In the pre-modern context, madrasas served as colleges for the teaching of Islamic law with ancillary focus on other Islamic sciences. Madrasa, as an architectural type designated specifically for the use of religious learning, did not come into practical use until the 10th century, when the earliest madrasas in Persia were founded and then proliferated under Saljuq patronage. The 11th-century Saljuq Neẓāmiya colleges of Baghdad, Isfahan and other cities, founded by the grand vizier Neẓām-al-Molk were amongst the first to have been state-sponsored. In Isfahan, as elsewhere in Persia, the earliest madrasas were established to spread and solidify Sunni orthodoxy. Isfahan, however, is especially noteworthy for it gave rise also to imperial patronage of the madrasas as institutions of learning for scholarship on and promulgation of Twelver Shiʿism.
The earliest extant madrasa in Isfahan is the 725/1325 Emāmi Madrasa, which is also known as the Madrasa-ye Bābā Qāsem after the name of its first teacher, who is buried in a nearby tomb (Honarfar, 1965, pp. 302-10; Mehrābādi, pp. 433-40). As in Persian mosque type, this and most other madrasas in Persia follow the four-ayvān courtyard-centered plan. In fact, it has been postulated, although still debated, that the four-ayvān plan of Persian mosques may itself derive from the configuration of the needs of a madrasa (Grabar, pp. 57-59). At madrasa buildings, however, the periphery of the courtyard is articulated with rows of apartments. These served as student cells, as lodging and classroom for both the teachers and their young male students. The self-sufficiency of the madrasa as a religious institution is also represented by the fact that, like other religious foundations, it too derived its operating funds from the proceeds of pious endowments (waqf).
Although sufficiently equipped to serve the residents for daily prayers, madrasas were often appended to mosques. Such is the Mozaffarid Madrasa added in 767/1366-67 to the Masjed-e Jāmeʿ of Isfahan (Honarfar, 1965, pp. 136-42; Grabar, 1990, p. 38). While in this case, the single, deep ayvān-and-courtyard variation is tucked into one corner of the Great Mosque of Isfahan, at the other prominent example of the Masjed-e Jadid-e ʿAbbāsi, or Masjed-e Šāh (renamed Masjed-e Emām after the revolution of 1978-79) the madrasa and the mosque were interwoven into a single integrated structure. There, indeed, the motivating factor for raising such a singularly awesome monument at the apex of the Meydān-e Naqš-e Jahān was the political and religious primacy of enunciating the Twelver Shiʿite creed of the Safavid Empire. Notwithstanding the symbolic and ritual significance of this madrasa, the most famous madrasa of Isfahan is the unparalleled Solṭāni Madrasa (Royal Madrasa; see PLATE I ).
This vast and magnificently decorated madrasa is variously known as the Madrasa-ye Mādar-e Šāh (Mother of the Shah) and the Čahārbāḡ Madrasa for its location on the Čahārbāḡ Promenade (Honarfar, 1965, pp. 685-722; Mehrābādi, pp. 444-69). Madrasa-ye Solṭāni was the crowning achievement of the reign of the last Safavid Shah Solṭān-Ḥosayn. With its dependencies, namely a caravanserai and a bazaar, it was also the only monumental project to have been carried out inside the capital city in this period (his other project was the royal palace-city of Faraḥābād located well outside Isfahan to the south). Built largely between 1115/1704 and 1119/1707, the madrasa was not finished and formally inaugurated until 1122/1710 (Honarfar, 1965, pp. 688-90, 694-95; Ḵātunābādi, apud Eqbāl, pp. 56-57).
Measuring about 300 by 200 yards in area, the Solṭāni Madrasa appropriated a garden site in the royal precinct that was located just south of the Bāḡ-e Bolbol, at the center of which stood the Hašt Behešt Palace. The rigid symmetry of the cross-axial placement of the four ayvāns, and the cell-blocks of one hundred and fifty rooms tucked into the intervening corners dominates and determines the composition of the madrasa, despite the fact that its qebla orientation is skewed (PLATE II ). The south-westerly-facing meḥrāb in the principal ayvān-domed-chamber is carved into one of the side pillars rather than occupying the central position as in other example. In short, the primacy in this structure is given to the uncompromising regularity of the relationship between the madrasa and its urban armature of the Čahārbāḡ.
