Sunday, August 10, 2008
Masjed-e-Shah (Royal Mosque) , Isfahan, Iran
The Royal Mosque, or Masjed-e-Shah (now known as the Masjed-e-Imam), was the major legacy of the Safavid Shah Abbas I (1587–1628), sometimes called Abbas the Great, who established Persia as a unified state. The beautiful building, said to “stagger the visitor with its opulence and inventiveness,’ represents the epitome of Iranian architecture. It merits a place among the world’s architectural feats because of the resplendent tile work that covers it both inside and out.
Helped by the British mercenaries Sir Anthony and Sir Robert Sherley, Abbas I defeated the Turks and expelled the Portuguese from the strategically critical island of Hormuz. He unified Persia by enforcing adherence to Shi’ism and establishing Farsi as the official language. His domestic policy focused on providing an economic infrastructure by building roads and bridges, and looking abroad, he also employed Armenian merchants to improve the silk trade with India. But nothing in the entire Safavid period (ca. 1320–1772) is better remembered than the vast amounts he spent developing Isfahan, where he established his capital in 1598.
Beginning in 1602, Abbas I completely rebuilt the city center in the form that survives. He commissioned the grand avenue of Chahar Bagh, the 1,700-by-500-foot (500-by-150-meter) Meidan-e-Shah (central Royal Plaza) and the buildings that surround it: the Bazaar (1619), still the largest in Iran; the Royal Palace of Ali Qapu (1602) facing the Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque (1602); and of course the Masjed-e-Shah. The Bridge of Thirty-Three Arches over the Zilldeh Rudh was built for him, as well as the Jubi Aqueduct to water the gardens with which he bedecked the capital. He also patronized a flourishing school of painting, and rugs for the royal palace and other buildings were woven on the court looms. It was said of Abbas I’s unparalleled achievements in art and architecture, “Isfahan is half the world.”
The commencement date of the Royal Mosque is uncertain. Some sources give 1590, a little early in the context of other urban development, and others claim that Abbas I laid the first stone in spring 1611. Ali Reza, the calligrapher responsible for the inscriptions in the building, dated the main entrance in 1616. Although Abbas put great pressure on his architect Ostad Abu’l-Qasim and his team of workmen, the mosque was incomplete when the Shah died in 1628 at the age of seventy. It is probable that work was still going on two years after that. The beautiful building certainly set a precedent, for elements of some later mosques are derivative: for example, the dome of the nearby Madrasa Mader-e-Shah (Royal Theological College) of 1714.
There are an estimated 18 million bricks in the Royal Mosque and the exterior reveals of its openings are claimed to be faced with 472,500 tiles. Indeed, the building should be included among the world’s architectural feats because of the resplendent tile work on its main facade, its beautiful turquoise dome, and the interior. Tiles were a critical element of Persian architecture for two reasons: first, there was a practical need to weatherproof the clay bricks normally used in construction; and second, artistically, they were used to ornament the building. This was not merely for decoration but to define and articulate the underlying architectural form: tile work emphasized selected motifs and marked transitional points in the design, either by providing a patterned boundary or by the use of calligraphy. The Royal Mosque is widely celebrated for its exquisite haft rang (seven-color) tile work—colors were white, blue, yellow, turquoise, pink, aubergine, and green—which was developed extensively during the seventeenth century as the quality of glazes improved. It differed from conventional mosaic in that the full range of colors was used to create sinuous or calligraphic patterns on individual tiles, so that when they were placed, the overall design could be seen.