In a garden formerly beautiful but semi-barren and untidy now, on a pavement of slabs which are no longer on the level with one another, stands the Palace of the Twenty Columns, called of "the forty columns," probably because the twenty existing ones are reflected as in a mirror in a long rectangular tank of water. Distance lends much enchantment to everything in Persia, and such is the case even in this palace.
Henry Savage Landor - Across Coveted lands - 1902. The writer was an English painter, explorer and anthropologist (1865-1924).
Chehel Sotun is one of several palaces/pavilions which made up the royal residence of the Safavid kings. The entrance to the compound was Ali Qapu in Naqsh-e Jahan, the main square of Isfahan. Chehel Sotun was built by Shah Abbas II who ruled over Persia in 1642-1666.
The twenty octagonal columns of the open-air hall were once inlaid with Venetian mirrors, and still display bases of four grinning lions
carved in stone. But, on getting near them, one finds that the bases are chipped off and damaged and the glass almost all gone. Savage Landor
The palace and the garden were restored extensively in 1977-1980. Most of the great wooden columns of the large porch were removed from their bases, sawn in half and their central core hollowed out to receive and hide steel reinforcing rods. In 2011 UNESCO added Chehel Sotun and eight other Persian gardens to their list of World Heritage Sites. You may wish to see the garden of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae, Bagh-e Dolatabad at Yazd, Bagh-e Eram at Shiraz and Bagh-e Fin at Kashan.
The Palace is divided into two sections, the open throne hall and the picture hall behind it. (..) The end central receptacle or niche is gaudily ornamented with Venetian looking-glasses cut in small triangles. Savage Landor
The talar was entirely rebuilt in 1706 after a fire. It is possible that its glass decoration was influenced by Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors - it opens in another window), the central gallery of the Palace of Versailles which had been completed in 1684. In turn the glass decoration of Chehel Sotun influenced that of many other Persian open air halls built in the XIXth century, e.g. Naranjestan at Shiraz.
The Governor held a reception which brought the Chehel Sotun to life again, transforming it from a stale summerhouse into the stately pleasure-dome it originally was. Spread with carpets, lit with pyramids of lamps, and filled with several hundred people, the verandah looked enormous; (..) the glass niche at the back, glittering through its gold filigree, seemed infinitely distant.
Robert Byron - The Road to Oxiana - Macmillan 1937 (piece written in 1934).
Chehel Sotun Palace - fresco portraying Shah Ismail, the founder of the Safavid dynasty, defeating the Uzbeks in 1510 near Merv in today's Turkmenistan
Pietro della Valle, speaking of the paintings in the palace at Isfahan in the reign of Shah Abbas made the remark that they were so wildly drawn that he was very apprehensive of losing the European artist, whom he had brought out to take private pictures for him self, if the king should become aware of his merit. (..) The ignorance of perspective, the ill proportions and the angular stifness apparent in all Persian portraiture might well have shocked a seventeenth-century European, whose vision had been trained in the school of the Italian Renaissance, yet these pictures of the Chehel Sotun are both admirable as works of art and invaluable as historical documents. They transport us straight to the court of the lordly Abbas and his predecessors or successors on the throne. We see the king engaged in combat, or at some royal festivity, enjoying the pleasures of the bowl. The big moustache and smooth chins, and abundant turbans, represent a fashion of coiffure that has long expired.
George N. Curzon (Lord Curzon) - Persia and the Persian Question - 1892
The hall behind the talar strikes the viewer because of its large paintings depicting Safavid Shas defeating their enemies or entertaining their guests.
I Arriv'd at Ispaban the 20th of December, 1664.
(..) The next day the Nazar sent Armenians
With four Horses to tell me that the King had a desire to see what I had brought. (..)
The next day after my agreement with the Nazar the King gave audience in
the great Hall of the Palace to the Ambassador of the Uzbeck-Tartars. (..) In the middle of the Hall was a Vase of excellent Marble, with a
Fountain throwing out Water after several manners. The Floor was spread with
Gold and Silk Carpets, made on purpose for the place: and near to the Vase was
a low Scaffold one Foot high, twelve Foot long, and eight wide, cover'd with a
magnificent Carpet. Upon this Scaffold sate the King upon a four-square Cushion
of Cloth of Gold, with another Cushion behind him cover'd with the same, let up
against a great Tapestry-Hanging, wrought with Persian Characters, containing
the Mysteries of the Law. (..) The King commanded the Aihsmadoult and four others
to sit down by him, and the madoulet made me a sign to sit down; but the
King knowing how little the Franks care for sitting cross-leg'd, order'd me to be
told that I might stand upright, if I thought good.
