The Royal Mosque



The land of Iran has been also referred to as Persia since the Achaemenid Dynasty unified the Iranian Plateau in 331 B.C.E. The next Sasanid Empire of Persia spread its power from Central Asia to Egypt, but in the 7th century it was defeated by the Muslim army and its Zoroastrianism was replaced by Islam.
Probably the Persianfs latent self-esteem, that they had intrinsically more highly developed civilization in the past than in Arabia, might have made them choose the Shiite against Arabfs Sunni; the eTwelver Shiismf is Iranfs national religion now.

However, it was owing to the birth of the Safavid Dynasty (1501-1736) that the true Persian Renaissance came to blossom late in the 16th century, after the long lasting rule of the Serjukids (1038-1194) of Turks, the Il-Khanids (1256-1336) of Mongols, and the Timurids (1370-1507) of Turks-Mongols.

Pishtaq as Entrance of Royal Mosque and its Muqarnas decoration

Shah Abbas I (1571-1629), who established the golden age of the Safavids, selected an old town, Isfahan, as the capital. He created an incredibly beautiful city, New Isfahan in the center of a great desert, based on well-composed regular city planning on the southern side of the existing town, constructing the Meidan-e Shah (Royal Square), palaces, mosques, madrasas, caravanserais, and so on.

One of its protagonists might be the faience ceramic tile. Persia, lacking for good stones, used to make use of earth or clay (sun-dried bricks and baked bricks) as the main building material. In the middle ages, even though masons devised various ways of piling bricks to get captivating patterns, a monotonous tone in ocher couldnft be avoided on the whole.
Then, that led them to develop tiles as the finishing material over the body of bricks. Even if they only had bricks glazed on one side initially, they gradually contrived tile-mosaics by cutting colored ceramic tiles into small pieces to put together in intended patterns.

However, it would have taken too much labor and time to cover the whole surface of the enormous Royal Mosque by this method. To resolve the problem, they invented a new method of depicting beforehand an arabesque pattern or figurative scene with polychrome glazes on each large-sized tile panel of 20 to 30cm, and set them in place efficiently.
This faience tile method, called eHaft Rangif (seven colors) because of its combination of seven colors, made Persian architecture quite resplendent. The Royal Mosque is said to have required more than one and half million ceramic tile panels.

Plan of the Royal Mosque, Isfahan
(From Henri Stierlin, L'Architecture de l'Islam, 1987)

The Royal Square (Meidan), at 170m x 500m, is so enormous that every urban activity and festival is performed there. It was on the southern short side of it that the Royal Mosque, the supreme work of Persian architecture, was constructed. (It has been referred to as the eMasjed-e Emamf (Imam Mosque) since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.)
Although the mosque, designed by architect Ali Akbar Esfahani, is of similar scale to the Selimiye in Edirne, Turkey, which was described in a former chapter, the concept of this mosque is completely different from the latter, being a mosque of the courtyard-type. The Selimiye could exist as a mosque without a courtyard, while at the Royal Mosque the courtyard itself is the core space of the mosque and the other parts couldnft exist without the courtyard.

At the Selimiye a single estone membrane,f in the form of a dome, envelops the great worship hall, while buildings here encircle an extensive courtyard. Both are eMembranous architecturef or eEnclosing architecturef aiming to eenclosef a main space. That is the principle of Islamic architecture, but the way of enclosure is entirely different between the two.
In Turkey, as a cold land, a worship hall should be a closed space from the outside air, while in Persia or Arabia a courtyard itself is originally a worship place, having a part covered with a roof to protect against the sun. The fArabian typef mosque, open hypostyle hall of which surrounds a courtyard, was formed in this way.

South Iwan and Courtyard surrounded by four Iwans

Persia made a peculiar type in adding new elements there, the dome and Iwan. On the one hand it erected a symbolic dome at the center of the worship hall, on the other hand it set an Iwan on the center of each side of a courtyard, establishing the eFour-Iwan typef mosque.
An Iwan is an architectural component that was developed in Sasanian palaces, a half-exterior space used as an audience room etc. It was adopted in mosque architecture, that made the courtyard far more articulated and formative space than in Arabic type mosques.

Although the classic mosque-type was the Arabic type, originated from Muhammadfs house in Madina, three modern Islamic empires that divided the Islamic world into three (the Ottoman Empire in Turkey, the Mughal Empire in India, and the Safavid Empire in Iran) developed respectively the original, plastic mosque style, letting four types vie with each other consequently.

They are the eArabic typef of a horizontal hypostyle hall with a flat roof, the eTurkish-typef making a great dome cover an astylar worship hall, the eIndian-typef making a worship hall as if to be an independent building, and the ePersian-typef making four Iwans confront each other across a courtyard, each of the above can be said to have reflected each climatic condition and character of the nation.
Thus Islamic architecture acquired far richer and more diverse fruits than in the classic period.

Domical Roof and Ceiling of Worship Hall


The courtyard of the Royal Mosque thoroughly based on geometry is also a metaphor of the celestial eParadisef described repeatedly in the gKurfan.h It has a water basin in the center and the eHaft Rangif tiles, glazed in branch and foliage patterns, which cover the whole surface of the surrounding brick buildings, that symbolize the fountainhead and plants in the Paradise.
The green bulbous dome and its inside domical ceiling in particular shine brilliantly like a kaleidoscope, making followers dream of the Paradise promised to pious devotees after death. Such a colorful architecture as in Persia does not exist anywhere in the world.

East Wing as 'Winter Mosque'

One more thing deserving special attention is a genius managing to resolve the gap of 45 degrees between the Royal Mosque in the direction of Makka and the existing Royal Square. When regarding the mosque from afar in the square, the mosque on the short side of the square generates a dynamic landscape that one cannot see anywhere else in the Islamic world, turning diagonally to the rear away from the center in breaking symmetry.
In spite of that, after passing the Pishtaq (gate), visitors arenft aware of the alteration of the approaching direction at all and are led unconsciously to the courtyard turning to the direction of Makka.

It seems just the opposite method of the Shaikh Lotfollah Mosque that was described in the previous chapter, which makes visitors strongly conscious of the conversion in direction.

(In "Architecture of Islam" 2006)

© Takeo Kamiya
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