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 – note the two goalposts in the foreground like giant penises. 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.
And here is a detail of the great Portal. 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.
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.
(This stitched-together photo is somewhat distorted, but double click on it to see the details).
And 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 below reveals the magnificent layout of the great prayer hall.
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 Sheik 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 we see above a panoramic view taken from the viewing platform of the Royal Palace. And then below taken at ground level the approach to the mosque.
The Sheik 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, no central square but a grand central prayer room surrounded 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. So 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.
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.
The Ali Qapu palace, the Royal Palace
In many ways the most important building on the Great Square is the Royal Palace seen here on the left in the middle of the long side, facing the Lotfollah Mosque on the other side. The Royal Mosque is behind the camera and at the far end of the square is the entrance to the Bazaar.
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.
Here is the 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.
On to The Chelestun Palace