Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Domes of Isfahan

"Isfahan is half the world" goes the old Persian saying. In the 16th and 17th centuries, this city had a population of more than half a million, making it one of the largest in the world at the time. Straddling several important overland trade routes, it was also one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world where the occasional visitor from Europe could meet visitors from Syria, the Arabian Peninsula, India and China. The city once had large populations of Armenian and Nestorian Christians. Shah Abbas the Great valuing their professional and business abilities, built churches for them. There was also a large and influential Jewish population here too.

The oldest mosque in the city, one of the oldest of all Persian mosques, and one of the great monuments of early Islamic art is the Masjid i Jameh, the Friday Mosque, built in the 11th century by the ruling Seljuk Turks as the centerpiece of their expansion of Isfahan as their capital city. It was first built in the 8th century as the city mosque; a simple structure of columns holding up a wooden roof around a central sahn or courtyard, by tradition, following the layout of Muhammad's house and oriented toward the city of Mecca. That structure burned in the 10th century. The architects incorporated the remains of the earlier mosque into their construction of the present mosque in the 11th century.

The domes and minarets of the Masjid i Jameh, Isfahan

The Jameh Mosque has been modified and expanded several times in its long history, but the bulk of the original 11th century mosque remains.

View of the Sanctuary of the Jameh mosque from the sahn.

The splendid sahn of the Jameh mosque was modified in the early 17th century by Shah Abbas who added the minarets and the magnificent mosaic work around the arcades facing the courtyard. The mosque follows the pattern of palace architecture in pre-Islamic Persia under Parthian and Sassanian rulers. A central courtyard contains four immense brick arches called iwans that face each other. The sanctuary facing Mecca is covered with an immense brick dome, 50 feet wide. At the time, this was the largest brick dome in the world, not to be eclipsed until the completion of the dome of the Cathedral of Florence in 1436.

Interior of the Jameh Mosque sanctuary. The great brick dome rests on whitewashed walls from the earlier 8th century mosque.

The great philosopher and scientist Muhammad ibn Sinna (better known to the West as Avicenna) probably taught class beneath these sober and splendid 11th century vaults resting on 8th century columns.

Exterior of the North Dome of the Jameh Mosque

Interior of the North Dome chamber of the Jameh Mosque.

The masterpiece of the Jameh Mosque is the North Dome, originally built as a separate structure along the mosque's central axis, and then gradually incorporated into the mosque. It has a unity of form and structure, and an exactitude of proportion that will not be seen again until the creation of Gothic architecture in Europe 2 centuries later. The whole sequence of form transitioning from the square room to the circular dome has an almost musical logic and inevitability. The pointed arch and vault, an Arab variation of a Roman building form, was never more pleasingly shaped and proportioned than here. Incredibly well built, it survives without a crack in a very earthquake prone part of the world.

The splendid capital city of the Seljuks, dominated by this great mosque, and filled with gardens and palaces, was destroyed by Mongol invaders in the 13th century, and again by Timur (Tamerlane) in the 14th.

It would not be until the beginning of the 17th century that Shah Abbas the Great makes Isfahan the capital of the Safavid dynasty that ruled Persia into the 18th century. Shah Abbas was rich and powerful enough to repel an invasion by the great Ottoman Sultan Suleyman, who was the most powerful ruler on earth in the 16th and early 17th centuries.

Shah Abbas built a new city center adjacent to the old city, and connected to its bazaar. He placed at the end of the dark and crowded bazaar that leads through the old city center, a huge open square, still one of the largest in the world. He placed his most important buildings, including his palace, around this square.

The Nagshe Jahan Square, formerly known as the Maidan of Isfahan with the former Royal Mosque seen at the far end. The Ali Qapu, the gateway to the Royal Palaces, is seen on the right. The dome on the left is the Lutfullah Mosque, all built by Shah Abbas in the early 17th century.

Everything from military reviews to international trade fairs to polo games took place in this vast square. The Shah made public appearances and presided from the Ali Qapu.

