Transmission of Architectural Models in Iran

A note on the “Topkapi Scroll” in Qarâ Qoyunlu and Âq Qoyunlu Ceramic Tile Panels [DYNTRAN WORKING PAPER 12, May 2016]

by Sandra AUBE (Mapping by Emmanuel GIRAUDET)

Iranian monuments from Qarâ Qoyunlu (782-873/1380-1468) and Âq Qoyunlu (780-914/1378-1508) dynasties are still covered with fine and intricate ceramic tile panels (Aube 2016 [A]). Architectural drawings were used to determine a compositional pattern. Such models also helped the manufacturing. Indeed most of Turkmen ceramic tiles are mosaics made from cut monochrome tiles (fig. 1): architectural models indicated the different needed shapes of cut tiles. They were also used as a guide to gather all cut pieces on the ground, rear face apparent, before sealing them and to fix panels on walls.

Fig. 1_Detail of mosaic from the MBT_2014
Fig. 1: Detail of mosaic tile panel. Tabriz, Blue Mosque. (@ Aube 2014)

Such architectural models were widely used over the medieval period. But these technical tools have been generally thrown over the centuries: after having been used for decades, a model became too damaged or even unfashionable. Consequently, evidences of former architectural models are exceptional. One of the best-preserved one is the so-called “Topkapı Scroll”.

Presentation of the “Topkapı Scroll”

Comprising 114 drawings intended as models for architectural decoration, the “Topkapı Scroll” might have been compiled in the kitābkhāna of the Topkapı Palace from different designs brought from Iran to Istanbul by Ottoman armies, probably after the Safavid defeat of Châldirân in 920/1514. (See Genç 2015 about Ottoman loots in Tabriz after this battle).

While architectural models were usually destroyed when they became old-fashioned, this scroll seems to have been forgotten for centuries and therefore saved. Rediscovered inside the Topkapı Palace Inner Treasury in the 1980s, the scroll (Ms. H.1956) is edited by Gülru Necipoğlu in an outstanding study (see Necipoğlu 1992 and 1995). The scroll contains geometrical and calligraphic architectural models, as well as projecting muqarnas. Considering its extraordinary length (29,49 meters, which is about five times longer than the usual size), one could suggest that craftsmen unfamiliar with this kind of tools could have compiled these drawings all together.

Necipoğlu has attributed the drawings of this scroll to northwest Iran, probably Tabriz that was the most outstanding artistic center in the region. She suggested the scroll dated back to the second half of the fifteenth century or to the early sixteenth century (Necipoğlu 1995: 34-39). This attribution is convincing since many of these models can be identified in Qarâ Qoyunlu and Âq Qoyunlu monuments in Tabriz, as well as in other Turkmen decorations in Iran (see below). Considering the wide application of these models on Turkmen architecture, we could even suggest to date them back to the third quarter of the fifteenth century – that is to say, to the transitional period from the Qarâ Qoyunlu dynasty to the Âq Qoyunlu dynasty in Tabriz.

The “Topkapı Scroll” applied to Turkmen panel (see the map below)

Fig. 2_Tabriz 2014 basse def
Fig. 2: Model no. 28 applied on the Uzun Hasan Mosque, Tabriz. (@ Aube 2014)

Previous researches on Qarâ Qoyunlu and Âq Qoyunlu ceramic tile decorations have highlighted the wide use of designs from the “Topkapı Scroll” (see Aube 2016 [A]). As far as we know, most of architectural applications of designs we know from the “Topkapı Scroll” come from the Turkmen repertoire.

The use of these models is confirmed in several areas of Turkmen Iranian territories (Aube 2016 [B]). For example, the drawing no. 28 from the “Topkapı Scroll” is used in Tabriz, as a model for the geometrical composition covering the upper parts if the pillars of the Uzun Ḥasan Mosque (ca. 882-889/1477-84, fig. 2).

Fig. 3_Kashan 2006_application dessin 41
Fig. 3: Model no. 41 applied on the Masjed-e Maydân-e Sang, Kâshân. (@ Aube 2006)

The model no. 41 is used in Kâshân, on the Qarâ Qoyunlu minbar of the Masjed-e Maydân-e Sang (ca. 868/1463-64, fig. 3). Drawing no. 47 is applied in Isfahan, on the Darb-e Kushk (902/1496-97, fig. 4). Calligraphic compositions seen in the Blue Mosque of Tabriz (870/1465) echo drawings nos. 51, 65, 68, and 69, as well as 71, 74, 75, and 91.

Fig. 4_Kushk 2009_application 47
Fig. 4: Model no. 47 applied on the Darb-e Kushk, Isfahan. (@ Aube 2009)

To be mentioned are also the relief effects suggested, for example, by drawings no. 31 and no. 49: the same original effect is imitated (although its design is not exactly identical) at the Blue Mosque of Tabriz, the Darb-e Emâm (857/1453, fig. 5) and the Darb-e Kushk in Isfahan, as well as in the Âq Qoyunlu mausoleum built for Zaynal Bay at Hasankeyf (ca. 787/1473-74). This decorative effect is characteristic of Turkmen ceramic tile panels (Aube 2016 [A]). But it seems to be a legacy from Timurid monuments from Khorâsân: the first known example appears in the Masjed-e Gawhar Shâd in Mashhad (819-21/1416-18); then this effect is repeated in Tâybâd at the Mazâr-e Zayn al-din (848/1444-45) and it arrived at the same period in the region of Isfahan (Masjed-e Jâme‘ of Varzana, 847-48/1442-44).

