History of tiles in Iran

The Art of Tilework

As an art, tilework is one of the valuable and sublime arts used for decoration in Iranian architecture from the ancient time to the present. This art has extensively been used for the beauty of the exteriors and interiors of religious buildings, mausoleums, mosques and bridges over various historical periods. This practical art used for fortification and beautification of buildings and monuments dates back to the second millennium B.C. and Iranian artists have been familiar with making adobes and glazed bricks since the ancient time. The glazed bricks in green, yellow and brown with human and plant designs have been used as tiles. ‌

Achaemenides period

During the Achaemenides period, square-shaped bricks were produced at the very place that the building was constructed. They were brownish and followed a particular style called Moaqeli. In some of the buildings of that period, traces of bricks and tiles could be seen. Monuments remaining from the Achaemenides period allude to the peak of this craft and art and one can assume that the technology was prosperous at that time. Achaemenides palaces in Persepolis and Susa are prime examples of tilework and glazed bricks.


Parthian period

Tiles were made during the reign of Parthians, too.


Arsacid period

Due to the ongoing wars, pottery production remained stagnant during the Arsacid period. The art of tile-making did not receive that much attention during this period and the Arsacid rulers used drawings for decoration rather than tiles.

Sassanians period

Tile-making became prosperous during the Sassanians period. Some pretty and elegant buildings came into being by artists. During the Sassanians period, the art of Achaemenides emerged and prospered although it was in the form of imitation. Tilework of Achaemenides became common in its old style and with thicker glazing during the rule of Sassanians. Numerous examples of these tiles whose glazing was one centimeter in thickness was found in the explorations in Firoozabad and Bishapur. During the Sassanians period, the art of making mosaic gained popularity in addition to the tilework.   Two eastern and western courts of Bishapur have been covered by mosaic in various colors, floral decorations and pictures of birds and human beings.

Islamic period

The tilework is one of the attractive methods of decorative architecture in all of the Islamic territories. Together with fresco and stucco, the tilework brings about numerous colors and designs for mosques, mausoleums, palaces and private mansions. Apparently, tiles have been used in proportion to construction materials of every region considering internal or external use and they have become more mature as a complementary element to the beauty of the brick architecture. The history of the Islamic tile work dates back to the 9th century A.D. It is worth mentioning that prior to the advent of Islam, the tilework was an ancient practice in Egypt and the Near East. The glazed tiled were used in Egypt since the rule of the Third Dynasty of Egypt.

Tiles of Samarra

During the rule of the Abbasids, the tilework was not that much common and tiles have been discovered only in two parts of ‌ Jawsaq al-Khāqānī Palace in the Iraqi city of Samarra and the Great Mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia. Samarra is one of the ancient places in the Muslim world. Items discovered in this area include invaluable engraved stuccos, frames with drawings, carved woods, tiles, and potteries. The tilework remaining from Jawsaq al-Khāqānī Palace are divided into two main categories as follows:

  1. The first group of tiles include those that are covered with an overall green or yellow grazing. Probably, some of them have been cut after baking to be used as mosaics.
  2. The second category is comprised of luster tiles discovered in the adjacent haram and rooms. This collection include pieces of square tiles decorated with flowers and a rooster design. Some simple luster tiles have also been found that have been decorated with drawings in vibrant golden colors such as bright yellow, bright red, olive green and opaque brown.

Designs on the frames of tiles indicate that they have had designs of roosters located in a row on a fixed distance and surrounded with flat streaky tiles. Tiles of Samarra that are very small and are of little importance contain traces of some elements that have probably been the signature of artisans overleaf.

The Great Mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia is the second place where the luster tiles of the Abbasids have been discovered. The square luster tiles have been placed in the mosque to reflect the grandeur and majesty in the arch of the altar and its surrounding walls. In terms of the style of tiles in the Great Mosque of Kairouan, one could refer to multicolor tiles with complex centric decorations that are similar to the style of pregnant palm trees of Sassanians. These motifs have been used on the gilded vessels of the Abbasids period as well as stuccos and wooded items of Samarra. The unicolor tiles bear simpler decorations such as astral patterns and simple botanical motifs. Some of tiles of this category are reliefs with some illegible words. The multicolor tilework is the most common tile that exist in this mosque.

