Ardestan jameh mosque
Ardestān possesses one of the best preserved of the major Saljuq mosques in Iran. Yet even here the Saljuq structure, dated 553/1158 and 555/1160, overlies earlier elements and was later modified. The resultant pattern of accretion is typically Iranian. The earliest surviving section is a fragmentary, perhaps Buyid, tunnel-vaulted arcade bearing an incomplete Koranic text in Kufic script. Little more than the beʾsm allāh remains. Its style, notably its punched ornaments and foliations, has affinities with the Nāʾīn inscription, datable ca. 390/1000. Its associated joint plugs, however, suggest a later date. The stucco decoration, with its floral and interlace motifs and calyx capital, could all be Buyid. The arcade rests on disengaged piers which recall Buyid work at the Isfahan Jāmeʿ. Some, following ʿAbbasid precedent, are lobed; others are circular or octagonal in plan. The latter types carry brackets at the diagonals, while their surfaces are regularly pockmarked with recessed slots. No plan of this original Jāmeʿ has been published, but it clearly included an arcaded sanctuary; there is no evidence of a dome, though Schroeder argues for a qebla ayvān. Presumably tunnel-vaulted arcades rather than ayvāns articulated the other courtyard facades. The high quality of the early decoration challenges pre-Saljuq work at Isfahan and shows that the Isfahan area was an important architectural center long before Malekšāh.
During the Saljuq period this early mosque vanished almost entirely in a major remodeling of the structure. The modifications have been variously interpreted. Godard proposed that the dome chamber, standing isolated, was inserted into the early mosque ca. 493/1100 and that subsequent campaigns from before 553/1158 until 555/1160 added its present decoration and gave the mosque its 4-ayvān form. Sauvaget justly preferred to see dome and ayvān as part of the same building campaign, but complicated the issue by suggesting that the builders changed their minds between 553/1158 and 555/1160 and made the mosque into a madrasa. His evidence is two-fold: a Koranic reference to maḏāheb in the inscription of the qebla ayvān and the domed chambers on the east side. But the inscription (Koran 2:256) is one of the commonest of all in mosques; the domed chambers could appropriately serve numerous purposes, including funerary ones, in the multi-functional Friday mosque of medieval times; and the mosque acquired a madrasa in the Safavid period, a curious addition if the entire building already served as such. Moreover, no trace of another Friday mosque remains in this town, which was large and prosperous in the Saljuq period. The natural presumption, then, must be that when the early mosque was rebuilt it remained a mosque and that the rebuilding was effected between 553/1158 and 555/1160, beginning with the dome chamber. Such an interpretation accords with both epigraphic and archeological evidence.
The inscriptions state that the Saljuq rebuilding was due to Abū Ṭāher Ḥosayn b. Ḡālī b. Aḥmad and that it was executed by Ostād Maḥmūd Eṣfahānī, who is presumably identical to the Maḥmūd b. Moḥammad Bannāʾ mentioned elsewhere in the inscriptions. A Safavid inscription dated 946/1539-40, in the name of Ḥaydar-ʿAlī, meʿmār Ardestānī, survives.
Parts of the mosque were carefully planned; thus, on the qebla axis the ayvāns match precisely in their dimensions, as do the narrower lateral ayvāns. Nevertheless, in comparison with the near-contemporary mosque at Zavāra close by, the Ardestān Jāmeʿ has a curiously irregular layout. A major and apparently unnecessary imbalance between east and west sides maintains itself throughout the structure, though the courtyard facades harmonize well. Above all, both Saljuq and Safavid architects remained quite careless of the appearance of the exterior perimeter. Chamfered and rounded corners, projections of various kinds, diagonally aligned walls and salient portals all break up the facade. A cramped and irregular site would help to explain these features, but the uneven interior is mainly the responsibility of the Saljuq architect. Around 946/1539-40 the mosque was greatly enlarged. Schroeder argues that the north, east and west ayvāns date entirely from this period, though they were more probably remodeled then. Their decoration features some rather humdrum “sunburst” vaulting. Other additions include the eastern corridor and the unsightly triple abutment of the main dome chamber, elements which suggest that the ambitious reshaping of the mosque was abandoned uncompleted. A detailed examination of the mosque, with sondages, is long overdue.
Most of the Saljuq decoration is concentrated within the sanctuary. The dome chamber closely follows the pattern of the Isfahan school in its multiple lower openings and its zone of transition. But its three meḥrābs are an unusual feature, as is the use of stucco as a kind of openwork floral embroidery in high relief intended to blend with, not obscure, the underlying brickwork. This plaster decoration makes lavish use of inscriptions and its fresh colors—including purple, yellow, white, and blue—are again hard to parallel in other Saljuq work. This sustained emphasis on color, achieved without recourse to tilework, is best seen in the dome chamber. Here the brickwork, highlighted in red and luminous white, argues continued upkeep over the centuries.
Near the Friday mosque is the ruined Masǰed-e Emām Ḥasan, a Saljuq building notable for a very early twin-minaret portal, datable ca. 550/1152 and containing a glazed Kufic inscription. Within the flat-roofed pillared sanctuary—there is no courtyard—remains a fine stucco meḥrāb closely related to those in the Jāmeʿ. Godard identified the building as a madrasa but cited no supporting evidence.