News ID: 319484
Published: 1133 GMT January 18, 2022

Sheikh Safi Shrine Ensemble: A demonstration of evolution in Islamic art and architecture

Sheikh Safi Shrine Ensemble: A demonstration of evolution in Islamic art and architecture
Province’s Cultural Heritage, Tourism and Handicrafts Organization ARDEBIL

By Sadeq Dehqan

Sheikh Safieddin Ardebili (1252-1335 CE), a mystic and poet, is the ancestor of Shah Ismail I, the founder of the Safavid Dynasty in Iran.
Sheikh Safieddin Shrine, located in the city of Ardebil, is one of the most famous historical monuments in the northwestern part of the country. It has been inscribed on UNESCO World Heritage List.

The tombs of Shah Ismail I (the first Safavid king) and his mother, some leading figures of the Safavid Dynasty (1501-1736 CE) and the Iranian martyrs of the Battle of Chaldiran are also in this complex. Chini Khaneh (House of Chinaware), a mosque and a khaneqah (a place of worship for Sufi Muslims) are among other sections of the ensemble.

Given the significance of the shrine, both historically and in terms of architectural value, Iran Daily conducted an exclusive interview with Director General of the Province’s Cultural Heritage, Tourism and Handicrafts Organization Nader Fallahi.


Please briefly explain Safieddin Ardebili and his influence on Safavid rule in Iran


Sheikh Safieddin Ardebili is one of the greatest mystics of the eighth century AH (after hejira), who had significant influence on the formation of the Safavid Dynasty as the first Shia government of Iran. Shiism, as a sect of Islam, was ignored and even suppressed by the rulers of different dynasties for centuries and its followers faced many problems. But with the rise of the Safavid Dynasty, the country became dominated by Shiism.

Sheikh Safi played an effective role in shaping the ideological foundations of the Safavid Dynasty, one hundred years before its formation.

Sheikh Safi’s Khaneqah was very important during his lifetime and the Safavid Era. Despite the passage of several centuries, the complex has maintained its high position among the people.

Since the time of its construction, the ensemble has attracted the attention of the followers of Sufism, both from Iran and some foreign cities, such as Balkh in Afghanistan, Bukhara in Uzbekistan and Anatolia in Turkey.


Please explain the architectural and historical features of the complex.


Thanks to its valuable architectural properties and artifacts, dating back to different Islamic periods, the complex is considered an art gallery. Numerous cultural and historical objects, created during a period of over 400 years, can be found in the complex.

Famous architectural styles, known as Azeri, Timurid, Ilkhanid and Jalayirid were used in the khaneqah since its establishment in 1301 CE.

The wooden works of the complex made in monabat (wood carving) and moaragh (marquetry) style, dating back to the Ilkhanid Era, are referred to as the art of the Tabriz School.

Safieddin Ardebili Khaneqah and Shrine Ensemble was built similar to a small town, having a bazaar, public bathhouses, squares, religious buildings, houses and offices.

It has the largest and most complete khaneqah and the most famous Sufi tomb of the country. The complex has evolved over several centuries and become an important pilgrimage center for Sufi Muslims.


By what criteria was the Safieddin Ardebili Khanegah and Shrine Ensemble registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

It is a renowned masterpiece of art and architecture. It was inscribed on the World Heritage List during the 34th session of the World Heritage Committee held in Brazil in 2010.

The complex is a prominent example of the religious centers of its time. It had many social, charitable, cultural and educational uses during various historical eras. In general, this complex has all the elements needed by a prominent world heritage site.


What is the current condition of the complex, and what measures have been undertaken to maintain and restore it?

The complex was first known by people as a khaneqah. It continued to exist during the Safavid Era as the Sheikh Safi Shrine and the cemetery of the Safavid Dynasty. It is presently known as a historical and cultural site.

Ardebil’s cold climate has had a negative impact on the ensemble and caused cracks in the building’s walls. The cracks can be seen in its Qandilkhaneh Hall and the ceiling of its shahneshin (a large room decorated with colorful glasses, delicate mirror works) which have been repaired.

Given that the ensemble was registered on Iran’s National Heritage List in 1932, it has been under legal protection and various restoration projects have been carried out in the complex.

A number of preservation and restoration measures were implemented in some parts of the ensemble, including in one of its gateways, namely Aali Qapu, and the walls and tile works of its main courtyard. Measures are currently being taken to restore the main gateway of the complex.


Please explain the Shahidgah, a graveyard for martyrs of the Battle of Chaldiran, its architectural design and artifacts.


During the reign of Shah Ismaeil, the Battle of Chaldiran took place in 1514 CE between the Ottoman Empire and Iran. The bodies of some victims of the battle were transferred to the ensemble and buried there.

This battle occurred due to the Ottoman government’s fear of Shia power in Iran. In this war, the Ottoman troops were superior to the Safavid soldiers in terms of numbers and weapons. The number of Iranian soldiers was about 40,000, while the Ottomans had 100,000 troops.

The title of Shahidgah was given to this cemetery for the first time during the reign of Shah Ismail I. In general, the tombstones of the Shahidgah have various beautiful decorative motifs including humans, animals, plants, as well as geometric and symbolic designs.

A number of tombstones of the complex were engraved with calligraphy script taken from the verses of the Holy Qur’an. They are mostly written in Thuluth script.


Please explain the shrine’s library and the books that were kept there.


According to historians and those who visited this complex many years ago, the ensemble had one of Iran’s largest libraries, and its books were among the most valuable handwritten books.

The library was located in the Chinaware House during the reigns of Shah Safi and Shah Abbas Safavid, and the books were kept in beautiful wooden shelves.

The books, most of which were in Arabic and the rest in Persian and Turkish, were written on leather or paper. Historical books were illustrated with drawings and paintings. Made mostly of high quality red leather, book covers were gilded. The rarest manuscripts were kept in the library of Sheikh Safieddin Ardebili Ensemble, but there is no trace of the library today.

The greatness of the tomb’s library can be understood from the fact that 744 books and 234 Holy Qur’ans were kept there, three of which were written in Kufic script by Imam Ali (AS) on deer skin. There were 32 other books, written by the Infallible Imams.


What happened to the books?


After the extinction of the Safavid Dynasty, the unique artifacts and objects of the complex were looted by several rulers under various pretexts.

Due to the incompetence of the kings and the outbreak of war between Iran and Russia during the Qajar Period (1789-1925 CE), especially the northwestern part of Iran was in a state of disarray. Invaded by Russian soldiers during the war, Ardebil suffered irreparable damage to its historical and cultural monuments, including Sheikh Safi Shrine Ensemble.

A large number of exquisite books were looted during the Iran-Russia war and the reign of Fathali Shah Qajar in the 19th century.

There are various accounts about the number of books taken to Russia. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in August 1991, Iran requested the return of its cultural heritage properties from Russia. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a delegation to investigate the books of the library of Sheikh Safi Shrine, which had been transferred to St. Petersburg.

After several negotiations, the members of a team signed a contract with the library authorities to obtain microfilms and copies of the books in question. Efforts have been launched to transfer the valuable works to Iran and make them available to researchers.


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