As part of the celebration of Islamic cultural capitals for the Arab, African and Asian regions, and by virtue of the resolution of the 4th Islamic Conference of Culture Ministers (Algiers, 15-17 December 2004), the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation had designed the present portal with the aim of shedding light on the historical and civilisational importance of the cities which were elected as capitals of Islamic culture for the year 1427AH/2006 AD: Aleppo, representing the Arab Republic of Syria, Timbuktu for the Republic of Mali, and Espahan for the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Through this action, the Islamic Organisation seeks to bring to the fore the historical, civilisational and cultural landmarks of these capitals, and to highlight their rich contribution through the ages, thanks to their scholars, intellectuals and creative people, and to the action of their educational, scientific and cultural institutions in sciences, arts and letters. The Islamic Organisation is intent on reviving the memory of these cities and sensitising young generations about their importance and the richness of the Islamic civilisational heritage.
Dr. Abdulaziz Othman Altwaijri
Director general of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation
Espahan, or Esfahan in Farsi, is an Iranian city located in the south-east of the central province, practically in the middle of Iran. Renowned for its beauty and luxurious nature, it draws tourists who flock to this city throughout the year to admire its endless picturesque vistas. Historically, this city remained the capital of Iran for years under the rule of the Safavids. Growing steadily, it became one of the major cities during the reign of Shah Abbas the Great who elected it as his capital and seat. It is therefore not surprising that the city was for centuries known as Espahan Nesf-e jahân (Espahan is half the world).
Today, Espahan’s population amounts to one million inhabitants and the city is one of Iran’s richest both on a historical and architectural level. Thanks to its cultural and historical heritage and to its natural beauty, Iran is today a major tourism attraction. The country boasts a significant number of historical and archaeological sites and vestiges representative of the various historical eras that the country went through since the settling of man in the Iranian plateau. In addition to its historical buildings and religious and cultural monuments, the country offers a breathtaking landscape where the plains and coast blend with the mountains and desert. Iran is also distinguished by the striking contrasts the mark its climate and geography, often at very close distances. Thus, one can move -sometimes without a transition- from the aridity of the vast desert to a quasi-equatorial climate or to snow-covered-mountain tops, or from the northern coasts of the Caspian Sea to the breathtaking beauty of the Gulf with its lukewarm waters.
UNESCO classified Espahan, considered one of Iran’s main tourism attractions, as part of World Heritage. Indeed, a great many Europeans tourists visit this city and the numerous palaces that stand witness to its heritage and glorious centuries-old past. Furthermore, the city has a myriad of stunning gardens of which the conception took many decades. Some of these gardens are 350 years old. Thanks to its fertile soil, Espahan is equally famous for its groves and agricultural lands. Factories, especially hydrous factories, abound in the city. Many bridges span the river crossing the city, such as the Allahverdi Khan bridge (known under the name of Si-o-Se pol or Thirty-Three Arches bridge), and the Khadju bridge around which people gather to enjoy the stunning view of the city.
Espahan is well known for its wide avenues and large squares. This city, the hometown of a number of engineers and scholars, is famous for its Iranian carpets that the Iranian family deems it a duty to preserve as if it were an object made of gold. The visitor to Espahan cannot miss the opportunity to amble along in the city’s bazaar displaying its treasures of old archaeological objects as well as the handicrafts and industrial products that have made the reputation of the city.
Contribution of the city of Espahan to sciences:
Espahan played a crucial role in the history of Arab Islamic thought ever since its conquest during the caliphate of Omar Ibn Al Khattab in 19 or 23AH/year 640 or 644AD. It was one of the axes of the Islamic world’s scientific and cultural movement, particularly under the reign of the Buyids (32IH/933¬447H/1055), then under the Seljuqid sultanate. Both dynasties encouraged scholars, men of letters and philosophers and by so doing played doing a part in boosting the intellectual movement. During the different periods of their reign, some of these intellectuals were the pride of the Islamic nation.
Espahan also boasts an infinite number of scholars in various fields of knowledge, namely in philosophy, literature, history, and philology. Once under the banner of Islam, turned Espahan turned into a jewel of Persian history as well as a civilisational centre where great erudite figures shone, such as Abu Mohamed Abdullah Ibn Hayyan Al-Asfahani, the vizier Jamal-Eddine al-Jawad Al-Asfahani, the writer Ahmed Eddine Al-Asfahani, the scholar Mohamed Ibn Bahr Al-Asfahani, the historians Ibn Hamza Ibn Al-Hussein Al-Asfahani and Al-Hussein Ibn Abdullah Al-Asfahani, as well as Abul Faraj Al-Asfahani, author of a famous poetry collection, and Mohamed Ibn Daoud Al-Asfahani.
Espahan trougth the ages
The history of Espahan dates back to about five hundred years BC, when king Cyrus, first Achemenid king, invaded the kingdom of Lidya and established the first Persian empire. It was during his reign that Zoroastrianism, religion founded by Zoroaster, first emerged.
