History of tile (glazed brick), manufacture and decoration in Iran, goes back to the prehistoric period. It has an important position among the various decorative arts in Iranian architecture. Four main decorative features could be categorized here. They are stone carvings, brick work, stucco and tile panels. The intricate method of manufacture, designs and type of materials used in these four methods have evolved as a result of natural factors, economical and political effects.
Tiles were used to decorate monuments from early ages in Iran. Mosaic patterns were the first step in the evolution of tile decoration. Imaginative and creative artisans put together mosaic patterns using bits of colored stone and brick and created patterns of triangles, semi-circles and circles in harmony with the structures they were placed on. These patterns later evolved into design of natural subjects, such as plants, trees, animals and human beings. The earliest examples of mosaic patterns have come from the columns of the temple at Ubaid in Mesopotamia, and are attributed to the second half of the 2nd millennium BCE. Here, colored pieces of stone have been juxtaposed with shell and ivory to create geometric patterns. It is these early mosaic patterns which are the roots of later tile art. The first glazed bricks, a further advancement in tile art, have also been discovered in such sites as the palaces of Ashur and Babylon in the same area. A most famous example of early tile art on wares is the mosaic rhyton discovered in the excavations at Marlik. This vessel has two shells. The outer shell is covered with colored pieces of stone. This object is known as "Thousand Flowers". One of the earliest examples of Iranian tile work on architecture, actually glazed pieces of unbaked brick, have been excavated at Susa and Chogha Zanbil, and are attributed to the end of the second millennium BCE.
In the Achaemenian period full use was made of glazed and decorated fired bricks in yellow, green and brown on the palaces of Susa and Persepolis. Fired and glazed bricks were an important advancement in tile technique. The "Eternal Soldiers" at Persepolis have long elegant gowns in glaze made of fired earth and plaster.
Glaze was used on vessels and even coffins in the Parthian period, but little architectural evidence has been discovered to show that glazed bricks were used. Turquoise and light green glaze were the most popular colors. Fresco painting was more popular for the decoration of buildings.
Excavations in Firouzabad and Bishapour have yielded much evidence of tile art and mosaic manufacture for the Sassanid period. Here, tiles have glaze that is one centimeter thick, and mosaic patterns of flowers, plants, geometric designs birds and human beings.
A Caligraphic Tile from Kashan ca. 1225 CE
The art of tile working blossomed in the Islamic period of Iran. It became the most important decorative feature of religious buildings.
Iranian tile makers were in great demand and worked in the far corners of the Islamic empire. The earliest example of Islamic tile decoration can be seen on the Mosque of the Dome of Rock belonging to 7-8th century CE.
Before tile work, as we know today, became popular brick and stucco were most important in decoration of buildings up to 10-11th CE. Two mosques of Na'in and Neiriz have brick decoration in geometric patterns of the Buyid period. By 11-12th CE, brick decoration had spread from the east throughout Iran. The best examples of brick decoration of this period are the mausoleums of Pir Alamadar, 1026 CE, Chehel Dokhtaran, 466 CE, and the Tower of Mihmandost 1096 CE.
The next stage of development was the use of colored glaze on decorative brick; turquoise being the most popular color. Pieces of turquoise glazed bricks were used with decorative brick works on monuments from the Saljuq period onwards.
So artisans were familiar with the technique of manufacture of glazed bricks by this time. Sometimes these turquoise glazed bricks were used to create Kufic inscription among the brick patterns or were scattered among the brick patterns. The earliest example unfired turquoise Kufic inscription, is a panel stored at Iran Bastan Museum (National Museum of Iran) ascribed to the end of the 10-11th CE. Other religious structures which have turquoise tile works are Seyed Mosque, Esfahan, 1122 CE, the red Dome of Maraqeh 1147 CE and the Jame Mosque of Gonabad 1212 CE.
Mongol invasion slowed and halted many artistic traditions and trends. Normal conditions only returned by the 13th century CE, when the Ilkhanid rulers accepted Islam; they also became interested in creating secular and non-secular monuments and buildings. By this time, decorative bricks and tiles were used not only on the exterior, but also inside the building to cover the walls and domes.
Jame Mosque of Yazd
The art of tile manufacture reached its highest point of perfection and beauty at the end of Ilkhanid period and the beginning of Timurid in the form of Moraq tiles (mosaic style). Tile panels created with this technique are very durable and could withstand the elements of time. Here, tiles in such colors as yellow, blue, brown, black, turquoise, green and white were cut and carved into small pieces according to a previously prepared pattern. These pieces were placed close together and liquid plaster poured over to fill in all the opening and gaps. After the plaster dried and hardened, a large single piece tile panel had been created , which was then plastered onto the required wall of the building. Timurid monuments in Herat, Samarkend and Bokhara were covered by this decorative technique. Among the most famous monuments so decorated are Goharshad Mosque (1418 CE), Molana Mosque (1444 CE), Jame Mosque of Yazd (1456 CE), Jame Mosque of Varamin (1322 CE) and Madrassa of Khan in Shiraz (1615 CE)