The Royal Mosque, now known as the Imam Mosque, viewed from the Ali Qapu.

Shah Abbas built a magnificent new mosque for the city of Isfahan, intended to replace the old Jameh Mosque as the new metropolitan center of worship.

Sanctuary dome of the Royal Mosque. The practice of adorning the exterior of a brick building with brightly colored ceramic mosaic goes back to ancient Mesopotamia. This dome and others like it would be the inspiration for so much architecture in Mughal India, including the Taj Mahal. The Emperor Akbar imported Persian architects and master masons to work for him.

Sanctuary of the Shah Mosque from the sahn.

Interior of the Sanctuary dome of the Royal Mosque.

As magnificent as the Royal Mosque is, the masterpiece from Shah Abbas' reign is the small Lutfullah mosque built as a memorial to the Shah's sainted father-in-law, a Sufi holy man, and as a private oratory for the Shah and his court. It is a simple building built in a form that goes back to pre-Islamic Persia, a square brick building topped by a brick dome. Like the Royal Mosque, it is built at an angle to the Maidan to accurately point toward Mecca. It is the masterpiece of Persian architectural mosaic work.

Entrance to the Lutfullah Mosque from the Maidan.

Interior of the Lutfullah Mosque.

Lutfullah Mosque dome.

The architecture of a great mosque, like that of a great Gothic cathedral, speaks about the nature of God in all of its parts great and small. In the beautifully proportioned architecture and magnificent mosaic decoration of this amazing room, God is proclaimed as one and infinitely full. The Sufi mystics teach that every individual person and their entire life stories are but single and unrepeatable manifestations of God's infinite fullness. Variety and multiplication are endless, and yet all joined together in the single point of their Creator. And yet this infinity is not chaotic, but ordered, as the structure of the building is built according to numerical proportions, and the mosaic is laid out according to geometric progressions and tessellations. The Paradise of God is infinitely full, and yet orderly, harmonious, and united.

I've loved these buildings for most of my life, even though I've never visited them, and probably never will. I knew them long before the present regime came to power in Iran, a group that would be very alien to the many brilliant and generous spirits who dwelt in this magnificent city and inspired its design. I remember these buildings every time I hear "clash of civilizations" rhetoric from either side now. I remain amazed at how little known they remain in the USA and in the West in general, especially when so much of Gothic art in many of our own churches (the ribbed vault, the pointed arch, the centralized pattern) was inspired by Islam. Let us also remember that it was Islam (including the scholars of Isfahan) who preserved Greek philosophy and science long after they were forgotten or discarded in the West. It was Sufis like Rumi and Rabiah who pioneered religious universalism long before the idea appeared in the West.

Here is Bethlehem Church in Isfahan, one of the churches built by Shah Abbas for the Armenian community.

Interior of the church.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, Doug. Gorgeous! [The interior dome of the Royal Mosque is my fave]

I really hope you do go there, someday---SAFELY.

David G. said...

You see,..I thought Counterlight was a girl,....I hate these fake persona's.

I can't perceive the truth, with my imagination,..because it will be intrinsically wrong!!

W T F !!

Counterlight said...

"I thought Counterlight was a girl"

I'm flattered.

David G. said...


Well if it's okay with you!!

I didn't want to offend...Though sometimes offending gets the POINT THRU!!

Leonard said... and the Mosques...heck, you always seemed like a guy to me (even when you were simply Doug from Texas before your colorful mosaic facelift).

Just kidding, you´re my kind of guy...thanks for sharing the lovely photos.

June Butler said...

A mosque tour de force, surely. What a terrific teaching post and what beautiful pictures. The Lutfulla Mosque is a jewel.

The proportions of the great mosques and the great Gothic churches had to be right, or they'd crumble.

Why aren't there more Sufis in the Middle East?

MzunguEriki said...

great post. Wow. I have a new place to want to visit. thanks.