Jean-Baptiste Tavernier - Travels through Turkey and Persia (1630s-1660s)
This painting and Tavernier's account offer an interesting insight into the Safavid court. Shah Tahmasp and his guest have their meal on a low platform which is still used in Iran and in Uzbekistan. He has a short beard but, all the members of the Persian court are clean shaven and wear long moustaches. The number of feathers on the turban was a sign of rank.
The inner hall must have been a magnificent room in its more flourishing days. It is now used as a storeroom for banners, furniture, swords, and spears, piled everywhere on the floor and against the walls. One cannot see very well what the lower portion of the walls is like, owing to the quantity of things amassed all round, and so covered with dust as not to invite removal or even touch. (..) Finally, to the left of the front door we have pictorially the most pleasing of the whole series, another scene of feasting, with the youthful figure of Shah Abbas II, a man of great pluck, but unfortunately given to drunkenness. (..)
In the foreground a most graceful dancing-girl, with a peculiar waistband, and flying locks of hair.
The artist has very faithfully depicted the voluptuous twist of her waist, much appreciated by Persians in dancing, and he has also managed to infuse considerable character into the musicians, the guitar man and the tambourine figure to the right.
An extensive restoration which included removing patches of later decoration has brought new life to the paintings. Drunkenness was not unusual among Persian rulers and their Ottoman rivals. The pleasures of drinking wine were chanted by Persian poets since the Xth century and the region of Shiraz was known for its wines which European travellers found excellent. At the reception attended by Byron At the end of the room was a cold buffet, which dispensed red cup from large bowls. Being composed of three parts arak (anise liquor) and one Julfa wine, it was not so innocent as it looked.
Chehel Sotun Palace - European-like paintings
Dutch painters were invited to Isfahan and Shah Abbas II studied drawing with them. Muslim painters featured western elements in their works, so it is no surprise to find personages in European clothes at Chehel Sotun. Pietro della Valle found out that Italian paintings were sold at the bazaar.
Robert Byron dismissed them as languid Safavid frescoes which give the world a false idea of Persian art and sentiment.
Tile panels or dishes provide other insights into the life at the Safavid Court. They show both Chinese and Ottoman influences.
Hasht Behest. When one walks in this place expressly made for the delights of love and when one passes through all these cabinets and niches, one's heart is melted to such an extent that, to speak candidly one always leaves with a very ill grace. The climate without doubt contributes much towards exciting this amourous disposition; but assuredly these places, although in some respects little more than cardboard castles, are nevertheless more smiling and agreeable than our most sumptuous palaces.
The Travels of Sir John Chardin into Persia and the East Indies - 1686
Hasht Behesht is the only other remaining pavilion of the royal compound. Its name is a reference to its structure having four large corner rooms on each floor. Similar to Chehel Sotun it was surrounded by a garden (Bagh-e Bulbul = Garden of Nightingales). It is situated near Madar Shah Medrese and Chahar Bagh, the large avenue which links Si-o-Seh Bridge to the city centre.
Hasht Behesht Palace: (left) main hall; (right) two corner rooms
Hasht Behesht was built some twenty years after Chehel Sotun by Shah Suleiman (another heavy drinker). It is a small building with large openings, maybe it was used as the scenery for feasts which took place in the gardens. Suleiman Shah spent most of his life inside the royal compound and left the running of state affairs to the women of the harem and to their eunuchs.
Hasht Behesht Palace - Golden Room
The palace has lost most of its original decoration with the exception of that of the Golden Room, one of the corner rooms. Today it is part of a public park where people exercise before going to work.
Pasargadae and Persepolis
Achaemenid Tombs and Sassanid Reliefs
Seljuk small towns (Ardestan, Zavareh and Abarquh)
XIVth century Yazd
XVIIIth century Shiraz
On the Road
An excursion to Abyaneh
People of Iran
and in another section on Iranian Azerbaijan:
Tabriz: The Blue Mosque
Tabriz: Azerbaijan Museum