Cuneiform writing was used in tablets recording events and registering transactions. Darius II was the last Achemenid king. He was vanquished by Alexander the Great before being assassinated by his own commanders. Darius actually witnessed, from the slope of Mount Kuh-e-Sofeh, south of Espahan, the battle that sealed his defeat.
The history of Espahan is closely linked to that of Iran. Indeed, “Iran” and “Persia” are two words that stand for the same region though they are not exactly synonymous. When the Arian populations emigrated from their original settlement south of the Ural sea towards the high plateaus of the meridian part of the Caspian sea, they called their new dwelling “Iran” which means “the Arians’ Settlement”.
The history of ancient Iran is divided in three periods:
1) The pre-history era, starting about 100.000 years BC and ending at the beginning of the first millennium before the Christian era;
2) The proto-history period, covering about half of the first millennium before the Christian era; and
3) The period of the dynasties reigning from the VI to the IV centuries BC.
Palaeozoic Age: Archaeological excavations in Zagros, a mountain chain west of Iran, unearthed relics from this period dating back to about 100.000 years BC.
Modern Stone Age: All indicators point in the direction of the Middle-East as was one of the first regions of the ancient world to have experienced the modern Stone Age revolution. This revolution brought about an agricultural way of life marked by a rural sedentary lifestyle based on agriculture and cattle breeding. Finds from this era date back to the 8th and 7th millenniums before the Christian era. By 6000 B.C, this agrarian way of life had already spread to numerous Iranian regions.
Sixth and fifth millenniums B.C: There is little information on civilisation during this period as historians were more interested in focusing their research on the modern Stone Age and the primary periods, and on other evidence here and there of the existence of an important cultural and artistic evolution during the primary copper and bronze ages.
End of the 3rd millennium to the 2nd millennium B.C: If the beginning of this period is generally marked by a significantly more important isolation of the plateau than the previous period, the second half is clearly marked by exceptional clashes in the Iranian history but which paved the way for mutations in the Palaeozoic era. Thus, in the north and centre-west of Iran for example, indigenous local civilisations were compelled to a relative isolation caused by events that unfolded elsewhere.
The pre-Achemenid Period:
Since the year 8000 BC, the agricultural revolution induced the establishment of permanent settlements and the birth of prosperous civilisations, turning the Iranian plateau into the cradle of one of history’s most ancient civilisations. In 3900 B.C, the city of Sialk (near Kachan), was the first city to be built on the Iranian plateau. Between 1500 and 800 B.C, the Medes and Persians, Arian nomads hailing from Central Asia, settled in the Iranian plateau. The Medes settled in the western part of Iran while the Persians chose the south. Placed under the authority of the Assyrians at first, they quickly liberated themselves from this rule, along with the Persians and eventually defeated the Assyrians.
In 550 B.C, Cyrus the Great founded the Persian Empire, first empire in the world. Inherently a peaceful reign with moderate politics, Babylonia peacefully surrendered to Cyrus who was welcomed there in 539 B.C as a liberator. He freed the Jews from the Babylonian persecution before dying in 529 BC. The empire reached its apogee in 521 BC during the reign of king Darius. The empire was based on a system organised in Satrapies (similar to local governments and provinces). Darius built roads and ports, and established an underground irrigation system. His reign was equally marked by an economic boost, the introduction of the most ancient currency in the world, the darek, but also the standardization of weights and measures. He regulated commerce, favoured international trade and raised the economy of the Persian Empire to an unequalled degree of prosperity at the time.
Between 490 and 479 BC, the Hellenistic states were not a threat to the Persian Empire since Persia managed to achieve by means of diplomacy what it could not obtain by warfare. After the Greco-Persian wars, Persian kings managed to sow dissension between the peoples of Athens and Sparta, thus provoking wars that lasted for 150 years. Sparta vanquished Athens during the Great War, thanks to the financial and maritime support of Persia which subsequently offered its support to Athens. The Persian influence was indisputable, so much so that the two belligerents appealed to the Persian king Artaxerxes II for mediation and finally signed a peace treaty in 387 BC.
The Persian Empire was the world’s hegemonic power for more than two centuries, from 550 to 334 BC. The continuous rapprochement between the west and the east was made possible thanks to the Persian Empire which was also the first world empire to be religiously tolerant. The empire was characterised by the diversity of its languages, ethnic groups, religions and cultures. Long before the advent of the Roman empire, Persia was the first to establish the predominance of the law, and create a centralised powerful army and an organised and efficient government.
From Alexander to the Parthians:
Alexander the Great of Macedonia invaded Persia during the reign of the Achemenids whom he vanquished in 323 BC. After defeating the Persian army, he ordered the execution of a number of Persians as well as the burning of Persepolis in retaliation against the burning of Athens. Alexander considered himself the successor of the Achemenid kings, imposing their customs to the Persian court while endeavouring to establish a new culture combining that combined the Persian with the Hellenistic.
