The large halls with dozens of brick domes are empty and quiet. Light only filters in through the open skylights in the domes. The design of each of them and each of the many columns is slightly different. The place looks a bit like a deserted Central Asian bazaar, but also more serene and quite old. The columned halls in the South of Isfahan‘s Great Mosque actually date from the Seljuq period in the 11th century.
Build and rebuild
The first mosque was erected on this site as early as the 8th century, and then rebuilt and extended over the centuries. A large part, however, was destroyed in a fire when the Assassins (a Shiite sect which employed systematic murder of important enemies in their warfare) captured Isfahan in 1121.
After that, the mosque was rebuilt even larger and became the prototype for many Iranian and Central Asian mosques. It consists of a huge courtyard with surrounding columned halls and four high, open niches in the interior walls facing the courtyard. These niches, Ivans, could be used as shaded lecture or prayer rooms.
The design was originally take from (pre-Islamic) Sassanid palace architecture. Depending on the season and weather, people would pray in the courtyard or in the covered areas.
Lost in a maze of rooms
We get rather lost in the flight of empty rooms, passing an area where supposedly a Zoroastrian temple once stood. Then near the Western Ivan, we discover a fantastically decorated mihrab made from carved stucco dating from the 14th century. Behind it is an entrance to a large, but very dark hall with a low ceiling and many huge pillars. Built by the Timurids in the 15th century, it was used as a prayer room for winter. This style is easier to heat with that low ceiling and almost no windows.
Somewhere in the northern part of the complex, an elderly man offers us tea with lots of rock sugar. The mosque is by now teeming with staff members preparing the rooms and courtyards for the evening prayer. Enormous bundles of carpets are being brought into the courtyard and rolled out using special hooked poles. They cover the low platforms in the yard and also most of the corridors between them. In former times, we learn, the corridors were not considered “mosque” for practical reasons. The mosque is so big that people would pass through it on their way home from the market, rather than going all the way around it. Obviously, some shopping items such as live chicken might not be considered appropriate to bring into a mosque. In addition, women would have had to make a detour on “unclean” days – but apparently the religious authorities were more pragmatic back then. Quite unlike those in Stralsund (Germany), by the way, who in the Middle Ages expressly forbade their citizens to drive livestock through the church of St. Nikolai.
The Great Mosque of Isfahan became a World Heritage site 2012. We have also visited the UNESCO sites of the Golestan Palace in Tehran, some of the Persian Gardens, Persepolis and the Naqshe-Jahan Square in Isfahan.
Is it worth going to the Great Mosque of Isfahan?
Isfahan is by all means worth going, even for the name alone. The city is atmospheric and lively and full of wonderful buildings. The Great Mosque is possibly the most impressive of them. You could spend hours there just strolling around and marvelling at the beautiful tiles and different architectural styles.
How to get to the Great Mosque of Isfahan
Isfahan is in the Southern part of Iran, about 450 km from Tehran and well connected by bus.
It is easy to reach the Great Mosque of Isfahan from the centre of town. From Naqshe Jahan Square it is a stroll through the bazaar. This may take an hour depending on how often you get lost but is a memorable and beautiful walk.