Naqsh-e Jahan Square (Persian: میدان نقش جهان Maidān-e Naqsh-e Jahān; trans: “Image of the World Square”), known as Imam Square (میدان امام), formerly known as Shah Square (میدان شاه), is a square situated at the center of Isfahan city, Iran. Constructed between 1598 and 1629, it is now an important historical site, and one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. It is 160 meters wide by 508 meters long (an area of 89,600 m2). The square is surrounded by buildings from the Safavid era. The Shah Mosque is situated on the south side of this square. On the west side is the Ali Qapu Palace. Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque is situated on the eastern side of this square and at the northern side Keisaria gate opens into the Isfahan Grand Bazaar. Today, Namaaz-e Jom’eh (the Muslim Friday prayer) is held in the Shah Mosque.
The square is depicted on the reverse of the Iranian 20,000 rials banknote.
In 1598, when Shah Abbas decided to move the capital of his Persian empire from the north-western 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 the city. By choosing the central city of Isfahan, fertilized by the Zāyande roud (“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 the Ottomans and the Uzbeks, 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 (“Examplar 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 Qapu Palace.
Maidan – The Royal Square
The Maidan was where the Shah and the people met. Built as a two story row of shops, flanked by impressive architecture, and eventually leading up to the northern end, where the Imperial Bazaar was situated, the square was a busy arena of entertainment and business, exchanged between people from all corners of the world. As Isfahan was a vital stop along the Silk Road, goods from all the civilized countries of the world, spanning from Portugal in the West, to the Middle Kingdom in the East, found its ways to the hands of gifted merchants, who knew how to make the best profits out of them.
The Royal Square was also admired by Europeans who visited Isfahan during Shah Abbas’ reign. Pietro Della Valle conceded that it outshone the Piazza Navona in his native Rome.
During the day, much of the square was occupied by the tents and stalls of tradesmen, who paid a weekly rental to the government. There were also entertainers and actors. For the hungry, there were readily available cooked foods or slices of melon, while cups of water were handed out for free by water-carriers paid for by the shop-keepers. At the entrance to the Imperial Bazaar, there were coffee-houses, where people could relax over a cup of fresh coffee and a water-pipe. These shops can still be found today, although the drink in fashion for the past century has been tea, rather than coffee. At dusk, the shop-keepers packed up, and the huzz and buzz of tradesmen and eager shoppers bargaining over the prices of goods would be given over to dervishes, mummers, jugglers, puppet-players, acrobats and prostitutes.
Every now and then the square would be cleared off for public ceremonies and festivities. One such occasion would be the annual event of Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Also, the national Persian sport of polo could be played in the maidan, providing the Shah, residing in the Ali Qapu palace, and the busy shoppers with some entertainment. The marble goal-posts, erected by Shah Abbas, still stand at either end of the Maydan.
Under Abbas, Isfahan became a very cosmopolitan city, with a resident population of Turks, Georgians, Armenians, Indians, Chinese and a growing number of Europeans. Shah Abbas brought in some 300 Chinese artisans to work in the royal workshops and to teach the art of porcelain-making. The Indians were present in very large numbers, housed in the many caravanserais that were dedicated to them, and they mainly worked as merchants and money-changers. The Europeans were there as merchants, Roman Catholic missionaries, artists and craftsmen. Even soldiers, usually with expertise in artillery, would make the journey from Europe to Persia to make a living. The Portuguese ambassador, De Gouvea, once stated that:
““The people of Isfahan are very open in their dealings with foreigners, having to deal every day with people of several other nations.””
Also, many historians have wondered about the peculiar orientation of the maidān. Unlike most buildings of importance, this square did not lie in alignment with Mecca, so that when entering the entrance-portal of the Shah Mosque, one makes, almost without realising it, the half-right turn which enables the main court within to face Mecca. Donald Wilber gives the most plausible explanation to this; the vision of Shaykh Bahai was for the mosque to be visible wherever in the maydān a person was situated. Had the axis of the maydān coincided with the axis of Mecca, the dome of the mosque would have been concealed from view by the towering entrance-portal leading to it. By creating an angle between them, the two parts of the building, the entrance-portal and the dome, are in perfect view for everyone within the square to admire.