Rivalry between his generals caused the division of his empire shortly after his death in 323 BC. However, his victory over the Persian empire left him with a legacy that he offered to the West in the form of a Persian model of the empire that was adopted, years later, by the Roman Empire, namely in the fields of law and the State of the law.
Seleucus I, one of Alexander’s lieutenants, finally succeeded him and founded the Selucid state which lasted from 323 to 141 BC. The Seleucid territory included Asia Minor, the Greater Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia. The country had two capital cities. The one called Seleucia was founded on the Tigris in Mesopotamia, while Antioch, the second capital, was built on the Oronte River. Eighteen Selucid kings reigned.
The Parthians seized power between 247 and 224 BC. Also known under the name of Arsacids after their first king, theirs was a tribal kingdom formed by Sacid tribes from the north-east of Iran. The Arsacids defeated the Seleucids and conquered all of Persia. The founder of this empire was Arcases I, a name that was subsequently given to all Parthian kings following the example of Rome’s Caesar. They waged numerous wars against the Romans, and their victory in 53 BC imposed them as a great power. However, and despite their lengthy reign of almost 5 centuries, they did not leave any significant vestiges of their civilisation, but for a few art relics.
Ardashir I introduced the reign of the Sassanians in 224 of the Christian era. After restoring the Persian civilisation in the Achemenid fashion, he instated Zoroastrianism and established commercial relations with his worst enemies, namely the Romans and Byzantines, as well as with China. Excavations carried out in China uncovered silver and gold coins dating back to the Sassanian era and that had been in use for many centuries. Ardashir was revered by the Iranians who considered him as the unifier of the Iranian nation, the champion of Zoroastrianism and the founder of the Pahlavi empire. His son, Shapur, succeeded him after his death in 240, and invaded the roman empire and captured the roman emperor Valerian in 260. He founded, inter alia, “the Shapur Soldier for Higher Education Centre”, re-organised the empire, and built the Chester dam and numerous cities, including “Neh-Sapor” (present NiShapur). Hermes II, who sat on the Iranian throne from 301 to 310, was killed during a battle against the Arabs.
Khosrow I (Anushirvan) governed Iran from 531 to 579. Early in his reign, he crashed the Mazdean dissidence and ensured the stability of the country. Between 629 and 632, two sisters successively reigned on the Sassanian throne, Purandokht, daughter of Khosrow Perviz, and her sister Azarmedukht. The latter signed a peace treaty with Byzantium.
History of Espahan during the Islamic era:
The Muslims defeated the Persians during the Nahavand battle, hence putting an end to the Sassanian reign which lasted 416 years. During the Muslim conquest, the country was torn apart by numerous battles but also enjoyed periods of prosperity. The decline of the Abbasid caliphate at the end of the X century resulted in the emergence of local family dynasties. Thus, we find the Demavids, west of Iran, who in turn split into the Buyids and the Kakovids. It was only under the Umayyad dynasty (661-750) that the entire Iranian territory was subdued and the Arabic alphabet used in Persian writing. Between 750 and 1258, the Abbasids appointed Persian viziers in a number of state positions, causing a revival of Persian traditions within the Abbasid courts. As an example, let us mention the Persian Barmecide family of which the members held important ministerial functions in the state, hence playing a major role in the Abbasid political system. One should also indicate that it was during the Abbasid era that the Islamic nation reached its apogee.
Golden Age of the Persian Civilisation:
With the decline of Arab dominion in Persia, many local Persian kingdoms seized the power and founded tiny states such as the Taherids (821-873), the Saffarids (867-903), the Samanids (873¬999), the Zyarids (928-1007), and the Buyids (945-1055). Those were followed by Turkish families of Persian culture such as the Ghaznavids (962-1186), the Seljuks (1038-1153) and the Khwaramshah interlude (1153-1220). Once again, Persia became the centre of arts, literature and science. The Persians profoundly marked the advance of Islamic civilisation. The most eminent and renowned Muslim scholars and scientists shone during this period of history. These included the grammarian Sibawayh, Khawarizmi who excelled in astronomy and algebra, the physician Razi, the epic poet Al Firdawsi, the physician and philosopher Avicenna, the fundamentalist erudite Al Ghazali, the astrologist and poet Omar Al Khayyam, the poet Essaadi, the poet Hafiz, and many others.
