Isfahan x. Monuments (3) Mosques



x(3). Mosques

Isfahan is known historically for its large number of mosques. According to Abu Noʿaym of Isfahan (I, p. 17), the first large mosque in Isfahan was built by a client (mawlā) of ʿOmar b. al-Ḵaṭṭāb during the Caliphate of Imam ʿAli b. Abi Ṭāleb (r. 656-61). The French traveler Jean Chardin had counted one hundred and sixty two mosques during his travels to Isfahan in the middle of the 17th century. The majority in Chardin’s account must have been the neighborhood mosques that served, as in every Muslim city, the residential quarters, sections of bazaars, or else were attached to the city’s numerous madrasas and shrines. Much of this legacy, however, has been erased through centuries of destructive incursions or urban renewal efforts. Nothing, for example, remains of the oldest amongst these local masjed types, while mosques dating to the Safavid and later periods represent, albeit in considerably diminished numbers, the largest extant examples (Haneda, 1996).

Isfahan acquired early in its Islamic history a large mosque that served the male portion of the entire community for congregational Friday noon prayer, hence Masjed-e Jomʿe (Friday Mosque). This has been a principal Islamic practice since the Prophet Moḥammad established the first congregational mosque at his house in Medina (Hillenbrand, 1994, pp. 33-34). Friday mosques of major cities were additional to smaller neighborhood mosques that dotted most large cities in the Islamic world. Ordinarily founded by the king or members of the ruling elite, congregational mosques facilitated the profession of political allegiance through the customary Friday noontime prayer and the sermon (ḵoṭba) that was delivered, if not by the king himself, by a representative of the patronized clergy.


Isfahan, however, came to have two congregational mosques: Masjed-e Jāmeʿ (Jomʿa, Friday Mosque or Great Mosque of Isfahan) founded in the 8th century, and the Masjed-e Jadid-e ʿAbbāsi, better known as Masjed-e Šāh (the Royal Mosque; renamed Masjed-e Emām after the Revolution of 1978-79) that Shah ʿAbbās I the Great constructed to mark the beginning of a new era of legally-sanctioned practice of Twelver Shiʿite kingship. In addition to these two congregational mosques, four other significant mosques of the city will be considered in this essay, albeit with varying degrees of emphasis: the early 16th-century Masjed-e ʿAli, the royal chapel-mosque Masjed-e Šayḵ Loṭf-Allāh of early 17th-century date, and the mid-17th-century Ḥakim Mosque. It is worth noting, however, that even though this essay focuses on the more important and better-studied mosques, there are many other mosques that present perfectly worthy cases for research. Two mosques built by Sāru Taqi, the grand vizier of Shah Ṣafi I and Shah ʿAbbās II and one of the most important patrons of architecture in the 17th-century Persia, deserve further scholarly attention (Babaie, 2004, pp. 97-98). Others, such as the exquisitely decorated, especially in its façade, but totally neglected 19th-century Rokn-al-Molk Mosque represent an opportunity to expand our picture of Isfahan further into the modern period (Babaie, in EIr., p. 500 and Pl. VI; Honarfar, 1965, pp. 805-22; Mehrābādi, pp. 625-40). Among all the mosques of Isfahan, the Masjed-e Jāmeʿ occupies the central position not only in considering the monuments of Isfahan but also in the annals of Persian architecture; it will therefore take a larger share of the following essay.

Masjed-e Jāmeʿ. This mosque was founded in the 8th century by the Taym Arabs of the village Ṭirān (Ṭehrān in Abu Noʿaym; a village in the Najafābād area) on the outskirts of Yahudiya, one of the then twin towns constituting the city of Isfahan (Plates I [3] and II [3]). The mosque was enlarged with the expansion of the town, which in turn had followed the building of this mosque. It was equipped with a library (dār-al-kotob) housing books that were chosen by scholars of the past, covering almost every discipline of knowledge and all registered in a three-volume catalogue. Each time no less than five thousand people congregated for prayer (Abu Noʿaym, I, pp. 17-19; Māfarruḵi, pp. 84-85). Round plastered columns supported the roof and the minaret on the qebla side (Moqaddasi, pp. 388-89). The mosque, which Ebn al-Aṯir describes as among the largest and most beautiful of its kind, burned down in 515/1121 in a fire set to it by the Ismaʿilis (Ebn al-Aṯir, Beirut, X, p. 595; Honarfar, 1965, pp. 80-81). The mosque was built anew and became in time the most venerated mosque of the city until the 17th century, when a rival congregational mosque was raised by the Safavid Shah ʿAbbās the Great. As the oldest mosque of the city, its aura of ritual sanctity inspired the denizens of Isfahan and its rulers alike to lavish funds and talents on the mosque to enhance its functionality and its prestige and to leave for posterity the imprint of individual and collective patronage (Grabar, pp. 44-60). Nearly every significant architectural and decorative trend of medieval period in Persian history found its monumental representation in this mosque. In fact, so richly diverse, artistically accomplished and technologically inventive are the building and decorative strategies employed in this mosque that it has served as a blueprint for medieval Persian architecture in general. Moreover, in its architectural evolution from an Arab hypostyle type to a four-ayvān, courtyard focused mosque plan, this mosque exemplifies the maturation of the Persian style mosque (Honarfar, 1965, pp. 67-168; Mehrābādi, pp. 527-90; Mirzā Ḥosayn Khan, p. 19).

