Located in Isfahan, 340 km south of Tehran, the Friday mosque of Isfahan is a prominent architectural expression of the Seljuk rule in Persia (1038-1118). In 1051, Isfahan became the capital of the Seljuks, who arrived in Khwarazm and Transoxiana from central Asia in the eleventh century. Defenders of Sunnism, they aimed at the restoration of the Abbasid Caliphate. The conquest of Isfahan by Tughril Beg elevated the city's status, which was manifested in the rich architectural projects representing the Seljuk's powerful empire - the first of which was the Friday mosque.
The Seljuks planned their city center and square near the existing Friday mosque, so that their square was bordered by its northern elevation. Later, Safavid ruler Shah Abbas would supersede the Seljuk center with his new maydan, built in 1602, effectively moving the focal point of the city further south. Therefore, many contemporary architectural historians consider the Friday Mosque to epitomize the Seljuk to early Safavid period and the core of what we might call the "pre-Abbas" city. Historical accounts differ on the condition of the mosque under Seljuk rule. The renowned historian and geographer, Yaqut al-Hamawi, tells us that the people of Isfahan were forced to demolish the mosque "for the lack of wood" in 1051, when Isfahan was captured by Tughril Beg. Another account by Nasir-i-Khusrau recounts that the mosque was "great and magnificent" around 1052.
What is certain, however, is that prior to the Seljuk conquest of Isfahan, a Friday mosque of a hypostyle plan that dates back to the tenth-century Buyid period existed on the site. The capture of the city and consequent riots, religious disputes (between Hanafite and Shafi'ite sects) under Malik Shah, and fire caused damage to the mosque and prompted the rebuilding of some of its old architectural elements and introducing new ones. Consequently, the mosque's plan evolved from a hypostyle plan with a rectangular inner court (65 by 55 meters) surrounded by prayer halls comprised of round columns carrying a wooden roof (7 bays on the southwest; 3 bays on the southeast and northwest; 5 bays on the northeast), to a four-iwan plan established/augmented in the twelfth century after the additions of the four iwans, the southern (southwest) domed chamber, the two minarets flanking it, and the northern domed chamber. Especially noticeable of all the later reconstructions and additions to the mosque is the double-story arcade surrounding the court (added around 1447), supplanting the original one-story arcade and unifying the elements of the court leading to the various spaces of the mosque.
What distinguishes the mosque is its integration into the urban fabric through the many gates and entrances that weave it with the city's activities and blur the boundaries between city space and mosque space. This is also a result of a cumulative history of construction and reconstruction resulting in a mosque that comprises an assemblage of structures built in different periods of time.
Access to the mosque:
The mosque is woven organically into the urban fabric, with the two towers flanking the southern iwan and the large domes on the north and south rising above the horizon of Isfahan's silhouette and serving as visual landmarks. This integration into the city fabric allows for multiple points of access to the mosque along on the shared walls demarcating the boundary between the mosque's area and the adjacent buildings. It is impossible to circumnavigate the building, both because of this blurring of boundaries and due to the absence of defining outer walls in the ever-expanding mosque. The current entrance gate to the mosque is located on the southeastern area. The exact date of the gate, which was restored in 1804 as part of the restoration projects ("Ta'amir") is obscure; however, an inscription on the adjacent space leading to the madrasa on the southeast part of the complex, mentions the Muzaffarid sultan Mahmud (ruled in Isfahan between 1358 and 1374). Most historians assume that this was the main gate during the fourteenth century, perhaps replacing another which is no longer extant. This gate leads to the upper part of the eastern wall closer to the southeast corner.
On the opposite side, on the southwest part, another gate, still in use, dates from 1590-1, the period of Shah Abbas's rule. It connects the corner of the southwest and northwest arcade walls with the adjacent areas of the city, facilitating movement between the city's parts which were disconnected as a result of the insertion of the mosque. A large monumental gate, no longer in use today, is located on the north, adjoining the northeast wall of the northern dome. It dates from 1366 and bears inscriptions from the Quranic Surah 76 describing eternal life. This gate is aligned on the east-west axis, unlike any other elements in the mosque. The fourth gate in the northeast segment, also no longer in use, is decorated with brick instead of the colored, glazed tiles found on the other three gates. A Quranic inscription on the gate addressing forms of mosque desecration mentions that the mosque was restored after a fire in 1121-2.
The winding covered bazaar with its intensive mercantile activity connects the new Safavid center in the maydan to the Friday mosque. The pedestrian flow leads to the northern portal.
