The Jāmeh Mosque of Isfahān
Participating in the Friday sermon is obligatory for Sunnite Muslims and recommended for Shiite Muslims. That is why every Muslim town must have a Congregational, or Friday, Mosque. Moreover, the Congregational Mosque is usually the most splendid religious building in any city. Iranian towns are no exception.
The Congregational Mosque of Esfahan is historically the most important and architecturally the most remarkable structure in the city. Although not as attractive at fi rst glance as the great Safavid monuments in Naqsh-e Jahan Square (pp78-80), the Congregational Mosque is much more authentic and has the true Iranian character. It requires a lengthy visit, but this visit will provide the tourist not only with the aesthetic delight at seeing its artistic splendors but also with an insight into the entire history of an Iranian mosque.
In its present state, the Congregational Mosque is the conglomeration of numerous distinct structures dating from the 11th to the 18th centuries. Moreover, it is likely that the first mosque on this site was built at a much earlier date, and even this was created on top of a Sasanid fire temple. Artifacts from the Sasanid period that have been excavated in the building, and the fact that the primeval mosque was created in the wrong direction and was realigned toward Mecca only much later, bear further evidence of the structure's antiquity.
The first mosque on the site dates back to the 8th century. It was based on a primeval Arab design. The first record of it, however, appears only in 1030 and mentions the Arabs of the Tiran tribe as its founders. This primeval mosque was greatly modified under the Buyid dynasty in 908-932; the oldest sections of the present mosque date from this period. During the Buyid rule, the mosque consisted of several prayer halls that were arranged around a large courtyard. The entire area was enclosed by a mud-brick wall. The prayer hall on the qibla side was the largest and had a deep recess at the entrance - a feature that was replaced by an eivan in later periods. Each prayer hall consisted of a spacious area topped by a vaulted ceiling that was supported by wooden and brick pillars. The construction of the Buyid mosque was supervised by the Buyid minister, Saheb ibn Ebad. This celebrated per-son spent most of his life in Esfahan, working Vigorously on the beautification of the city. After his death, he was buried in a small mausoleum in the Towqchi district, and after many years, locals still treat his grave with particular esteem.
During the Buyid period, the Congregational Mosque was adjoined by a library, a khaneqah, and a caravanserai, The Sunnite Seljuk rulers further expanded the mosque in the 11th and early 12th centuries. At that time, the prayer halls were enlarged. and two domed sanctuaries were built at the southern and northern ends. However. all the earlier Seljuk structures, with the exception of the southern Nezarn al-Molk Dome and the northern Taj al-Molk Dome. were burnt down by the Ismailites in the early 12th century. After the arson. the Seljuk kings rebuilt the mosque. this time basing it on a four-eivan plan.
The domed sanctuary and several prayer halls have survived from the Seljuk peri The next dynasties continued the expansion of the mosque, adding new structures to it. Varioushistorical periods are represented by its various sections. These include the Il-Khanid (Oljeitu's Chamber and its mihraby, Mozatfarid (madreseh of Sofle-ye Omar and the northern prayer hall), Timurid (Beit al-Sheta), Turkman (minarets and tile work of the south eivan), Safavid (the southwestern prayer hall and the Kaaba-like structure on top of the pool), Afghan (decorations of Sotre-ye Omar), and Qajar structures (the entrance portal and the present gate). What makes the Congregational Mosqu, exceptional is that it is the only large mosque in Iran 'hat has kept intact the architectural and decorative treatments of all these historical periods.
Today every arch8tectural age of Iran (except me most decadent) can be studied here. With a total area of21.151 sq. m, the Congregational Mosque of Esfahan is one of the largest Iranian historial religious buildings.
Situated in the heart of the old city, this structure once overlooked the magnificent Old Square, which was a focal point of the city until Naqsh-e Jahan Square was laid out in the 17th century. But even at that time, the Old Square preserved its importance as the center of the city's minor activities. With the Congregational Mosque on the west, the Great Bazaar (pp106-109) on the north, the Harun Velayat Shrine (p 111) and the Ali Mosque (pp110-111) on the south. and Seljuk palaces on the east. the Old Square served as a prototype for majestic Naqsh-e Jahan that Shah Abbas created in its vicinity. Sadly. today this remarkable square has been encroached upon by numerous marginal structures so that its outline is completely indiscernible.