The initial construction of Masjed-e Jāmeʿ was presumably funded by governors who controlled the city on behalf of the ʿAbbāsid caliphs to mark the full establishment of the Islamic community (omma) in Isfahan since the city’s capture in the early years of Arab conquest (q.v.; According to Abu Noʿaym, I, p. 17, and Māfarruḵi, p. 84, it was first built by the Arabs of the village Ṭehrān). The Masjed-e Jāmeʿ appears to have formed the focal point of ʿAbbāsid constructions in the Yahudiya, the larger of the two settlements (Jay was the other) that developed with its satellite villages into the urban center of early Islamic Isfahan (Golombek, pp. 20-25). The site of the Masjed-e Jāmeʿ has played an important role on the religious landscape of Isfahan since at least the 8th century and quite possibly even earlier as archeological evidence suggests that the location of the prayer niche (meḥrāb) and its domed chamber (on the south side of the mosque) are the same as that of a former Zoroastrian fire temple (Galdieri, 1972-84, III, pp. 19-25). Indeed, to appropriate the sanctity of a preexisting site of worship, in this case possibly a Zoroastrian fire temple, would have been in character with the early Islamic discourse of urban conquest; many of the first congregational mosques from Cordova to Delhi occupy the sites of earlier houses of worship.

Archeological investigations of the 1960s and 1970s, carried out by the Italian team of researchers led by Eugenio Galdieri, have revealed the parameters and general configuration of this early mosque (Galdieri, 1972-84, III, pp. 19-25). This was a hypostyle, a classical mosque type developed out of the model of the house-mosque of the Prophet and perfected in such monumental caliphal structures as the Great Mosque of Sāmarrā (comp. 238/852) by al-Motawakkel in the new capital of the ʿAbbasids. The main features of this first hypostyle mosque were its classically proportioned rectangular area subdivided into a covered sanctuary, its roof held atop equidistantly placed pillars, and an open courtyard. This early mosque was purportedly renovated in the 10th-century when the Buyids (932-1055) made Isfahan their major center of political life, yet still little is known about these works. Nevertheless, the mosque remained at the center of urban life of Isfahan throughout the medieval period.

The Masjed-e Jāmeʿ of Isfahan as it stands now is quintessentially a Saljuq mosque. Since 1051, when the city assumed political ascendancy in the vast Saljuq dominion, constructions at the congregational mosque and the Meydān-e Kohna in its vicinity on the southeast had gained momentum. In successive campaigns, the Great Mosque of Isfahan underwent a series of radical architectural alterations that established the basic plan and elevation of the mosque for centuries to come. This mosque covers nearly 17,000 square meters or an area of about four acres, and is centered on a courtyard of approximately 2,500 square meters, making it one of the largest mosques in Iran.

The Saljuq interventions seem to have begun in earnest with the addition, some time between 1072 and 1092 (no firm date is given in the foundation inscriptions), by the great vizier Neẓām-al-Molk (d. 1092) of a domed chamber over the prayer niche of the original hypostyle mosque (Honarfar, 1965, pp. 75-76). Archeological evidence suggests that this structure may have been conceived as a freestanding replacement of the original fire temple idea (Galdieri, III, pp. 19-25). The remains of the South Dome testify to the impressive scale of the brick building; as in the rest of the mosque, this dome is constructed of brick, the traditional building material of the central regions of Persia. Its square chamber is delineated by the placement of massive round pillars clustered into impressive thickness at each corner. As such, the South Dome resembled the čahār ṭāq (q.v.) units that have been associated with pre-Islamic Sasanian architecture of Persia in general and with Zoroastrian fire temples in particular.

