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, three of them seen here in this panoramic view. While the whole courtyard was adorned with the ceramic glazed tiles which we think of as being typically Persian.
This is the southern Ivan that faced the main entrance to the courtyard, flanked by the twinned tall minarets.
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.
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 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.