Teheran is one of the youngest major cities in Iran, and despite the fact that it is the national capital and the second largest city in the Middle East after Cairo, it boasts virtually no ancient or medieval mosques of significance. That said, when Teheran did begin to come into its own as the political center of Persia, the rulers of the Safavid and Qajar dynasties adorned the city with some of the finest mosques of the colonial era; and no ruler of Iran was a more prolific builder than Fath Ali Shah, the second shah of the Qajar dynasty, who ruled for nearly four decades at the beginning of the 19th century. First among his works was the Masjid Soltani, otherwise known as the Imam Mosque, the most prominent mosque in the city. He also built the Masjid Mo’ezz O-Dowleh and the Masjid Haj Seyd Azizollah, and set the stage for dozens of future mosques to be erected by his successors.
Fath Ali Shah was the second, and by many measures the greatest king of the Qajar dynasty, which ruled Persia throughout most of the colonial period. Agha Muhammad Khan, Fath Ali’s predecessor, was a ruthless and bloody empire builder who unified Persia in the face of Ottoman, Russian and English expansion. Fath Ali, by comparison, was a relatively enlightened leader who spent most of his career turning Persia into a powerful and respected nation. Much of his energy was spent on building Teheran, the relatively small Persian capital, into a world metropolis.
At the time the Qajars came to power, Teheran was still a very young city. It had previously been used as a retreat by the Safavids. The Qajars made it their capital, in part because a small royal residence which would later become the Golestan Palace was already in place there, but also because the Qajar’s would likely have been less secure in the more established cities.
When Fath Ali Shah rose to power after his uncle assassination in 1797, he ushered in a renaissance of Persian culture, art and architecture. He personally commissioned a dizzying array of everything imaginable, from oil paintings to books to the fabled Peacock Throne. But most importantly he oversaw a huge building program in Teheran, and under his guidance it grew from a relatively insignificant village into a booming city and one of the most important political centers in the Islamic world.
One of Fath Ali Shah’s most important accomplishments, at least from a religious standpoint, was the construction of a number of major mosques, which up until his reign had been more or less lacking in the city. His most famous building is the Masjid Soltani, the largest and most important mosque in the city. It is now known as the Masjid Imam Khomeini. He would later go on to complete the Masjid Haj Seyd Azizollah and the Masjid Mo’ezz O’Dowleh, as well as a number of lesser mosques. By the time of his death in 1834, his reign had been one of the longest, and most prolific, in Persian history.
Of the three major mosques built by Fath Ali Shah, the Masjid Soltani, also known as the Masjid Imam or the Masjid Imam Khomeini, is by far the most important and most visited. It is located close to the Masjid Jameh, another of the city’s largest mosques, in the northeast quadrant of the sprawling Tehran Bazaar. The mosque dates almost entirely to the early 19th century, though two of the minarets were added later.
The most striking features of the Masjid Soltani are its massive, traditional Persian-style gates, among the largest in the city, and its enormous tiled dome. Both the Masjid Haj Seyd Azizollah and the Masjid Mo’ezz O’Dowleh, Fath Ali Shah’s other two major mosques, are lesser but still visit worthy reflections of the Masjid Soltani.
Most of Teheran’s major mosques, including the Masjid Soltani, are clustered on the south side of the city in or near the great Bazaar. As of this writing, no visitor information was available for these sites. Web: www.tourismiran.ir (official tourism website of Iran)
Teheran is home to several important palaces, not to mention a surprisingly large number of mosques. Among the modern palaces of Teheran are the Golestan Palace, the Niavaran Palace, the last official residence of the Shahs, and the Sadabad Palace. Most of the city’s great mosques date from the Qajar period, including the Madrassa Sepahsalar. Many of Iran’s prominent religious leaders from recent decades are buried in the Behesht-E Zahra Cemetery, including the Ayatollah Khomeini. Teheran also has one of the largest collections of museums in the Middle East outside of Cairo and Istanbul. Besides those in the Golestan Palace that are of particular Muslim interest are the National Museum of Iran, the Museum of the Islamic Period.