At the other, northern side of the mosque and well beyond its original compound, the rival and successor of Neẓām-al-Molk, Abu’l-Ḡanāyem Tāj-al-Molk Pārsi (d. 1093), sponsored the construction in 1088 of the North Dome (popularly referred to as Gonbad-e Ḵāki; see Plate IV [3]). This too was a freestanding chamber outside the mosque environs and near the north gate into the mosque. Its function has been debated, but the chamber was most likely intended for some royal function (Grabar, pp. 38-41, 50-52; Honarfar, 1965, pp. 76-78). Such a function may be supported by the architectural, decorative and epigraphic specificities of this small building. While the South Dome of Neẓām-al-Molk would inspire awe with its massive scale and heavy proportions, the North Dome of Tāj-al-Molk achieved its impact through lightness and elegance in the way forms are broken down into geometrically complex patterns. The double-shelled dome allows for a taller external profile and a more tempered rise in the interior. Internally, the dome is held aloft by the ingenious distribution of weight across a system of arches that shrink in size and transform into two and three-dimensional units as they emanate from center to periphery in each area. The patterns of broad arches embracing clusters of smaller arches, of deep-cut corner squinches alternating with shallow niches, of even smaller arches ringing the base of the dome, of intersecting pentagons in the dome are exquisitely integrated into the fabric of the building through the use of brickwork as both structural and decorative material. In this regard, the North Dome of the Great Mosque of Isfahan demonstrates one of the most brilliant examples of what may be said to be a Saljuq specialty in Iranian architecture. Equally inventive and complex is the epigraphic style and program of the North Dome, in which set brick and carved stucco form Kufic bands of text ornament; Qurʾanic inscriptions on the impost blocks are in a massive cursive script, whereas the foundation inscriptions on the dome itself are in an angular Kufic formed out of brick relief (Galdieri, 1972-84, III, p. 38; Honarfar, 1965, p. 76; Blair, no. 61).

As revolutionary an alteration to the mosque as the addition of these two domes represented, the next Saljuq intervention into the very fabric of the mosque resulted in a total transformation of the original hypostyle into a new mosque type. During the 1120s, pillars and roofs of much of the sanctuary and the courtyard arcade of the mosque were taken down and replaced with vaulted spaces internally and four pišṭāq-ayvān compositions facing the courtyard. These deep-set arched openings framed with rectangular bands were placed at the center of each side of the courtyard, both mediating the rhythmic march of the smaller arches along each side and accentuating each courtyard side as an integrated façade (Plate III [3]). In this way, the four-ayvān façades of the Great Mosque of Isfahan redistributed ritual and visual attention onto the courtyard. Unlike the rigid separation of the covered sanctuary and open courtyard in a hypostyle mosque, the masterful execution of four-ayvān plan of the Great Mosque of Isfahan (not the first in Persia, but the most accomplished) and its use of ayvāns to mediate between the inner and outer spaces of the mosque resolved an inherent architectural contradiction between the earlier Arab-Mediterranean solutions and this indigenous Iranian conclusion.

The centrality of the Masjed-e Jāmeʿ in Persian architecture in general, and in the subsequent history of monuments in Isfahan in particular, is illustrated by the fact that successive rulers and patrons left their imprint on this mosque. In the process, however, the mosque complex became an irregularly shaped entity that seems to have grown organically around its constituent parts and into the fabric of the city. During the reign of Öljeitü (Ūljāytū; r. 1304-16) and in the post-Mongol period, the area behind the western ayvān of the courtyard was converted into a prayer hall at the qebla-side, in which was placed a superb meḥrāb. This is dated 710/1310 and claims in its inscriptions credit for Moḥammad Sāvi, an Il-khanid vizier, as the patron and for a Badr as the master calligrapher-designer (Honarfar, 1965, pp. 114-20; Blair and Bloom, pp. 10-11). The meḥrāb is rightfully famed for its complex composition and masterful execution in stucco. It is adorned with three-dimensional stucco bands of calligraphy in ṯolṯ script that are set against a complex foliate scrollwork and surrounded by borders of twisted vines and a panel featuring lotus-like flowers mentioning the names of the twelve Shiʿite Imams, possibly a reference to Öljeitü’s conversion to Shiʿism. The Shiʿite tenor of the commission is also evident in the inclusion of a Hadith that is attributed to the first Imam ʿAli b. Abi Ṭāleb, stating that whoever frequents a mosque will receive one of eight benedictions (Honarfar, 1965, p. 120).