The large rectangular courtyard is lined with flowing water channel of the Faršādi Canal that also runs through the adjacent Solṭāni Caravansary. Tiled extensively in all its principal façades, the courtyard space of the madrasa, with its stately trees and beds of flowers, provides a scholarly retreat worthy of royal patronage. In fact, royal treasury had provided the library with one of the most impressive collections of books on law, philosophy, and religion. The book collections, however, were eventually destroyed after the Afghan invasion, due to the lack of proper maintenance. A special room decorated in gold and located north of the portal was prepared for the personal use of Shah Solṭān-Ḥosayn, to which he could retreat, thus enunciating, as it were, the Shah’s personal piety and devotion to religious studies (Mirzā Ḥosayn, p. 81; Honarfar, 1965, pp. 719-20). The emphases on royal patronage and religious piety are further braided through Qurʾanic and Hadith quotations and Persian poetic texts across the entire epigraphic program of the madrasa.
The main portal opens onto the Čahārbāḡ Promenade. Not only is the fact of its opening onto the main thoroughfare of the imperial capital an exceptional privilege, the Solṭāni Madrasaδs royal precedent under Shah ʿAbbās the Great is also prominently displayed. In the soaring profile of a principal dome and the paired goldasta minarets of its pišṭāq-ayvān, the Madrasa recalls the composition that culminates the stacked architectural elements at the Masjed-e Šāh in the Meydān-e Naqš-e Jahān. Equally deliberate in drawing parallels with the Safavid congregational mosque, it appears, is the choice of a pair of silver doors for the tall and prominent principal portal on the Čahārbāḡ (Allen, 1995, pp. 123-37 and pls. XIV-XXII). As in the pair added by Shah Ṣafi I to the portal of the Masjed-e Jadid-e ʿAbbāsi, Shah Solṭān-Ḥosayn ordered ʿAbd-al-Laṭif of Tabriz, the goldsmith of the royal household, to create the door (Honarfar, 1965, pp. 691-94; Mehrābādi, pp. 446-50; Blake, p. 160). No expense seems to have been spared for this later addition (1714). The doors were made of twenty mans of silver and cost some eight hundred tomans, indicative of their enormous value; on the day of their installment, the city was illumined with lights (čerāḡāni, q.v.). According to Judasz Krusinski, the magnificence of the place “could be imagined by the chief Gate of it only, which is of Massy Silver” (Ḵātunābādi, apud Eqbāl, p. 58; Krusinski, I, p. 127).
Extreme religiosity was never a prerequisite for the founding of madrasas, but this institution most eloquently represents the dominant role of the clergy during the reign of Shah Solṭān-Ḥosayn. The Solṭāni Madrasa was built for Mir Moḥammad-Bāqer Ḵātunābādi, the first mollā-bāši (chief clergy) of Isfahan who was also closely associated with the shah (Mirzā Rafiʿā, p. 64, tr. pp. 72-73; Taḏkerat al-moluk, facs. ed. and tr. Minorsky, fol. 2, tr. p. 41). Although the madrasa seems to have been part of a larger urban project—the Solṭāni Caravanserai or Kāravānsarā-ye Mādar-e Šāh (now turned into a hotel called Mehmānsarā-ye Šāh ʿAbbās/ʿAbbāsi; Mehrābādi, pp. 412-13) to the east of the madrasa and a single-alley bazaar of a thousand shops to its north—the entire complex was intended to serve the fiscal needs of the madrasa. Moreover, the supervision of the madrasa constructions was entrusted with Āqā Kamāl, the eunuch-ḡolām royal treasurer (Honarfar, p. 686). Together, the evidence points, as it does in most aspects of Shah Solṭān-Ḥosayn’s reign, to the complete submersion of royal affairs into the politico-religious sphere of influence of the ulema and of the harem bureaucracy of eunuch ḡolāms.
The Solṭāni Madrasa ensemble happened to be the last monumental construction project in Isfahan until the 20th century, and, given the unraveling of Safavid society at the turn of the 18th century, it becomes a befitting testimonial, in the guise of patronage, production, and consumption of architecture, of the compromising conditions presented by the two principal pillars of authority and power in the last decades of Safavid rule.
(Sussan Babaie with Robert Haug)
Originally Published: December 15, 2007
Last Updated: April 5, 2012
This article is available in print.
Vol. XIV, Fasc. 1, pp. 33-35