Timeline: Ilkhanid {1256-1353}

Historical and geographical background


The military campaigns (1221-1227/608-614 AH) of Genghis Khan (r. 1206-1227/602-614 AH) and his successors united a great number of separate Eurasian political units into the vast Mongol Empire stretching from Eastern China via Central Asia and Iran to Caucasus, Iraq and Anatolia.1 Yet even as the Mongol Empire continued to expand its territorial reach, signs of political fragmentation became evident soon after the death of Genghis Khan. Upon the death of Genghis Khan’s grandson Möngke in 1259/657 AH, he Empire separated into four Mongol khanates (kingdoms).2 The southwestern part of the Empire encompassing Anatolia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, Iraq and Khorasan was assigned to Genghis Khan’s third son, Hulagu, who successfully expanded the Mongol territory eastwards by conquering Baghdad in 1258/656 AH and defeating the Abbasid caliphate.3 The house of Hulagu became the de facto ruling dynasty of Persia. Their title of Il-Khans, subordinate khans, denoted little more than a nominal allegiance to the Great Mongol Khan in China. The changes ushered in a period of political, economic and cultural renaissance emanating from the centre of the Ilkhanid Empire, the territory encompassing the present day nation of Iran.


The Ilkhanid Empire reached its zenith during the reigns of Ghazan Khan (r. 1295-1304/694-703 AH) and Uljaytu (r. 1304-1316/ 703-716 AH).4 The religious conversion Ghazan from Buddhism to Islam had a profound effect on Ilkhanid society and its material culture. The ruling elite were transformed from a nomadic and religiously eclectic society into a settled Perso-Islamic civilization. Ghazan initiated a series of administrative, fiscal, agrarian, and construction sector reforms. In addition to being a direct patron of Islamic architecture, Ghazan fostered a system of patronage that enabled countless construction and refurbishment undertakings by Ilkhanid officials. These activities reached their apogee during Uljaytu’s reign and are best elucidated by his own tomb at Sultaniyya http://archnet.org/sites/1671 (1304-1317/703-717 AH).5


Although the Ilkhanid dynasty was relatively short-lived (1256-1335/654-735 AH), it nonetheless constitutes one of the key periods in the history of Iranian art and architecture. Indeed, the superb and often intriguing material culture of this period are important to the development of Islamic art and architecture writ large. The majority of extant Ilkhanid monuments are located in its northwestern part of Iran, their locations corresponding to the three Ilkhanid capitals of Maragha (1256-1265/654-663 AH), Tabriz (1265-1306/663-706 AH) and Sultaniyya (1306-1335/706-735 AH).6 Nonetheless, a considerable amount of important Ilkhanid structures and production centres were also constructed beyond the borders of modern Iran (e.g. Khan al-Mirjan7 in Baghdad, and Khanaqah of Pir Husayn8 in Baku). Later Ilkhanid buildings were constructed during the reign of the dynasty’s ruler Abu Saʾid, upon whose death in 1335/735 AH the Empire rapidly disintegrated into several rival states.9


Ilkhanid Art and Architecture

The Pax Mongolica gave an unprecedented impetus to religious, cultural and material exchange in the area between the Far East and Asia Minor.10 The three main factors that determined the Ilkhanid innovative artistic vocabulary are: Ilkhanid religious eclecticism, artistic influence from Central Asia and China, and the architectural legacy of the Great Seljuk.11 Surviving masterpieces of book, metal, textile, ceramic and jewelry production provide evidence that demand by the high-ranking strata of society fostered the development of artistic techniques and boosted the productivity of already existing artistic centres.12 These objects were either used in the daily life of the court, or in ritual displays of power and wealth that served the legitimize the ruling classes.13


The art of the book is perhaps the best understood form of Ilkhanid cultural production, because examples can be found in numerous Western collections as a result of the dispersal of Ilkhanid manuscripts. Ilkhanid book art is exemplified by the sumptuous Great Mongol Shahnama14 (commissioned by Abu Saʾid; r. 1317-1335/717-735 AH), and by several copies of Rashid al-Din’s Jami al-tawarikh (Compendium of Histories), commissioned by Ghazan Khan.15 Manuscripts produced in Mosul, Baghdad, Tabriz and Shiraz, and metal objects manufactured mainly in Mosul under Ilkhanid rule continued and showed the influence of artisanal traditions from the Seljuk and earlier periods.16 Textiles imported from China and the availability of paper for internal circulation in Iran facilitated the transmission of Chinese motifs into the Ilkhanid artistic vocabulary.17 Among the most visible Chinese elements are floral motifs of peonies and lotuses, Chinese clouds and mountains, and mythical animals such as the dragon and phoenix.18 These motifs are evident in Ilkhanid miniatures, textiles and ceramics produced primarily in Kashan. However, they also often appear on metal objects and architectural stucco revetment.19 Some of the finest depictions of dragons, phoenixes, and birds are found on tiles from funerary structures. This is a peculiar but not exclusively Ilkhanid exception to the dominant aesthetic of Islamic art and architecture that avoids portrayal of human and animal figures, particularly in religious art and architecture.20