Fig. 5_Emam 2009
Fig. 5: Mosaic tile decoration with relief effect. Isfahan, Darb-e Emâm. (@ Aube 2009)
Fig. 6_Bafruye 2009_application dessin 43
Fig. 6: Model no. 43 applied on the Masjed-e Jâme‘, Bafruye. (@ Aube 2006)

The region of Yazd is much represented in the “Topkapı Scroll”. Drawing no. 43 is used on dadoes of the Masjed-e Jâme‘ in Bafruye (about 60 km North from Yazd, 866/1461-62, fig. 6), while model no. 8 is repeated on both the minbar of the Taqi al-Din Dâdâ Mosque in Bondarâbâd (ca. 787/1473-74, fig. 7) and on the dadoes of the pishṭâq of the Masjed-e Jâme‘ of Yazd (891/1486). Indeed the transmission of these models underlines the strong relationships between Yazd and Tabriz, since several drawings from the “Topkapı Scroll” are repeated in both cities: designs nos. 1, 69b, and 42 are used to decorate both the Masjed-e Jâme‘ of Yazd (restorations from 861/1457) and the Blue Mosque of Tabriz. Other examples of recurrences in both Tabriz and Yazd are identified, even when original models have disappeared: the same geometrical design is for example used on the dadoes of the Shâhzâde Fâẓel Mausoleum in Yazd (ca. 1465) and the Blue Mosque of Tabriz (fig. 8); the same floral border is applied in Ashkezar around the mihrab of the Masjed-e Jâme‘ (ca. 882/1477) and in Tabriz around the dadoes of the Blue Mosque (fig. 9).

Fig. 7_Bondarabad 2009 application du dessin 8
Fig. 7: Model no. 8 applied on the Taqi al-Din Dâdâ Mosque, Bondarâbâd. (© Aube 2009)
Tabriz_geom 1
Fig. 8: Composition used at the Shâhzâde Fâẓel Mausoleum in Yazd and the Blue Mosque of Tabriz. (© Aube)

Tabriz_Frise cf Ashkezar
Fig. 9: Border’s design used in the Masjed-e Jâme‘ in Ashkezar and the Blue Mosque in Tabriz. (@ Aube)

Craftsmen traveled from one center to another, according to the need on construction sites. Designers brought with them their own architectural models. But several copies of the same pattern were sometimes made. Consequently, it is worth reminding that the pieces kept in Topkapı nowadays have not been necessarily used directly on all the above-mentioned Turkmen sites: copies can have been also created and spread. Even so, it doesn’t decrease the influence of Tabriz. These numerous examples illustrate the use of the “Topkapı Scroll” models on Qarâ Qoyunlu and Âq Qoyunlu architectural ornaments. Known examples date back from 1453 to 1496, but most parts are related to a period running from the 1450s to the 1470s. It is on this basis that we suggested to date the geometrical and calligraphic drawings of the “Topkapı scroll” from the third quarter of the fifteenth century. Most of these works are located in Tabriz, giving further credence to Necipoğlu’s hypothesis that they originated there. These drawings illustrate artistic transfers from Tabriz to western Iranian Turkmen territories. And the large use of the scroll’s repertoire around Yazd and in Tabriz underlines the specific relationship between Yazd and the Turkmen capital city.

Sandra Aube (May 2016)

Carte Topkapi_mai 2016_EG_SA

Quoted bibliography:

  • Sandra Aube, La céramique dans l’architecture en Iran au XVe siècle. Les arts qarâ quyûnlûs et âq quyûnlûs, Paris, PUPS/IFRI, 2016 [A] [forthcoming].
  • Sandra Aube, “The Uzun Hasan Mosque in Tabriz: New Perspectives on a Tabrizi Ceramic Tile Workshop”, Muqarnas 33 (2016) [B] [forthcoming].
  • Vural Genç, “From Tabriz to Istanbul: Goods and treasures of Shāh Ismā‘īl looted after the battle of Chāldirān”, Studia Iranica 44/2 (2015), p. 227-276.
  • Gülru Necipoğlu, The Topkapı Scroll: Geometry and Ornament in Islamic Architecture: Topkapı Palace Library MS H. 1956, Santa Monica, Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1995.
  • Gülru Necipoğlu, “Geometric Design in Timurid/Turkmen Architectural Practice: Thoughts on a Recently Discovered Scroll and Its Late Gothic Parallels,” in Timurid Art and Culture: Iran and Central Asia in the Fifteenth Century, ed. Lisa Golombek and Maria Subtelny, Leiden, Brill, 1992, p. 48-66.


To quote this publication:

Aube, Sandra, “Transmission of Architectural Models in Iran. A note on the “Topkapi Scroll” in Qarâ Qoyunlu and Âq Qoyunlu Ceramic Tile Panels”, DYNTRAN Working Papers, n° 12, online edition, May 2016, available at:

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