STUCCO DECORATION IN IRANIAN ARCHITECTURE. Stucco (plaster, painted plaster, gačbori), a versatile medium of decoration, though not unknown in earlier periods in Persia, was widely used from the Parthian until the late Qajar periods in all types of architecture (see GAČ-BORĪ). This entry focuses on the Parthian and Sasanian periods and hints at the continuity in the Islamic period. Stucco was short-lived and easily destroyed when not cared for. Due to its fragile quality, much of the original repertoire has been lost.

The Parthian period. The remains from the Parthian period in Persia proper cannot be viewed in isolation, as this region stood in close contact with Mesopotamia, where in Ashur (al-Šarqāt) the Parthian palace was richly decorated with horizontal plaques with intricate geometric patterns (Andrae and Lenzen, 1933). The same is true for a building from the Parthian period in Uruk/Warka (Schmidt, 1970). Similar stucco plaques still in situ are known from the pavilion at Qalʿa-ye Zohak (Zaḥḥāk) in Azerbaijan, between Miāna and Marāḡa (Kleiss, 1973), which probably also belongs to the later Parthian period. A continuously running spiral is used as pattern. Of greatest importance are the finds from Qalʿa-ye Yazdegerd, a complex of buildings not far from the Zagros Gates in western Persia, dateable to the late Parthian period (Keall, 1977 and 1980; Herrmann, 1978, pp. 67-72). A royal pavilion was richly decorated with stucco plaques. The patterns used are interlocking swastikas and stylized leaves with tendrils. However, of greatest importance is the rich figural repertoire, including humans (a frontal male portrait, a man in Parthian costume, a naked dancer, a pan figure) and animals as well creatures like dragons or sēn-murws. A number of these occur on capitals. Much of the stucco was vividly painted.

In the east, the entrance to the building complex of a major temple in Kuh-e Ḵᵛāja was decorated with a carved stucco panel, which could already belong to the early Sasanian period. Contrary to the usual Parthian type of horizontally used panels, the whole entrance has been covered with a large panel divided into vertical bands (Kröger, 1982, p. 226-27, fig. 135, pl. 103; Kawami, 1987, p. 24). This change in attitude could hint at an early Sasanian date.

The Sasanian period. In the Sasanian period, stucco was widely used in Persia proper as well as in Mesopotamia. The earliest dateable stuccos are found in the two palaces in Firuzābād (Huff, 1971, pp. 139-41, fig. 4, pl. 26; Kröger, 1982, p. 197-98, pl. 91,8), where the niches were framed with mouldings in Achaemenid tradition. The large building complex in Bišāpur, probably dateable to the 3rd century, is now believed to belong to the Sasanian religious architecture. It had a richly decorated, court-like square with stuccoed niches which were decorated with swastika patterns and acanthus scrolls of Western influence (Ghirshmann, 1966; Kröger, 1982, pp. 195-96, pl. 90, 2-4). A few fragments hinted at a rich figural program. While part of the decoration may belong to the 3rd century, other finds also show a continuous decoration in the early Islamic period. Hājiābād, to the east of Shiraz, near Dārāb, revealed ornamental patterns and an especially rich figural program. The building was called a manor house, and the figural stuccos of ladies in niches were interpreted as mainly belonging to a cult of Anahita. The finds of busts attributed to Šāpur II (r. 309-79) and to Bahrām Kušānšāh led the excavator to believe that the building was decorated sometime around 359 C.E. (Azarnoush, 1994). Both interpretations seem to be too early, as the building itself must also be seen in connection with other stuccoed halls, and the busts found may also have been integrated into an ancestral cult, which would make a precise dating difficult (Kröger, 1993; Gignoux, 1995). The complex of Bandiān in northern Khorasan has been excavated since 1994 and is the most important site to have become known in Khorasan. It was dated to the 5th century, due to inscriptions carved into the stucco reliefs (Rahbar, 1998, 1999, and 2004; Gignoux, 1998). Its main hall was decorated with reliefs of warriors, hunting scenes, figures flanking an altar, and standing and sitting persons, which have only partly survived but show a program of hitherto unknown dimensions. Besides the main hall with columns, a room with a fire-altar was found. The fire-temple complex Mele Hairam in the Sarakhs (Saraḵs) oasis in southern Turkmenistan, 15 km to the east of modern Serakhs, was recently excavated (Kaim, 2001 and 2002) and a 5th-7th-century date proposed. An oblong, table-like structure was decorated with carved stucco featuring a knot motif issuing into large leaves and incised lotus flowers below them. The motif is well known from Sasanian stucco finds in Mesopotamia; it is, however, the first time that it has been found in a room connected with a fire-temple. Stylistically, it can best be compared with the stucco of Bandiān, which has been dated to the 5th century. A stuccoed main hall has not been excavated.