When the Seljuks took the power after the defeat of sultan Mahmoud Ghaznavid’s grand-son, patron of Al Firdawsi, their sultan Toghril Beg expanded his territory by conquering Iraq after securing his throne in Nishapur. His nephew, Khosrow, succeeded him in 455H/1063. The Seljuks further strengthened their state by defeating the Romans and the lands beyond Mesopotamia. (1) After the murder of Khosrow in 464H/1072, his son Malik Shah succeeded him (1072-1092), though it was his shrewd vizier, Nizam Melik, who was the actual master of state affairs. When the vizier was eighty, the sultan’s wife, Turkan Khatun, commanded his assassination out of fear that he would prevent her son from succession on the throne. The murder was carried out by one of Hassan Sabah’s men, chief of the Hachachine brigade. Shortly after, Malik Shah passed away. The following period witnessed a number of civil wars opposing his brother and four sons for accession to the throne. The conflict came to an end with the victory of Malik Shah’s third son, Sanjar. The latter suffered many defeats before he was imprisoned by the Turkmenians bewteen 547H/1153 and 550H/1156. Meanwhile, his wife, Sultana Ateira, governed the country from the city of Khorasan. Sanjar, who managed to escape from jail, lived until the age of seventy three. His death was followed by forty years of civil war at the end of which Toghril III – who reunified the country-, was defeated in 589H/1193 during a battle against the governor of Khawarizm. His son, imprisoned by Genghis Khan, died in 626AH/1193AD. The kingdom was subsequently divided between various suzerains until Persia’s invasion by Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, in 616AH/1230AD. Hulagu Khan conquered Baghdad in 656AH killing thousands of people, burning palaces, mosques, caliphs’ mausoleums, the famous library of Baghdad, as well killing the last of the Abbasid caliphs. The Mongols moved on to Syria but were defeated by the Egyptians in the famous battle of Ain Jalout. They withdrew to Maragheh, northeast of Iran where they founded the Ilkhans dynasty.
It was under Ghazan Khan, grandson of Hulagu, that the Mongols witnessed their golden age in Iran. He was the first Mongol leader to convert to Islam. In Tabriz, the capital city, the court had a purely Islamic-Persian character. His era was marked by a shrewd administration and remarkable prosperity. The broad expansion of the Mongol empire fostered the exchange of ideas and goods between China, India and Persia. Uljaitu succeeded his brother Ghazan and ruled until his death in 1316. Uljaitu, who was baptised at birth as a Christian, subsequently embraced Islam choosing the name of Mohamed Khodabendeh. He built the city of Sultanya, near the Caspian sea, and established it as the Ilkhans’ capital instead of Tabriz. It was during this era that the well-known optician Kamaluddin Farsi, author of the theory on deflection and reflection, emerged, in addition to the famous cantor and poet Shamseddin Hafez Shirazi, the most eminent literary figure of the time, renowned for his “Compilation of Shirazian Poetry”. In 1405, the turkish Moghol Tamerlane (or Timur Lang) invaded and conquered all of Persia, subdued Damascus and Aleppo, and established his capital city in Samarqand. However, despite the brutality, destruction and barbary characterising his conquests, he too great interest in arts, converting Samarqand into an architectural masterpiece.
The Safavid Dynasty (1501-I524):
With the Safavids the city started to enjoy its golden age at the end of the XVIIth century. It was adorned and embellished by its successive leaders, particularly Shah Abbas the Great, and its reputation spread widely in the civilised world. The Safavid Kings reigned for a century and a half, establishing their capital in Espahan. The name of the city was associated with Safiyeddine El-Ardabili, a traditional Sufi leader and follower of the Shafiite doctrine. However, it was Ismael Mirza, or Shah Ismael I, who founded Espahan after conquering Tabriz and defeating the tribes occupying it to establish it as his capital. He then instated the duodecimal Jaafarite Shiism as the official state doctrine, using all his might to impose this doctrine in the entire Iranian territory.
His son Tahmasb I finished the work of his father. However, instead of violence and oppression, he opted for a style based on persuasion and convincing to spread his doctrine. Wars raged for years between the Shiite Safavids and the Sunni Ottomans; but it appears that external pressures on the Safavids, whether from the Ottomans in the west or the powerful Uzbek tribes in the East, only contributed to the unification of Iran and the people’s decision to support the Safavid kings and the Shiite doctrine. Shah Abbas (1587-1629) established the capital of the Safavid state in Espahan which became a remarkable civilisational centre in various fields of science, arts, architecture and literature. This period was marked by the development of Iran’s relations with Europe as well as an increase in the number of ambassadors to the court.
In 1722, Mahmud Khan, head of an Afghan tribe, invaded Persia and conquered Espahan without any resistance, thus putting an end to the Safavid dynasty. Between 1729 and 1747, Nadir Qoli, known as Nadir Shah, sat on the Iranian throne and founded the Afshari dynasty. He defeated the Afghans, Ottomans, Russians and Indians, and unified the country. However, it was not long before his kingdom was torn apart after his assassination by one of his guards, bringing about the collapse of its war machine. Between 1747 and 1779, Karim Khan Zand managed to resist the Qajar and dominate the centre and south of Iran. His attention was mainly focused on his capital Shiraz.
