Although in the West the term Persian culture is commonly used, the inhabitants of this country have long called it Iran and themselves Iranians, rather than Persians. In accordance with popular usage, however, the term Persian will be used in this article to refer to the period before the advent of Islam in the 7th century ad—that is, the period of the ancient Persian empires—as well as to prehistoric times. Ceramics and clay figurines were the chief artworks of the prehistoric period, and architecture and sculpture predominated during the period of the first two Persian empires (6th century bc to 7th century ad). After the Arab conquest and the introduction of Islam in the 7th century ad, sculpture was little practiced but architecture flourished. Painting became a major art in the period from the 13th to the 17th century. In the 20th century these ancient arts were being revived, and traditional forms were combined with Western technology and contemporary materials.
After the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great in 331 bc, and the assumption of power by the Seleucid dynasty, Persian architecture followed the styles common to the Greek world. Subsequently, under the Parthian Arsacid dynasty, which lasted from about 250 bc to ad 226, a small number of buildings was constructed in native Persian style. The most notable monument of this period is a palace at Hatra (now al-Hadhr, Iraq), dating from the 1st or 2d century ad and exemplifying the use of the barrel vault on a grand scale. The vaults, heavy walls, and small rooms of this palace indicate a continuation of earlier Assyrian and Babylonian tradition. A great renaissance in architecture took place under the Sassanid dynasty, which ruled Persia from 226 until the Islamic conquest in 641.
Other major structures include the mausoleums of the Mongol conqueror Tamerlane and his family at Samarqand, the Royal Mosque at Meshad-i-Murghab, and the vast madrasahs, or mosque schools, at Samarqand, all of which were erected during the 15th century. Under the Safavid dynasty (1502–1736), a vast number of mosques, palaces, tombs, and other structures were built. Common features in the mosques were onion-shaped domes on drums, barrel-vaulted porches, and pairs of towering minarets. A striking decoration was the corbel, a projection of stone or wood from the face of a wall, used in rows and tiers. These corbels, arranged to appear as series of intersecting miniature arches, are usually called stalactite corbels. Color was an important part of the architecture of this period, and the surfaces of the buildings were covered with ceramic tiles in glowing blue, green, yellow, and red. The most notable Safavid buildings were constructed at Esfahan, the capital at that period. The city, laid out in broad avenues, gardens, and canals, contained palaces, mosques, baths, bazaars, and caravansaries.
Since the 18th century, the architectural styles of western Europe have been adopted to an increasing degree in Iran. At the same time, traditional forms have remained vital, and native and imported elements have often been combined in the same building. Recently, unadorned steel and concrete structures, similar to those seen in other parts of the modern world, have been built as dwellings, public buildings, and factories.