The mosque used to feature eight entrances. Multiple entrances is a distinctive feature of congregational mosques. which in the past were always the hub of all activities. Today the mosque is entered from Hatef Street through the eastern door 1, (the only one with a ticket office). An inscription on the gate reports that it was installed during the Qajar period and is thus the lat¬est artifact of the Esfahan's Congregational Mosque.
Although the mosque has an admission fee (only after paying it will an attendant unlock the doors of the most interesting sections and usher visitors there), it is not a museum. All day long the faithful come here to pray.
Behind the pay-desk is Soffe-ye Hakim 2, the section named after an anonymous doctor who allegedly cured the poor here during the Seljuk reign. Following it on the left is a permanent exhibition 3, dedicated to the history of the mosque. One of the most notable items on display is a photograph of the remains of a fire temple, excavated under the Nezam al-Molk Dome.
These remains have not been unearthed during the restoration and are preserved under the floor of the southern sanctuary. Another notable relic is a 700-year-old pillar found in the mosque.
Further along the corridor in a dark recess 4, a charming little stucco mihrab dating from the Il-Khanid period attracts the visitor's attention. It was used by dervishes during their rituals. At the end of the corridor two engraved plates from the Safavid period are installed opposite one another. Curiously, people regard them with great reverence; polished by many hands, they are almost illegible.
The narrow entranceway leads to the courtyard 5, Measuring 80 by 60 m, this courtyard is among the largest in Iran. It is surrounded by two-story arcades 6, interrupted on each side by four monumental eivans. Dating from the 15th-17th centuries, these arcades are decorated with patterns of glazed and unglazed tiles, and are a good example of the varied art of deco ration in medieval and Safavid Iran. The courtyard has two attractive marble pools, one of which is topped with a structure 7, imitating the Kaaba in Mecca. This was a contribution of Shah Mohhamad mad Khodabandeh, father of Shah Abbas the Great. In the past, would-be hajj pilgrims are said to have used it to practice the appropriate rituals.
According to the inscription in the corridor leading to Majlesi's Mausoleum 8, the courtyard was paved in 1673 by a local merchant, Mohammad Qoli.
South Eivan and the Nezam al-Molk Dome The visitor's attention is immediately drawn to the sumptuous south eivan 9, of the mosque. It is commonly known as Soffe-ye Saheb ibn Ebad, after the famous minister of the Buyid period. The present structure, however, does not date earlier than the Seljuk era. The two minarets 10, of the eivan are 35 m high and belong to the Aq-Quyunlu period. The interior decorations of the eivan date mainly from the time of Uzun Hasan Aq-Quyunlu, when the superb, mostly blue mosaics were installed here.
The mosaics represent stars, rosettes, and very original stylized floral motifs. The large stringcourses with inscriptions on the outside of the eivan and those with white faience on a blue ground inside the arch date from the Safavid period and were done at the orders of Shah Tahmasb I and Shah Abbas II.
The eivan, with a very marked Central Asian ' influence, opens up on a very elegant obtuse arch. Unfortunately, two minarets, decorated with geometric designs and moqarnas cornices, somehow obscured its original shape. The moqarnas decoration of the eivan is a very rare existing example of this kind of Seljuk embellishments. The harmonious curves are disposed with a remarkable sense of balance and are much more sober than the moqarnas of the Safavid period. The southern section is the most important part in all Esfahan mosques because it features the main mihrab facing qibla (Mecca), toward which the faithful pray. The square room, where the mihrab is placed, is one of the most ancient (Seljuk) sections of the Congregational Mosque. Closed on the south side by the wall of the enclosure and opened on the others by large arches, it is covered by a brick dome and is beautifully proportioned. The sanctuary is known as the Nezam al-Molk Dome 11, commemorating its founder, Nezam al-Molk, a grand vizier of the Seljuk rulers. The structure was built around 1030 on the site of or near the earlier mud-brick mosque. It greatly imitates Sasanid architecture. An inscription in Kufic script from the 11th century runs along the base of the dome and gives the name of Nezam al-Molk as the commissioner of the construction.
