Art & Sculpture Craft & Design Music
Heirloom Tech: The Old-World Acoustics of Ali Qapu

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Built in the early 17th century, Ali Qapu (meaning “great gate,” pictured below) is one of the most famous palaces of the Persian Empire’s Safavid Era. Situated on the western side of the Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan, Iran, this 48-meter tall, six-story building was built by decree of Shah Abbas I and later expanded by Shah Abbas II.

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Ali Qapu has countless notable architectural features, perhaps the most famous of which is the sixth-story Music Hall (pictured at the top of the page) where the king would host royal receptions and parties. It is an example of low-tech acoustic genius. In the Music Hall, live musicians would play traditional Persian instruments — such as the setar, kamancheh, and daf — to entertain the king and his guests. This painting from the nearby Chehel Sotoun palace depicts what the scene may have looked like:

Along all four sides of the upper half of the Music Hall walls, as well as within the mini muqarnas ceilings, is a double-walled design featuring a unique pattern of plaster niches cut out in the shapes of vases and other vessels. These not only add visual beauty, but more importantly, they absorb echoes and create what was perhaps the first low-tech quadrophonic sound system, long before the advent of electric power transmission.

If you stand in the Music Hall and clap, you’ll notice there is no echo. In a room of such size and volume, the wall design ensured that all the king’s guests would hear the live musicians with clarity and without distortion.

Here are some detail shots of the cutouts:

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Looking up at one of the muqarnas section ceilings:

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And looking up from the center of the Music Hall:

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In this line drawing, you can see the extensive design of the sixth floor, with its multiple muqarnas:
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This video by Bahram Maravandi gives us a brief look around, to put things in perspective:

https://youtu.be/0pW2RMQIzGo

And this video, created by the Victoria and Albert Museum, gives an overview of the palace complex, with the Ali Qapu Music Hall shown from the 50-second mark.

Hassan Azad of the University of Tehran conducted a fascinating study of the acoustic qualities of Ali Qapu’s Music Hall using 3D models of the space made with AutoCAD and 3ds Max. Below are the exterior view, the view of the room looking up, and the interior.

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Azad found that, in fact, the muqarnas and cutout designs function to decrease reverberation and act as a sound diffuser.

We can only imagine what it must’ve been like to be a 17th-century guest in the Ali Qapu Music Hall, surrounded by such functional beauty. For a taste of what the music may have sounded like filling the nooks and crannies of the Music Hall, here’s a sampling of traditional Persian folk music:

Now if only we had some baklava, cardamom tea, and pomegranates to go with it.

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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at snowgoli@gmail.com or via @snowgoli.

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