The Qajar (GHAJAR) Dynasty:
The Qajars were one of the seven tribes that had supported the Safavid kings. Their chief, Agha Mohammad Khan, managed to unify the branches of his tribe using violence and pogrom. As his power increased, he conquered Tehran which became the capital of his kingdom. With the expansion of European colonialism, the British and Russians started to meddle into Iran’s domestic affairs.
Consequently, the Qajars lost the Caucasus (present Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) to Russia in two separate treaties, namely the treaty of Golestan in 1813, and the treaty of Torkmanchai in 1828. The Qajars were forced to promulgate the law of foreigners’ privileges by virtue of which all foreign citizens were spared from appearing before Iranian courts. Until the beginning of the XXth century, Iran was torn between the conflicting interests of Russia and Great Britain. On the one hand, Russia founded its strategy on the principle of expansion in Asia with the purpose of securing a port in the lukewarm waters of the Gulf. On the other hand, Great Britain strived to dominate the Gulf and all the territories adjacent to India.
Mohammad Shah, grandson of Ali Shah, governed between 1834 and 1848. During his reign, Russia tried to gain Iran’s friendship so as to strengthen its domination on the Caucasian states and Turkmenistan. The lengthy reign of his son Nasseredin Shah was characterised by his good relations with Russia, provoking the ire of Great Britain which declared war on Iran. With Russia unable to assist Iran, Nasseredin Shah was compelled to surrender. The signature of the treaty of Paris in 1858, by virtue of which Iran recognises the independence of Afghanistan, granted Great Britain privileges and commercial rights in Iran. The British Baron Reuter obtained from Nasser Shah the right for his country to build railways and roads, as well as the exploitation of mineral and oil resources for a period of seventy years. The treaty also granted Great Britain the right to supervise customs activities for twenty-four years. The constitutional revolution of 1906, led by some theologians and youngsters, prompted the establishment of the first parliament which took it upon itself to address the numerous problems facing the country.
(1) (NDT) Corresponding currently to Georgia, Armenia and part of Asia minor.
Espahan’s main civilisational characteristics and religious sites
Compared to other cities in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Espahan was characterised throughout the ages by the diversity of its civilisational attributes and religious sites. Let us review some of its main civilisational characteristics and religious sites:
The Djame Mosque
Muslim conquerors built the Djame Masjed in Espahan in 23AH/644AD when they triumphed over the city. At first, it was just a small mosque that was destroyed and rebuilt many times until the advent of the Seljuks who rebuilt it as it stands today. Of the original mosque, only the facades were kept. The faience tiles, the domes and minarets adorning the mosque were built at a later date. Built in stone and bricks, the prayer hall is made up of 4 iwans (barrel vaulted ceremonial hall with an open façade spanning all its height).
The present construction dates back to the time of Sultan Malik-Shah (464AH/1072 – 484H/1092AD) who had the splendid dome erected in 470AH/1080AD. Between 702AH/1303AD and 7I5AH/1316AD, Sultan Uljaitu Mohamed Khodabendeh expanded the mosque considerably, tasking his vizier Mohammad Safi to build the niche (mihrab), one of the most beautiful mihrabs of Iran, and embellish it with mosaic and faience.
Shah Abbas Mosque
The Shah Abbas mosque is one of the most prestigious monuments of Islamic architecture in Espahan. Overlooking the Shah Abbas Meidan from the south, this mosque is considered one of the benchmarks of the Safavid era. Combining aesthetics with the grandeur of Islamic architecture, its facades, both internal and external, are covered with mosaic arabesques of dazzling colours. Two elegant minarets, about 33 meters-high, flank the entrance from both sides. Its azure blue cupola embellished with mosaic is 27 meters-high. If the perfectly angled quadrilateral lines of the edifice are in contrast with the circumference of its back dome, they nonetheless preserve the refined proportions and remain in harmony with the two slender minarets erected upwards as if in a self-directional movement. Its huge blue cupola is set on a circular base and sports a wealth of calligraphic and ornamental engravings. The prayer gallery is laid out in the iwans system, not the pavilions one, and the central iwan, facing the qibla, holds the niche. The parvis of the mosque (external courtyard) opens up on all the porches and the one leading to the prayer hall is covered with faience tiles.
Shah Sultan Hussein Mosque, known as “Nader Shah”
The Shah Sultan mosque, known as “Nader Shah”, is among the most stunning constructions built by Iranian architects in 1008AH/1600AD. The mosque has a prayer hall with a huge overhanging dome considered one of the most stunning mosque domes. The oblong parvis is surrounded by two-level iwans. The lateral iwans open onto each other through small patios, some square, others oblong, overlooking lodgings rooms and devotion cubicles.
