ʿĀLĪ QĀPŪ (literally “lofty gateway”), a five-storied building overlooking the Maydān-e Šāh of Isfahan from the west (Figure 32).
The name refers to the vaulted passageway at its center leading to the area once occupied by the Safavid palace. Flanking that passageway are two stories of smaller rooms. Surmounting it is an open portico, or tālār, with a roof supported by eighteen wooden columns. Behind the gateway and its portico lies a square building with three principal levels, a vaulted passageway connected to that of the gateway, a reception chamber on the level of the tālār, and finally a more intimate series of rooms with complex moqarnas vaults. Both the vaulted passage and the central reception chamber are flanked by two stories of smaller rooms, thus creating a five-storied structure. The organization of the building suggests its general function. The lower passageway served as a gateway to the Safavid palaces west of the maydān, while the upper levels were used for royal receptions and entertainments. Pietro della Valle has written of official receptions held in the chambers of the five-storied square building. Chevalier de Chardin gives a vivid description of an entertainment he witnessed on 16 July 1672 from a seat on the tālār; the ruler and his quests were served refreshments and treated to a display of marksmanship, polo, and wild animal combats in the maydān below. He speaks of a fountain on the tālār itself.
Less clear than its intended function is the history of the ʿĀlī Qāpū and its relation to the development of Isfahan. Jabīrī’s claim (reported by Honarfar) that it replaces an earlier palace is impossible to substantiate. The place where the present maydān and palace are located was already known in the 9th/15th century as the Bāḡ-e Naqš-e Jahān but its history before the Safavid period is obscure. From the time of Shah Esmāʿīl onward, however, the area had both a maydān and an adjacent palace. Both were visited by this monarch in 910/1505. In 915/1509 he ordered the maydān enlarged to better accommodate horseracing, polo playing, and target practice. Later in 984/1576 Esmāʿīl II stayed in the dawlat-ḵāna of Naqš-e Jahān.
Several phases of Shah ʿAbbās’s alterations to the maydān have been recently documented. Initially he followed the precedents of his ancestors in using the maydān for games and displays of skill, while he resided in the nearby dawlat-ḵāna. The maydān was covered with river sand in 999/1590-91 and its perimeter wall strengthened and decorated with paintings in 1003/1595. During a visit in 1002/1593 Shah ʿAbbās walked from the dawlat-ḵāna across the maydān and climbed to the roof of a madrasa in order to watch a display of skill by his infantry. The designation of Isfahan as his capital in 1005/1596-97 led to further changes in the maydān. Seeking to make it the center of a new commercial district in 1011/1602-03 or 1012/1603-04 he ordered the construction of shops along the inner face of its perimeter wall. Two stories of chambers were erected, the lower level serving as shops, the upper as apartments.
Recent restorations of the ʿĀlī Qāpū have revealed that it was built in several stages. First erected appears to have been the central five-storied building with its vaulted passage and upper reception chamber. No traces of an earlier building were discovered within it, but a mud-brick wall found between its western face and the eastern foundation of the tālār may be the remnant of an earlier maydān wall. It is probable that the square building did not exist in 1002/1593 when Shah ʿAbbās climbed to the roof of the madrasa. The square building’s construction may have followed the designation of Isfahan as the capital when the need for an official reception site would have been more pressing. It is probable that only the central square building dates from the reign of Shah ʿAbbās I. In 1617 Pietro della Valle wrote a detailed description of the reception palace’s interior making no mention of the tālār; he stressed the many small rooms opening off of larger ones and the narrow stairway he climbed to see them. This accords well with the plan of the square building. Also revealing is Thomas Herbert’s description based on his 1628 visit: “The King’s Pallace . . . conjoynes the west side of the Mydan, possessing a large quantity backwards but juts not to the street further than the other buildings, nor to the street side gives any magnifick front or state. . . .” He further describes the building as “tarrassed above and garnisht with a Pharoe, overtopping many Mosques, and excellent for view and breathing.” This description would fit a stage when the square building was flush with the maydān wall and its roof was used as a terrace. According to Honarfar, literary and historical evidence dates the erection of the tālār to 1053/1643-44 during the reign of ʿAbbās II. Its substructure contains a passageway in alignment with the shops around the inner wall of the maydān so that it could be contemporary with them. The Italian restorers noticed, however, that the masonry of the substructure resembled that of an enclosed stairway added to the south side of the square building to provide access to the tālār. It thus seems likely that both the tālār and its substructure date from 1643-44. Probably added at this time was the cistern erected along the northern face of the square building to provide water for the fountain of the tālār.
It is uncertain when the name ʿĀlī Qāpū was first used. In his list of buildings erected by ʿAbbās I, Eskandar Beg Monšī lists the dargāh-e panǰ ṭabaqa without any distinguishing epithet. Della Valle calls it the “King’s palace,” as does Herbert who also describes it as “the King’s doore” and “the King’s house.” Chardin, resident in Isfahan during 1666-67 and 1672-77, gives a more florid description: “That Magnificent Pile, which they call Hali Kapi or Haly’s Gate, or by another interpretation the High Gate.” It is possible that the term ʿĀlī Qāpū gained currency only after the 1053/1643-44 addition of gateway and tālār.
Recent restorations have brought to light wall paintings which accord well with the descriptions left by Herbert and Della Valle of a colorful ensemble with much gold including some paintings of men and women. Della Valle is most explicit about their arrangement, noting that many are drinking and some wear European hats.
J. Chardin, Travels of Sr. John Chardin into Persia . . . and the Coronation of Sulyman III . . ., London, 1686, p. 29.
Eskandar Beg, p. 1111; tr. p. 536.
M. Ferrante, “Dessins et observations préliminaires pour la restauration du palace de ʿAli Qapu,” in Travaux de restauration de monuments historiques en Iran: Rapports et études préliminaires, Rome, 1968, pp. 137-44.
T. Herbert, Some Yeares Travels into Africa & Asia . . ., London, 1638, p. 156.
L. Honarfar, Ganǰīna-ye āṯār-e tārīḵī-ye Eṣfahān, Isfahan, 1344 Š./1965, pp. 416-26.
R. D. McChesney, “Four Sources on Shah ʿAbbas’ building of Isfahan: 999/1590-1020/1611,” Islamic Art, forthcoming.
R. Quiring-Zoche, Isfahan im 15. und l6. Jahrhundert, Freiburg, 1980, pp. 36, 62, 64, 75, 87-88.
R. Stevens, “European Visitors to the Safavid Court,” in Studies on Isfahan II, pp. 432-34, 437 (Iranian Studies 7/3-4, 1974).
K. Würfel, Isfahan, Zürich, 1974, pp. 118-21.
E. Galdieri, Eṣfahān: ʿĀlī Qāpū, an Architectural Survey, Rome, 1979.
(P. P. Soucek)
Originally Published: December 15, 1985
Last Updated: August 1, 2011
This article is available in print.
Vol. I, Fasc. 8, pp. 871-872