The Seljuk and the Ilkhanate periods

The Seljuk and the Ilkhanate periods are regarded as the first prominent manifestations of the Islamic tilework. Some innovations were made in various techniques of the pottery industry in these two periods. Plethora of tiles bearing the dates and signatures of artisans have remained from these periods. Enormous support offered by rules and prominent religious figures resulted in construction of numerous buildings as mausoleums, the most important ones were decorated with luster tiles.

The city of Kashan was considered as the most important center of valuable pottery and tilework of the central part of Iran. The Persian term for the tile (kāshi) has taken its name from the name of this city (Kāshan). Lots of signatures of well-known and famous pottery-makers could be seen on these pottery works. The most important signatures are those of Abutaher families who signed their names on tiles and vessels. Some of the artisans added the name of their city, i.e. Kashan, next to their signatures.

Tiles produced during these periods were decorated by figure and non-figure designs. Most of them bear inscriptions in the Naskh script on the margins of tiles. These inscriptions were verses from Persian poems and verses of Quran. Rarely are they semi-inscriptions. Probably, tiles with figure designs were mainly used for non-religious functions while those with non-figure designs were dedicated to religious situations. Tiles that are shaped after stars and crosses together with Persian couplets and animal designs are seen on the margins. There are some cross-shaped tiles with floral and figure designs. They are mainly luster tiles but a great number of lapis lazuli tiles with drawings could be seen, too. Luster tiles comprises a little and exclusive portion of tilework of this period. In the first half of the 13th century, the enameled tiles were produced but they were used in only a few buildings and majority of them were in Anatolia.

Ordinary designs used on the astral tiles for a century included humane motifs whose characteristics were pretty faces, big eyes, mono-brows and thick long hair. These elements were reflecting the artistic features of invading Mongols and Seljuks.

A huge number of scenes drawn on tiles of Kashan were simple scenes of life that usually are not shown by a single story and the Persian poems written on the margins of vessels are loosely related to the topic covered there.

One of the main achievements of pottery makers of Kashan has been construction of large altars made of tiles of various shapes. One of the most majestic altars is the one located in Kashan square with enormous decorations.

Tiles made in the second half of the 13th century contained Chinese designs. The first examples of these designs have been found in both lapis lazuli and luster tiles where one could see the effects of the Chinese art. Lapis lazuli and luster tiles of this period have been decorated with pictures of daffodils, dragons, and phoenixes. The other motif used was the flying cranes that symbolizes luck and longevity

The Timurids

In the later stages of the Ilkhanate rule and early stages of the Timurids, the tilework art relying on some 300 years of history emerged with its most beautiful discovery which was the Moaraq or mosaic tiles. During the rule of the Timurids, Samarkand was reconstructed. Concurrently, the grazed tiles with embossed designs and shading effects emerged. These tiles were made in a way to reflect depth and to be angular. They created shadows when exposed to the light. The surface of these tiles were covered by blue or turquoise glazing whose writings are white, red, purple or blue. Some of the best tiles of that time were used in mausoleums.

The Moaraq tilework known as the mosaic for Europeans was gradually turned into a decorating element of Iranian architecture particularly religious buildings. The importance of these tiles compared to others lies in the gorgeous beauty and strength. Due to its strength, this type of tile remains on the buildings for a long period of time.

Moaraq tilework is placing small and delicate pieces of tiles in various colors and shapes close to each other based on a plan that finally makes a large tile and placed on the defined location. As per the requirements, these pieces could be moved and they are moveable. Various colors are used in mosaics but some colors including white, dark blue, turquoise, green and orange are used more frequently. The golden color used in decoration of tiles during the Timurids faded away gradually and little effect of that has remained. Surfaces that are currently yellowish, they were golden in the past. Needless to say that these tiles had different qualities with their golden colors during the Timurids period. The noticeable importance of these tiles and their unique beauty are based on their thick glazing. The color of glazing is clearly visible which reveals its great brilliance.

Artists of the Timurids developed the Moaraq tilework in the eastern part of Iran. Lots of religious buildings of this period particularly in Herat, Samarkand and Bokhara that were capital cities of the founder of the Timurids dynasty and his successors were decorated with Moaraq tiles. One of the invaluable and interesting tilework of the Timurids era is the one at Goharshad mosque in Mashhad. Built under the supervision of Ghavamadin Memar Shirazi, this mosque is thoroughly covered in tiles. The tall arch of this mosque as well its minarets bear marvelous tilework.