The Mozaffarids (1313–93) added a small madrasa to the eastern side of the mosque while the Timurid additions amounted to some significant re-workings of the mosque with a winter prayer hall, a portal, and, what is more, the mosaic-tile sheathing of the courtyard façades that brought to the mainly plain-brick Saljuq building a captivating element of color. The dedication panel of the Timurid prayer hall, dated 851/1447, is an early example of the practice of highlighting with color the names of patrons in foundational inscriptions; here the name of Sultan Moḥammad Bahādor, grandson of Šāhroḵ, is written in ocher against the blue and white background (Honarfar, 1965, pp. 122-23; Mehrābādi, p. 552). This Timurid emphasis on chromatic effects in architecture continued to inspire Safavid and later patrons in their additions to this mosque and in the architecture of Isfahan in general.

The Safavid period also witnessed continued patronage of the Masjed-e Jāmeʿ, whereby successive rulers added their royal imprint both before and after Isfahan became the capital in 1597-98. Among these the most important may be listed here: the four courtyard ayvāns received complex moqarnas vaulting (or earlier ones were replaced?) with glazed tile facing; the principal south (qebla) ayvān received a pair of thin minarets that crowned the pišṭāq (the goldasta type); and the tile work especially on the meḥrāb further demonstrates the post-Timurid emphasis on color over the Saljuq preference for bare brickwork. A measure of the continually charged sanctity and social significance of the Great Mosque of Isfahan is the fact that Safavid Shahs used the walls of the mosque to stamp onto the city representations of their dominion; Shah Esmāʿil I and Shah Ṭahmāsb ordered important royal decrees (farmān, q.v.) to be affixed strategically onto the mosque. Shah Ṭahmāsb had further ordered repairs to the mosque in 1531-32 to be carried out by one of the patronized clergy acting also as royal representative (Babaie, 2003, p. 39; Honarfar, 1965, pp. 86 ff.). Ṭahmāsb’s epigraphic addition to the south ayvān contain prayers to the fourteen infallibles (čahārdah maʿṣum, q.v.) of Shiʿite belief, thus linking the historic center of religiosity in Isfahan to the new Shiʿite focus of the Safavids. Paradoxically, this change in religious practice contributed, in part, to the attempt to rival the Masjed-e Jāmeʿ with the Royal Mosque during the reign of Shah ʿAbbās the Great early in the 17th century.

Masjed-e ʿAli. This mosque of the early 16th century, dated by inscription to 929/1523, is noteworthy for its pairing with the shrine of Hārun-e Welāyat (1513) and their location on the southern threshold of the Meydān-e Kohna (Hillenbrand, pp. 764-65; Honarfar, 1965, pp. 369-79; Babaie, 2003, pp. 32-33; Mehrābādi, pp. 712-16; see Plate IV [3]). This mosque was built in place of a ruined Saljuq mosque by Mirzā Kamāl-al-Din Shah-Ḥosayn, a professional architect who had also served as a statesman during the reign of Shah Esmāʿil I. In his capacity as the vizier of the qezelbāš governor Dormiš Khan Šāmlu, he had built the shrine of Hārun-e Welāyat and had inscribed his own name onto its famous façade (Honarfar, 1965, 361). While the shrine’s significance rests on its façade, the mosque represents the aspirations of an architect-patron in its attempt to introduce new architectural elements into the standard four-ayvān plan of mosques.

Like the shrine, the epigraphic program of the portal highlights the connection between Shah Esmāʿil and the family of the Prophet Moḥammad, albeit here considerably less intense both visually and iconographically (Honarfar, 1965, p. 372; Babaie, 2003, p. 35; Mehrābādi, pp. 713-14). Recalling Saljuq decorative techniques, Shiʿite sacred names are rendered on the portal in angular Kufic bands of script alongside geometric decoration in alternating glazed and unglazed tiles. A selection of Qurʾanic verses, which interweave numerical symbols of Twelver Shiʿism with the name of Esmāʿil, reference the shah as the recipient of God’s grace. An allusion in the inscription to Imam ʿAli as the “opener of gates” reiterates the Safavid devotion to Imam ʿAli as the gate (bāb) to spiritual knowledge and the dynasty’s source of legitimacy (Hillenbrand, p. 765; Babaie, 2003, p. 35).

