The Shah Mosque, powerful in presence, quietly occupies one of the most secluded areas of the Shah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran. In its silent presence, it narrates a story about an architecture that modestly glorifies both its creators, and in turn, their Creator, This structure is shaped by artists/architects who are not only ‘builders’, but also ‘believers’, constructing a building that spiritually serves as a house for God. Although its exact architectural function is unknown to us, its intellectual, artistic and spiritual message is clearly projected in each of its design features.
In 1598, when Shah Abbas decided to move the capital of his Persian empire from the northwestern city of Qazvin to the central city of Isfahan, he initiated what would become one of the greatest programmes in Persian history; the complete remaking of this ancient city. By choosing the central city of Isfahan, fertilized by the Zāyandeh River (“The life-giving river“), lying as an oasis of intense cultivation in the midst of a vast area of arid landscape, he both distanced his capital from any future assaults by Iran’s neighboring arch rival, the Ottomans, and at the same time gained more control over the Persian Gulf, which had recently become an important trading route for the Dutch and British East India Companies.
The chief architect of this colossal task of urban planning was Shaykh Bahai (Baha’ ad-Din al-`Amili), who focused the programme on two key features of Shah Abbas’s master plan: the Chahar Bagh avenue, flanked at either side by all the prominent institutions of the city, such as the residences of all foreign dignitaries, and the Naqsh-e Jahan Square (“Exemplar of the World“). Prior to the Shah’s ascent to power, Persia had a decentralized power structure, in which different institutions battled for power, including both the military (the Qizilbash) and governors of the different provinces making up the empire. Shah Abbas wanted to undermine this political structure, and the recreation of Isfahan, as a Grand capital of Persia, was an important step in centralizing the power. The ingenuity of the square, or Maidān, was that, by building it, Shah Abbas would gather the three main components of power in Persia in his own backyard; the power of the clergy, represented by the Masjed-e Shah, the power of the merchants, represented by the Imperial Bazaar, and of course, the power of the Shah himself, residing in the Ali QapuPalace.
The Safavids founded the Shah Mosque as a channel through which they could express themselves with their numerous architectural techniques. The four-iwan format, finalized by the Seljuq dynasty, and inherited by the Safavids, firmly established the courtyard facade of such mosques, with the towering gateways at every side, as more important than the actual building itself. During Seljuq rule, as Islamic mysticism was on the rise and Persians were looking for a new type of architectural design that emphasized a Persian identity, the four-iwan arrangement took form. The Persians already had a rich architectural legacy, and the distinct shape of the iwan was actually taken from earlier, Sassanid palace-designs, such as The Palace of Ardashir. Thus, Islamic architecture witnessed the emergence of a new brand that differed from the hypostyle design of the early, Arab mosques, such as the Umayyad Mosque. The four-iwan format typically took the form of a square shaped, central courtyard with large entrances at each side, giving the impression of being gateways to the spiritual world.
the North Dome
After the introduction of domes into Islamic architectural designs by Arabs during the 7th century, domes appeared frequently in the architecture of mosques. The oldest Persian building containing a dome is the Grand Mosque of Zavareh, dating 1135. The Persians had constructed such domes for centuries before, and some of the earliest known examples of large-scale domes in the World are found in Iran, an example being the Maiden Castle. So, the Safavid Muslims borrowed heavily from pre-Islamic knowledge in dome-building, i.e. the use of squinches to create a transition from an octagonal structure, into a circular dome. To cover up these transition zones, the Persians built rich networks of stalactites. Thus, came also the introduction of this feature into Persian mosques.
Structural Significance of the North Dome
Structurally, in many architecture books the North Dome is introduced as one of the best masonry domed structures ever built. The proportions of this dome are based on the Golden ratio [(1+ / 5) / 2] and the dome’s characteristic profile has become synonymous with the form of Saljuq. This building combines the pleasing mathematical / geometrical proportions with the lightest structural form, and structurally suggests a good example for a perfect domed construction.