Research on Ilkhanid Architecture

While there is a great deal of published scholarship on the ceramics of Kashan and book during the Ilkhanid era, considerably less attention has been paid to the study of Ilkhanid architecture. Initial research by Herzfeld, Godard and Pope highlighted the significance of Ilkhanid monuments in the history of Iranian architecture.21 The imperial Ilkhanid summer palace at Takht-i Suleyman22 and Uljaytu’s tomb at Sultaniyya were recognized as first-rate monuments of Islamic architecture. Restoration interventions by the French (1928-1960s) and American (1930s) missions in Iran assured preservation of numerous Ilkhanid structures.23 Further important scientific research and restoration projects were executed by German and Italian teams in the 1960s and 70s.24 These international missions set the ground for Iranian restorations and research from 1980s onward. Consequently, Ilkhanid monuments located in Tabriz, Ardabil, Qazvin, Varamin, Bistam, Natanz, Qum, Esfahan, Yazd and Kerman gained scholarly attention. Although Wilber’s 1955 (1374 AH) landmark monograph25 contains more than a hundred entries on Ilkhanid architecture, the current understanding of Ilkhanid architecture is founded on a handful of extant Ilkhanid structures.


Characteristics of Ilkhanid Architecture

Ilkhanid architectural legacy comprises a range of different structures including imperial palaces and complexes, caravanserais, mosques, madrasas, khanaqahs, mausoleums and tomb towers.26 The Ilkhanid period saw an unprecedented increase in construction of Sufi shrines and imamzades (shrines dedicated to descendants of Twelve Imams).27 Another peculiarity of the period consists of frequent interventions in the interior decoration of earlier Ilkhanid structures as well as those of dynasties that preceded them (e.g: Uljaiytu’s tomb at Sultaniyya, and the Pir-i Bakran mausoleum in Linjan).28 Although Ilkhanid architecture is not considered to be original in the use of architectural elements, this dynasty creatively developed on architectural models established by the Great Seljuks. This is perhaps most evident in architectural proportions that placed a stronger emphasis on the vertical structural axes.29 The refinement of architectural transitional zones resulted in an increased decorative use of muqarnas. Mosque portals with double minarets are also an innovation of this period (e.g. the Garladan Iwan in Esfahan, the Friday mosque of Yazd, and the Friday mosque of Abarquh.30


Ilkhanid architecture is often described as massive in size, as is the case with for imperial commissions such as the cities of Ghazaniyya and Rab-i Rashidi, Uljaytu’s tomb at Sultaniyya, and the Ilkhanid summer place at Takht-i Suleyman. While the significance of these structures in pushing the boundaries of architectural dimensions should not be understated,31 the vast majority of Ilkhanid monuments were not as large as the aforementioned imperial monuments.


Ilkhanid ground floor plans and architectural solutions were adopted from earlier Seljuk structures. The most prominent mosque model comprised the following traditional elements: the four-iwan cum open courtyard, the domed qibla chamber with mihrab supported by a drum and squinches.32 It is best exemplified by the Varamin Friday mosque.33 Seljuk tomb tower became less common, and eventually gave way to different types of funerary structures. The versatility of builders emerged most prominently in the Ilkhanid mausolea. The most common types of these mausolea are: single-monumental-iwan (e.g: the Pir-i Bakran mausoleum in Linjan), domed square (e.g. Shrine of Beyazid Bastami in Bistam), octagonal (e.g Gonbad-i Sabz in Qum),34 and polygonal domed structures (e.g. tomb tower adjoining Friday Mosque of Bistam.35 These funerary structures were commissioned for the commemoration of both Ilkhanid rulers and religious figures. Determining the precise use of such structures can be challenging. For example, the Haruniya at Tus may have been a khanaqah or a mausoleum. The topic continues to be debated. These types of structures were often developed into multi-purpose complexes as can be seen in Bistam (Beyazid Bastami complex), Ardabil (Shaykh Safi al-Ardabil), Natanz (ʾAbd al-Samad complex), and Torbat-i Jam (Torbat-i Shaykh-i Jam complex).36 The most dynastically distinctive feature of Ilkhanid structures is, nonetheless, their internal and external architectural revetment.


