THE ROYAL SQUARE
The Royal Square of Isfahan was the symbolic centre of the Safavid dynasty and of its empire. Usually filled with a crowd of street-sellers and entertainers, the square was also used for a variety of celebrations and festivals, for polo matches-the stone goal posts are still visible at either end of the square-and for public .executions. The Shah and his court watched the festivities from the balcony of the the square is surrounded on all four sides by long walls with double arcades, interrupted at intervals by the main monuments: the Imam Mosque (ex-Shah's Mosque) in the south, the Mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah in the west, the Ali Qapu Palace in the east, and the entrance to the Great Bazaar in the north. The centre of the Square has been laid out with fountains and water basins and recently planted
with trees. It is a very popular spot on summer evenings when the Isfahanis settle down on carpets on the lawn and bring out their picnics and samovars. The shops under the arcades sell a variety of tourist souvenirs, textiles and handicrafts (compare prices and quality from shop to shop before buying and bargain hard).
At the end of the Royal Square is the huge gateway to the Imam Mosque (ex-masjed-e Sh, the King's Mosque) ,flanked by two turquoise minarets. Behind it and slightly to the right are the main Eivan and the dome of the prayer hall. The construction of the mosque, commissioned by Shah Abbas, began in 1611 but the work was probably still unfinished at the time of the ruler death in 1628. This monument is the largest of those attributed to Shah Abbas, and he considered it his masterpiece. In his impatience to see it finished, he attempted to hurry up the work by adopting a new method of glazed tile work decoration, known as haft rangi . As a result, some sections of the mosque are decorated with the older technique of tile mosaics and others with polychrome painted tiles.
The gateway to the mosque has a mainly ornamental role and serves to balance the entrance gate to the bazaar at the other end of the square. Finished in 1616, this is one of the largest pishtaq in Iran (about 27 metres [89 feet] high). It is also one of the most richly decorated with its triple-twisted columns around the arch and its half-dome covered on the inside with a cascade of stalactites. These stalactites are repeated in the niches to each side of the entrance. The large inscription around the arch is the work of the great Safavid calligrapher from Tabriz, Ali Rez Abbi, who joined the entourage of Shah Abbds around 1593. He quickly became one of the best-known court calligraphers and his work can be seen on all Shah Abbas' great monuments in Isfahan and Mashhad. His style is characterized by great clarity and a sharp sense of proportion and was often imitated by later artists. Some scholars have even attributed to him the technique used here of writing a text on two superimposed lines a technique frequently used for the decoration of mosques and tombs during the Safavid period.
One of the peculiarities of this mosque is that it is not built on the same axis as the gateway which gives onto the square. Because of the necessity of orienting the Mehrab towards the southeast and Mecca, and of keeping the pishtaq aligned with the walls of the square, there is a 450 angle between the gate and the north Eivan. Instead of being rectangular, the back of the north Eivan is triangular. One of the sides of the triangle gives onto the domed vestibule which one enters on passing through the gate, From here, the visitor has a first glimpse of the central courtyard, although the way in is deliberately blocked by a bench. To gain entrance, go round the Eivan, either on the right or the left, along an angled corridor.
As soon as one enters the central court, attention is drawn by the south façade and its Eivan, minarets and the dome of the prayer hall. The outer wall of the Eivan is decorated with white and gold arabesques set on a blue ground while the minarets are predominantly turquoise, The dome which rises up behind retains this turquoise colour in its very regular design of thin white and yellow scrolls. The outside of the dome rises to a height of 52 metres (171 feet), but the ceiling inside is only 38 metres (125 feet) tall, a discrepancy produced by the use of a double shell. This construction technique allows the architect to design a dome of entirely different shapes outside and in. Here, the outer dome is onion-shaped while the inner one is squat, with proportions better adapted to the limited space of the prayer hall. Unlike the dome of the Mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah, where both shells are built parallel to one another and begin at the same level, here the shells start at different heights; thus the windows which, on the outside, are set in the drum are to be found in the curve of the dome itself on the inside.
The decoration inside the dome is remarkably elegant and repeats the same blue, white and gold shades seen outside. The Mehrab and the Mimbar are both made of marble. On either side of the prayer hall is a rectangular room with two bays of wide vaults set on stone pillars. Except for the pillars, the entire surface of the vaults and the walls is covered in glazed designs. The floral motifs at the centre of each vault echo the design inside the dome.
The east and west walls of the central court are strictly symmetrical, with a small prayer hall behind each Eivan, and three arcades to either side of it, one of which opens onto a Madresseh. These Madresseh are composed of a central rectangular court surrounded by rooms for the students. As in the main courtyard, the entire surface of the walls is decorated with glazed tiles; the motif s in the southeast court, in cobalt blue and bright yellow, are particularly fine.
Despite its more modest size, the Mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah, on the eastern side of the Royal Square, is nonetheless a worthy rival of the Imam Mosque. Probably begun by Shah Abbas in 1602, it was finished in 1619 and was named after a famous theologian of the period. Its dome is a masterpiec of Persian tile work with its extremely fine arabesques and harmonious shades of colour: the dome is decorated with blue and black flowers with white scrolls set against a creamy-coloured ground,while the drum is predominantly blue. The entrance gate is a rich mosaic of blue and yellow floral motifs with a particularly fine stalactite vault.
From the square, one notices that the dome is not aligned with the entrance gate. Unlike the Imam Mosque, the reason for this here is not linked to the orientation of the Mehrab towards Mecca (this mosque has no courtyard so that the problem of orientation does not arise). Instead, it should be understood as an attempt to create an impression of increased volume to compensate for the small size of the building.
The asymmetry of the gate is not the only architectural peculiarity here. There Is no four-eivan courtyard nor any minarets, only a single domed prayer room which Is entered along a narrow corridor. At the end of this dark passageway is a sharp turn, and one emerges suddenly into a sumptuously decorated chamber so rich that some visitors experience a sensation of claustrophobia. The large panels of floral scrolls on the walls are surrounded by inscriptions by Ali Reza Abbassl, the famous calligrapher of the reign of Shah Abbas.
The transition from a square plan to a circular one in this room Is one of the simplest but also the most successful that exists: the four corner squincfles extend to the ground and alternate with four blind arches of the same size to form a regular octagon. Small faceted pendentives, each corresponding to one of the windows in the drum, form the transition to a sixteen-sided polygon.
Opposite the Mosque of Sheikh Lotfallah is the Ali Qapu Palace (Emarat-e-Ali Qapu) or High Gate. Originally a small Timurid palace, it was enlarged by Shah Abbas to become the monumental entrance to the palatial complex located in the huge park which extended as far as Chahar Bagh Avenue. It served also as a reception pavilion for foreign dignitaries and embassies and is said to have been one of Shah Abbas favourite residences. The talar on the first floor which overlooks the
square served in summer as a throne room from where the ruler could watch the polo matches below or review the troops (there is a good view from there over the square and the town).
The Ali Qapu Palace has six floors which are reached via a series of small twisting staircases and low doors. The rooms are empty today but the walls and ceilings still bear their original fresco and glazed tile decoration. The painted wooden ceilings of the talar and eivan are particularly fine. It would be impossible to give a detailed description here of the incredible variety of motifs in these rooms, but it is well worth taking a little time to discover them. Be sure to go as far as the
top floor, to the music room, for the fretwork panelling on the walls and vaults cut into vase-shaped niches which would originally have held porcelain vessels. The decoration on the inside of the dome in this room is also extremely fine.