The mosque’s courtyard and four-ayvān plan, the familiar Persian form already standardized at the Great Mosque of Isfahan, is relatively modest in size and ordinary in composition (Plate VI [3]). Its domed chamber, however, displays considerable departure from earlier examples (Plate VII [3]). This is the space that contains the meḥrāb and constitutes the main prayer hall of the mosque. Two systems, one rooted in the past, and the other prefiguring future developments, coexist in this unusual interior. The multiple arched openings on two stories that surround the sanctuary recall the 15th-century Masjed-e Kabud (Blue Mosque) of Tabriz. The transition from the square chamber walls to the circular base of the dome, on the other hand, is facilitated through four massive pendentives (triangular corner units). Such an expansive architectonic treatment of the domed space anticipates the extraordinarily brilliant square-to-circle solution that will be found at the early 17th-century Shaikh Loṭf-Allāh Mosque in Isfahan.

Shaikh Loṭf-Allāh Mosque. The second, chronologically speaking, of the significant mosques of Isfahan is the mosque that was built across from the ʿĀli Qāpu Palace on the Meydān-e Naqš-e Jahān, which came to be associated with Shaikh Loṭf-Allāh (d. 1032/1623), the father-in-law of Shah ʿAbbās the Great and one of the principal religious doctors of his time (Blair and Bloom, pp. 185-90; Honarfar, 1965, pp. 404-5) (Plate VIII [3]). Shaikh Loṭf-Allāh Mosque is unique among Isfahan’s mosques in several respects. Consisting of a single domed chamber, all the standard features of a four-ayvān courtyard-centered mosque, including minarets, are foregone here, for this is a mosque designed to serve private royal functions rather than congregational prayer (Honarfar, 1965, pp. 401-15; Mehrābādi, pp. 693-710).

Covering almost 2,500 square meters, the Shaikh Loṭf-Allāh Mosque was conceived as an integral part of Shah ʿAbbās’s conversion of Isfahan into his new imperial capital. Construction of the mosque began in 1011/1602-3 and was completed in 1028/1618-19. Epigraphic bands penned by ʿAli-Reżā ʿAbbāsi, the famous calligrapher of this period, grace both the exterior façade and the extensive interior decoration of the mosque (Honarfar, 1965, pp. 402, 407-10) (Plates VIII [3] and IX [3]). The mosque functioned as a private royal-chapel mosque. By placing the royal mosque outside the palace compound on the Meydān and across the ʿĀli Qāpu, Shah ʿAbbās and his urban designers and advisors exploited the symbolic value of traversing the public space by the household; to go to the Shaikh Loṭf-Allāh Mosque would become a performative representation of royal piety. The pairing of the ʿĀli Qāpu Palace and the Shaikh Loṭf-Allāh Mosque thus symbolized, both in theory and practice, the worldly and otherworldly sources of Safavid legitimacy. As “the blessed mosque (al-majed al-mobārak) of the great sultan,” ʿAli-Reżā ʿAbbāsi’s epigraphic program on the entrance façade (dated 1012/1603) further enunciated this ideological role of the mosque (Honarfar, 1965, p. 402).

The association of the mosque with Shaikh Loṭf-Allāh, the first chief clergy of the mosque, was to demonstrate the final and firm establishment by Shah ʿAbbās of the legalistic or šariʿa-based practice of Twelver Shiʿism as the religion of the Safavid Empire. It is in this light also that one finds inside the domed chamber epigraphic panels in tiles, wherein the shaikh’s name is mentioned at the end of a poem in Arabic, invoking the names of the Fourteen Infallibles and pleading intercession for Shaikh Loṭf-Allāh in the hereafter (done by the otherwise unknown calligrapher Bāqer Bannā; see Honarfar, 1965, pp. 413-15). This oft-overlooked passage is tentatively attributed to Shaikh Bahāʾ-al-Din ʿĀmeli on the basis of a reference in the poem on the other panel.

Like the Masjed-e Šāh (see below), the orientation of the Shaikh Loṭf-Allāh Mosque is skewed in relation to the Meydān, thus allowing the mosque to conform to the direction of prayer. To compensate for the skewed axis, a covered corridor reaches from the entrance façade and wraps around the northern side of the mosque to enter the prayer chamber, so that the façade of the mosque can remain aligned with the Meydān. The façade is covered in tile mosaic work and the portal contains the first monumental variation of the Safavid declaration, standardized by Shah ʿAbbās the Great, of the shah to be the “propagator of the faith of the Infallible Imams” (Honarfar, 1965, p. 402; Babaie, in EIr., p. 499). The façade, much of it restored in the 1930s, was made to be flush with the inner corridor of the Meydān periphery bazaar and was decorated with a mix of marble on the lower half and haft rangi tiles of densely interlocking floral and vegetal motifs and bands of inscription on the upper zones. The haft rangi technique, also known as cuerda secca or burnt-coil, allowed for a more economical and faster production than the laborious and expensive mosaic tile technique favored by earlier Safavid and Timurid periods. Given the massive constructions of the early 17th century and the consequent expansion in the area of building surfaces to be sheathed in tiles, this proved to be the most common technology in Isfahan and practically replaced the mosaic technique.