The Nezam al-Molk Dome is one of the best samples of a structure built without pillars and with a lofty dome. This dome has a diameter of 13.5 m and exhibits brickwork of unmatched beauty.
Iranians since the Parthian period are said to have discovered the transition techniques from the rectangular base to the round dome. During the Sasanid era, this technique was brought to perfection.
The absence of columns lent the halls a feeling of magnificent spaciousness. In mosques, it also allowed the faithful to observe each other without the distraction of intervening columns or walls.
The transition from a rectangular base to a round dome was done in the following way. At a certain height, a rectangular base was converted to an octagon. By this act, small secondary archessquinches - appeared at the inside corners of the structure. Then an octagon became an icosagon (twenty-sided shape), and an icosagon was easily altered into a circle.
A section on the floor under the dome is marked by a distinctive stone pattern. Under it, the remains of a Sasanid fire temple are preserved.
Southern Prayer Halls An array of spacious hypostyle prayer halls occupies the entire southern section of the mosque. Two of these 12 , flanking the Nezam al-Molk Dome, date from the second half of the Seljuk reign. The southeastern hall 13, belongs to the Mozaffarid period, and the southwestern hall 14, to the Safavid rule. These prayer halls exhibit the prodigious virtuosity and inexhaustible imagination of their master builders. It is known that 484 different vaulting techniques have been employed in the prayer halls of the mosque.
The southeastern prayer hall has a great number of stoop pillars - the aftermath of earthquakes as well as the bombardment that the mosque experienced during the Iran-Iraq war. An inscription on the wall attests to the restoration of this section of the mosque during the years 1984-85. Several round columns, often supported by modern brick superstructures, date from the Buyid period and are thus the most ancient existing remains of the mosque. Numerous patches on the walls and columns of the hall, marked by white strokes, have been left uncovered to show the visitor the original building materials.
The southwestern prayer hall is often called Majlesi, after the famous clergy of Esfahan in the time of Shah Abbas I. Majlesi was buried in the mausoleum clinging to the northwestern wall of the Congregational Mosque. The marble plates of the floor were transferred to the southwestern prayer hall from the Nezam al-Molk Dome as part of the preparatory work aimed at inaugurating the museum here.
Northern Eivan and the Taj al-Molk Dome
A very deep and narrow northern eivan 15, is known as Soffe-ye Dervish. During the late Seljuk period, it probably functioned as the main entrance to the mosque. However, during the Mozaffarid rule, a prayer hall 16, was built behind the eivan and completely blocked the passageway. When the structure was further rebuilt at the order of Shah Solei man Safavid, the anteroom of the former entrance became part of the eivan, which since then has opened onto a string of the northern prayer halls. The northern eivan is especially notable for its exquisite artistry. At its deepest end is a stone slab incised meticulously to create a stunning window. Another single slab of white marble bears a Kufic lettering, in which the lines often imitate stylized leaves or flowers. The eivan is also remarkable for the splendid stuccowork and for the great number of swastikas employed in its decoration. These swastikas are Aryan symbols representing the revolutions of the sun and are at least four thousand years old.
Behind the portal starts a new succession of hypostyle halls dating apparently from the 14th century. They are followed by the magnificent Taj al-Molk Dome 17, known informally as Gonbad-e Khaki ("the Earth Dome"). When Nezam al-Molk had ordered the building of the domed chamber in the southern extreme of the mosque, his bitter rival, Taj alMolk, another vizier to Malek Shah Seljuk, emulated him by commanding the same builders to create another domed chamber to the north. A Kufic inscription, citing verses from the Koran, also mentions the date of the construction (1088) and the name of Taj al-Molk. The eastern and southern wings of the Taj al- Molk Dome are opened, while the wall closes its western and northern wings. Curiously, the chamber does not have a prayer niche. This unusual layout may indicate the fact that the Taj al-Molk Dome served rather as a place of political gatherings than a prayer hall. The room is made of small, grey, baked bricks. It is approximately 9 sq. m and 18.2 m high. It is topped with a single-shelled dome set on an octagonal
ring of sixteen panels, supported by squinches on slender colonnettes. Although succumbing to the Nezarn al-Molk Dome in size (it is only 9 m in diameter), the Taj al-Molk Dome is much more refined than its predecessor. It is of mathematically ideal dimensions. This led some authorities to suggest that Omar Khayyam, who was then resident in Esfahan, could have designed it.
