It's early morning, late September. I stride across Meidan-e Shah Square (the massive Royal Square) in old town Esfahan (or Isfahan), Iran. I am struck by the soft morning sunlight ricocheting off the palace, mosques, madrasa, caravansarai, and entrance to the Imperial bazaar — all treasures created by architectural and artistic activities carried out from the 8th through the 20th centuries. A few tourists and clerics stroll alongside the sprouting fountains at this time of day, distinguishing themselves from the more boisterous evening crowds that circle the complex at sunset. The horse-propelled carriages that normally give wheels to visitors who want them are being washed and the horses are being fed.
The holy Shia festivals of Muharram are kicking in. Mullahs with religious enthusiasm for Islamic fundamentalism erect modest tents and benches in a quest to entice or ensnare the infidel. But these are extraordinarily friendly encounters, mind you. This is not the Islam of the battlefield, by any stretch. Yet on the same field are reminders of the political exigencies that instruct modern Islam in the mid-world. Isfahan’s main square truly is a metaphor — the place called The Image of the World.
The Shah Mosque
Not so modest are the mosques that anchor the grand square in this city. Besides the Lotfollah mosque, which we already visited, is the even more extravagantly decorated Royal Mosque, its courtyard, the Winter Mosque (east wing of the Royal Mosque) and the school or Madrasa. Not surprisingly, given its long history of restoration, the large domed building, tucked behind the towering iwans (or gateways), is currently under renovation and parts are off-limits to the public.
And in fact, the square, or Maidān, was built by Shah Abbas intentionally apparently to literally concentrate the powers of the clergy, represented by the Masjed-e Shah mosque, of the merchants, represented by the Imperial bazaar, and of the majesty of the Shah himself, residing in the Ali Qapu Palace. The crown jewel in this project was the Royal Mosque complex, the Masjed i Shah, which would replace the much older Jameh Mosque in conducting the Friday prayers. It’s an unfinished project, for sure.
There definitely is something profoundly sacred, and profane also, about this place; suggesting to me that Esfahan is among a few locations on this earth that is a kind of beacon of creativity and sensibility that is broadcasting outward to a larger purpose. A UNESCO world heritage site designation attests to my own private experience.
Facade decor in preparation for the culmination of Muharram on the Tenth Day -- at Ashura
The main fluted Iwan is classic Persian in the era of Islam
Anyone who looks on these buildings cannot help but be both humbled while driven to think larger thoughts.
"The sky is not the limit; your mind is." That declaration was made by America's legendary actress, Marilyn Monroe
The mosque’s core structure dates primarily from the 11th century when the Seljuk Turks established Isfahan as their capital. Additions and alterations were made during the rules of Il-Khanid, Timurid, Safavid, and Qajar dynasties. The simplistic earth-colored exteriors leading to the gateway almost don't prepare the visitor for the complexity of the mosque's internal decor. Cupola or dome soffits (the undersides) are a blast of varied geometric designs and often include an oculus, a circular opening to the sky. Ribbed vaults funnel streams of lighting from the ever moving march of the sun across the sky, creating a mesmerizing, very hypnotic introduction to the tunnel of heaven.
Creative arrangement of bricks, mysterious motifs in stucco and tile-work, and a perfectly constructed sound amplification chamber in the center of the dome, defy easy description, as the timeless project entails an entanglement of refined artistry and application of geometry and physics. The structure enables the mullah or imam to speak with a subdued voice and still be heard clearly by everyone inside the building.
The calligraphy and script, alone, encircling the walls, are strangely delicate pronouncements of the human hand.
"On the holy boughs of the Celestial tree high up in the heavenly fields,
Beyond terrestrial desire my soul-bird a warm nest has built." Hafez
In effect, earthy clay bricks were glazed and colored ceramic tiles were cut into small pieces and put together in intended seven-color mosaic patterns. To conserve labor and time needed to cover the whole surface of the enormous Royal Mosque by this method, the designers depicted beforehand an arabesque pattern or figurative scene with polychrome glazes on large-sized tile panels of roughly 8 to 12 inches each, and set them in place. This is known as the “seven colors” method that makes traditional Persian architecture unusually resplendent. The Royal Mosque is said to have required more than one and half million ceramic panels.
As I wander, marble stone and tiles and brick present an almost infinite variety of visual challenges, places to meditate and to pray, and corners that swallow up the light leaking through windows, doors and passageways.
The courtyard of the Royal Mosque is also a metaphor of the celestial Paradise promised after death in the Koran. Tiles, glazed in branch and foliage patterns, cover the surface of the surrounding brick buildings, and symbolize the halls in Paradise. A domical ceiling, like the cupola of the main mosque, is a kaleidoscope of colors and patterns.
to be continued......