The Golestan Palace or Kakh-e Golestan is one of the oldest historic monuments in Tehran. It was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2013. For UNESCO, “it is a masterpiece of the Qajar era, embodying the successful integration of earlier Persian crafts and architecture with Western influences.”
The Qajar period is increasingly recognized as a time of significant change in Iranian society. Western ideas and technology, introduced by diplomats, military and technical advisers, merchants, travelers and missionaries in 19th-century Iran, exercised great influence. Firmly rooted in Persian tradition, Qajar art gives visual expression to the changes in 19th-century Iran, with architecture and the various techniques used in its decoration offering the most comprehensive illustration of this artistic period.
The Golestan Palace is an outstanding example of Qajar art and architecture and a source of inspiration for Iranian artists and architects to this day. It exemplifies the architectural and artistic achievements of the Qajar era and the co-existence of Persian and European architectural elements.
The walled palace belongs to a group of royal buildings that were once enclosed within the mud-thatched walls of Tehran’s Historic Arg (citadel), which was built during the reign of the Safavid king, Tahmasp I (who reigned from 1524 to 1576) and was later renovated by Karim Khan Zand (who ruled from1750 to 1779).
The Safavid rulers chose Tehran as one of their places of residence, building a defensive wall and laying the foundation for a small palace and audience chamber, none of which exist today. The earliest surviving structures of the Golestan palace date back to Karim Khan-e Zand, the founder of the Zand dynasty, who intended to make Tehran his capital, and commissioned the building of an audience chamber known as the Divan Khana, (later transformed into the Takht-e Marmar), as well as the Khalvat-e Karim Khani.
Yet it was during the reign of the Qajar dynasty that the palace complex received its most distinctive features. Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar, who founded the dynasty in 1789, chose Tehran as his new capital and selected the Golestan Palace as his official residence and seat of government. The new ruler had many construction plans in mind, yet most of them did not come to fruition, as he was assassinated in 1797. It was his successor to the throne, Fath-Ali Shah (r 1797-1834), who substantially developed the palace, completing some of his predecessor’s building projects while initiating some of his own.
The Golestan palace was further modified during the 50-year reign of Fath-Ali Shah’s great grandson, Nasser-al Din Shah, the fourth ruler of the Qajar dynasty. Nasser al-Din Shah was the first modern Iranian monarch to formally visit Europe, initially in 1873, then in 1878 and 1889. It was during these trips that the monarch was exposed to European Neo-Classicism, a style of architecture that influenced many of the buildings that were to become part of the Golestan Palace.
During the Pahlavi era, a number of Palace buildings were destroyed on the orders of Reza Shah Pahlavi to make way for the development of a modern city. However, the Golestan Palace was still used for formal royal receptions, most notably the coronations of Reza Shah and Mohammad Reza Shah, the two Pahlavi sovereigns.
In its present state, the palace complex consists of a number of magnificent structures set around carefully manicured gardens and reflecting pools, a result of roughly 400 years of construction and renovations.
Takht-e Marmar or Marble Throne is a spectacular, open-fronted audience hall dating back to Karim Khan Zand (1759) that is dominated by a magnificent throne commissioned by Fath Ali Shah in 1806. Supported by carved human figures, the throne is made of 65 pieces of yellow marble from Yazd province. The hall is embellished by paintings, mirrored walls, marble carvings, tile-work, stucco, enamel, woodcarvings, lattice windows, and a monumental columned porch. It is one of the finest examples of Iranian architecture, and was used for coronations, the most recent being that of Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1925.
Khalvate-e Karim Khani (Karim Khan Nook) is all that remains of a 1759 edifice that served as Karim Khan’s Tehran residence and is similar in structure to the Marble Throne, albeit on a smaller scale. Naser al-Din Shah was fond of this elevated terrace, and spent much time here, smoking his qalyan (water-pipe) in quiet reflection. The monarch’s tombstone, with an engraving of him, now stands on this terrace.
Talar-e Almas (Hall of Diamonds) was built during the reign of Fath-Ali Shah and is famed for its exceptional mirror work. It was redesigned under Nasser al-Din Shah who replaced the Ogival arches with Roman ones.
