Monday, July 4, 2011

Religious Architecture in Iran: Mosques

First, a brief introduction to Islam.

There are two main branches of Islam: Sunni and the much smaller Shi’a (shi’at ‘Ali or Party of Ali). Iran is Shi’a as is Lebanon and parts of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. The split centered around the rightful successor to Mohammed as leader of the faith. The Sunnis said that it should be the best person for the position. The Shi’a claimed that it should be a direct descendant of Mohammed and proposed that it be Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Mohammed and his first convert.

After several other men were chosen as caliph, Ali was finally chosen in 656 but was assassinated in 661. Hosan, the first son of Ali, was appointed and then died. And his second son, Hosein, was chosen and struggled against the caliph Yazid who represented the group that would become the Sunnis. Hosein and his followers were killed in the battle against Yazid’s troups at Kerbala on the 10th day (Ashura) of the month of Moharram, a date that is commemorated every year in Iran with pageants, parades, and mourning. The outdoor square, top left, is the place in Na'in where the pageants take place. In Yazd, men carry the nakhl, to the left, heavily decorated, through the streets as part of the commemoration.

Sunnis and Shi’as share various religious rituals such as prayer, fasting, pilgrimage and both hold the beliefs that “There is no God but God,” that Mohammed was the last prophet, and that there will be a judgment day. Shi’as who consider themselves Twelvers believe that there have been 12 imams, beginning with Ali and that the last one disappeared in 873, leaving the visible world. At some point, this Mahdi will return with Jesus to bring peace and justice to the world.

If you want to learn more about Islam, I would suggest Reza Aslan’s No God But God.
And now on to the mosque.

The mosque has traditionally been the center of religious life for Muslims. Its design was based on the first mosque, Mohammed’s house in Medina which was a central courtyard with a portico of palm trees along one wall supporting a roof of palm fronds. This wall was called the qebleh wall and later came to have the mehrab on it, the place indicating the direction of Mecca. In Iran, the Arab-style or hypostyle plan for a mosque, following that of Mohammed’s house, was first introduced in the 8th century. It is a square or rectangle with an enclosed courtyard, a prayer hall with a flat roof that required many columns to support it and arcades around the courtyard to provide shade.

However, the plan for most of the mosques we saw originated in pre-Islamic times in Iran where grand buildings had an arched entrance and a central dome, particularly during the Sassanian Dynasty. It became customary for the mosque to have minarets where the muezzin would call the faithful to prayer, a dome over the prayer hall, one to four iwans, vaulted spaces facing the central courtyard, with an ablution pool in the middle. The mehrab is located on the qebleh wall in the prayer hall, and the minbar, an elevated chair, where the cleric might give his Friday talk, is often next to it. Carpets are rolled out into the prayer hall and the courtyard to make praying as comfortable as possible for as many as possible. Men and women are separated during prayer.

Jameh means “gathering or community” so the Jameh mosques are those at which people gather on Fridays for prayer.

Jameh Mosque, 8th-10th century, Abbasid period, Na’in
This is one of the oldest mosques in Iran. The mosque is done in the Arabic style or hypostyle design: the prayer hall has many columns to support the flat roof, with porticoes surrounding the courtyard. The brick work was most likely done during the 11th century during the Seljuk Dynasty. There is also quite amazing stucco work on columns and the mehrab.

Jameh Mosque, hypostyle in 10th century, changes in the 11th -17th centuries, Esfahan
This is by far the most complicated mosque in Esfahan primarily because there are so many different architectural styles and periods represented. In comparison to the two Safavid 17th century mosques, this one appears austere; the decoration comes primarily from a creative use of brick and stucco. The Safavids did decorate the iwan over time with beautiful tiles as you can see on the south iwan to the left. But I found that I could see the architecture details better without the glitter of the tiles.
This mosque started out with a hypostyle configuration with porticoes around the central courtyard. In the Seljuk Dynasty in the 11th century, two domes were added, one in the south prayer room and one to the north. To the left is the north dome and below is the squinch system supporting it. This dome was commissioned by Taj al-Mulk of the Seljuk Dynasty around 1088. A fire in 1121 destroyed much of the mosque.

It is now a four iwan mosque around a central courtyard with a pool in the middle.