The famous monument known as Gūri Amīr, Tomb of the King in Persian, is the burial place of Tamerlane, the founder of the Timurids dynasty, in Samarkand. It was built by architect Muhammad ibn Mahmud from Isfahan in 1434. From the decoration perspective, it is one of the most beautiful buildings of Samarkand. With its azure tiles and rimous design, the dome has created marvelous landscape for the facade of the monument. The other shining example is the Blue Mosque of Tabriz that is known as the Turquoise of the Muslim world due to its beautiful tilework. On the portal entrance of the mosque, there lies an inscription made of delicate Moaraq tilework and Muqarnas or Mocárabe.

Safavid period

A peace treaty was concluded between the Safavid and Ottoman governments. In light of prudence and wisdom of Safavid kings and rulers, complete calmness prevailed Iran and it entered a new phase of genius, creativity and innovation. During this period, the traditional urban development with its rich Iranian culture was mixed with the modern and transformative trends. The architecture of this period experienced dramatic transformation and growth. Arts related to the architecture, particularly the tilework, were given great amount of attention. Consequently, this art rose to a high level of grandeur, splendor, philosophical identity, creativity, wisdom, innovation and endless values.

In designing tiles, some methods such as Arabesque, intricate heliotrope, revolving tendrils, paisley patterns, side braids, Dragon’s Mouth Orchids, Shah Abbasi flowers and the like. These designs attained perfection. Moaraq and seven-color tiles were used in the exteriors and interiors of buildings. Calligraphy was deeply reviewed and revised.  Some modifications and inventions were introduced by great calligraphers in terms of scripts, design and composition that resulted in great expansion and diversity of calligraphy. Scripts such as Naskh, Sols, Mohaqeq, Reyhan, Reqa, Nastaʼlīq and others attained their perfection. Moaraq and seven-color tiles were used extensively in the inscriptions mounted on architectural monuments. Bannai script known as Moalaq script (inverted script in Persian) due to its type of writing was used to design numerous religious surfaces and monuments such as Imam Mosque and pillars of the dome of Sheikh Lotfolah Mosque in Isfahan where the most beautiful Moalaq scripts of the Safavid period could be seen. Some of the most common tiles and tilework techniques of the Safavid period are as follows:

  1. Nobab adobe tile:

Mud and physical tilework in various and transparent colors together with lots of decoration rose towards perfection

  1. Pich tile (Zaqreh):

This tile is made of attractive colors. The mono-color tiles were used for porches, courts and altars. They were placed in a manner that they were revolving in circles. Mostly with turquoise color, this tile was used in Islamic buildings and monuments such as squinches of the halls at Sheikh Lotfolah Mosque in Isfahan during the Safavid period.

  1. Window Moaraq tile:

These tiles were created for lighting and ventilation at the internal parts of architectural monuments particularly in cupola and pillars of domes. One of the most noticeable application of this type of the tilework is the mesh window Moaraq tiles comprised of 16 parts at Sheikh Lotfolah Mosque in Isfahan and the invaluable extensive mesh window Moaraq tiles at Hakim Mosque in Isfahan.

  1. Haft-rang tile (meaning seven-color tile in Persian):

Economically-speaking, it was not sensible to continue the tradition of making Moaraq tiles in the 16th century. As a result, another type of tilework known as Haft-rang tile gained popularity. One reason for popularity of this tilework was the construction requirements at Abbasi Grand Mosque in Isfahan. It was some 50,000 square meters in area and it was not possible to be decorated using Moaraq tiles. Hence, Haft-rang tiles were used for decoration since it expedited the process of decoration.

  1. Zir-naqshi tile (meaning under design in Persian):

These tiles were geometric adobe tiles made in a very innovative and elegant manner. These colorful burnished glazed tiles were produced by mineral colors and oxides of some metals particularly gold. In light of these elements, a particular type of tiles knows as gilded tiles were produced that were used for the holy shrine of the eighth Shiite Imam in Mashhad and other buildings.

  1. Pishbar tile:

This type of tile is solely made of geometric designs such as knots and lacks movement that is a common feature of other tilework.

  1. Drawing on tiles:

Drawing on tiles was an invaluable phenomenon in the tilework emerged during the rule of the Safavid. As the artisan deems it right and in line with his taste and innovation, the building is decorated with some drawings on tiles.

Afsharid period

Afsharid dynasty was founded by Nader Shah. During his rule, Iran experienced lots of chaos and disturbance. Therefore, little attention was paid to the construction and prosperity of the country. However, due to the deep respect paid to Imam Ali by Nader Shah, the mausoleum of Imam Ali was decorated through gilding and tilework.  One of the remarkable examples of this tilework is the one found in the Blue Mosque of Kalat in the northeast of Iran. The extraordinary phenomenon of this period was making use of a particular script known as Bannai Shekaste Sols in the shaft of one of the minarets of Imam Reza Holy Shrine.

