Shiraz is one of the oldest and most historically important cities in Iran. In addition to its prominence in ancient times, it has served as the capital of Islamic Persia twice, most recently in the 18th century. Many of the city’s most prominent mosques and other religious institutions were built or refurnished during the Qajar period, notably the Masjid Nasir al-Mulk and the Masjid Vakil. Also in Shiraz is the Madrassa Khan, the city’s most historic theological school, which was built by the Safavids.
The city of Shiraz is one of history’s great survivors. Dating back to ancient times, Shiraz has seen its fortunes wax and wane perhaps more than any other city in Iran, if not the entire Middle East. It has variously served as a local, regional and imperial capital. Thanks in no small part to its relative out-of-the-way position, and the good fortune to be ruled by many wise heads, Shiraz has survived the onslaught of the centuries relatively intact. Because of this it bears the buildings and monuments of many of its past civilizations, including most of the great Muslim dynasties of Persia.
Shiraz’ first rise to greatness in the Islamic world was under the Buwayhid Empire. For more than a century during the Middle Ages it served as the imperial capital. The Buwayhid’s rebuilt Shiraz into one of the greatest cities in the Middle East, adorning it with grand structures and turning it into a center of learning and culture. The city was miraculously spared destruction by various Mongol tribes on several occasions.
After a period of decline, the city was absorbed into the Safavid Empire, where it once again soared to greatness, though this time as a regional capital. During their tenure they built many new mosques, palaces and buildings. The greatest surviving Safavid institution in the city is the Madrassa Khan, which remained one of Persia’s premier theological instutions for many centuries. Shiraz was briefly restored as imperial capital under the Zand dynasty that ruled for a short time in the 18th century.
The Qajars, one of the last major Persian dynasties, arrived in the 1790s. After deposing the Zands they sacked Shiraz. Although it never again served as capital, it was retained as an imperial city, and soon the Qajars rebuilt it again in grand style. Many of the city’s palaces, markets, public buildings and mosques date from this era. Among the latter are the Vasjid Vakil and the Masjid Nasir Al-Mulk. After the various Imam shrines and mosques of Esfahan, these are probably among the most popular mosques in the country.
The Masjid Vakil was built by the Zands and greatly expanded by the Qajars. It sprawls alongside a massive plaza near the Vakil Bazaar. Featuring a massive gate and the intricate tilework that Iranian mosques are famous for, the Masjid Vakil boasts two great prayer halls interconnected by spacious courtyards. Perhaps its most memorable feature are the rows and rows of exquisitely carved columns that support the halls and walkways.
The Masjid Nasir Al-Mulk was built exclusively under the patronage of the Qajars, making it one of the relatively youngest major mosques in Iran. Similar in layout and structure to the Masjid Vakil, it is arguably far more beautiful. The mosque gates boast towers from which the call to prayer is intoned. The Masjid Nasir Al-Mulk is perhaps most famous for the tilework on its ceilings, possibly among the most beautiful anywhere.
The Madrassa Khan was once one of the most prestigious theological schools in Iran. One of the only surviving institutions of the Safavids, it remains in use. Older and perhaps a bit worn, the madrassa is most memorable for its amazing landscaping. The courtyard is a lush garden that can give any desert oasis a run for its money. Of particular note are the towering palm trees surrounding the crystal clear fountain.
The Masjid Vakil is located just southeast of the city center near the Vakil Bazaar. It is open daily, though hours were not available as of this writing. Admission is IR15,000. The Masjid Nasir Al-Mulk is even further to the southeast, on the far side of the Bazaar and more than a half mile from the city center. As of this writing no visitor information was available. The Madrassa does not keep official hours for the public, but entrance is apparently possible with a small fee to the caretaker. Web: www.tourismiran.ir (official tourism website of Iran)
In addition to the above sites, Shiraz is home to the Masjid Atigh Jame’, a 9th century mosque and one of the oldest in Iran. The city’s Qur’an Gate is home to a collection of Qur’ans dating to the 15th century. According to tradition, those walking under the gate receive a special blessing. The city’s most beautiful mosque is arguably the Shah Cheragh, where two martyrs of the Abbasid persecutions are buried.