The vaulted rooms all around the courtyard date from the 12th to 14th centuries. Bricks alone form the patterns. I found these vaults just stunning, each one different.

In a side prayer hall in the western arcade, you can find the mehrab of stucco, commissioned by Ilkhanid Dynasty Sultan Oljeitu (Remember him from the Oljeitu Khodabaneh Mausoleum in Soltaniyeh?) commissioned in 1310.

Jameh Mosque, started in12th century, largely rebuilt in the 14th, Yazd
This mosque was founded by a local Seljuk commander in 1119. The minarets are the tallest in Iran and the narrow iwan is completely covered with blue tile work including stalactites (and, sorry for that, scaffolding). The prayer room has a squat tile double dome with amazing squinches which look like a basket-weave to me.
The tall faience mosaic mehrab from 1365 is gorgeous. The doors allow petitioners to come to the cleric to ask questions or seek his advice.
The Blue Mosque, constructed 1465, Timurid Dynasty, Tabriz
When we first walked up to the entrance, one of our group said “Well, it certainly isn’t in very good shape.” Little did we know that prior to 1951, most of the mosque was a pile of rubble. It was destroyed by earthquakes in 1773 and 1779. The only part remaining was the entrance iwan, shown above, with remnants of cable tiles and mosaics. The reconstruction teams are still at work. They have chosen to draw in the parts where the tiles are missing rather than replace with new tiles.

The plan of this mosque was unusual in that the central courtyard was turned into a large domed room with an entrance on each of the four sides. The mehrab is in a smaller domed room. The mosque was noted for its beautiful tile work and calligraphy, with olive green, ochre and brown added to the usual blues and whites of the tile.

Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque or the Women's Mosque, built 1602-1619, Safavid Dynasty, Esfahan
This mosque was designed exclusively for the women of the court. It was built without a courtyard and minarets (no need to call the public to prayer). An underground tunnel runs from Ali Qapu Palace to the mosque. The small but spectacular prayer room is located at the end of a dark corridor for the security purposes. The entrance has particularly well-done stalactites in the vault.
The tile is exquisite. Ali Reza Abbasi created both the tile and the calligraphy that was used here. The peacock’s tail in the center of the double dome is created by sun rays coming through a small hole at the top of the dome. Check out the complexity of transition from the square room to the circular double dome. So beautifully done, you can’t imagine it being any other way.

Imam Mosque, construction started 1611, Safavid Dynasty, Esfahan
Shah Abbas of the Safavid Dynasty moved his capital to Esfahan from Qazin in the north to avoid further conflict with the Ottomans and the Uzbeks, to gain more control over the Persian Gulf, and to centralize his power by creating a splendid new capital with a spectacular square around which was housed the three groups of people he wanted to keep an eye on: the merchants in the Grand Bazaar, the clergy in the mosques, and the court in Ali Qapu Palace.

He wanted his mosque, at present called Imam Mosque, to be the grandest of all and took some shortcuts in order to have it finished in his lifetime. Seven Color tiles were used in addition to faience mosaic to speed the work along. There are several speculations as to why the dome lies to the right of the entrance portal:

1) that it was the only way to align the prayer room in the direction of Mecca but still have the main entrance line up with the bazaar at the opposite end of the square.
2) that it would make the dome more visible from the square and
3) that it was based on a very precise geometrical calculation using the Golden Mean (Divine Proportion) which Jason Elliot writes about in his Mirrors of the Unseen.

The entrance to the mosque has elaborate stalactite tile work in the vault with minarets on either side. The interior is based on the four iwan design around a central courtyard with a large pool in the middle. The south iwan leads to the prayer hall and the mehrab; the east and west iwan lead to madrasehs; and north is the one through which you enter the courtyard.

The dome in the prayer room was the tallest in the city when it was finished in 1629. It is a double dome with the outer shape different from the inner one. The dome rests on an octagonal room with beautiful squinches in the corners. All the spaces, inside and out, are covered with tiles.

Nasir ol-Molk Mosque or the Pink Mosque, completed in 1888, Qajar Dynasty, Shiraz
The outer walls and the south iwan are covered with Seven Color tiles of a pink flower motif.
In the winter prayer hall there are beautiful stained glass windows, vaults decorated with geometric patterns and twisted pillars with stylized palmettes.

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