Shaikh Loṭf-Allāh Mosque
The second, chronologically speaking, of the significant mosques of Isfahan is the mosque that was built across from theʿAli Qapu palace on the Meydān-e Naqš-e Jahān, which came to be associated with Shaikh Loṭf-Allāh,the father-in-law of Shah ʿAbbās the Great and one of the principal religious doctors of his time . 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.
Covering almost 2,500 square meters, the Sheikh Lotfollah 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 and IX. 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.
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 . 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 , 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” . 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 . 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.