The Parsian Mosque
This mosque is located in Parsia, located 42 kilometres north-east of Espahan. It is an architectural complex containing an ancient minaret, a Seljuk mosque, as well as a residence built by Shah Abbas I. Generally, such residences used to be an extension of the mosque. At the top of its front facade, the mosque offers an impressive architectural style. The construction of the 34 meters-high minaret dates back to 490 AH/1097AD or during the reign of Barkiarok, son of Malik Shah.
This mosque was named after the village Dashti where it is located on the road linking Espahan to Ziar. The history of this mosque dates back to the XI or XII century. The great simplicity that characterises this edifice is one the main factors facilitating the understanding of the architectonic process used in its construction. Furthermore, its small size and its easy access to tourists make possible a better understanding of the method used in the laying of metal sheeting around its circumference.
The Friday Mosque
The foundations of the southern arcade of the Friday Mosque were laid in the beginning of the XII century by order of vizier Nizamuddin. Uzon Hassan Beg Aguyonlu had the terrace built in 879-880AH/1475-176AD, adding to it two new minarets. The marble and faience ornaments inside the Iwan date back to the time of Uzon Hassan. Tanmasp Shah brought numerous modifications to the mosque. At the north-eastern angle of the mosque, there is a spot called “Omar’s attribute”.
Inside the mosque, there are places for praying and others for learning. The construction of this part dates back to the XIV century with a display of superb faience ornaments, especially the arch that overlooks the entrance of the prayer hall, unique with its two types of engraving, both of incomparable beauty.
In the XVIII century, Sultan Hussein Shah restored its western iwan, covering the original brick edifice which was devoid of any ornament with an abundance of amazing adornments and engravings. The niche (mihrab) was however left out in this restoration. The architect had a plate of enamelled bricks built, the conception of which is an indication of the traditional artistic trend they represent. This traditional trend exalts the Omnipotent name “Allah”, written in the Kufi calligraphy style, represented by four vertical lines and a square. The style of arched and intertwined ornamental shapes, dating back to the XII century, was introduced by Suleiman Shah in 1180AH/I689AD. The pond at the centre of the mosque is a startling example of the type of construction called Techha Tak. The Friday Mosque is a perfect illustration of the quintessence of four centuries of Persian architecture, easily perceived in the small area of the mosque, and which combines a plethora of ornamental materials that distinguish it from the city’s other monuments and sites.
The Imam Mosque
The Imam’s mosque, built during Abbas Shah’s reign, is a genuine architectural masterpiece dazzling with splendour and beauty. The mosque’s minarets are 48 meters-high. To the east, one can see the Lotfollah mosque with its flattened dome.
II- THE PALACES
Espahan is known for the significant number of palaces that date back to the Safavid era. These palaces vary in conception as well as in splendour. The following are the main palaces that the city of Espahan boasts:
Ali Ghapu Palace
The Ali Ghapu palace is located west of the Naqsh-e-Djahan square. Built by the Safavids, this palace was meant to receive ambassadors and envoys from foreign countries. It has six floors and a myriad of patios. The plaster ornaments and the frescos in this palace are dazzling. The visitor of the Ali Ghapu palace can marvel at its lavish decorations, engravings, ornaments and drawings both on the walls and on the ceilings.
The Hacht Behecht Palace
The Hacht Behecht palace (the palace of the eight paradises) is located in the vicinity of the
Tchahar Bagh avenue, at the intersection of the present Sheikh Bahai avenue, and was built in the XV century during the reign of Shah Suleiman II. The visit of this palace is a must considering its splendid inlaid ceilings and its wall paintings.
The Royal Palace
The royal palace is situated in the centre of Espahan, on the south-eastern part of a huge esplanade previously called Meidane Shah, meaning the big portico. Its superb entrance was supposed to symbolize the grandeur of the then ruling Safavid king, as is clearly indicated on the plates hanging on the platform. The name of the esplanade was changed to Meidan-e-Imam, but the palace never stopped mesmerizing the eyes by its magnificence.
The platform was an ideal spot to attend polo matches held on the square. Various plaster paintings decorate the back part with floral ornaments on the ceiling. The columns, similar to those of Tchehel Sotoun, are covered by mirrors the reflection of which gives the impression of an air floating ceiling. The columns originate from the same trees used to build the Tchehel Setoun’s. The lower floors did not benefit from as much flourish because they were restricted to the guards. The narrowing of the tight staircase leading to both the lower and upper floors ensured the security of the upper floors’ rooms. The inside of the building was adorned with frescos representing scenes of nature, birds and other shapes designed with great virtuosity.
The Forty-Column Palace
The history of the Tchehel Sotoun, more known as the forty-column palace, dates back to the seventh Safavid king, Shah Abbas II. According to archaeological studies, it was built in 1057 AH. The columns are pillars made up of tree branches coated with thin colourful layers. The palace’s walls are covered with mirrors, multicoloured stained glass as well as an assortment of sketches and drawings. This palace is considered one of the most beautiful palatial creations built by the Safavids in Espahan. The palace is named after its columns spread in three rows of six columns each, in addition to two more columns at the entrance. But their reflection on the palace’s surrounding pool makes them appear as though there were forty of them.
