatullahi sufi belief. Notable personages from the Ni‘matullahi order are featured in distinct iconographic compositions on a wide array of objects. This paper will investigate the reasons for the introduction of this new mode of imagery into Qajar art by examining several illustrative examples. It will also explore the possible meanings and interpretations of these images by placing them in historical context. Similar to other tropes found in nineteenth century Iranian visual culture, the messages here are multi-layered and politically and religiously charged. This paper thus intends to shed new light on this little-known phenomenon of later Persian art.

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With almost three millenniums of history, the Jewish people have been an influential community of long standing within Iranian society. The significant number of Jewish holy places in modern day Iran, such as the tombs of the Prophet Daniel in the city of Shush, Esther and Mordekai in Hamadan, and Habakkuk in Touisarkan testify to this claim. Synagogues in Iran have a history as old as the life of Jews in Iran as well. About hundred synagogues in Iranian cities like Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, and Yazd still survive. Because of their antiquity and the richness of their architecture, synagogues have been designated as national historic sites by the Cultural Heritage Organization of Iran in recent years. The construction of synagogues followed different patterns that were usually under the influence of local or stylistic movements in Persian architecture. The humble exteriors and simple facades of synagogues did not differ in design from other buildings in Iranian cities, but their introverted interiors were based on a design language that was rooted in foundations of the Judaism.
The city of Isfahan was one of the earliest Jewish settlements, likely established at the time of Jews’ deportations by the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian kingdoms in the first millennium BCE. Isfahan, located in the center of Iran, gained its world renown as the capital of the Seljuk (11th century) and Safavid (16th century) empires. The Jewish quarter in Isfahan, which was in proximity to Friday Mosque, housed the majority of Jews as well as their synagogues. The Jewish community, their history, traditions, art and other aspects of social life have been the subject of contemporary research, yet their houses and places of worship have not been seriously studied as part of the history of the city. This paper attempts to explore the design of synagogues in the Jewish neighborhood of Isfahan, Jubareh, through examining the physical and non-physical links between the city and synagogues. Studying spatial qualities of synagogue architecture, I will discuss how synagogues reflect the culture of the minority Jews at macro and micro scales, from the city to the interior. In the absence of chronicles and historical accounts on the construction and development of the individual synagogues, this research is founded on formal and spatial analysis of case studies in Isfahan.

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The proposed study focuses on contemporary restructurings and developments at the shrine of Imam Reza, which--as the resting place of the eighth Imam of the Shiites in Iran-- has been a pilgrimage site since the 9th century. It is believed that the Imam was martyred by Maʾmun, son of Harun al-Rashid, and was buried in Harun’s mausoleum in Mashhad. The complex went through numerous destructions and transformations over the centuries. The focus of my study are the changes and expansions of the 20th century (from 1928 on), with the beginning of modern urban development and the introduction of central planning of Iranian cities. Due to its significance, the trusteeship of this shrine during the reign of the Pahlavi dynasty has always been with the Shah himself. Since the Islamic revolution of 1979, the Supreme Leader appoints the trustees from among clerical figures. The present trustee is a member of the "National Expediency Discerning Council", "Experts Assembly of the Leading Jurists”, and the “Deputy of the Supreme Leader” in the province of Khorasan. The independence of the trustee in the Islamic Republic is more visible in the decision-making processes regarding the expansion of the Shrine.
This paper focuses on the procedure of planning and implementing an underpass in the shrine of Imam Reza, meant to avoid the conflict between the traffic circulation and the act of pilgrimage to the shrine. I analyse the practices, power relations and professional discourses of managers, city planners, and architects, Idrawing conclusions about the authority and participation of different actors in this religiously sensitive project. I try to illustrate how their positions as experts and their interactions influence the outcome of a project which they sometimes intriguingly question. Their doubts and perceptions of the managerial system as a whole are reflected in the manner in which they operate. I also demonstrate how their expectations and efforts are perceived by the trustee. The study attempts to go beyond the normative framework of analyzing spatiality in sacred sites, and focuses instead on the subtle strategies of power used by the actors, which make the building complex religiously acceptable. It examines the process of modern development introduced by the developers in a traditional building complex under the supervision of the Shiite clerical hierarchy, and explores how the sacredness of this site is concretely affected by the politics of modernization in contemporary Iran.