Ilkhanid Architectural Revetment



Stucco is the medium par excellence of Ilkhanid architectural revetment. It was commonly complemented with tiles and wall paintings. The art of Seljuk stucco carving and colouring was developed by Ilkhanid craftsmen and it is epitomized by the famous Uljaytu’s mihrab (Stucco was extensively used in the production of mihrabs), in the Friday mosque of Esfahan, and in the stucco revetment in the Pir-i Bakran mausoleum. 37 In these examples the superbly designed carved stucco revetment was decorated with shimmering colours and abundantly gilded. Although the stucco production techniques, the ornamental vocabulary, and the stucco colouring principles of the Seljuk and Ilkhanid periods are quite similar, Ilkhanid stuccos are characterised by their distinctive deepness of relief, their common under carving, and their peculiarly protruding elements.


Stucco revetment can be divided into two broad categories: calligraphic inscriptions, and abstract floral or geometric ornamentation. It was widely used to adorn architectural interiors, and to visually emphasize or frame architectural zones of transition, window openings, and doors.38 Exteriors were sometimes decorated in stucco, in spite of its lesser resistance to atmospheric agents in comparison with tile revetment. Ilkhanid stuccos were originally gilded and polychrome, with blue, red, white, green, ochre, and black dominating the palette.39 Colours and gilding of stucco inscriptions was most likely used to increase their readability. In order to highlight key interior architectural spaces, polychrome stucco was often juxtaposed to the colouristic effect produced by wall paintings and tile revetment. Wall painting was closely linked to stuccos. The same pigments were used, but their motifs and excellent calligraphy seem to derive from the Ilkhanid manuscripts.40 Like stuccos, Ilkhanid wall paintings are infrequently discussed by scholars. Some of the best Ilkhanid wall painting examples have been executed in the aforementioned Uljaytu’s tomb at Sultaniyya and the Torbat-i Shaykh-i Jam complex. Moreover, numerous minor Ilkhanid structures in Yazd demonstrate the richness and quality of Ilkhanid wall painting art (see for example: the Madrasa of Mir Shams al-Din, and the Mausoleum of Sayyid Rukn al-Din).41



The main production centre of Ilkhanid tiles was the city of Kashan, which was famous for its high-quality ceramic production during the Seljuk period.42 However, archaeological evidence at Takht-i Suleyman suggests that not all the tiles used for revetment were produced in Kashan.[43] Future research might prove the existence of a greater number of local ceramic ateliers. Techniques employed for the production of tile revetment comprise the most appreciated lustre painting, the uniquely Ilkhanid lajvardina44 technique, the Sultanabad45 style tiles and the less sophisticated moulded or unmoulded monochrome tiles.46 Evidence from Sultaniyya suggests that tile mosaic production began at the time of its construction. The cobalt blue and turquoise tile colour tones vigorously contrasted with the palette of stucco revetment to which tiles were often juxtaposed. Unlike stuccos, which remained in situ, the majority of Ilkhanid tile revetment was removed from its original architectural context and it is dispersed worldwide.47


Despite numerous studies of the topic, Ilkhanid tile revetment is still not well understood. The frequent presence of aforementioned animate motifs on tiles originating from palatial and religious funerary structures has not been fully explained.48 Moreover, numerous studies neglect the architectural context of tile revetment by treating tiles as pieces of art per se and, therefore, undermine their function to pieces of adornment. The application of tile revetment to the architectural exterior protected the structure, distinguished it from the surrounding urban fabric, and increased visibility from a distance. Such large-scale use of tile revetment originates in the Ilkhanid era. The function of tiles in architectural interiors was similar to that of stucco, but due to their high cost, they were often only applied to key parts of the interior such as tombs where they served to indicate the sanctity of the architectural space. This was especially true of lustre tiles.


Significance of Ilkhanid Architecture

Iran experienced a short but extremely productive period of cultural, artistic, and architectural flourishing during the Ilkhanid rule. Seljuk artistic and architectural legacy evolved into an aesthetically different architecture, which was determined by the Ilkhanid innovative syntax of architectural elements and revetment. These structures were sumptuously adorned with first-rate revetment and supplied with luxurious objects produced in the finest manner. They testify to the wealth and erudition of numerous and often anonymous Ilkhanid patrons. Further research is, however, needed for the understanding of the nature of Ilkhanid patronage. Moreover, the function and meaning of countless structures, architectural revetment still lack a consistent scholarly understanding. Ilkhanid Syncretism of artistic motives with earlier Persian architecture occurred via the circulation of artists, craftsmen, and builders through the vast geographical area unified by Genghis Khan and his successors. As a consequence of these unique conditions, Ilkhanid material stands out as a uniquely important achievement in the history of Islamic art and architecture. The significance of the Ilkhanid artistic and architectural development is illustrated in its impact on Timurid and Safavid material culture.


--Ana Marija Grbanovic


Images & Videos
Parent Collections
architectural history
history of architecture
art history
Islamic architecture