Islamic Art and Architecture: Unit 2 Muslim places of worship and devotion

2.7 The Great Mosque of Isfahan, Iran (700–1700)

Isfahan came under Muslim hegemony under the Umayyads and became a major capital from the Saljuq period (also Seljuk, reigned c. 1038–1194) onwards. The Great Mosque of Isfahan is the first ‘Iranian’-style mosque characterised by four iwans and a domed chamber behind the mihrab. See p. 368 of Hattstein and Delius for a top view of this great mosque and note the following:

  • The current form of the Great Mosque of Isfahan is a result of a continual process of adaptation and change by the patrons and users of the mosque in response to new architectural and decorative styles, building techniques and changes of taste. What follows is a brief account of the historical development of the important features that became the stylistic hallmarks of Iranian and Central Asian religious architecture.
  • The earliest mosque on the site was built during the eighth century in the ‘Arab’ hypostyle tradition of Abbasid mosque architecture. The central courtyard was surrounded by a single-storey brick arcade or riwaq (Arabic) on all sides and decorated with blind arches (Hattstein and Delius, p. 109).
  • An additional arcade with decorative brickwork was added around the interior of the courtyard under the Buyids (reigned 932–1056). They also constructed a minaret (no longer standing) in the qibla wall.
  • It was under the Saljuqs in 1086–7 that a square room (15 metres on each side) with a dome (30 metre high) was built in front of the mihrab. Another domed chamber was built in 1088, immediately to the north of the mosque on the same axis as the southern dome. This domed chamber contains the earliest recorded muqarnas (Arabic) zone of transition. While the southern dome in front of the mihrab became a main component of Iranian and Central Asian mosque architecture, the northern dome was only influential in so far as it documents the earliest use of the muqarnas zone of transition in Iran between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries.
  • The Saljuqs were also responsible for developing the four-iwan plan. The plan is based on the construction of a vaulted hall open on the side of the courtyard at the centre of each of the arcades. These iwans provide additional spaces for prayer and meditation. They can also provide a monumental access to important parts of the mosque. We do not know exactly when these iwans were built into the mosque but we do know that they were built at different times sometime before the 1120s.
  • The mosque continued to expand with the addition of gates, madrasas, courtyards and additional prayer spaces.
  • Most of the surviving decorative work around the courtyard is dated to after the fifteenth century.

Optional personal activity: Timurid architecture

To learn more about a later example of the development and diffusion of the four-iwan plan read ‘Timurid Architecture’ (Hattstein and Delius pp. 416–25). Note that Timurid mosques and madrasas have typical Iranian four-iwan plans. Their main features are:

  • A central courtyard
  • Four iwans in the form of a pishtaq (Persian)or iwan-like entrance that is flanked by two slim minarets
  • A domed chamber in front of the mihrab.