I Want an Iwan

Well, no I don’t actually want one. I don’t have room for one to begin with, and I don’t live in the right climate anyway. That doesn’t change the fact that iwans are cool. Literally.

An iwan is a large room with a vaulted ceiling that has walls on three sides and the fourth side open to the air. They were built in the heat of Mesopotamia to create large shady spaces that were still open to light and air. The earliest iwans are thought to have been constructed under the Parthian empire in the first or second centuries CE. One of the earliest examples to survive into modern times was at Ctesiphon on the Tigris River, built by the Sasanian empire in the sixth century CE. Unfortunately, the building fell into poor repair over time and was destroyed by wars in the twentieth century, but in these old photographs you can still see enormous vaulted space.


Photograph of a Sasanian iwan at Ctesiphon, photograph 1864, Wonders of the Past vol. 2
Sasanian iwan, from Wonders of the Past vol. 2 via Wikimedia (photograph 1864). Note the people standing on top of the roof vault for a sense of scale.
Photograph of the same iwan from half a century later showing ongoing decay, currently San Diego Air and Space Museum
Photograph of the same iwan from half a century later showing ongoing decay via Wikimedia (photograph currently San Diego Air and Space Museum)

The Parthians and the Sasanians after them may have used some iwans for religious purposes, but the largest were probably used for holding court sessions, public audiences, and other state business. When Islam came to Persia, iwans were adopted into Iranian and central Asian traditions of mosque-building. The Jama Masjid at Herat shows a beautiful iwan incorporated into a mosque.

Iwan at Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque) at Herat, Afghanistan, 1446, photograph by Sven Dirks
Iwan at Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque), photograph by Sven Dirks via Wikimedia (Herat, Afghanistan; 1446)

Since a mosque works differently from a space for state functions, iwans adapted to serve different needs. In hot regions, deep iwans around a central courtyard provided shade to worshipers, much like the original Parthian iwans. The Great Mosque in Isfahan follows this pattern.

Courtyard and south iwan of the Jameh Mosque (Great Mosque) at Isfahan, Iran, 8th century, photograph by Alex O. Holcombe
Courtyard and south iwan of the Jameh Mosque (Great Mosque) photograph by Alex O. Holcombe via Wikimedia (Isfahan, Iran; 8th century)

In other areas, iwan forms put to different uses. The Bibi Khanum mosque in Samarkand uses an iwan as a monumental gateway.

Bibi Khanum mosque at Samarkand, Uzbekistan, 1404, photograph by Bobyrr
Bibi Khanum mosque, photograph by Bobyrr via Wikimedia (Samarkand, Uzbekistan; 1404)

In colder climates, iwans were adapted into a grand facade in front of the main doorways of mosques and other important religious buildings like schools and mausoleums. The Blue Mosque at Mazar-i-Sharif has a richly colored iwan facade.

Iwan entrance to Blue Mosque, photograph by Steve Evans via Wikimedia (Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan; 1481)

Thoughts for writers

Iwans are a great example of how ideas change, adapt, and get repurposed. Culture changes and people’s needs change, but they don’t just throw away all the things or ideas they had and start over. So much of human civilization is about taking an idea that started somewhere else and repurposing it for new uses.

Keep this fact in mind when worldbuilding. Your world has a history. Everything your characters see, touch, and think about came from somewhere, and most of it probably started off as something different.

And besides, iwans are cool.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.