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31 January 2022

The Troubled Story of the Tabriz Ark – Are There Deeper Meanings Behind Archaeological Insensitivity?

When is an Ark not a properly loved Ark? When its history doesn’t fit the main official narrative, suggests Vahid Qarabagli.

Tabriz Ark

What’s still standing of the Ark of Tabriz has a long history. Image: Wikimedia Commons 

Tabriz is now Iran’s fifth-biggest city and the capital of East Azerbaijan Province. However, it was once was a major trade town on the ancient Silk Road. The Venetian merchant traveller Marco Polo praised its beauty and importance for commerce. Over the centuries, it has served as dynastic capital for the Ilkhanids, Aq Qoyunlu, Qara Qoyunlu, and Safavids. For parts of the Qajar period (1794-1925), it was the seat of the Crown Prince. It has always held a special place in the political, economic, social, and cultural life of the country. 

Not surprisingly, therefore, Tabriz is home to various historical monuments, including the fabulous UNESCO-listed Historic Bazaar, the earthquake-fractured 1465 Blue Mosque and a gigantic brick structure in the downtown area known as the Ark. No, we’re not talking Noah. This ‘Ark’ (or ‘Arg’) is a kind of oversized fortress gateway that looks nothing quite like any other piece of medieval architecture you’ve ever seen.   

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Undated public domain image of the Ark Citadel. 

You’d be hard-pressed to describe the Ark as beautiful, but the powerful magnificence of its scale and the aloof timelessness of its presence have made it the subject of many poems, stories, and songs by local people. Although a large part of the monument has been destroyed over the years, what remains has become a symbol of resilience against natural and human disasters, earthquakes and wars.   

A Long History 

Remarkably it seems that the Ark was originally conceived as an enormous mausoleum. A project of Tajeddin Alishah, vezir to the courts of Muhammad Khodabandeh and Abu Sa'id Bahadur Khan, construction started in 1318 but stalled in 1339. Though never completed and later modified and rebuilt, the result was a structure long regarded as one of the tallest[1] brick portals of the post-Mongol Ilkhanate era.   

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The stairs and the pool on the north side of the citadel no longer exist. Image: Wikimedia Commons 

The Ark remained standing after the massive earthquake that ravaged Tabriz in 1721, though the associated Alishah Mosque nearby was essentially destroyed like most of the city. During the Qajar period, what had survived was reconstructed by Crown Prince Abbas Mirza as a military station and ammunition store. Next to it a foundry was built to make cannons for the Qajar army in the Russo-Persian/Russo-Iranian wars of 1804–1813 and 1826–1828. Enclosing walls were erected to protect the installation.   

The resultant citadel later became the last stronghold of the constitutionalist revolutionaries led by those like Sattar Khan and Baqir Khan seeking rights and freedoms from the Qajar Shah, Muhammad Ali. In December 1911, Russian forces attacked these constitutionalists with artillery fire, taking control of the city and leaving much of the Ark Citadel in charred ruins.   

In 1920, all the military installations and perimeter walls added to the Ark during the early 19th century were demolished. In their place, the Lion and Sun Theater (aka Ark Theater) and a surrounding park were built by Lieutenant General Ahmad Amir-Ahmadi, a military leader close to Reza Khan (later Reza Shah). This was to commemorate the ‘victory’ of the central government over Sheikh Muhammad Khiabani, who had led a short-lived autonomous republic in Iranian Azerbaijan called Azadistan (“Land of Freedom”).   

What remained of the Ark was registered on the national list of monuments in 1931.   

The Ark of Tabriz after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran 

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The new musalla, completed in 2019, was built atop the Alishah Mosque ruins, destroyed in a 1721 earthquake. Image: Nasrino.ir   

In 1980, just months after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Ark Theater, a popular and well-used hall for music, theatre and public speaking, was demolished to make space to construct a huge musalla (prayer hall) for Tabriz. The construction project began in 1999. The first phase was completed in 2008, the second phase in 2019, and with an area of ​​75,000 square meters and a capacity of 60,000 people, it is the largest of its kind in the country.   

The project was implemented despite considerable public hostility. Opponents argued that the new building’s massive size and incompatible architectural features would detract from the historical character and atmosphere of the Ark, disrupting the visual spectacle by subordinating its visibility. A law that should have limited any new construction to an area outside the perimeter of the listed historical site was ignored. Worse, the new musalla was built right on top of the site of the historic Alishah Mosque ruins, ignoring the clear need for careful archeological interventions before construction. Even now, the troubled story of encroachment towards the Ark is not over.   

In 2016, the Tabriz musalla management decided to build a parking lot for their complex within another part of the Ark’s historical site. Excavation work began, but this time protests proved more effective, and the project was stopped after a public outcry.    

Neglect of the Historical Monuments of Azerbaijani Turks in Iran 

The Ark’s sad story, destruction and lack of appreciation as a historical monument is just one of many cases in Iran. As in Tabriz and other parts of Iranian Azerbaijan, many other sites are in deplorable condition leading some people to mobilize to raise public attention. Amongst the most important examples are the truly ancient carved monoliths at Shahr Yeri near Meshgin Shahr (Khiyav), the historic center of Urmia, Hakim Hidaji’s house in Zanjan, and a whole series of castles, baths and Qajar-era houses in Ardabil. According to Jalil Jabbari, West Azerbaijan Province’s Director General of Cultural Heritage, Tourism and Handicrafts, the biggest problem is a lack of funds to help preservation and restoration.   

However, from the perspective of Azerbaijani Turk civil rights activists, the issue goes deeper and can be read as a form of national discrimination. Seen through this prism, a Persian-first ideology of “one country, one nation, one language, and one history” is blamed for the neglect of architectural monuments in non-Persian majority regions. In particular, the celebration of Seljuk, Ikhanid, Safavid and Qajar sites – remnants from dynasties that had Azerbaijani Turkic backgrounds – could be seen to work against the homogenization of a Persian-centric Iranian historical narrative.   

This is sad. The preservation of historical sites and structures should be a multidimensional task. Their maintenance requires a sensitivity and ability to see multiple connections that transcend nationalist or nationalizing forces. Surely this is the case with the Tabriz Ark where Azerbaijani-Turks, members of a ‘minoritized group’ in Iran, perceive the destruction and lack of appreciation of this historical monument as a rejection – an attack upon their history and thus their identity. Such sensitivities must be taken seriously if we hope to create an inclusive society where all people feel included and valued in Iran. 


[1] Some researchers now suggest that the Ark’s massive gateway arch is probably a couple of centuries younger than the original Ilkhanid structure.