At the first encounter, there is a courtyard of the Friday Mosque in Esfahan is composed of four prayer halls or Iwans, the east and west are similar in hight and frame but the west is more colorful. The north and south are much larger and both compete for who is fairest. Each iwan design reflects the time when it was constructed. The north and south iwns contain some of the original pre-11th century mosque. The other two brick domed chambers were included when the Seljuks began embellishing the mosque. The rebuilding and enhancements commenced in the 17th century and today the mosque is a standing and lovely visual history of the Iranian Architecture.
The Jameh Mosque or Masjed-e Jāmeʿ is one of two great congregational hypostyle mosques in the ancient Persian center of Esfahan. Esfahan continued to expand and grow as a city of commerce and trade continued to flow into the city from the Silk Road. The first mosque was thought to have held up to 5,ooo friday afternoon worshipers. This original mosque was thought to be burnt to the ground leaving only some of the south and north Iwans intact. Some historians say that the fire was actually not a fire but just people being ordered to take away pieces of the mosque and use it for wood when the Seljuks first captured the city under Tughril Beg. Other historians argue that the mosque was in perfect condition in 1052 when the Tughril Beg took the city. Either way, the original didn’t survive and what stands here today is the largest and oldest mosques in Iran.
The Seljuk invaded and made Esfahan its capital with the Friday Mosque at its center. It’s admiration and prestige in Persia grew as both its royal and common patrons built and embellished the structure during the Seljuk period. It’s beauty and geometric precision in design make this mosque one of the best examples of Persian architecture . It’s hypostyle design became a blueprint for future construction of mosques and buildings in Persia and the rest of the Islamic world.
This grand mosque was originally built around the same time as the Jameh Mosque in Na’in. Today, very little remains that reflects the time connection. They both contain alabaster lighting systems for prayer chambers below ground, have similarly designed wooden carved minbar and they were both though to be built on grounds that used to be Zoroastrian Fire Temples.
Each leader and conqueror left their mark on the this richly diverse structure of beauty. The mosque was the first to have a four iwans which all face the central courtyard and built at various stages during the Seljuks period. Further modifications and additions to the Iwans and the surrounding interiors reflected the times and ambitions of each patron. The Mongols, Muzzafarids, Timur’s and Safavids all left their mark on the walls of the Jameh Mosque. It was the Muzaffarid ruler who get credit for most of the more decorative pieces. The central ablutions fountain is a replica of the Kabba in Mecca. It is used for would-be haij pilgrim to practice the rituals performed there.
The east and west brick dome were added on during the Seljuk Period. They were originally unimpressive brick and tile domes but both we decorated with tiled mosaics and geometric patterns by the Safavids These iwan are simple and appears to balance the rest. Behind them lie many prayer halls, finely decorated rooms and corridors connecting them. These are all later additions but the highlights are the north and south iwans which contain some of what remained after the original mosque was destroyed by fire.
The South Dome or Qibla Iwan
This massive and striking iwan was the first the Seljuks constructed some time in the years 1086-87. It was built by Nizam al-Mulk, the famous vizier of Malik Shah, and it contained the mihrab which is the niche cut out of a wall in the center of the Qibla wall which points to Mecca. It’s dome was the largest at its time and was built by Safavid architect Ebrahim B. Esmail. Inside the dome has been adored with Mongol-era stalactite mouldings and two minerats.
The North Dome
It is known to be “the most brilliant examples of what could may have said to be a Seljuk specialty in Iranian architecture.” The North Dome is more elegant and lighter architecturally to the southern dome across from it. It was constructed a year after it by Nizam al-Mulk’s rival Taj al-Mulk and thought to have a royal function. Inside it is filled with massive cursive Qurʾanic inscriptions beautiful to look at even if you can’t read them.
On this very cold friday I had a visit to a piece of Isfahan. The Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan has put up it’s collection of Islamic Art which includes pieces of the Great Mosque in Esfahan. There’s a few pictures of details of the Mihrab on display.