The Shaikh Loṭf-Allāh Mosque is also distinguished for the elegantly tapered silhouette of its dome, which further stands out for its golden yellow and blue arabesques and inscriptions against a predominantly earth-colored unglazed tile work (Plate VIII [3]). The interior of the domed chamber, on the other hand, is given to an extravagant explosion of tiles predominantly in blue on all surfaces except for the inner dome where a roundel (šamsa) in yellow gives the illusion of the sun shining from within. Equally impressive is the ingenious way the dome is held aloft by a ring of windows at the base of the dome, which is itself resting on large corner squinches that rise directly from the floor and are supported by eight-pointed arches. These arches are outlined by a turquoise twisted molding that is framed by a number of inlays of inscriptions and floral patterns. A balcony cut above the entrance into the chamber looks down onto the prayer niche elaborately decorated in tiles and carved marble. In keeping with the royal associations of the mosque, this single chambered structure is a veritable jewel-box, an extravaganza of Safavid architecture and decoration.

Masjed-e Šāh (Masjed-e Jadid-e ʿAbbāsi; renamed Masjed-e Emām after the Revolution of 1978-79). This mosque marked the climax of building campaigns that transformed Isfahan into the new Safavid capital city (Eskandar Beg, II, pp. 831-32; Honarfar, 1965, pp. 427-64; McChesney, “Four Sources,” pp. 120-23; Mehrābādi, pp. 659-93; see Plate XI [3]). Built between 1020/1611 and 1039/1630-31, the massive mosque (some 19,000 square meters in area) was positioned at the southern end of the Meydān-e Naqš-e Jahān. In terms of energizing urban spaces, the positioning of the mosque at the southern end was calculated to ensure a steady flow of traffic, for prayer, through the Meydān, thus helping to redirect business and social life away from the Saljuq Meydān-e Kohna to this new urban center. The mosque stood directly across from the monumental royal Qay-ṣariya bazaar (for this bazaar see Bakhtiar). Since it was intended to serve as the congregational mosque of the new capital city, its placement formed a visual axis between two significant facets of public life, commerce and religion. That these were further placed under and braided with Safavid protection and patronage could not have been missed for this longitudinal axis intersected with the latitudinal link between the icons of imperial authority and justice, the ʿĀli Qāpu Palace on the one hand, and of the personal piety and source of legitimacy of Safavid kingship, embodied in the Shaikh Loṭf-Allāh Mosque on the other (Plate II [1] above).

Masjed-e Šāh was the first congregational mosque to have been built under Safavid royal patronage. The complex theological-legal debates regarding the legitimacy of the congregational Friday prayer during the occultation of the Twelfth Imam had preoccupied Safavid clerical elite throughout the 16th century. The resolution of this debate depended principally on the recognition of the concurrence of kingship and justice under the umbrella of legalistic Twelver Shiʿite doctrine. The vigorous legal arguments and support of such scholars as Shaikh Loṭf-Allāh and Shaikh Bahāʾ-al-Din ʿĀmeli helped to settle the thorny question of legitimacy in favor of the Safavids and hence paved the way for the reinstitution of the Friday congregational prayer. Far from a deliberate affront to the socio-religious centrality of the Masjed-e Jāmeʿ, the venerable old Saljuq congregational mosque of the city, the urban plan of the new imperial capital city incorporated into its chief monuments the Masjed-e Šāh, a new congregational mosque to mark the Safavid authority to sponsor legitimate performance of this crucial religious obligation of Shiʿite community.

