The four Iwans of the Jameh Mosque of Esfahan

Jameh Mosque of Isfahan
South, East and West Iwans in the Jameh or Friday Mosque in Esfahan

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.

Detailed Tiles of the Jameh Mosque in Esfahan

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.

Jameh Mosque of Isfahan copy
The alabaster ceiling windows of the lower prayer room of the Friday Mosque in Esfahan
Jameh Mosque of Isfahan
Wood carved minbar in the 14th Century Room of Sultan Uljaitu of the Jameh/Friday Mosque in Esfahan

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.

Jameh Mosque of Isfahan
Jameh Mosque of Isfahan

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.

Jameh Mosque of Isfahan
South or the Qibla Iwan in the Jameh Mosque in Esfahan

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

Jameh Mosque of Isfahan copy
The North Dome at the Jameh Mosque in Esfahan

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.

Great Mosque of Isfahan's Mihrab at the MET in NYC
Great Mosque of Isfahan’s Mihrab at the MET in NYC
Great Mosque of Isfahan's Mihrab at the MET in NYC
Great Mosque of Isfahan’s Mihrab at the MET in NYC

A Walk Around the Jameh Mosque of Na’in

A visit to the oldest inhabited city – Yazd, and now we go and visit the to the oldest mosque in Iran – the Jameh (Friday) Mosque of nearby Nain

Na'in's Jame Mosque

The city is not only famous for its fine silk carpets but for its Jameh Mosque.  The outside is very simple and not as colorful as many I have seen so far.   It’s design is known as the Khorasani style and was  originally constructed in the 8th century AD. It’s basement is thought to have once been a fire temple so it was first used by members of the Zoroastrian faith.  The mosque is without a three-sided Iwan and does not have the typical tiled dome or grand entrance to other mosques in the area.

Na'in's Jame Mosque

This afternoon we had the place to ourselves.  The alabaster stones found in the ceiling helps illuminate the area during the day when worshippers gather to pray during the hot summer and cold winter days.  The details of the columns and the carvings on the wooden Minbar are a wonder to see in person.

Na'in's Jame Mosque
Na’in’s Jame Mosque Minbar and prayer area

Like many mosques, the Jameh Mosque transformed to what it is today over the centuries with each conqueror making their additions to the structure.  The elaborate brick work seen on the columns and much of the interior  inside were characteristic of the Seljuk period which was around the 11th century. The unusual octagon shaped minaret and wooden minbar was also added to 700 years ago.

Na’in is a natural compliment to seeing the Jameh Mosque found in Esfahan. I recommend seeing it first if you can. It’s makes a good rest stop on the trip between Esfahan and Yazd.

Na'in's Jame Mosque
Mihrab and the wooden Minbar at the Jameh Mosque in Na’in
Na'in's Jame Mosque
Mihrab in the Jameh Mosque
Na'in's Jame Mosque
Grave marker (left) inside of Jameh Mosque in Na’in

The controversial graffiti I referred to at the beginning:

Na'in's Jame Mosque
Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
Grafetti inside the Na'in's Jame Mosque
Grafitti inside the Na’in’s Jame Mosque
Old section of Na'in
Old alleyway of Na’in

Best of Yazd: From getting lost in the quiet alleyways to enjoying the view from the rooftops

Yazd is oldest city in the world and to get to know it a visitor needs to see it from all angles

Alleyway in Yazd

The adobe alleyways in the old city  keep the dwellings protected from the sun, large vehicles out and water fresh and cool below.   My visit started on a thursday after noon and ended a couple of days afterwards.  It is considered the weekend here and it was quiet for the most part.   The  doorway found along the alleyways are modest entrances to the beautiful homes which lie behind. They traditionally  contain a courtyard filled with plants and a pool of water and have rooms circulating around it.