As aforementioned, the (recently restored) court comprises a two-story arcade acting as a two-dimensional screen decorated with glazed bricks forming floral and geometric patterns in dark and light blue, white, and yellow. The arches of the two-story arcade are symmetrically arranged around the four iwans situated in the center of each one of the four walls, and are uniformly equal in height, except the two bays flanking the eastern iwan, which rise higher than the other arches. In addition, the northern half of the western arcade is given a different treatment through a monumental gate that extends as high as two stories, defining an area of a winter mosque. Although constantly modified over the different historical periods, the mosque retains unity by its architectural forms and decorative elements of different materials, patterns, and colors. The four elevations of the court are flat screens, but they also embody passageways that lead to the different sacred spaces of the mosque and the profane, living spaces of the city.
The earlier southern dome (maqsura):
As part of the reconstruction of the damaged mosque, in 1086 Nizam al-Mulk, Abu al-Fath Malik Shah's vizier, ordered the building of a domed chamber (15 meters per side, approximately 30 meters high) on the southwest. This chamber was designed by the architect Abul Fath, who is sometimes credited with the construction of both domes. Two preserved inscriptions on the dome's drum mention the names of Abu Malik Shah and Nizam al-Mulk. The ribbed dome rests on a muqarnas transitional zone. These in turn are carried by a bearing wall and eight massive piers which belonged the old mosque. Historians contend, based on archaeological investigations, that this chamber was erected on top of an earlier hypostyle area and was a freestanding structure. This maqsura became a prototype for later mosques, among them those in Ardestan, Qasvin, and Zavareh.
The northeast dome:
Commissioned by Taj al-Mulk (the successor of Nizam and main advisor of Malik Shah's mother), the northeast dome was built in 1088-9 for Terkan Khatun (Malik Shah's wife and Sultan Tamghach Khan's daughter). Because of the dome's initial freestanding position, many historians have speculated that it served as a private prayer space, a women's mosque, or even a library. Smaller in size and placed on the same lateral longitudinal axis as the southwest dome, the northeast dome rests on a square base of square, massive piers (with three slim round engaged columns), with an octagonal transitional zone formed by four squinches, on top of which rests another zone of sixteen arches with a drum comprising an inscription band with religious inscription. Ten double-ribs emerge from the dome's drum and ascend to inscribe a pentagon. Most scholars consider this architectural act of Taj al-Mulk to be an attempt to surpass the dome built by his rival, Nizam al-Mulk, in the south. This dome could be accessed from the south and west. On the inside of the dome are Quranic verses inscribed in letters formed by bricks.
Architectural historians often draw comparisons, regarding structure and ornament, between the earlier southwest dome, built by Nizam al-Mulk, and the later, smaller northeast dome, also referred to as Gunbad-e Khaki (the earthly dome) built by Taj al-Mulk. They view the northern dome an epitome of mathematical perfection, evident in the harmony of its horizontal and vertical divisions, and achieved by a hierarchy of the fitting of its parts, adhering to the Golden Section. For this reason, many historians find that it evokes later French High Gothic architecture.
The two domes are also distinct in their system of ornament. In the southwest dome, remnants of stucco ornament are still found in situ, while in the northeast dome, bricks constitute a structurally integrated ornamentation. With different degrees of projection, they create a multitude of patterns through their varied alignments. This consistency in the architectural language (i.e., brick as ornament) is lacking in the southern dome because it was built on an existing structure and had to adapt existing structural and decorative elements without a leading unifying principle in an overall design as in the case of the northern. As parts of the structure were destroyed by riots and later fire, there is an incongruity between the new and the old: the massive original infrastructure of the double piers and arches differently curved vs. the lighter new design of the dome and its transitional zone. This "rivalry" between the two domes is best illustrated in the description of the British travel writer, Robert Byron (1905-1941), who mentioned the two in his 1937 classic The Road to Oxiana.
The four iwans are not of equal importance and this fact is reflected in their different dimensions, structure, and decorative motifs. The southwest iwan, preceding the domed chamber with the mihrab, is the most prominent among the other iwans. Visually, it is flanked by two towers and referred to in the vernacular as sofe-e saheb or "the high [dignified] space of the master." The iwan, which is an element of early Islamic palace architecture (e.g., Sassanian), is used here for the first time to precede the maqsura and to emphasize the space of the sanctuary. The three other iwans in the middle of each court elevation repeat this motif.
Inscription bands decorate the mihrab date mainly from the time of Shah Tahmasp (reg. 1531-32) and Shah Abbas II (reg. 1642-67). There is reference to the rule of Uzun Hassan, the ruler of Aq Qoyunlu dynasty, dated from 1475-76 and mentioning the magnificence of the mosque and later restoration of the iwan's ceiling. Two words are dominant in these inscriptions: ta'mir (to restore) and taz'yin (to decorate). These inscriptions show the building's mutability through time. The inscriptions come from Quranic passages praising the power of God, or venerating the names of Shi'ite imams, and therefore mostly date from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The iwan's ceiling dates from the 15th century; most of its walls are covered with Safavid statements. Under the iwan's pavement, columns and bases of an earlier mosque were found.
