On the Southern wing of the magnificent Naghsh-e Jahan Square, there stands a grand mosque, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which represents one of the greatest achievements of the Safavid period in terms of architecture, decorative arts and the social and religious role it played in its heyday. This unique marvel is nothing but Jame Abbasi Mosque, also known as Shah Mosque and Soltani (Royal) Mosque. After the Islamic Revolution of Iran (1978-79), following the new political sensibilities of the time, it was renamed Imam Mosque.
Shah Abbas Orders the Construction of Jame Abbasi Mosque
Eskandar Beik Turkaman, the great historian of Shah Abbas’ court, tells the story of the construction of Jame Abbasi Mosque as follows: At the beginning of this blessed year (that is, 1611) the astrologists determined the fortunate hour to construct a grand mosque which would be the pride of heaven and earth. And so, the king ordered the construction of the first congregational mosque built under Safavid royal patronage. Even as a sign of God’s approval, several marble mines were discovered nearby, hidden in the depth of earth where no human would have suspected their existence.
Therefore, the construction of Shah Mosque began on the Southern side of Naghsh-e Jahan Square. Actually, the positioning of the mosque was a very clever move. Being located just across Qeysaria Bazaar, it attracted large groups of people who were after their daily business in the bazaar. In addition, passing Ali-Qapu Palace and the theological school and mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque assured people od Safavid protection and patronage. The construction of the mosque which began in 1611 ended in 1629.
However, there are inscriptions in the mosque which indicate several parts or decorations were added to the mosque during the reign of Shah Safi (1629-1642), Shah Abbas II (1632-1666) and Shah Soleyman (1648-1694).
What to See in Jameh Abbasi Mosque (Imam Mosque)
The massive Jameh Abbasi Mosque, covering an area about 19.000 square meters, is an architectural wonder with many details that would bewilder its visitors. In the rest of this article, we would introduce all the necessary details you need to know to fully appreciate the beauties of Jame Abbasi Mosque.
The Splendid Architecture of Jame Abbasi Mosque
When you reach Jame Abbasi Mosque, before getting to the portal, you have to pass through a semi-circle pish-khan or forecourt. Flanking the eastern and western sides of the forecourt, there are two corridors containing shops and connected to Qeysarie Bazaar. In the middle of the pish-khan, there is a stone pond which used to be filled with water for the purpose of ablution. The walls surrounding the forecourt are decorated with false-arches, inscriptions, and haft-rangi (seven-color) tiles.
The portal itself is composed of different parts. It includes two goldasta minarets, each one rising as high as 42m. The minarets include decorations of spiral blue turquoise tiles and Bannai inscriptions. At the top of each minaret, there is a goldasta, a special space from which mo’azen calls people to prayer. However, since these goldastas overlooked the royal harem, they were never used during the Safavid period.
The main part of the portal is 27m high, embellished with haft-rangi tiles and faience mosaic. Around the portal, there is a large inscription representing a line from the Quran which reads as: “Do not stand in it ever! A mosque founded on God-wariness from the [very] first day is worthier that you stand in it [for prayer]. Therein are men who love to keep pure, and Allah loves those who keep pure.”
The niche composing the middle part of the portal is decorated with amazing honey-comb stalactites, giving the portal a stunning view. Below the stalactites, in the middle elevation and left and right sides, there are designs of three pairs of peacocks, representing god’s perfection as well as integrity and beauty.
Below this niche, in the middle of the portal, there are several important inscriptions. The largest one, running from East to West, states that Shah Abbas I built Jame Abbasi Mosque from the royal treasure (khāleseh) and dedicated it to the soul of his grandfather, Shah Tahmāsb. At the end of this inscription, you can find the name of the calligrapher, Ali-Reza abbasi, the chief librarian and the master calligrapher of Shah Abbas’ time, and also the date of the completion of the portal, 1616 AC.
Just under the inscription mentioned above, there is another smaller inscription written by Mohammad-Reza Imāmi which credits Moheb-Ali Beig Lala with supervision over the construction of the mosque. This same dignitary had joined the Shah by contributing to the endowments of the mosque from his own personal funds. The names of two architects are also associated with mosque: 1. Maestro Ali-Akbar Isfahani as the engineer of the mosque and, 2. Maestro Badi’-al-Zaman Tuni Yazdi, responsible for procuring the land and construction resources.
At the base of the portal, there exists two high-relief marble vases from which rises spiral turquoise tiles. The spiral tiles, on the one hand, symbolize Tuba tree of paradise, and on the other hand, draw the viewer’s eyes upward toward the apex and infinity.
The original doors of the portal (4 m by 1.7 m each) were of plane trees, covered with a thin layer of gold and silver and decorated with carvings and filigrees. Several lines of poetry are engraved around the door, the last one of them functioning as a chronogram. Based on this line, the gates were installed during the reign of Shah Safi (1629-1642).
