You may wish to read an introduction to this section first.
Friday Mosque complex having four iwans seen from: (above) the Safavid city centre (the blue dome belongs to a modern mosque); (below) from Hatef Street, a large modern avenue to the east of the city centre
I may mention a few other buildings of interest. Of these the most considerable is the Musjid-i-Jama, or Friday Mosque. (..) It fell into the
second rank after the erection of the Musjid-i-Shah by Abbas the
Great. But it still retains titular pre-eminence as the Town
Mosque, though its minarets and quadrangle are in a state of decay.
George N. Curzon (Lord Curzon) - Persia and the Persian Question - 1892
In the late Xth century tribes living in Central Asia invaded Persia. The Seljuks, thus named after the leader of one of these tribes, established an empire over most of today's Turkey, Persia and parts of Mesopotamia and Syria. It soon split into separate sultanates; in 1051 Isfahan became the capital of the Great Seljuk Sultanate; the Seljuks redesigned the city around a new large Friday Mosque. In 1602 Safavid ruler Shah Abbas moved the focal point of Isfahan to Naqsh-e Jahan (Image of the World), a very large square to the south of the old city centre.
Friday Mosque: (left) dome of the main prayer hall seen from the older part of the bazaar; (centre) one of the entrances from the bazaar leading to the courtyard; (right) one of the minarets
One of the most important aspects is the function of the Friday Mosque, both as a mosque, which continues to be used for prayers, and as a component of the Isfahan historic bazaar fabric. Attached to and accessed from the street network of the bazaar area, the mosque has a significant setting, the authenticity of which is highly vulnerable to changes in urban character.
From the UNESCO synthesis of the universal value of the Friday Mosque which in 2012 was added to the World Heritage List.
What distinguishes the Friday Mosque from that built by Shah Abbas is that the latter is preceded by a gigantic portal, while the former is almost hidden in a maze of narrow streets and its entrances are pretty small. Only the dome of the main prayer hall indicates the presence of a large mosque, actually a complex of buildings including a second prayer hall (the dome of which is shown in the introduction to this section) and four iwans. In the XIth century the use of ceramic decoration was largely limited to turquoise tiles forming words, such as those one can see on the shaft of the minarets. All other types of ceramic tiles were added in the following centuries, but the domes were left without decoration.
Its double-shelled ribbed domes represent an architectural innovation that inspired builders throughout the region. The site also features remarkable decorative details representative of stylistic developments over more than a thousand years of Islamic art. UNESCO
In 1068 Seljuk ruler Alp Arslan invaded Byzantine territories in Anatolia and seized Caesarea in Cappadocia (today's Kayseri). In 1071 he defeated Emperor Romanos IV at the battle of Manzikert. Romanos was taken prisoner, but he was subsequently freed. It is possible that Malik Shah, who succeeded his father Alp Arslan in 1072, wanted to have a dome in his capital which could stand comparison with that of Hagia Sophia at Constantinople, where Byzantine Emperors were crowned.
The dome of the Friday Mosque was completed in 1080 and it marks a significant achievement in the history of architecture, as the Seljuks built a large dome which rests on an apparently very light structure.
Friday Mosque: (left/centre) details of the prayer rooms adjoining the main one; (right) bricks marked in the same way as at Zavareh
One could explore (the monuments of Isfahan) for months without coming to the end of them. From the XIth century, architects and craftsmen have recorded the fortunes of the town, its changes of taste, government, and belief. (..) A few illustrate the heights of art independently, and rank Isfahan among those rarer places, like Athens or Rome, which are the common refreshment of humanity.
Robert Byron - The Road to Oxiana - Macmillan 1937 (piece written in 1934).
The complex includes halls covered by a series of small domes, mostly built in the XIIth century. The piers of these halls differ in shape and thickness as structural supports were added to them over time. There is a variety of open and closed vaults of different forms and arrangements, with a prevalence of octagonal ones. The image used as background for this page shows a detail of a decorative element including a swastika, a symbol found in Persia as early as the Ist millennium BC.
Friday Mosque: mihrab inside Ustadh (Teacher's) Iwan
Isfahan is one of the largest and fairest of cities, but the greater part of it is now in ruins, as a result of the feud between Sunnis and Shi'ites, which is still raging there.
H. A. R. Gibb - Selection from the Travels of Ibn Battuta in 1325-1354
At the beginning of the XIIIth century Persia was invaded by the Mongols. Their empire soon split into separate khanates. In 1295 Ghazan, ruler of the khanate which included Persia (aka Ilkhanate), embraced Islam and added Mahmud to his name. In 1310, during the reign of Muhammad Oljeitu, successor to his brother Ghazan, a very elaborate mihrab was placed in a prayer room inside Ustadh Iwan. Its decoration is unique for Isfahan, but it can be seen at the Friday Mosque of Ardestan and in other towns which were part of the Ilkhanate, such as Sivas in eastern Turkey. Oljeitu embraced Sh'ia Islam in 1310. Ilkhanate rulers set their capital in the north of Persia and the main monuments they built are there, e.g. the Mausoleum of Oljeitu at Soltaniyeh.
