In the year 1611, Abbas the Great, ruler of Iran, set out to turn his city of Esfahan into the finest city in the world. He began by laying out a great rectangular square three times the size of St Mark’s Square in Venice and today only exceeded in size by the architecturally inferior Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Originally it was a polo ground. To the left is the Royal Palace from which the Emperor could watch the game in progress. To the right is the great Mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah designed as a private mosque for the Royal family; and behind the camera is the Royal Mosque, one of the world’s great architectural masterpieces.
But there was a problem. The square was laid out north-south, but the mosque had to face towards Mecca, that is North West- South East, so the mosque was on a different alignment to the square.
Mosques in Persia are laid out on entirely different principles to those in the Ottoman world. The Safarids in Persia and the Ottomans in Turkey were the great rivals of the 17th century: in religion the Ottomans were Sunnis and the Safarids were Shi’ites and this rivalry extended to architecture too – the Blue Mosque in Istanbul was being built at exactly the same time as the Royal Mosque in Esfahan. But whereas the Ottoman mosques were laid out around a central Hall covered by a huge dome, the Safarid mosques were laid out round a square with huge arches in the middle of each side. These are called ‘ivans’, (or ‘iwans’) and are the great glory of Persian architecture. The word ‘ivan’ really denotes a great room that is open to one side, but they have come to denote essentially the arch that fronts the great court, and behind the ivan is the great prayer hall surmounted by a dome.
The Sheik Lotfollah mosque
There is a second mosque in the Great Square at Esfahan which, though much smaller than the Royal one, is nevertheless esthetically considered to be every bit as good, if not indeed better than the Royal Mosque. This is the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, named after Abas the Great’s associates. It is set in the middle of the long sides of the Great Square, diagonally opposite the Royal Palace.
The Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque acted as a sort of private mosque for the Royal family, particularly for the Harem, that is the ladies of the court. It is (comparatively) smaller and intimate, with no central square but a grand central prayer room surmounted by a magnificent dome.
But like the Royal Mosque there was a problem in that the mosque had to be aligned with Mecca and not with the Great Square.
In many ways the most important building on the Great Square is the Royal Palace.
The Royal Palace is in two halves: the actual palace building is the huge block at the back, five stories high and said to be the first sky scraper in Iran, the tallest building erected until the 20th century. At present it is being restored.
In the front, however, is the viewing platform from which the Shah could view the games of polo or watch the military exercises.
Among the great glories of Persian architecture are its gardens. Thus, when Shah Abbas was laying out his new city he also laid out a grand avenue – the Chahar Bagh Avenue – which led down to the river and beside it a number of great mansions. The greatest of these was the Chehelstoon Palace, still surrounded by its magnificent gardens.
Chehelstoon apparently means forty columns, though there are only 20 columns that form the great veranda in front of the palace. The palace, completed by Abbas II in 647, is situated at the end of a vista formed by a long pool is reminiscent of the Taj Mahal in far away India, which was in fact being built at exactly the same time. The first half of the 17th century was the great glory time for Muslim architecture: between 1610 and 1640 the Blue Mosque was being built in Istanbul, the Great Square and its buildings were being laid out in Esfahan, and the Taj Mahal was being built by the moguls in India.
Inside the palace are some of the great Persian paintings.
Both paintings were painted in the 1640s when the palace was built by Abbas II. The paintings are said to show a European influence in their use of perspective.
The Friday mosque
The original mosque in Esfahan and still the biggest is the Congregational Mosque, or the Friday Mosque where every Friday the whole congregation was meant to assemble to hear the week’s sermon. Today it lies in the northern part of the city, in a workmen’s area , approached from a huge underground car park. However, when Shah Abbas was busy laying out his new city, he laid it out to the south, in the gardens outside the old city, leading down to the river where he built a superb new bridge. This left the Friday Mosque rather marooned in what is today a somewhat out-of-the way part of the tourist route.
The Friday Mosque is also rather different as it is very much older, indeed it has been called a museum of Persian mosque architecture. It is hard to remember that the wonderful glazed tiles that we think to be typical Persian, were in fact a comparatively new invention of the 16th and 17th centuries. Before that, architecture gloried in the elaborate brickwork, though the bricks may have been painted like Medieval churches in the West. So what is today a drab stone of brick colour would in the past have been glowing with painted colours. Today there is a contrast as in the cinema between the old black and white era and the wonderful new (equal 17th century) technicolour of today’s tiles.
The Mosque was originally rebuilt in the 9th century when a huge central courtyard was laid out with arcades round the side. In the 11th century domes were built to the north and to the south and the mosque expanded leaving the central courtyard in tact.
The central courtyard was magnificently upgraded in the Timurid and Safavid periods, that is the 16th and 17th century when three great Ifans or arches were constructed. While the whole courtyard was adorned with the ceramic glazed tiles which we think of as being typically Persian.
The northern dome, the Taj al-Molk dome, is the only surviving monument of the Seljuk period in the mosque. It does not have the colourful tile decoration of the later periods, but the magnificent carvings that cover the stones are a fine example of the art of this earlier period.
One of the main treasures of the mosque is this expertly rendered stucco mihrab (or “altar”) commissioned by Saltan Oljeitu in 1310. It is one of the most famous examples of Asiatic style Muslim decoration showing fine blossoms, leaves and tendrils as well as the loveliest calligraphy.
The high spot of the decoration is this western Ivan. This was originally a seljuk (1037-1200) structure, but it received this magnificent decoration under Shah Sultan Hossein Safavid the last ruling Safavid monarch with its scintillating display of moqarnas, the shell-like decoration which are such a feature of Persian architecture.
The Bridges of Esfahan
Abbas the Great was not only a great builder of mosques and gardens, but also a great builder of bridges. There are three famous bridges across the River Zayandeh built by Abbas and his successors, two of which we see here.
This is the Si-o-se Pol or thirty-three arch bridge built by Abbas the Great at the end of his grand new avenue the Cahar Bagh Avenue, which means four gardens. It was constructed from 1599 – 1602 and named after the man who supervised its construction Allah Verdi Khan. It always looks at its best in the evening when we saw it magically illuminated.
The bridge was a wide bridge with busy traffic, though today it has been pedestrianized. It became the main approach to the city along the new avenue where a caravanserai was built, now a grand hotel, the Abbasi, where we stayed.
The finest bridge of all is the Khaju Bridge, the most beautiful and well planned bridge of Esfahan. The bridge also acted as a dam: sluice gates between the piers close the canals raising the water level upstream so that large reserves could be collected for irrigating the fields.
The bridge also serves as a weir and a dam. When the sluice gates between the piers were closed the water level upstream was raised so that large reserves could be collected for irrigating the fields.
ALL IMAGES: A Selkirk.
FURTHER INFORMATION We went to Iran with Travel The Unknown, Riverbank House, 1 Putney Bridge Approach, London SW6 3BQ. Tel: 020 7183 6371. Web: www.traveltheunknown.com My own website of our Iran adventure can be found at www.travellingthepast.com with more sites and larger photographs. Part 1 of this account dealing with Esfahan and the Safavid Empire is published in CWA, and can be read on The Past here: Iran | The Past (the-past.com).