Esfahan occupies a strange, undefinable niche in the impressive catalog of Persian-Iranian cities. It is not the current the capital city, nor the largest, nor the oldest. It is not home to major pilgrimage sites, Shi’ite or otherwise, and is eclipsed by other cities of greater religious importance. And yet for all of that, Esfahan is the most quintessential of Persian cities, with an extremely rich cultural and religious heritage. The Masjid Jameh is the oldest mosque in Esfahan and one of the oldest, largest and most beautiful in Iran. The Masjid Jameh’s ever-evolving blend of styles helped to define Persian mosque architecture, and its influence can be seen all over the Middle East.
Like most of Iran’s cities, Esfahan’s origins are ancient. Before the arrival of Islam it was an important Zoroastrian religious center. During the wars between the Sassanid and Byzantine Empires, Esfahan became a strategic, heavily fortified city. However, the armies of the Sassanids proved unable to defend Persia from Muslims invading from Arabia, and by the middle of the 7th century Esfahan was incorporated into the growing Islamic Caliphate.
During the early years of Islamic rule, Esfahan was just one of a number of large cities scattered throughout Persia’s densely populated western territories. After the Sunni-Shi’iite split, however, Esfahan’s political importance rose as an important center of the Shi’ite faith. Throughout the next five centuries, Esfahan competed with its nearby rival Qom for political and religious dominance of the region. Throughout this period, Qom generally remained the more important of the two cities, except during the reign of the Seljuk Turks when Esfahan briefly served as capital of Persia.
The Seljuks left their mark on Esfahan, constructing many public buildings and mosques. The long architectural odyssee of the Masjid Jameh began in the 11th century during the Seljuk period, with construction being directed by two of the city’s greatest viziers, Nizam Al-Mulk and Taj Al-Mulk. According to legend, these two were fierce political rivals, and each desired to make his mark on the great mosque. Nizam oversaw the construction of the magnificent south dome; a few years later, Taj showed him up by building the even more magnificent if unnecessary north dome.
The Masjid Jameh survived from medieval times until the modern age comparatively well. Unlike many of its contemporaries throughout the Middle East, the mosque was spared the ravages of the Mongols when the leaders of Esfahan wisely surrendered the city without a fight. During the Mongol and later Timurid occupations, the Masjid Jameh was greatly expanded and renovated in a magnificent Central Asian style, the first great mosque of Persia to undergo such a transformation. This new style would go on to become the standard of Persian mosque design until the modern day.
The Masjid Jameh as it stands today incorporates more major architectural elements from more major periods than almost any other mosque in Iran. Thanks to good planning and integration, the Masjid Jameh is less of a stylistic mishmash than might have been. The core of the mosque still dates primarily from the 11th century; much of the outer areas from the Mongol and Timurid periods; beautiful architectural flourishes added during the Safavid period tie it all together.
Oddly, the Masjid Jameh’s least impressive feature is its outer walls, which while impressive by themselves are somewhat bland compared to the magnificent exterior of the Shah Mosque nearby. On the plus side are the spectacular tile adorned oversized gateways, the mosque’s most distinguishing feature. So large are they that from numerous angles they can obscure the equally beautiful and historic domes. In addition to the main mosque, several of Esfahan’s more important madrassas are closely connected to the Masjid Jameh.
The Masjid Jameh is tucked away at the north end of the city of Esfahan, approximately 200 miles south of Teheran. Considering its age and historical importance, it is somewhat off the beaten track, being nearly a mile away from many of Esfahan’s other major sites. It is open to Muslims (and possibly non-Muslims, with restrictions) daily from 7:00am-7:00pm. The cost of admission is IR25,000. Web: www.tourismiran.ir (official tourism website of Iran)
Most of Esfahan’s most important sites are clustered around the Imam Khomeini Square, including breathtaking Masjid Imam as well as the Masjid Sheikh Lotfollah and the Ali Qapu Palace. In addition to the Ali Qupa, Esfahan is home to two lesser but equally beautiful royal residences: the Hasgt Behesht Palace and the Chehel Sotun Palace. Other major religious locations include the Masjid Shiekh Lotfollah, the Masjid Manar-E Ali, the Masjid Hakim, and the Madrassa Chahar Bagh.