Esfahan, Iran

In 2017, Editor-in-Chief Andrew Selkirk visited Esfahan in Iran, one of the hidden secrets of world architecture — a magnificent palace and town built by the Abbas the Great in the years after AD 1610. Esfahan is little known in the West, but it has some of the world’s great architecture – not only mosques, but also its palaces, its gardens, and last but not least, its fine bridges.

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.

The Great Square, Esfahan. Originally it was a polo ground – note the two goalposts in the foreground. Royal Palance (left), Mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah (right).
Here is the great portal that forms the entrance to the Royal Mosque, fronting onto the square. The arch is flanked by twin minarets. The decoration is entirely executed in tile mosaic in a full palette of colours. The white on blue band that frames the whole arch is in fact a  text  written in the tuluth script that was the majuscule of Arabic scripts, famed for its flowing expressiveness. The inner part of the vault is filled with honeycomb decoration known as muquarnas.

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. 

Here in this photo, you can see the domes of the mosque, rising above the buildings to the right of the Portal. When you enter the Portal, you have to turn half-right to enter the mosque.
And when you enter, this is what faces you: the majestic arch, or ivan, that fronts the main prayer hall and its dome that lies behind.

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.

Here is the great dome that lies behind the central ivan. The decoration of the Royal Mosque is predominantly in blue, though the circle at the centre may possibly represent the Sun.
The photo reveals the magnificent layout of the great prayer hall.
To either side are great halls that were used as reception halls by the Shah, or as winter prayer halls.
And in the corner are courts surrounded by arcades, which were used as madrasas or schools.

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.

Here is a panoramic view from the viewing platform with the entrance to the Bazaar far left, the Lotfollah Mosque in the centre and the Royal Mosque to the right. The pool and the fountains are a later addition: originally it was a polo ground.
Taken at ground level the approach to the mosque.

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.

Here we see the great portal, but note that the dome is off centre, as there is an elaborate passageway that leads in, turns at an angle before approaching the great central chamber.

The great central chamber is surrounded by huge arches with above them there are windows that form the base to the dome.
Here is the dome often considered to be the master piece of Islamic architecture. Note that the overall background colour is not the usual blue, but a golden colour. Note too the very clever decoration of the lozenges which become gradually bigger at the base of the dome – an extremely clever piece of design that form an overall masterpiece.

In many ways the most important building on the Great Square is the Royal Palace.

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.

This dancing lady adorns one of the rooms in the viewing platform and has become one of the best known examples of Persian art of the 17th century.

Chehelstoon Palace

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 Palace.

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.

Here we see Shah Abbas I (left centre) welcoming Vali Mohammed Khan, the ruler of Turkistan, an event that formed part of Abbas’s campaign efforts to extend Persia’s power and influence. Food and drink is being distributed lavishly, but note in the bottom right hand corner that one of the courtiers has fallen down drunk and is being attended to by a doctor, while one of the girl musicians looks on solicitously. Alcohol was certainly not forbidden at this time.
Here we see Abbas II in 1647 again receiving a Turkistan ruler, this time Nadr Mohammed Khan (in white, centre). Between them the table is spread with food and at the top servants are bringing more food. At the bottom the entertainment is in progress, at both sides there are musicians with a variety of instruments, and in the centre are three dancing girls.

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.

View of the gardens that surround the palace. A broad pathway leads off through the gardens.

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.

This is the southern dome. Originally it would probably have been magnificently painted as indeed were the cathedrals in Western Europe.  But today the decoration has been picked out by colouring the joins between the stones white.
Adjacent to the south dome is this extensive prayer hall reminiscent in some respects to the Romanesque architecture of Northern Europe.

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.

Panoramic view of central courtyard.
This is the southern Ivan that faced the main entrance to the courtyard, flanked by the twinned tall minarets.
This is the equally magnificent northern Ivan with no minaret but topped by the Maazeneh from which the faithful are summoned for prayer.

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.

The northern dome, the Taj al-Molk dome.
This low winter prayer hall (winters are cold in Iran and special low winter prayer halls are needed). It has low arches springing from ground level resembling the tents of the nomadic invaders. This was built in 1447 in the Timurid period (1389-1508), named after Timur or Tamerlane, the descendant of Genghis Khan the Tartar conqueror of Persia.

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 stucco mihrab (or “altar”).

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 western Ivan.

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.

Si-o-se Pol bridge.

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 bridge is a popular attraction. Here in the evening crowds line the banks just sitting enjoying themselves and admiring the bridge.

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.

Khaju Bridge.

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.

The niches on the road level form a convenient nook for lovers to meet.
ALL IMAGES: A Selkirk.
We went to Iran with Travel The Unknown, Riverbank House, 1 Putney Bridge Approach, London SW6 3BQ. Tel: 020 7183 6371. Web:
My own website of our Iran adventure can be found at 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 (