III- THE BRIDGES
The Shahrestan Bridge was built in the XIV century, east of Espahan. It is located at the junction of the Shahrestan village at the south east with the rural region on the Mediterranean bank. The building of this bridge was inspired from the Romans. The arches supporting it were designed to protect the barges from the Zayandesh river swellings. Piers were placed in parallel to the direction of the swellings to reduce the intensity of the whirlpools that erode the lateral metal sheets. True to the Roman style, the bridge contains secondary canals stretching along the whole length of the main arches’ incline, in such a way as to process the largest volumes of water. Furthermore, to avoid the risks of collapse owed to potentially severe swellings going through the upper level towards the narrowest parts, additional canals were dug to drain the waters, passing through the secondary canals to meet with the main canals where the volume of water is supposed to be less important considering their larger size.
Pol Si-o-Seh Bridge
The Pol Si-o-Seh Bridge is made up 33 arches. In 1010H/1602, Shah Abbas I commissioned one of his commanders to build it. The name Pol Si-o-Seh stems from the Persian phrase Si-o-Seh meaning thirty three. The bridge was built on a certain number of enormous spans (see photo 2).
F’ol -e Khadj u Bridge ( Khadj u Bridge)
The Pol-e Khadju bridge was built between 1051H/1642 and 10777H/1667 during the reign of Shah Abbas II. It is named after the “Khadju” district, on the northern bank of the Zayandeh river, linking the northern and the southern banks. The bridge’s adornments, inspired by those of Pol Si-o-Seh, also have two levels. However, contrary to the Pol Si-o-Seh, it was expanded and developed in may areas (photo 3).
The bridge has a length of 110 meters, and its width slightly exceeds 20 meters on most part of its span. On the eastern side, the bridge comprises a huge sluice gate that brings the water up to a level of 2 meters, thus creating a useful basin used in the irrigation of the agricultural fields surrounding it through an intricate network of canals. By way of a staircase, the lower part of the bridge, made up of 20 arches, leads to the upper part containing pavilions that provide passers-by with a meeting and gathering spot. The bridge is unique thanks to its arcades, vestibules as well as the incomparable roof tiles and arches that adorn the upper areas and lower parts contained between the arches’ support, especially the central cavities. Previously, the bridge was named after the commander who was in charge of its building, “Lahved-e Khan”. Above the bottom part of the thirty three-arches, there is a second floor with an arch on top of each support, and two arches above each arcade. Thus, the bridge’s shape corresponds to its name on the one hand, and on the other hand embodies perfect balance and harmony. At the top, the path is surrounded by high walls that provide shelter from the wind and protect the passers-by from being run-over by cars using the bridge.
IV- QURANIC SCHOOLS (MEDERSAS)
The medersas were the beating heart of the intellectual movement that characterised Iran during the Buyid reign. The Shahar Bagh Medersa, built in 1173AH/1760AD, is the most prominent theology school. With a magnificent blue cupola beset in colours, it has two floors with an accommodation capacity of up to 160 students, future mullahs. The facade of one of the entrances is a masterpiece of Persian engravings and ornaments. Also a mosque, Shahar Yagh was a royal medersa founded by the Safavid Shah Hussein in 1134AH/1722AD. Its dome and minarets are most exquisite architectural pieces of Islamic civilisation in terms of coating in mosaic tiles, arabesque-adorned ceramics and calligraphy.
V- SQUARES (MEIDANS)
The following stand out among the main squares in Espahan:
Shah “Meidan Emam” Square
Meidan Shah or Meidan Emam is 500 meters-long and 135 meters-wide. It is an oblong esplanade surrounding a vast lake-sized pool. The Ali Ghapu Palace, residence of Shah Abbas, is located in one of its sides. It is an immense seven-storey building with a spiral staircase designed to hide the route to a potential escape. All the walls are decorated with gilded and colourful engravings. On the second floor, there is a wooden platform (talar) supported by adorned beams. In the centre lies an elegant pool the water of which was brought via pipes from the heights of a mountain in the city outskirts. Meidan Shah or Meidan Emam is one of Espahan’s main tourism attractions. One can see the Imam Mosque from the other side (Photo 5)
The most famous among Espahan’s renowned gardens is the one built by Shah Abbas II near the ballroom area of the Forty-Columns Palace. Indeed, this area contains a garden of 26 feddan (1 feddan equals 4200 square meters). This edifice still exits today and is surrounded by century-old trees covering a large part of the original garden. The vast platform of the palace overlooks an immense pool reflecting the image of the many columns. On the upper floor of the huge ballroom, there is an abundance of paintings and frescos showing Abbas Shah in banquets, Ismael Shah as well as Shar Tahmasp receiving Humayun, King of India. The walls of the other rooms are adorned with miniatures and other paintings produced by the most distinguished painters of the time.
