The centre of Islamic religious life is the mosque, or masjed in Arabic, literally the ‘place of prostration’. The first mosque, which served as a prototype, was the house of the Prophet himself in Medina. It was composed of a central courtyard with a portico of palm trunks along one wall supporting a roof of palm fronds. This wall, or qebla wall, indicated the direction of Mecca and of the Ka'ba. According to some sources, the Prophet delivered his addresses from a pulpit, known as mimbar, resembling a tall chair with three steps. These basic elements, the assembly area, the portico, the qebla wall and the mimbar, were all to be adopted in later mosques, along with a new feature, the mehrab, a niche set in the centre of the qebla wall which developed during the first century after the Hegira.
The Umayyad caliphs of Damascus (661-750) decided at an early stage to build monuments to the Islamic faith capable of rivalling the imposing Christian basilicas which existed in their newly conquered lands. In some towns, churches were converted into mosques, and the original orientation towards Jerusalem to the east was replaced by an orientation towards Mecca, to the south. In other places, however, entirely new monuments were built. These first mosques, including those of Basra and Kufa in Iraq, have almost completely disappeared but they appear to have been simple in shape, with a square, central
|Agha Bozorgh mosque.Kashan|
are.a and a deep portico along the qebla wall. The caliphs' first major construction, and the oldest Muslim building still standing today, is the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (built between 687 and 692), a holy place of Islam associated wi.th the Prophet's miraculous night-time journey to Heaven.
The development of Umayyad mosques lead to the recreation of the hypostyle mosque (a building with a roof held up by columns) by extending the use of the portico to the other three sides of the central courtyard. Two new elements also appeared at this period: the maqsura, an enclosure reserved for the prince in the qebla wall of the larger mosques, and the minaret.
The development of the mosque under the Abbasid caliphs (750-950) is still unclear. In Iran, there was a period of adaptation and experimentation of Islamic forms which lasted until the beginning of the 11th century, and which was influenced to some extent by the older native architectural forms. Square domed buildings with plans reminiscent of the Sassanian fire temples (chahâr tâq) seem to have been added to certain mosques, probably to serve as maqsura. When found on their own, usually in villages, these buildings are termed kiosk mosques. Lacking a courtyard, they were inadequate for large congregations. Among the oldest mosques in Iran are those of Susa and Dâmghân (eighth century), Fahraj (ninth century) and Nâin (tenth century), all of them hypostyle, and occasionally domed, mosques.
|Isfahan.Ardestan Jame Mosque|
From around 1086 on, during the Seljuq dynasty (1038-1157), a remarkable series of mosques were built along the edge of the central desert, particularly in Isfahan, Ardestân, Zavâreh and Qazvin. The main novelty was the integration of a domed pavilion with the central courtyard (sahn) surrounded by arcades. In the centre of each side of the court was an eivân (or iwan, a barrel-vaulted room open on one side); the eivân in the qebla wall gave directly onto the mehrab, itself set at the back of a domed room. This combination of domed chamber and eivân had already appeared in Iran in the earlier Sassanian palaces. The oldest Islamic example of this is in Zavâreh (1136), although the most remarkable example is undoubtedly the Friday Mosque in Isfahan, which was built in several phases.
Once the plan of a courtyard with four eivân had been established, it changed very little through the centuries, and later developments concern decoration, and the relative proportions of decorated and plain surfaces. The culmination of nearly six hundred years' development of the four-eivân mosque is, as Alexander Pope observed, the superb Imam Mosque (ex-Shâh's Mosque) in Isfahan, built in the reign of Shâh Abbâs (built 1611-1638).
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