Iran’s Sherbet and Sherbet Houses in Passage of Time

Document Type : Research Article



In most cities and villages of Iran, there used to be sherbet houses, where people gathered for casual chats, drank sherbet (syrup) and debated about local daily topics. In these places, people listened to poems and stories of the well-known Shahnameh (The Epic of Kings) - a masterpiece of Persian poetry dating back to the fourth century. Reading the Shahnameh is specifically considered to have had a significant contribution to the transfer of cultural and literary values across generations.  It was also a useful resource in raising the awareness of the people in the ways of life of their ancestor’s. Nevertheless, there is unfortunately no reliable information about sherbet houses in Iran and therefore any study over them needs to be based on the architectures of such ancient structures. Based on historical documents, the first sherbet houses appeared in Iran after the advent of Islam and specifically when religious prohibitions against drinking wine were put into place.  The early places where the sherbet houses were constructed were in Samarkand (the capital of Samarqand Province) during the Teymurid era (1370–1405). The next rise in the emergence of sherbet houses was during Shah Ismail’s era (1502-1524). Nevertheless, there was a decline in the popularity of those places later on.   In addition, sherbetdar bashi (the owner of the sherbet house) was an occupation which appeared with the tradition of drinking sherbet and became one of the outstanding courtier positions in Iran. After the immigration of Ottomans to Iran, coffee was brought into Iran. Therefore, sherbet houses were replaced by coffee houses where a Turkish delicacy was drunk - coffee. In fact, it was during the same era that people found coffee to be a more enjoyable drink than sherbet. Accordingly, the name of sherbet houses soon turned into coffee houses. The first Persian coffee houses date back to the Safavid period in Qazvin (an ancient capital in the Safavid Empire), probably during the reign of Shah Tahmasp (1524-1576), and then expanded during the Shah Abbas era (1587-1629) in Isfahan (the Safavid capital).   Afterwards, in the Qajar dynasty, especially during the reign of Naser al-Din Shah reign (1831–1896), the number of coffee houses multiplied in large cities, like Tehran (capital of Iran). The cultural changes in our present society may have resulted in forgetting the ancient traditions. Therefore, academic researches over the elements of the traditional society and the identification of their cultural values have growingly found a significant importance. The present research has been carried out through a descriptive-comparative method. The main purpose is to picture the architectural space of sherbet-houses of Iran.  To achieve this goal, firstly, history and the role of sherbet houses in the Iranian social life was determined; Secondly, the architecture of this social-cultural base was introduced; and finally, on the one hand, a comparison was made between the architectural features of interactive spaces such as the sherbet house and the coffee house, and on the other hand, between the architecture of available sherbet houses.Sherbet houses can be divided into two kinds; governmental or public. The Royal Sherbet House of Qeysariye Portal in the Isfahan Bazaar and the Sherbet House of Amir Garden in Tabas (a city in South Khorasan Province) used to be governmental sherbet houses. The Sherbet House of Sayed Vaghef Abbey in Natanz (a city in central Iran) and the Sherbet House of Sheikh Safi al-Din Shrine in Ardabil (a historical city in north-western Iran) are public sherbet houses. The results of the present study show that sherbet houses were a roofed central space in the form of quadrilateral or octagonal, made of brick with round platforms for people to sit and rest. Sherbet houses have had various ornaments such as brickworks and tiles that represent the artistic sense of the past. In addition to internal spaces, sherbet houses also had ivans (porticoes) in their outdoor spaces to serve customers in the warm season of the year. In comparison, the coffee house’s architecture is based on a common pattern. It was usually influenced by the characteristics of architecture texture, culture, and social needs of the society.  However, the architecture of internal spaces of some coffee houses was imitated from the architectural style of bineh (changing room) in traditional baths. This was a building usually with one entrance, a cupola (domed roof), and stone or brick columns. Platforms around the building were made of brick or stone or mud brick.  Shoe racks with arched openings which were under the platforms are also a common feature of sherbet houses. Dadoes on the top of platforms were decorated with figured tiles up to one meter. In the middle of the building, there was a pool made of stone or tile, usually in the shape of polygon with one or more fountain and trough. There was also a circle or polygon platform in the center or a semicircle one next to its wall for narrating or reading the Shahnameh. General themes of murals in sherbet houses are the heroes of the Shahnameh.  Another specific feature of the interior architecture of sherbet houses is the brickwork and tiles in the portal façade and internal spaces. In short, sherbet houses and coffee houses were a center for doing social activities.  And because of the nature of their usage, sherbet houses were based on extroverted or introverted architectural designs.