Built roughly at the same time and with similar methods, the southeast and northwest iwans both have later Safavid architectural elements. However, these Safavid structural modifications are different in both, since the intervention took into consideration the kind of structure found in the adjacent area of each iwan (walls were added to the southeast iwan; piers to the northwest). The names of both iwans indicate their pedagogical roles/associations. Called the sofe of the master (Ustadh), the northwest iwan was restored fully between 1940s and the 1950s. It comprises a multitude of small brick muqarnas units, whose edges are delineated by glazed dark blue lines. Each muqarnas cluster, as it ascends, ends with a star-shaped form in which is inscribes geometric arabesques in dark blue. An inscription band of glazed tiles in yellow and white on a dark blue background runs horizontally on the three walls of the iwan, which are all made of brick.
The southeast iwan, called the sofe of the student (shagird), displays Safavid motifs of tilework. In comparison with the east iwan, it is composed of larger muqarnas units. Each face of the muqarnas units is decorated with very small square pieces of glazed tiles in dark blue points and lines forming a larger geometric arabesque inscribing an epigraphic element in lighter blue.
The prayer areas:
The covered areas extending between the four iwans are hypostyle halls comprising a series of small domes, mostly built in the twelfth century. The piers of these halls differ in shape and thickness as structural supports were added to them over time. There is variety of open and closed vaults of different forms and arrangements. The open vaults create lit spaces, in contrast to dark ones; closed brick vaults present a structural innovation, and in many instances include rib vaults similar to those in the Great Mosque of Cordoba. The different arrangement of the brick patterns, some hexagonal, others octagonal or decagonal, indicate not only structural variation but also embodied meaning: but to some historians (i.e., Sayed Husein Nasr), these patterns are associated with Sufi mysticism through their mathematical shapes.
There were three additions to the original rectangular perimeter of the mosque that are incorporated into its space: the Muzaffarid madrasa on the southeast (22 by 26 meters); the Timurid prayer hall (masjid) to the southwest (32 by 32 meters); and the large Safavid hall to the west (32 by 48 meters), distinctive for their vaulting system of wide pointed barrel vaults that almost rise from the ground with a pedestal-like low base.
Of particular interest is the mihrab of Oljaytu, which was installed in 1310 for the Il Khanid ruler Oljaytu. It is found in the northwestern part of the mosque, on the exterior of the northeastern wall of the northwest iwan. Exhibiting a mastery of stuccowork of complex compositions of three-dimensional inscriptions merging with floral and geometric carvings, the whole mihrab stands as a unique element extruded from the original wall of the mosque. The mihrab is composed of an external framed arch within which is inscribed a smaller recessed framed arch, almost half in height and width. These two arches, including their frames and their "columns," which do not have a structural function, are all ornamented with carvings of inscriptions and patterns. The most external frame takes this delicate treatment to an extreme. The inscription band, as it recessed in the wall, spatially curves as if written on a convex surface; its florally-decorated and perforated background make the inscription appear to be floating in air.
The Muzaffarid madrasa, locally known as the iwan of Umar (Suffeh-i Umar), was erected on the southeast side of the Friday mosque in the fourteenth century and is particularly remarkable for its superb mosaic faience decoration in floral and geometric designs, compared by art historians to the works of the architects of the Timurid court. An inscription on the soffit of the iwan of the madrasa gives the name of the Muzaffarid Sultan Mahmud (reg. 1358-1374) as the patron of the addition to the Friday Mosque. The original extant section of the building consists of an iwan leading to a rectangular hall with transverse vaulting. The central bay of the qibla hall is covered with a lantern and encompasses a tile mosaic mihrab with muqarnas hood. While hazarbaf tiles in geometric patterns enliven the soffit of the iwan, the muqarnas above the mihrab is revetted with light blue, dark blue, black and white tiles as well as unglazed tiles.
Historians of architecture consider the Friday Mosque of Isfahan to be a masterpiece of brick architecture. While similar in magnitude to mosques found in Syria and Cordoba, it also presents new elements, highly esteemed for their structural ingenuity and complexity. The amalgam of decoration compositions produced by the variety of brick patterns, the meticulous work in carved stucco, colored panels of floral, geometric and epigraphic motifs, all render the Friday mosque of Isfahan a highlight of Seljuk architecture.
Blair, Sheila S. and Jonathan M. Bloom. The Art and Architecture of Islam, 1250-1800. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994. 53.
Byron, Robert. The Road to Oxiana. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. 196.