The message of a work of art forced its way out of the shadows, insisting
on structure and proportion, on the impress of superlative quality, and on the intellect behind them. How
this message was conveyed is difficult to say. Glimpses
of arabesques so liquid, so delicately interlaced, that
they looked no more like mosaic than a carpet looks like
stitches; of larger patterns lost in the murk above our
heads; of vaults and friezes alive with calligraphy - these were its actual words. Byron
Calligraphy is a key feature of Islamic art. Arabic can be written in different scripts, the best known being the Kufic one which is characterized by straight angles. Kufic inscriptions were often embellished with floral motifs. In other cases the geometric aspect of Kufic was emphasized to write short sentences inside a square space. In some locations as at Diyarbakir in eastern Turkey these maze-like inscriptions were placed on almost all notable buildings.
Other scripts were developed to replace/complement the Kufic one. Naskh and Thuluth scripts are a sort of cursive with diagonal lines crossing letters; they are so elaborate that there is no need for additional decoration.
The smaller (prayer hall) embodies that precious moment between too little experience and too much, when the elements of construction have been refined of superfluous bulk, yet still withstand the allurements of superfluous grace; so that each element, like the muscles of a trained athlete, performs its function with winged precision, not concealing its effort, as over-refinement will do, but adjusting it to the highest degree of intellectual meaning. This is the perfection of architecture, attained not so much by the forms of the elements - for this is a matter of convention - but by their chivalry of balance and proportion. And this small interior comes nearer to that perfection than I would have thought possible outside classical Europe.
The northern dome rests on a square base with an octagonal transitional zone formed by four squinches, on top of which rests another zone of sixteen arches with a drum comprising of a band with religious inscriptions. Its decoration is entirely based on bricks which create a multitude of patterns through their varied alignments and projections.
Located in the historic centre of Isfahan, the Masjed-e Jami ('Friday mosque') can be seen as a stunning illustration of the evolution of mosque architecture over twelve centuries, starting in ad 841. It is the oldest preserved edifice of its type in Iran and a prototype for later mosque designs throughout Central Asia. The complex, is also the first Islamic building that adapted the four-courtyard layout of Sassanid palaces to Islamic religious architecture. UNESCO
The courtyard with its four imposing iwans makes up for the lack of magnificence of the Friday Mosque exterior. Some iwans were enlarged after Persia was invaded by Timur in the late XIVth century and they recall those of Registan at Samarkand, the capital of the Timurid Empire. The double-story arcade surrounding the courtyard was added in 1447 and it replaced the original one-story arcade. It has a unifying effect on the whole courtyard, so that one does not notice that the four iwans are different in size and shape.
Friday Mosque: western iwan (Ustadh Iwan)
A major restoration of the iwans was carried out in the 1950s. While two of them lead to the domed prayer halls, the other two lead to educational institutions. This may explain differences in their decoration; that of Ustadh Iwan is based on blue tiles on a yellow background which form sentences from the Qur'an. Similar decorations can be seen at a mausoleum built by Timur at Chakhrisabz, his hometown.
The Ali Mosque and its minaret were built in the mid-XIIth century not far from the Friday Mosque. The minaret retains its Seljuk decorative brickwork while the mosque was largely rebuilt and redecorated in the XVIth century. It is about 48m/157ft tall and has a tapering cylindrical shaft interrupted by two balconies. The shaft below the balconies is decorated with a pattern of diamonds. It has four bands of Kufic inscriptions, which all were highlighted with glazed turquoise tile work. Round tapering minarets can be seen in cities of Central Asia, e.g. at Bukhara.
Jafar ibn Morteza Mausoleum (you may wish to see how it was in 1934 - Photo by Robert Byron - Copyright Conway Library, Courtauld Institute of Art - it opens in another window)
This excessively restored mausoleum was built in 1320 during the Ilkhanate period. Its design is similar to that of many other Seljuk mausoleums, including Gonbad-i Ali at Abarquh. They usually had an octagonal shape and a pyramidal or domed roof.
Pasargadae and Persepolis
Achaemenid Tombs and Sassanid Reliefs
Seljuk small towns (Ardestan, Zavareh and Abarquh)
XIVth century Yazd
XVIIIth century Shiraz
On the Road
An excursion to Abyaneh
People of Iran
and in another section on Iranian Azerbaijan:
Tabriz: The Blue Mosque
Tabriz: Azerbaijan Museum