Chehel Sotoun: the palace of the 40 columns
Chehel Sotoun is a pavilion in the middle of a park at the far end of a long pool, in Isfahan, Iran, built by Shah Abbas II to be used for his entertainment and receptions. In this palace, Shah Abbas II and his successors would receive dignitaries and ambassadors, either on the terrace or in one of the stately reception halls.
The palace of Chehel Sotoun (Persian: چهل ستون, "forty columns") is a royal palace Safavid located in Isfahan, north west of the complex of Ali Qapu. Measuring 57.80 x 37 meters, this major monument of the reign of Shah 'Abbas II was used for coronation ceremonies and for the reception of foreign ambassadors.
The building, whose dating remains highly controversial, was probably built during the reign of Shah Abbas II, then redecorated in the 1870s. According to a poem written on the building and another by Muhammad Ali Sahib Tabrizi, it would have been created in 1647-48, and if some scholars think that this building was built in several stages, most of them incline to think that it was built in a single jet, because it is quite coherent. The plan of the garden may date from Shah Abbas I, to which Kaempfer attributes all the design of the Chāhār bāq plans.
The discovery of two inscriptions in 1957 and 1964 greatly helped to clarify the history of the palace. It was completed by Shāh Abbas II in 1647. Renovations were made after a fire in 1706, during the reign of Shah Soltan Hossein. Several ceremonies have been described at Chehel Sotoun: the coronation of Shāh Soleymān for example and others described by Jean-Baptiste Tavernier. During the Qajare period, the palace was used as a workshop for the tent makers of Prince Zell-e Soltān (1881). Ten years later, the palace served again according to its first destination, Prince Zell-e Soltān held there daily hearings.
The palace is located in the middle of a garden that was originally 7 hectares, located between the meydān-e shāh (Naghsh-e Jahan square) and the chāhār bāgh. To the east lies a long narrow rectangular basin (115 x 16 meters approximately), in which it is reflected. The four statues of young girls with lions that now adorn its corners were originally in another palace of the early nineteenth century, the Khalvat-e Sar Pushide, which no longer exists today. According to Kaempfer, there used to be a basin on the west side, so that the building and the garden form a single continuous unit.
The core of the palace is a large audience hall (G), opened by three small doors, and surrounded by four small rooms at the corners (P1, P2, P3 and P4). This part is covered with three shallow cupolas between two transverse vaults, thus recalling the structures of the Sassanid palaces (in Firouzabad for example), and contrasted with the talar, which recalls the Achaemenid architecture. There is also a large iwan which opens on the outside (between P1 and P2) and two side porticos (T1 and T2) to the north and south. A second internal iwan (between P3 and P4) leads to a large porch in three parts, then to a large talār (porch with columns) to the east, with a rectangular basin in the center.
The talār has 18 columns of octagonal section and 13.05 m high. It closely resembles that of Ali Qapu, which is attributed to Shah Abbas the Great, and more distantly, to the Achaemenid architecture with its wooden columns and flat roof. In the 17th century, Chardin described the columns as "turned and gilded". The columns rest on stone pedestals and end in capitals decorated with muqarnas. Lions are carved on the base of the four columns around the central basin. After the restoration of 1706, the columns were adorned with small pieces of mirrors.
Two additional columns separate the talar from the adjacent room where an elevated location is located and removed for a throne. Kaempfer, a traveler of the early eighteenth century, described the three sections of the palace: the lowest, or talar, for the guests of the Shah; the second for the notables of the kingdom, with benches for meals and a second basin; and the third, the palace, with an iwan containing the platform of the throne and surrounded by vaulted niches. The walls are covered with marble up to half height, painted and gilded, and the upper part is covered with crystal frames of different colors.
The building thus has 20 columns, which are seen as 40 when they are reflected in the large basin facing the palace, which gave its name to the palace: Chehel Sotoun means "forty columns".
The courtroom, or banqueting room, is richly decorated with relief stuccoes and a ceiling painted with ornamental motifs. The dominant colors are navy blue, cobalt blue, scarlet red, emerald green and gold. According to the supporters of a multi-stage construction, it would be possible that this ceiling dates from the time of Shah Abbas I, unlike the paintings of the walls, which partly date from the reign of Shah Abbas II and for the other from the Qajare period.
The Chehel Sotoun is decorated with great historical paintings, exalting the magnanimity or the warrior courage of the great rulers of the Safavid dynasty.
The wall paintings of the Chehel Sutoun banquet hall (G) are divided into three zones. The lowest reaches the height of the eye from the ground. The main area is just above and the third one overcomes all. The most surprising paintings are painted in the niches of the upper zone: battle scene with Shah Ismail, Mughal sultan Humayun is received by Shah Tahmasp, then Vali Nadr Muhammad Khan, ruler of Bukhara between 1605 and 1608, by Shah Abbas I , and finally, there is an evocation of the taking of Kandahar by Shah Abbas II, which must be later, since the city did not fall until 1649. This last painting is the only one that does not bear any trace of the " European influence. In the others, European influence is noticed by the perspective used, the framed landscape and the features of the characters. Paintings fill less than half the niche in which they are located; below are ornamental motifs or animal landscapes.
On the east and west walls, the upper niches are completely filled by two wall paintings dating from the Qajars: the victory of Nāder Shāh over the Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shâh in the east and west the Shāh Ismail triumph over the Ottomans at the battle of Chaldoran. A strip of decorations separates the paint from the area below. This area is filled with smaller scenery, with few characters.
During the restorations that took place with the support of the Istituto Italioano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, high quality wall paintings were discovered in the adjoining small rooms. They had been covered with lime during the Qajar period. Only two niches were painted with landscapes, birds and hinds, the rest of the walls were covered with more or less large compositions. The colors and the composition of the works recall the painting of this period, especially that of Reza Abbasi. In Room P3, scenes from Khosrow and Shirin and Yusof and Zoleykha are shown.
In the secondary rooms (P) there are also many gallant scenes and figures in the background (the gallant scenes have suffered great degradation or erasure in the context of the Islamic revolution). There are also western influences (opening on a landscape, similarities to the Armenian quarter) and Indian (henna-colored horse, iwans covered with mirrors).
Large paintings also cover the two porticos with wooden columns flanking the banquet hall. Tall windows open the banquet hall on these porticos. These paintings resemble those of Ali Qapu, with representations of Europeans.