From the architectural viewpoint, the mosque represents a classic Persian four-ayvān plan with a domed chamber over the meḥrāb sanctuary. In many ways, however, this building represents an exceptionally creative response to a series of pressing needs and preexisting urban constraints. As in the case of the Shaikh Loṭf-Allāh Mosque, the principal façade of the Masjed-e Šāh had to remain flush with the southern side of the Meydān, while at the same time orientating its meḥrāb(s) correctly toward Mecca (Plate XIII [3]). Unlike the compacted chapel-mosque, however, this requirement must have posed a difficult challenge for the visual effect of the skewed internal axis, which would be magnified considerably in the royal Masjed-e Šāh. The architects and patrons of the mosque exploited this very potential for theatrical visual impact by creating a crescendo of forms heaped from one side to the other; viewed from a distance in the Meydān, as would have been the case for most denizens busy in the public square, the eye of the beholder is lead from the open-armed portal composition with its massive pištāq and soaring goldasta minarets to increasingly volumetric and loftier units culminating with the pišṭāq-dome-minarets of the qebla wall (Plates X [3] to XIII [3]). To the worshipper entering the mosque, the transition from the gorgeously tiled and moqarnas-covered ayvān on the Meydān side to the courtyard is mediated through a twisted passageway-cum-ayvān that serves also as the northern ayvān of the courtyard (Plate XIV [3]). This entrance complex corrects the alignment of the mosque by twisting the axis of approach, but it also provides a liminal space passage through which provides the worshipper the opportunity, visually and spatially mediated, to leave the mundane world behind before entering the sanctified space of the mosque.

An overwhelming palette of turquoise-blue tiles covers all the surfaces inside and outside (except what would be the “back” of walls, vaults, etc.). Nearly all the vast surfaces of this mosque are decorated in the haft rangi (seven-color) technique, the most economically feasible method of decoration favored in 17th-century Isfahan. Other notable features of the mosque are its two extraordinarily tall pulpits (menbar), one open for good weather and another covered for bad weather. The meḥrāb, soaring at ten feet, and measuring three feet in width, is made of marble crowned with a gold-encrusted cupboard holding a Qurʾan believed to have been copied by Imam ʿAli al-Reżā as well as the bloodstained robe of Imam Ḥosayn (Chardin, VII, pp. 343-44, 353; Blake, p. 143). Such symbolically charged relics of the Imams further emblazon the legitimacy of the Twelver Shiʿite practice of Safavid kingship embodied in the very conceptualization and construction of this first congregational mosque of the Safavids.

The other extraordinary architectural aspect of this mosque is its integration of a madrasa into the fabric of the mosque (Honarfar, 1965, pp. 454-57). Two courtyards with adjoining chambers flank the qebla sanctuary, the massive domed chamber and its adjacent vaulted prayer halls. While awaiting further research on the mosque in general and the madrasa in particular, it may be postulated here that the incorporation of the madrasa into this first Safavid imperial congregational mosque was prescribed as another indication of the choice of Isfahan as not only the political capital, but also, and perhaps with more significance, as an imperial capital of Twelver Shiʿism. As the inscribed chronogram, in the poetic decoration on the silver doors, added by Shah Ṣafi I in 1046/1636-37, would indicate, with this mosque the doors of Kaʿba were opened in Isfahan (šod dar-e Kaʿba dar Ṣefāhān bāz, which is apparently on the model of the earlier chronogram “kaʿba-ye ṯāni banā šoda” on the beginning of the construction in 1020/1611; Mollā Jalāl-al-Din, p. 412; Honarfar, 1965, pp. 433-34), and, as such, Isfahan would stand in rivalry to Constantinople/Istanbul, as Safavid Shiʿite kingship would to Ottoman Sunni caliphate.

The complex enunciations of this braided iconography of kingship, religion and polity, are found throughout the extensive epigraphic program of the Masjed-e Šāh. The principal foundation inscription across the portal was designed by the famous calligrapher ʿAli-Reżā ʿAbbāsi (Honarfar, 1965, pp. 428-29; see Plate XI [3]). It states that Shah ʿAbbās funded the project from the royal treasures (ḵāleṣa) for the spiritual benefit of his grandfather Shah Ṭahmāsb, thus linking through this imperial icon of Twelver Shiʿite legitimacy and through the outpouring of the generosity of the Safavid household the two illustrious reigns. An addendum to this inscription, written by Moḥammad-Reżā Emāmi, credits Moḥebb-ʿAli Beg Lala, the trainer of the ḡolāms and chief supervisor of imperial buildings, with the supervision over the construction. This same dignitary of the household had joined the Shah by contributing to the endowments of the mosque (waqf) a considerable thirty percent of the entire endowment from his personal funds (Honarfar, 1965, pp. 429-30; Babaie, 2004, p. 91). The names of two architects are also associated with this mosque: Ostād ʿAli-Akbar Beg Eṣfahāni as the mosque’s engineer (mohandes) and architect, whose name appears in the same inscription as that of the royal supervisor, and Ostād Badiʿ-al-Zamān Tuni Yazdi, whose job was to procure the land and construction resources (Mollā Jalāl-al-Din, p. 412; McChesney, pp. 121-22). Several traditions, recorded in contemporary chronicles, spin the story of the difficult task of acquiring the land from an unwilling owner and the miraculous discovery of marbles for the construction into evidence for the protected sanctity of this endeavor by Shah ʿAbbās the Great, whose authority was considered to be based on justice and sanctioned according to legal Twelver Shiʿite precepts. In fact, the entire epigraphic program of the mosque, designed by the most famous calligraphers of the first half of the 17th century, utilize Qurʾanic passages and eulogies to the family of the Prophet Moḥammad and Imam ʿAli b. Abi Ṭāleb to affix onto the surfaces of the mosque the enunciations of the legitimacy of the formation of kingship and hence congregational prayer under the Safavids in this new imperial capital.