A Great Engineering Dilemma Solved
Just like Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, the façade of Jame Abbasi Mosque had to remain flush with the southern side of Naghsh-e Jahan Square, while at the same time orienting its mihrab(s) (prayer niches) correctly toward Qilba or Mecca. And this created a quite difficult challenge for the visual effect of skewed internal axis, which would be magnified in the royal mosque. However, as Sunan Babaie argues: “the architects and patrons of the mosque exploited this very potential for theatrical visual impact by creating a crescendo of forms heaped from one side to the other; viewed from a distance in the Meydān, as would have been the case for most denizens busy in the public square, the eye of the beholder is lead from the open-armed portal composition with its massive pištāq and soaring goldasta minarets to increasingly volumetric and loftier units culminating with the pišṭāq-dome-minarets of the qebla wall. To the worshipper entering the mosque, the transition from the gorgeously tiled and moqarnas-covered ayvān on the Meydān side to the courtyard is mediated through a twisted passageway-cum-ayvān that serves also as the northern ayvān of the courtyard.”
And she continues: “This entrance complex corrects the alignment of the mosque by twisting the axis of approach, but it also provides a liminal space passage through which provides the worshipper the opportunity, visually and spatially mediated, to leave the mundane world behind before entering the sanctified space of the mosque.”
Upon Entering Jame Abbasi Mosque
As the visitor passes through the gate and enters the mosque, he or she finds him/herself in the vestibule of the mosque, with a roof covered with amazing moqarnas (stalactite) decorations. The vestibule is flanked by two corridors, covered with haft-rangi tiles whose densely floral and vegetal decorations are reminiscent of the mythic Persian gardens and the Paradise.
If you take the left corridor, before reaching the main courtyard, you will notice a small door on your left. Passing through this door, you will find yourself in a semi-dark space which is called Gāv-Chāh. In this part of the mosque, there is a quite large pond and above it, on a stone platform, there is water well. Since they used to draw water from these wells by cows, it is called Gav (cow) Chāh (well). The water drawn from the well filled the pond and was used for making ablutions or other sanitary purposes.
The Main Courtyard
Leaving the corridor, you will find yourself in the main courtyard of the mosque. Following the traditional plan of Iranian mosques, known as Chahar-iwany, the main courtyard is surrounded by four iwans or porches. Traditionally, each of these four porches were used in a specific season, providing prayers with suitably warm or cold praying rooms.
In the middle of the courtyard, there exists also a large stone pond which provided prayers with a further source of water for ablution.
By the way, the most important iwan or porch of the mosque is its southern one. Why? Well, the southern porch of the mosque is the one which is oriented toward Mecca, and therefore should be the most decorated and glorious one of the porches. And don’t forget that it is the general pattern in all the Iranian mosques because of the location of Qibla or Mecca.
The Glorious Iwan (porch) of Jame Abbasi Mosque
Well, the southern iwan of Jame Abbasi Mosque is flanked by a pair of minarets, each one soaring as high as 48 m. Through this porch, one can enter the main dome chamber of the mosque.
The main dome chamber is connected to two hypostyles, with amazingly decorated high-rise vaults supported by stone columns. Actually, the columns are made of blocks of stone joined together by molten-lead. This engineering trick increased the flexibility of the mosques and thus the mosques resistance against probable earthquakes.
The Amazing Dome Chamber of Jame Abbasi Mosque
The most significant part of the southern iwan; that is, its dome chamber, is 22.5 m in diameter hemmed by walls as thick as 4.5 m. These thick walls lay the foundation for the turquoise high-rise double-layered dome of the mosque, the one you can also see from outside of the mosque.
The 52m heart-shaped external dome is built over an internal 38m hyperbolical dome, with a 13 m gap between them.
One of the most interesting points about this dome is the way it reflects the sound. Stand under the dome (specially at its center marked by a black stone) and make a sound. You would be surprised how unbelievably it echoes.
The beauty of the mihrab (prayer niche) is enhanced by a marble pulpit with 12 stairs a few meters to its right.
The Theological Schools of Jameh Abbasi Mosque
On the east and west of Jameh Abbasi Mosque, there are two theological schools called Naserieh and soleymanieh. These schools were built during the Safavid period, but an inscription in Naserieh schools indicates that it was rebuilt during the Naser al-Din Shah Qajar and so its name.
In the Suleymanieh School, there is a sundial, indicating the exact time of noon all throughout the year. This unassuming engineering wonder, which looks like a simple step, was built by Sheikh Baha al-Din Mohammad Ameli, known as Sheikh Bahai, the Safavid polymath who was involved in the design of the whole monument.