In Mesopotamia, the Sasanian buildings in Kiš were decorated with stucco probably dateable to the 5th or 6th century. They show a rich repertoire of ornamental patterns and figural motifs, including busts of kings (Baltrusaitis, 1938-39; Moorey, 1978; Harper, 1977). Such busts must also have been present in a building south of the royal palace Ṭāq-e Kesrā in Ctesiphon. Also included were hunters on horseback (Kröger, 1982, pp. 22-30, pls. 4-6). Large, double-sided rosettes with palmettes (Kröger, 1982 pp. 22-23, 31-37, pl. 4) were a constant motif in the palace area, and these also occurred in other places in Mesopotamia (Kröger, 1982 pp. 187-88, pl. 75). Certain parts of residential houses in the wider Ctesiphon region had a rich stucco repertoire with figural patterns such as nišān plaques, bust of ladies and animals which are to be found nearly identically in Kiš and in Dāmˊḡān. The building in Dāmḡān (Schmidt, 1937) belongs to the group of structures with ayvān-like (see AYVĀN) or triple-aisled halls. It was here that the stucco decoration was concentrated. It consisted of square panels with a boars head, a female, and a Pahlavi monogram (nišān). In Taḵt e-Solaymān (Naumann, Huff, and Schnyder, 1975, pp. 147-68), dateable to the 6th century, a second shrine next to the fire-temple was excavated that had two pillar halls with an altar confined within a small sanctuary succeeding the pillar halls. Remains of the ornamental, as well as figural, stucco belonging to unknown types of statues were found within the halls of this complex (Kröger, 1982, pp. 141-47, pls. 60-61). The stucco finds within a fire-temple complex led to the question whether other stuccoed buildings should not be seen in this context. Due to numerous new finds, among which Bandiān seems to be the most important, it becomes more reasonable to assume that a type of building with stuccoed halls cannot be viewed as a palace building or manor house but seems to have served the Zoroastrian community. While some of these buildings included fire-altars, this has not been proven for all. It seems possible that the buildings were also connected to a local landlord, but many questions are still unsolved. This type of building was continued into the early Islamic period but gradually underwent certain changes.

The Islamic period. While Sasanian stucco was to a large extent molded, especially as square plaques used in a repetitive manner, Islamic stucco was carved by hand. After the end of the Sasanian empire, a number of buildings in the Ray-Varāmin region underwent changes in their architectural decoration during the Omayyad period which seem to hint at both a continuity and a change. The structures in Tepe Mel (Tappe Mill) (Kröger, 1982, pp. 202-3, pls. 95-97), Čāl Tarḵān (Thompson 1976), and Neẓāmābād (Kröger, 1982, pp. 148-86, pls. 62-74) are very similar in character.

It is of special interest that an ornamental pattern from Neẓāmābād is also to be found in Khirbat al-Mafjar (Ḵerbat al-Mafjar) in Palestine. Due to this and to similarities in program it has been argued that northern Persian craftsmen may have been requested to work in Palestine too (Baer, 1974).

Of prime importance are the results of the excavations in Nišāpur, where a rich ornamental repertoire was used (Wilkinson, 1986) in mansions and palaces of the different levels from Taherid to Samanid rule. Carved and painted stucco of a quality similar to that of Sāmarrāʾ, though with stylistic differences, demonstrates a rich variety in ornamental patterns, part of which shows a continuity from the Sasanian and earliest Islamic periods.

While buildings for religious purposes, partly with dated mehrābs, give a good idea of the different ornamental styles in the subsequent Islamic periods, very little has survived of palace architecture (Naumann, 1976). However, a stylistic survey is still badly needed for ornamental changes within the Islamic period (Korn, 2003). Few remains of figural stucco sculpture in the Saljuq and later periods (Sarre, 1913-14; Riefstahl, 1931; Ettinghausen, Grabar, and Jenkins-Madina, 2001, figs. 247 and 264) show that stucco was continuously used for sculptural art in Iran through the ages, thus continuing a tradition from the Sasanian period.



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R. Ettinghausen, O. Grabar, and M. Jenkins-Madina, Islamic Art and Architecture 650-1250, New Haven and London, 2001, pp. 160-62, fig. 247, p. 170, fig. 264.

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L. Korn, “Iranian Style ‘Out of Place’? Some Egyptian and Syrian Stuccos of the 5-6th/11-12th Centuries,”Annales Islamologiques 37, 2003, pp. 237-60.

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(Jens Kröger)

Originally Published: July 20, 2005

Last Updated: July 20, 2005