Monday, August 8, 2011

A Peacock in the Mosque

Photo by seier + seier
When the Safavid king, Shah Abbas I, moved his capital from Qazvin, north of Tehran, to central Iran in 1598, he transformed Esfahan from a sleepy desert town to a bright jewel on a branch of the Silk Road. He built palaces with fanciful names such as Hasht Behesht (Eight Heavens) and ornate river bridges such as Sioseh Pol (Bridge of the Thirty-Three Arches). At the very heart of his new city, Abbas constructed a vast square that he called Meydoon-e Naghsh-e Jahan, or Half the World Square. Modesty was not an issue with this king.

The Safavid royals were known for their piety—they were the rulers who made Shi’a Islam Iran’s official religion. So it comes as no surprise that Esfahan’s most magnificent structures dating back to Abbas’s time are the mosques. When the sun strikes their blue-tiled domes, they gleam like turquoise gemstones against the dusty brown landscape beyond the city limits. Incidentally, the practice of placing colorful, glazed tiles on the outside of a mosque's dome, and not only on the inside, is a Persian invention.

Meydoon-e Naghsh-e Jahan boasts two magnificent mosques. The larger one is a big blue structure that draws the eye toward the south end of the square. Its orientation is slightly skewed because the architect needed to fulfill two requirements, one aesthetic and the other religious. The main portal stands in smooth alignment with the two-story bazaar building that defines the limits of the rectangular square. But the mosque proper is angled catty-corner to the portal to ensure that its mihrab, or altar, has a southwest orientation and thus faces the holy city of Mecca.

The smaller and (to my mind) far prettier mosque lies straight across the square from Shah Abbas's Ali Qapu Palace. Built between 1601 and 1619, Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque (named after the king’s father-in-law), has two unique physical features as well as a mysterious past. Unlike most Safavid mosques, Lotfollah’s dome is yellow, not blue, and the structure lacks minarets, those slender towers that rise on either side of a mosque’s dome. I can’t explain the unusual color, but the lack of minarets indicates that this mosque was for the royal family’s private use and not open to the public. Minarets are where the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer, a function that is unnecessary in a private place of worship.

Photo by Hamid Parsi
In fact, Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque was built specifically for Shah Abbas’s harem (he was said to have had 200 wives). Guards were posted at the main entrance and a tunnel ran from the mosque to the Ali Qapu Palace—underneath the square—so the king's wives could walk to their prayers without having to shield themselves from public view. This is where the mystery comes in: no evidence of this tunnel has ever been found. So what happened to it? Was the tunnel filled in or did it never exist at all? No one knows.

Tunnel or no tunnel, the fact remains that this women’s mosque is a unique place of worship, on the inside as well as the outside. Most Iranian mosques have a portal that leads directly to a large open square, beyond which lies the main prayer hall and often many other rooms. The open square serves as a meeting place on weekdays and extra space for worshipers during Friday prayers and holidays.

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque has no central square. You pass through the portal into a narrow, beautifully tiled corridor. The hallway veers off to the left at a 45-degree angle then takes a sharp 90-degree turn and finally opens into the mosque’s one large chamber. Sixteen windows set high in the walls offer the only natural light, and the tiles cover walls in yellow, cream, and several shades of blue. Floral patterns with twisting vines that look like they came straight from an Esfahani carpet abound. Fine calligraphy outlines the mihrab, spelling out the names of the 12 Shiite Imams and the mosque’s master architect (Ostad Mohammed Reza Esfahani).

Photo by Nick Taylor
But I’ve saved the best for last: if you stand at the entrance to the prayer hall and peer up into the dome, you’ll see the shape of a peacock splayed across the ceiling. This is no manmade work of art. The peacock's head is its only physical attribute, formed by a pulley in the center of the dome. The bird's body and tail are nothing more than a trick of the light, created when the sun moves across the ceiling at just the right angle.

Persian mystics believe that the peacock represents the human spirit. A Sufi legend says that God created the human soul from the sweat of the peacock and that the bird's fanned tail represents the cosmic manifestation of the spirit.

I like to think that the spirits of Lotfollah’s designers still reside inside this exquisite mosque. Maybe they contribute to the special sense of tranquility that the interior inspires, so unlike the bustling square outside.


  1. Wow! Thanks for this amazing post. Even though I have been to Iran many times I have yet to visit Isfahan nifs-e-jehan. I think its magical.

  2. It certainly is magical. My sister-in-law used to live in Esfahan, so I had a chance to visit the city a few times. I hope you make it some time, there is so much history. Are you Iranian? Where do you travel to when you go to Iran? Thanks for stopping by.