Talar-e Ayneh (Mirror Hall) is perhaps the most striking and famous of the Palace halls, owing its fame to its exquisite mirror work and ornamentation and to an 1891 portrait by Mirza Mohammad Khan Kamalolmolk, one of Iran’s most revered artists, which is now on display at the Golestan Palace. Built between 1874 and 1877, this relatively small hall housed the Peacock Throne before it was moved to the Treasury of National Jewels.
Talar-e Salam (Reception Hall) or Talar-e Muz-e (Museum Hall) was originally designed to be a museum by Nasser al-Din Shah. Impressed by the exhibition of artifacts in European museums during his second European tour, the monarch returned to Tehran intent on building a museum hall to exhibit paintings, royal jewels and other royal artifacts. The hall later became the venue for official receptions in the presence of the king.
Describing one of Nasser al-Din Shah’s public audiences [salam], Encyclopedia Iranica writes: “At these ceremonies, princes, ministers, and military and civil dignitaries were arrayed in order of rank … The Shah would then appear in a military uniform studded with diamonds and other precious stones, carrying the diamond-studded sword [Shamshir-e Jahangosha] of Fath-Ali Shah and wearing the royal crown with a jeweled plume.”
Located under the Museum Hall is the Muz-e Makhsus (Special Museum). Originally used as a storage room for china and silverware under Nasser al-Din Shah, it was turned into a museum under the Pahlavis, and displays many priceless artifacts from the Qajar era.
Talar-e Adj (Ivory Hall) was built by order of Naser al-Din Shah and used for the safekeeping of gifts received from foreign dignitaries. It was later used as a venue for official ceremonies.
Talar-e Berelian (Brilliant Hall), named for its exquisite mirror work and chandeliers, was built by order of Nasser al-Din Shah to replace the Talar-e Bolour (Cyrstal Hall) built under Fath-Ali Shah.
Shams-ol Emareh (Edifice of the Sun) is the tallest building in the Golestan Palace, born of Nasser al-Din Shah’s desire to have a palace with a panoramic view of the city. Built between 1865 and 1867, the multi-storied structure is a lovely blend of European and Persian architectural traditions, marked by two balconied turrets, and a façade decorated with stained glass windows and elegant arches. The building functioned as the Shah’s private quarters.
Emarat Badgir (Wind Tower Building) is a remarkable structure with four tile-decorated wind towers, each covered with blue, yellow and black glazed tiles and a golden cupola. It was first erected during the reign of Fath-Ali Shah and underwent major renovations under Nasser al-Din Shah. The four soaring badgirs (wind towers) rising above the building were used to catch breezes and funnel them down into the summer chamber, hall and rooms.
Today, the building’s basement houses the Aks Khaneh (House of Photographs), an exhibition space for photographs of the Qajar period, including some taken by Nasser al-Din Shah himself, who was an avid photographer.
Kakh-e Abyaz (White Palace) was built towards the end of Nasser al- Din Shah’s reign to house the precious gifts he had received from the Ottoman king, Sultan Abdul Hamid. It was named the White Palace for the color of the stucco and the white marble stones that covered its hall and staircase and adheres to the architecture of the European Neo-Classical movement. It now houses Tehran’s Ethnological Museum.
Howz Khaneh (Pool House), named after the small pool and fountain in its center, was a summer chamber for the Qajar kings, with a cooling system that pumped water from a subterranean stream [qanat] through the summer residence and into the royal gardens. It now houses a collection of 19th-century paintings presented to the Qajar court by European monarchs.
Other notable present-day structures include the Negar Khaneh (Iranian Painting Gallery), which displays a fine collection of Qajar-era art including portraits of the Qajar monarchs; the Talar-e Zoruf (China Room), which showcases the chinaware presented to the Qajar kings by Queen Victoria, Nicholas I, Napoleon Bonaparte and other European monarchs; and the Chador Khaneh (Tent House), which stored the royal tents used by the Qajar kings who loved the great outdoors and made several camping trips each year.
The most recent addition to the Golestan Palace is the Emarat-e Khabgah (Dormitory Building), which was built to accommodate Queen Elizabeth II during her state visit to Iran in 1961, and later, other visiting heads of state until the 1979 Revolution.