Masjed-e Shah – The Pinnacle of Safavid Architecture
The Shah Mosque at night.
The Crown Jewel in the Naghs-e Jahan Square was the Masjed-e Shah, which would replace the much older Jameh Mosque in conducting the Friday prayers. To achieve this, the Shah Mosque was constructed not only with vision of grandeur, having the largest dome in the city, but Shaykh Bahai also planned the construction of a religious school and a winter-mosque clamped at either side of it.
Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque
The Lotfollah Mosque had a secret entrance that spanned underneath the Maidan, from the Palace on the opposite side of the square.
Of the four monuments that dominated the perimeter of the Naqsh-e Jahan square, the Lotfollah Mosque, opposite the palace, was the first to be built. The purpose of this mosque was for it to be a private mosque of the royal court, unlike the Shah mosque|Masjed-e Shah, which was meant for the public. For this reason, the mosque does not have any minarets and is of a smaller size. Indeed, few Westerners at the time of the Safavids even paid any attention to this mosque, and they certainly did not have access to it. It wasn’t until centuries later, when the doors were opened to the public, that ordinary people could admire the effort that Shah Abbas had put into making this a sacred place for the ladies of his harem, and the exquisite tile-work, which is far superior to those covering the Shah Mosque.
Throughout history, this mosque has been referred to by different names. For Junabadi it was the mosque with the great dome (Masjed-e qubbat-e ’azim) and the domed mosque (qubbat masjed), while contemporary historian Iskandar Munshi named it the mosque of great purity and beauty. On the other hand, European travellers, such as Jean Chardin referred to the mosque using the current name, and Arabic incsrictions within the mosque, done by calligrapher Baqir Banai, also include the name of Sheikh Lutfallah. In addition, the reckonings of Muhibb Ali Beg, the imperial treasure holderer, show that the Imam’s salary came directly from the imperial household resources. All this suggests that not only was the building indeed named after Sheikh Lutfallah, but also, that this famous imam was among the first prayer leaders for the royal court in this very mosque.
The entry gateway, like those of the Grand Bazaar and the Masjed-e Shah, was a recessed half-moon. Also, like in the Masjed-e Shah, the lower facade of the mosque and the gateway are constructed of marble, while the haft-rangi tiles (هفترنگی, lit. “seven-coloured”, “polychrome mosaics”) decorate the upper parts of the structure. Creation of the calligraphy and tiles, which exceed, in both beauty and quality, anything created beforehand in the Islamic world, was overseen by Master calligrapher Ali Reza Abbasi.
One of the unique characteristics of the mosque is the peacock at the center of its dome. If you stand at the entrance gate of the inner hall and look at the center of the dome, a peacock, whose tail is the sunrays coming in from the hole in the ceiling, can be seen.
The monument’s architect was Mohammad-Reza Isfahani, who solved the problem of the difference between the direction of qibla and gateway of the building by devising an L-shaped connecting vestibule between the entrance and the enclosure. Reza Abbasi’s inscription on the entry gateway gives the date of the start of construction. The north-south orientation of the Maydan does not agree with south-west direction of qibla; it is set at 45 degrees to it. This feature, called پاشنه pāshnah in Persian architecture, has caused to standing the dome not directly behinde the entrance iwan (in picture).
Its single-shell dome is 13 m in diameter.The exterior side is richly covered with tiles.
Compared with the Shah Mosque, the design of the Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque is quite simple, there is no courtyard and there are no interior iwans. The building itself consists of a flattened dome resting on a square dome chamber. Though, in contranst to the simple structure of this mosque, the decoration of both interior and exterior is exceedingly complex, and in its construction the finest materials were used and the most talented craftsmen employed. Robert Byron wrote about this sight: I know of no finer example of the Persian Islamic genius than the interior of the dome:
“The dome is inset with a network of lemon-shaped compartments, which decrease in size as they ascend towards the formalised peacock at the apex… The mihrāb in the west wall is enamelled with tiny flowers on a deep blue meadow. Each part of the design, each plane, each repetition, each separate branch or blossom has its own sombre beauty. But the beauty of the whole comes as you move. Again, the highlights are broken by the play of glazed and unglazed surfaces; so that with every step they rearrange themselves in countless shining patterns… I have never encountered splendour of this kind before.”
