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The Ilkhanid Summer Palace at the Throne of Solomon (Takht-e Soleyman, Iran): Chinese-Persian Visual Worlds

Following the defeat of the Abbasid caliphate and the wholesale destruction wrought by Genghis Khan and his heirs, the summer palace at Takht-e Soleyman marked the beginning of a new era. The palace – constructed upon the ruins of a Sassanid fire temple by Genghis Khan’s great-grandson Abaqa from 1270 and surrounded by a spectacular natural landscape – is emblematic of the transcultural diversity of this period, illustrating the confluence of classic Iranian and Sino-Mongolian traditions like no other work of architecture: alongside dragons and phoenixes, which symbolise the Chinese emperor and his wife, tiles covered with Persian poems, stories, and patterns from the Shahnama also adorn the palace’s walls. The palace is unparalleled in the way that it so strikingly and uniquely depicts this new visual world in its direct spatial context.

As part of this project, a number of experts are investigating the function of the Ilkhanid complex and the intentions behind its iconography: alongside the expansion of Tabriz into the khanate’s new capital, why did the ruler also finance such an extravagant construction in such a remote location, one which he personally visited so seldom due to his nomadic way of life and the mobile nature of his court?

The project also picks up on recently revived discussions surrounding the role and significance of political power for processes such as cultural appropriation, adaptation and transformation, discussing them in relation to the palace, while also asking fundamental questions such as: Was the structure and its iconography a beautiful backdrop without direct meaning, or a visual message directed at a multicultural audience?

Tiles as Cultural Heritage: Provenance and Re-Use

The palace’s tiles were so valuable that they were removed and re-used in other, now-lost construction projects after the palace was abandoned in the 14th century. Some found their way into religious structures and thereafter into museums and collections around the world via the art trade from the 19th century onwards. Although they were mostly attributed to the Takht-e Soleyman, did they really originate from the summer palace or were they from another construction project?  

Where were the thousands of complex lusterware and lajvardina tiles – techniques that were invented in this era – actually made? Was it in the small on-site workshop, or in Kashan, a leading yet far-removed producer of tiles that also supplied tiles to other construction projects during the same period?

Can answers to these questions be found in Persian and Sino-Mongolian historical, art-historical and archaeological sources? What information about the workshop and the tiles’ provenance can be gained by way of archaeometric and stylistic analysis?

Berlin: A Key Location

Outside of the original site itself, important resources for working through these topics are located in Berlin. These include the records held by the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut (German Archaeological Institute, DAI) that document the archaeological excavations carried out between 1959 and 1978, as well as the almost 5,000 objects (including 1,200 tile fragments) from the excavations, which made their way to Berlin under partage agreements and were then transferred from the DAI to the Museum für Islamische Kunst. These finds are supplemented by the holdings of the Islamic Department of the Iran Bastan Museum in Tehran.

Interdisciplinary Collaboration

In the same way that at the Takht-e Soleyman, Persian cultural history merges with the heritage of the Sasanian kings and the art of Sino-Mongolian nomads, so too does this project bring together various assets of the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz—the Rathgen-Forschungslabor, the collections housed in the Humboldt Forum and the rich holdings of illustrated book art and manuscripts that belong to the Staatsbibliothek’s Oriental department – as well as incorporating the work of a number of external experts from the DIA and its partners in Iran and beyond.

Following the project’s conclusion, the documents and archaeological finds used and the resulting research outcomes will be made publicly accessible.

Project management: Ute Franke
Project team: Dr Ute Franke, Antonia Naase, Dr Margaret Shortle and Dr Jens Kröger (em.), Museum für Islamische Kunst; Dr Judith Thomalsky and Dr Dietrich Huff (em.), German Archaeological Institute/Eurasia Department, Tehran Branch and Tehran Archive; Prof. Dr Birgitt Hoffmann (em.), Institute of Iranian Studies, University of Bamberg; Prof. Dr Tomoko Masuya, Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia, University of Tokyo; Dr Stefan Röhrs, Rathgen-Forschungslabor of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; Prof. Dr Parviz Holakooei, head of the Central Laboratory at the Art University of Isfahan, Iran; Dr John Hirx, Head Objects Conservator, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Cooperation partners (as of January 2024): German Archaeological Institute/Eurasia Department, Tehran Branch and Tehran Archive; Rathgen-Forschungslabor of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; Iran Bastan Museum, Tehran, Department of Islamic Art
Project overseen by: Museum für Islamische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preussischer Kulturbesitz
Funding: The German Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media and the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz
Project duration: December 2023 to December 2025