Zand dynasty

During the rule of Zand dynasty, the art of tilework followed the same style and pattern used during the Safavid period. In lieu of small Haft-rang tiles, a new method of tilework emerged during the rule of Zand dynasty known as Moqarnas whose frames were made by bell and spigot coupling and Moaraq tilework. This new technique was used in the portal entrance of Vakil Mosque in Shiraz particularly tiles on the internal porch. Another new technique was introduced in this period whereby reddish colors used for designing Haft-rang tiles. To get this color, the traditional aquafortis and gold was utilized. Designs that were drawn in red and reddish colors and known as Gol-Anari were used to a large extent during this period. These designs bore figures of trees, leaves and birds. Over these years, the technique of drawing the picture and figure of the man on tiles was introduced by drawing the epic legendary war between Rostam and White Demon. These tiles have been made and placed on the portal entrance of Karim-kahn Palace and Citadel in Shiraz.

Qajar period

Artisans of the Qajar period inherited a mature tradition in the tilework industry. The tilework of the Qajar period used for religious monuments, shrines and seminaries was of the same method and style used during the Safavid period. Some of the most famous tiles and tilework techniques of the Qajar period are as follows:

  1. The mesh of tiles:

To bar peeping eyes at the entrance of buildings across porches and other buildings, the mesh of tiles was used. One example of this type of tilework could be seen at Golestan Palace and Sepahsalar School in Tehran.

  1. Haft-rang tiles bearing Gol-Anari designs:

With the invention of Haft-rang tiles bearing large flowers drawn in red and reddish colors and known as Gol-Anari, a new phenomenon was brought into being for the Iranian tilework. One example of this attractive tilework is the dado at the porch of Ebrahim-khan Mosque in Kerman and Tekyeh of Moaven-ol-molk Kermanshahi (Tekyeh means a mourning hall in Persian).

  1. Under-color tiles:

The under-color tiles are shallow tiles with octagonal brandeburgs drawn on the context of large squares and rectangles. These tiles are designed in a way that the context was turquoise in color and the embossed drawings were azure or the other way round. The movement of designs are usually repeated.

  1. Pictorial tiles:

During the Qajar period another type of tilework emerged using pink and oaleaceous colors on Haft-rang tiles. They were used to draw human faces and bodies. These pictorial tiles used some motifs such mystical love, religious plays related to Karbala tragedy known as Ta’zieh, fights between good and evil, nature, animals, birds, and other entities. Some examples of pictorial tiles could be seen in Eram Garden, Ghavam Mansion, and Afif-abad Garden located in Shiraz.

  1. Moqarnas Haft-rang tiles:

These are geometric tiles with some orderly and disorderly designs of tiny, pleasant and colorful elements used for making Moqarnas and tassel-like structures in buildings. One example could be found in Nasialmolk Mosque in Shiraz.

  1. Intricate knot-based mosaics:

This type of tilework known as knot-based mosaics was introduced during the Qajar period. In this style of tilework, the strapwork decorate the tiles. The tiles are used to form knot patterns and in most cases, only the knots are visible rather than the boundaries of the tiles themselves. The basis of these tiles is the symmetry in all elements particularly the brandeburgs. The elements of tiles are colored in a distinctive manner from the central knot.

Pahlavi period

  1. Pahlavi, I

During this period, the tilework was used in public buildings and administrations. The tilework of Marble Palace in Tehran is one great example of this type of tilework. Floral tiles became common in this period. The procedure for making these tiles was similar to that of mud and adobe tiles of Qajar period known as Qaz-maqazi tiles.

Another common type of tiles in this period was the mono-color mud and adobe tiles known as Lab-par tiles. They were produced by the great skill and taste of tile-makers. An example of this tile could be seen in the entablatures of the National Library of Kerman.


  1. Pahlavi, II

In this period, the tile-based inscriptions were used in some public buildings particularly their portal entrance. Some great works were produced in this period using Moaraq tilework and designs such as geometric knots and lines. These tiles were placed on toms of prominent figures such as Saadi, Hafiz, Omar Khayyam, and Kamal-ol-molk. During this period, various branches of the tilework such as highly-decorated mosaics, Haft-rang tiles, under-color tiles and so many other types became popular.