The remarkable Taj al-Molk Dome has survived without a single crack for more than 900 years. Most experts agree that it is the most perfect brick dome ever created on the Earth. The best picture of it can be taken if the photographer lies on his back in one of the four corners of the structure.
A Buyid section precedes the Taj al-Molk Dome and is particularly important for filling in the gap of more than four centuries of Esfahaus history. This 10th century phase of the mosque was revealed when unusual trilobed columns with the brickwork reminiscent of that on the Jorjir Portal (p104) were found here.
The sandy color and sober decoration of small mosaic squares inlaid in brick attract the visitor's attention to the western eivan Soffe-ye Os tad 18, This was originally a Seljuk structure. However, its exterior and interior decorations, which include tiles and moqarnas, are additions of Shah Sultan Hossein Safavid. This eivan also features some remarkable calligraphy of Safavid masters. On top of this eivan is a maazeneh 19, a structure from where the faithful are summoned to prayer. To the north of the eivan, a splendid mosaic-faced entrance leads to the small room of Sultan Oljeitu 20, with its magnificent mihrab and to the Timurid winter prayer hall 21, behind it. The The ornamentation of this entrance is considered one of the most remarkable samples of Timurid architectural decorations.
Oljeitu Chamber The Oljeitu Chamber exhibits one of the main treasures of Esfahans Congregational Mosque an exquisitely rendered stucco mihrab commissioned by Sultan Oljeitu in 1310. Flanked by two tine minbars (the one on the right is older), the Oljeitu Mihrab is among the most famous examples of Asiatic-style Muslim decoration. It was built at the command of Oljeitu's vizier Savuji (Savi), who, as often happens in history, was executed by Oljeitu instead of being thanked for glorifying his ruler. The mihrab of chiseled stucco shows fine blossoms, leaves and tendrils, as well as the loveliest Naskh calligraphy.
Stucco calligraphy requires unbelievable craftsmanship and patience from its creator. Two points need be taken into consideration. First, the letters and spaces should be calculated in such a way that, by the end of the line, the letters are not piled up or placed too far from each other. Another is that the pattern should not be interrupted, but rather perfectly finished at the end of each line.
In the Oljeitu Mihrab, its creator - Ostad (Master) Heydar - demonstrated the utmost precision. The chamber, where the miihrab is located, dates from the same Il-Khanid period. It is a room 19.5 m long and 7.5 m wide. It features tiled grilles on the courtyard side through which shafts of lights spill across the brick floor.
Timurid Winter Hall
The Timurid winter hall follows the Oljeitu Chamber. It was built in 1447 and measures 48 by 27 m. It is especially famed for eighteen large pointed vaults that intersect diagonally and extend down to the floor in imposing piers. The low, unadorned structure features only a very small mihrab at the back wall. It is lit by means of large translucent alabaster slabs placed on the keystones of the vaults. Regretfully, the beauty of this remarkable structure was marred by its modern additions.
The eastern eivan Sotfeye Shagerd 22, exhibits beautiful mosaics from the Seljuk to I1-Khanid periods. Unlike the other sections of the mosque, the Seljuk decoration has survived here almost intact. The eivans main ornamentation are the inscriptions of remarkable quality, completed by the best calligraphers in the time of Shah Solei man Safavid. The northern corridor of the eastern eivan leads to the Mozaffarid madreseh Sotfe-ye Omar23, (today hidden behind the restoration workshop 24). Its tilework, dating from 1375, is Some of the earliest in Esfahan. The madreseh is particularly remarkable for the inscription praising the first Islamic caliphs. Similar inscriptions have been eradicated in most of the other Iranian structures. Another inscription in the madreseh testifies to the repairs during the short rule of sharaf Afghan Esfahan.
At that time, Soffe-ye Omar served as a place of congregation for the Sunnite Muslims. The brickwork of the vaults here also deserves the visitor's attention.