VII- MARKETS (THE SOUKS)
The old souks are among Espahan’s main attractions. One can mention as an example the Kisseria Souk. The old souk already existed in the area of the Friday mosque. This souk was enlarged by the construction of a commercial area north of the main square it adjoins. The entrance of the souk, rebuilt in 1028 AH/ 1619AD, is called Kisseria.
– Arkin Rahmatollah Yev and Abdullah Yulda Seif: Islamic Civilisation in Tajikistan, Publications of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, 1988.
– Tharwat Oqasha: At-Taswir Al-Islami Ad-Dini Wal Arabi (Religious Islamic and Arab Design), Arab Institute for Studies and Distribution, Beirut, 1978.
– Tharwat Oqasha: Al-Qiyam Al-Jamaliya Fil-Imara Al-Islamiya (Aesthetic Values in Islamic Architecture), Dar Ashuruq, Cairo, 1994.
– Zaki Mohamed Hassan : Islamic Arts , Cairo, publisher Lajnat Attaalif Wal Tarjama wa Nachr, T. 1, 1948.
– Abdulaziz Salah Salem: Islamic Arts in the Ayyubid Era , Markaz Al Kitab lil Nachr, Cairo, 1999;
– Ali Mohamed Kou: Characteristics of Islamic civilisation in the Comoro Islands , publications of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation , 2000
– Gustave Lebon: The Arab Civilisation , translated by Adel Zuaitar, General Egyptian Book Organisation, Al Ousra Library, 2000
– Farid Chafei: Arab Architecture in Islamic Egypt under Walis , General Egyptian Organisation for Publishing and Distribution, 1970.
– Afif Bahnassi: Islamic Art , Dar Talls, Damascus, 1998
– Afif Bahnassi: Islamic Architecture and its Characteristics in Teaching Programmes , Publications of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, 2003.
– Sabah Muchatat and Abdulaziz Ahmed al-Kabab: Al-Madakhel Fil ‘Imara Al-Islamiya (Vestibules in Islamic Architecture), Publications of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, 2001.
– Sabah Muchatat: The Main Features of Arab-Islamic Civilisation, Publications of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, 2003.
– Kamel Roke: Islamic Architecture in the Balkans and Bosnia-Herzegovina , Publications of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, 2000.
– Mohamed Hussein, Fawzi Mahfoud and Adelhamid Arqach: Islamic Civilisation in Tunisia , Publications of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, 1997.
– Chams Eddine Abi Abdullah Mohamed Ibn Ahmed al-Maqdessi: Ahssan At-Taqassim fi Maarifat Al-Aqalim (Best Repartitions for the Knowledge of Regions), Dar Ihyaa At-Turath, Beirut, 1987.
– Sheikh Abduli Ghani an-Nabulsi: Al Hadra Al-Unsiya Fil Rihla al¬Qudsiya , 1101AH/1690AD, authentication and study by Akram Hassan Al Ulabi, Beirut, 1990.
– Khosrow Nacer Sufurnama : translated by Yahya Al-Khassab, Beirut, 1970.
– Ghaleb Aburrahim: Encyclopedia of Islamic Architecture, Beirut, 1988.
– Yaqout, Chehab Ed-Dine Abul Abdullah al-Hamwi: A Dictionnary of Countries, Dar Ihyaa at-Turath al-Arabi, Beirut (undated).
Other official web sites.
– N. Atasoy, A. Bahnassi, M. Rogers: The Art of Islam , Paris, 1990.
– Baedeker Karl: Jerusalem and its Surroundings , London, 1876.
– H. Bammate: Contribution of Muslims to Civilisation , Geneva, 1962
– K.A.C Creswell: E arly Muslim Architecture , Oxford, 1940.
– K.A.C Creswell: A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture , London, 1958.
– K.A.C. Creswell: The Muslim Architecture of Egypt , 2 vol., Oxford, 1959-1960.
– Encyclopaedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land , Oxford, 1978
– R. Ettinghausen, and O. Grabar: The Art and Architecture of Islam in 650AH-1250AD, Harmondsworth, 1987.
– O. Grabar and D. Hill: Islamic Architecture and Decoration in 800AH-1500AD , London, 1964.
– G. Marçais: Muslim Architecture in the West, Paris, 1954.
– Michael Rogers: The Spread of Islam , Elseivier Phaidon, 1976.
– A. Papadopoule: Islam and Islamic Art , Paris, 1076.
– A. Petersen: A Dictionary of Islamic Architecture , London, 1999.
– D. Sourdel and Thomine Thomine: The civilisation of Classical Islam , Paris, 1968.
– Stierlin Henri: Islam from Baghdad to Cordoba , Taschen, 2002.