Masjed-e Ḥakim. Masjed-e Ḥakim, built in the years 1067-73/1656-63, was commissioned by Ḥakim Mo-ḥammad Dāwud, a converted Jew who served as the royal physician during the reigns of Shah Ṣafi I and Shah ʿAbbās II (Honarfar, 1965, pp. 612-21; Mehrābādi, pp. 604-10; see Plate XVI [3]). Chardin relates that the considerable funds needed for the construction of the mosque had been amassed in India by Ḥakim Dāwud, who had left the Safavid court after his fall from favor during the reign of Shah ʿAbbās II (Chardin, VII, pp. 462-63). His considerably more favorable reception at the court of Shah Jahān, who granted him the title of Taqarrob Khan, the confidant, brought with it wealth. Ḥakim Dāwud never returned to Persia to see his namesake mosque, which carries his name in a poem inscribed on the portal and containing the chronogram “maqām-e kaʿba-ye digar šod az Dāwud-e Eṣfahān” indicating the date (1067) of the construction (Honarfar, 1965, p. 613).

This mosque is located on the site of the Buyid Jorjir/Rangrezān Mosque, whose construction is credited to the Buyid vizier Ṣāḥeb Esmāʿil b. ʿAbbād (d. 385/995), and of which only a carved doorway has survived (Māfarruḵi, pp. 85-86; Honarfar, 1965, pp. 40 ff., 612). It is nearly four-acres in area, which makes it the largest mosque in Isfahan after the Saljuq and Safavid congregational mosques, thus representing an extraordinary instance of competitively scaled sub-imperial patronage in the capital city. It too is a four-ayvān, courtyard-centered mosque of the Persian type. Unlike the two Safavid mosques, here the vast surfaces, especially inside the ayvāns and the domed chamber over the meḥrāb are decorated with alternating glazed and unglazed tiles. The epigraphic program, designed entirely by Moḥammad-Reżā Emāmi, one of the greatest masters of mid-17th century, records the name of the architect as Moḥammad-ʿAli b. Ostād ʿAli Beg Eṣfahāni (Honarfar, 1965, p. 619; Mehrābādi, p. 606). The architect was the son of the master builder ʿAli Beg of Isfahan, whose name appears in the foundation inscription of the Masjed-e Šāh. By employing the artists and architects associated with royal projects, Ḥakim Dāwud partakes in the same atmosphere of surrogate and competitive patronage that inspired many ḡolāms and other elite members of the Safavid household. As the foundation inscription of the mosque indicates, despite his sanctuary at the court of the Sunni Mughal emperor, the physician remained loyal to the protection of Twelver Shiʿism under the auspices of the Safavid Shah ʿAbbās II.

Plate I (3). Jāmeʿ Mosque, aerial view.

Plate II (3). Jāmeʿ Mosque, Courtyard view toward South.

Plate III (3). Jāmeʿ Mosque, Courtyard view toward North-Northeast.

Plate IV (3). Masjed-e ʿAli, aerial view.

Plate V (3). Masjed-e ʿAli, isometric projection.

Plate VI (3). Masjed-e ʿAli, Courtyard.

Plate VII (3). Masjed-e ʿAli, Interior.

Plate VIII (3). Shaikh Loṭf-Allāh Mosque.

Plate IX (3). Shaikh Loṭf-Allāh Mosque, isometric projection.

Plate X (3). Shaiḵh Loṭf-Allāh Mosque, mehrāb.

Plate XI (3). Shah (Imam) Mosque, aerial view.

Plate XII (3). Shah (Imam) Mosque, isometric projection.

Plate XIII (3). Shah (Imam) Mosque entrance.

Plate XIV (3). Shah (Imam) Mosque, North of the Courtyard.

Plate XV (3). Shah (Imam) Mosque, entrance.

Plate XVI (3). Masjed-e Ḥakim.

Plate XVII (3). Masjed-e Ḥakim, isometric projection.


(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. 20-33