According to him, “the decoration of the interior side of the dome seems to lead the eye upwards toward its center, as the rings of ornamental bands filled with arabesque patterns become smaller and smaller”.
At the interior side of the dome, the aethetic purpose of the long, low, gloomy passage leading to the dome chamber becomes evident, for it is with a sense of heightened anticipation that one enters the sanctuary. Lowness gives way to soaring height and gloom is dispelled by the steady illumination of nearly a score of windows.
B. Barbara has described it in this way: “the turquoise cable moudling of an arch is seen below the dome, in which concentric rings of thirty-two lozenges diminish in size as they approach a centre which gives an impression of luminosity. The design, which suggests both movement and stillness, is a powerful though not an explicit vehicle of religious symbolism, speaking of the harmony of the universe. … The support system of dome is illustrated by eight great arches of turquoise tilework in cable form which rise from a low dado to the full height of the wall, four in the position of squinches and four against the side walls; between them are kite-shaped squinches-pendentives. Within the dome, ranks of units of tilework of ogee-mandorla form are set in a lattice of plain brick and diminish in size until they meet a central sunbrust patterned with a tracery of arabesque”.
Design of Ardabil rugs (such as the Ardabil Carpet) was from the same concept as that of the interior side of the dome. Also design of the “Carpet of Wonders”, which will be the biggest carpet of the world, is based on the interior design of the dome. It has been suggested that concepts of the mystic philosopher Suhrawardi about the unity of existence was possibly related to this pattern at the interior side of the dome.
The structure of the dome of Lotfollah mosque and that of Blue mosque of Tabriz is believed to be derived from that of Shah Vali mosque of Taft, Yazd.
The tiling design of this mosque, as well as that of Shah mosque and other Persian mosques of even before Safavid period, seems to be not completely symmetrical – particlularly, in colors of patterns. However, it is believed that these asymmetries was intentional, and they are “symmetrical asymmetries”.
Architects of the complex were Sheikh Baha’i (Chief architect) and Ustad Mohammad Reza Isfahani.The building was completed in 1618 (1028 A.H.).
Ali Qapu (pronounced, ah-lee gah-pooh) is in effect but a pavilion that marks the entrance to the vast royal residential quarter of the Safavid Isfahan which stretched from the Maidan Naqsh-i-Jahan to the Chahar Bagh Boulevard. The name is made of two elements: “Ali”, Arabic for exalted, and “Qapu” Turkic for portal or royal threshold. The compound stands for “Exalted Porte”. This name was chosen by the Safavids to rival the Ottomans’ celebrated name for their court : Bab-i Ali, or the “Sublime Porte”). It was here that the great monarch used to entertain noble visitors, and foreign ambassadors. Shah Abbas, here for the first time celebrated the Nowruz (New Year’s Day) of 1006 AH / 1597 A.D. A large and massive rectangular structure, the Ali Qapu is 48 m (157 ft) high and has six floors, fronted with a wide terrace whose ceiling is inlaid and supported by wooden columns.
On the sixth floor, the royal reception and banquets were held. The largest rooms are found on this floor. The stucco decoration of the banquet hall abounds in motif of various vessels and cups. The sixth floor was popularly called (the music room) as it was here that various ensembles performed music and sang songs. From the upper galleries, the Safavid ruler watched polo games, maneuvers and horse-racing below in the Naqsh-i-Jahan square.
The Imperial Bazaar- Bazaar of Isfahan
The Bazaar of Isfahan is a historical market and one of the oldest and largest bazaars of the Middle East. Although the present structure dates back to the Safavid era, parts of it are more than a thousand years old, dating back to the Seljuq dynasty. It is a vaulted, two kilometer street linking the old city with the new.