Doorway in Yazd
Doorway in Old Yazd

Plenty was open and available to see since the weekends are times when families spend time together and also visit tourist sites. We arrived in the late afternoon on thursday. We got to see a couple of sites before getting a bite to eat at the Silk Road Hotel. The food was pretty good there. The standard menu of kebab, Kookoo Zabzi, Rice, salad and Doogh. Fridays get pretty quiet here. Most activity ceases until after the evening prayer. At least we can find a place to get a cold drink as we explore the empty bazaar.

Bazaar on a Friday in Yazd
Bazaar on a Friday in Yazd

We left Sunday and found out that this was a good choice since most shops are closed in this conservative town. This includes the famous Haj Khalife Ali Rahbar Confectionary Shop near the Amir Chakhmaq square. I luckily got to it on Saturday and bought my 1/2 kilo of Qottab – it’s sort of like Mexican Wedding cookies with cardamom.

Pastries at Haj Khalifeh Rahbar's shop
Pastries at Haj Khalifeh Rahbar’s shop

Our days were filled with visiting mosques in town; visiting Zoroastrian landmarks; taking day trips to the UNESCO sites of Chak-Chak and Kharanaq; and eating and sleeping in between. Yazd is definitely on the list of places to come back to when revisiting again in the future.

Masjed-i Jamé mosque
Sunrise in front of the Masjed-i Jamé mosque
Masjed-i Jamé mosque
Courtyard of the Masjed-i Jamé mosque
Masjed-i Jamé mosque
Inside the Masjed-i Jamé mosque
Masjed-i Jamé mosque
Iwan of the Masjed-i Jamé mosque
View of Jameh Mosque from Orient Hotel
View of Jameh Mosque from Orient Hotel in Yazd

Iran Tour: the not so ugly four-letter word

Mahmoud and I
Mahmoud and I at the Jameh Mosque of Isfahan

We arrived in Shiraz in the early hours and there’s nothing like be greeted with a smile and have a car waiting at 4am.

The tour was going to take us through the center of Iran – starting in Shiraz and ending in  Tehran.  We decided to go overland the whole way for a few reasons:

  1. There’s no better way to see the most of a country then by taking the road.  We were hoping to use public transport but our itinerary didn’t give us many opportunities to do so.
  2.  Iranian planes not only lack the necessary spare parts due to the US embargo but they have more than their share of flight incidents.  It’s enough to keep me grounded.
  3. It was nice to have the ability to say that we wanted to stay longer or leave earlier.  The flexibility made it easier to make it seem more like our usual trips where we just travel vicariously – or at least feel a little less on a schedule.

Take the time to research and find a good guide

We were either lucky to get a great guide. Mahmoud was not only  a nice guy with a great sense of humor but a guide who loved history and his country.  We start at a reasonable hour of 10am, take a lunch around mid day, start-up again in the afternoon and finish the day with dinner.  He showed us Iran as we made our way through its historical sites.  He guided us through his home town of Shiraz and later to Persepolis, the remains of Bishapur and museums of Tehran – to name a few.  He never got annoyed by our questions and rushed us through places he has been to thousands of times.

Do your homework before going

There’s only so much you can pack into a guide-book like Lonely Planet.  A tour guide more than likely will contradict some of its facts.  It is a well-known fact that history is usually recorded by the victors.  Iran once known as Persia has a long recorded history and it’s people have had amazing military and cultural triumphs as well as suffered near catastrophic defeats.  Modern Iran is still obsessed with its past and wonder why they are no longer the superpower they were thousands of years ago.  The only thing he did do is make me feel guilty that I hadn’t done pre-trip studying of Persian history and culture before setting out on the trip.  The boundaries of Persia changed like the tides as they conquered and fell victim to foreign sieges.    Iran doesn’t disappoint especially when it comes to ancient history.

Khaneh Tabatabaei-ha or "The Tabatabaeis' House" in Kashan
A Friend at the The Tabatabaeis’ House

Be ready to meet people

We found that we could not go anywhere without being asked how we liked Iran, why we were visiting, and where do we come from.  It’s hard not to feel welcome in Iran despite what our leaders say and do to each other.  It’s easy making connections with  people on the street even though we had our fixer with us most of the time – we did manage to lose him a few times and managed not to make the headlines.