Sunday, 29 March 2009

The Southern Iwan of Esfahan’s Great Mosque

As Oleg Grabar has stressed many times in his book about Esfahan’s Masjed-e Jomeh, the mosque itself is perfectly embedded in the fabric of the Old City. There are no well-defined boundaries of the huge, 170 by 140 meters, complex. The main entrance is rather hidden at the eastern side of the building. Only helicopters and birds (or angels) may get an immediate impression of the huge dimensions of the mosques. I asked the officer near the ticket seller whether I was allowed to climb to the roofs. He declined, of course.

It was very early in the morning, the sun had just risen and the glazed tiles on the mosque’s façades were glowing like gold. It reminded me of the spectacular photos taken by Henri Stierlin. Pigeons were sitting on the South Dome and warming up in the sun. When entering the courtyard, the two domes of the mosque are not visible at first sight. In particular, the northern dome is not visible at all from here, one of the main reasons for having neglected this masterpiece of Islamic architecture during my previous visits. What attracts immediately the attention is the heavily decorated main iwan to the south. The two thin minaret-like towers have never been used for prayer calls.

The iwan contains inscriptions dated 1475-76 by the artist Sayyid Mahmud-e Naqash, who can be considered also responsible for certain decorations on the Darb-e Emam shrine only 300 meters to the west. While the latter was built during the reign of the Qara Qoyunly ruler Jahan Shah, the additions on the southern iwan of Masjed-e Jomeh were done during the time of Uzun Hassan, the great ruler of the Aq Qoyunly dynasty. Both show the highly decorative late Timurid style.

The numerous “elements of Shi’ite Muslim iconography of piety” point to the extensive embellishment during the Safavid era, in particular that of Shah Abbas II (1642-67).

See much more information here.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Approaching the North Dome

I have reported on last year’s journey back to Esfahan many times on this blog. I had been invited by the Islamic Azad University at Khorasgan for giving a course for postgraduate students and then stayed in the University guest house. I later moved to the Dibaee House in Esfahan’s old city, close to my ever fascinating study object, Esfahan’s Great Mosque. When living in Kuwait, I had once read a supplement to the Arab Times describing the marvels of this gorgeous building, which is not on the must-see list of sights of the common western tourist. I had visited the site whenever in Esfahan, but usually I did not stay inside the courtyard longer than, say, half an hour. This time, I had informed myself in particular by reading the wonderful book about the mosque by Oleg Grabar who had studied the largest mosque in Iran, which some people consider as the Chartres of Iran, in the 1960s and 70s. Before retirement, Grabar was Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Art at Harvard. His book is based on a series of lectures at the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies of New York University in 1987. I have recently posted another example of his fascinating projects, a virtual walking tour around and into the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, elsewhere on this blog .

My fresh knowledge about the history of Esfahan’s Friday Mosque, which I had acquired before traveling to Iran, has been posted as well. While reading Oleg Grabar’s text is, in fact, a great pleasure, the black-and-white pictures of the mosque do not give a good impression of its grandeur (although Professor Grabar would argue that I am still watching the architecture with a tourist’s eye). In the coming weeks I plan to describe the different parts of the mosque mainly based on Grabar’s expert descriptions, and document it with my new pictures. Different parts of the mosque are constantly being restored and tile decorations are replaced. But the contemporary artisans have been meticulous. I suppose that the original tile patterns, in certain areas dazzling tessellations, have largely survived for centuries.

Why is the North Dome of the mosque so mysterious? First, it is perfect. It has survived dozens of severe earthquakes since it had been constructed in 1088 CE, only two years after the South Dome (which can be seen on the first picture) had been built. The southern dome is not really elegant. When constructed, it was regarded the largest dome in the Islamic world. It definitely belongs to the Seljuq mosque. The North Dome, which was commissioned by Taj al-Mulk, an arch enemy of the ingenious vizier Nizam al-Mulk, seems to be excluded from the place of worship. Four years later, Malik Shah, the sultan who commissioned the south dome, died and Nizam al-Mulk was assassinated by the Hashashin sect.

Omar Khayyam, the great medieval mathematician who was born in Nishapur in Khorasan, lived in Esfahan under Nizam and Malik Shah. He was called to the city to build an observatory which has never been found. Without any proof, it is widely believed that Khayyam was involved in the perfect construction of the dome. Mathematician Alpay Özdural presented a fine argument about the special right triangle described by Omar Khayyam (and most probably not the Golden Section, as Oleg Grabar argues), which seem to be present all over the North Dome of the Great Mosque, the Gunbad-e Khaki, or earthly dome. Is it possible that the North Dome is in fact Omar Khayyam's observatory? The last picture has been taken from Özdural's original publication. You may find much more information here.

While wandering through the vaults in the northern parts of the Great Mosque, the looks to the ceiling with its numerous brick cupolas and the plenty of inclined columns are quite breathtaking. Amazingly, I met young and older Esfahanians, who were visiting the site for the first time.

Friday, 20 March 2009

A New Beginning

A new beginning, indeed

It's Springtime

On equinox today (astronomically, it occurs exactly at UTC 11:44 am), the sun is setting pretty much across the sund. Amazing to remember great emotions not even two months ago, when sun rose again (and set at the same time) after two long months of darkness at 69˚40’N 18˚56’E.

The March equinox is the beginning of spring (or fall in the southern hemisphere of the world). For Iranians it might be the most significant time of the year. They (and many other people in Central Asia or, for instance, the Turkish Kurds) celebrate Nowruz, the beginning of a New Year (1388 H).

To all of them

Nowruz Mobarak!

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Catching Up

These monkeys from Thailand clean their interdental spaces with human hair and, even more amazing, seem to teach this to their little ones (I have told my students a slightly different technique). There will be more surprises in Darwin Year 2009, I suppose.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Najasat-e Ahl-e Kitab

When Cyrus the Great freed the Jews from Babylonian Captivity in 539 BCE, some of them did not return to Jeruslaem but eventually settled on the banks of the Zayandeh Rud in Central Iran, possibly founding the city of Esfahan. This is the beginning of Jewish life in Iran which thus started two-and-a-half-thousand years ago. While Cyrus is betoken as ‘the anointed’ in the Book of Isaiah, Jews seem to have lived for centuries in peace with the indigenous Persian populace. Persian religious tolerance was legendary as long as Zoroastrianism was the state religion. The alarming rhetoric in particular of the present president of Iran, who had openly questioned the Holocaust of the Jews by the Nazi’s terror regime in the early 1940s and the very right of Israel to exist, has caused considerable new concern about the safety of the Jews in the Islamic Republic. It raises again the question, what do we actually know about the relationship of Shi’a Muslims and other ‘people of the book’, or Ahl al-Kitab?

Daniel Tsadik is an Assistant Professor at Yeshiva University, New York. He has earned a PhD from the History Department at Yale University. Apparently, Tsadik’s family is still living in Iran. In his new book he tries to illuminate the more than difficult situation of the Jews under the rule of the Shahs of the Qajar-Dynasty, in particular the second half of the 19th century. Iran has seen the Constitutional ... Read the rest of this book review »

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Agriculture in the Desert

The ancient and still inhabited village of Mohammedieh with its huge Sassanid castle is located a couple of kilometers northeast to Na’in. Diligent farmers were working in fruit orchards and on the fields. In the beginning of January, there was a scent of springtime. An old man wanted to show me his carpet loom in his hut. Before taking the picture, he put on his coat and told me he was a mollah. Just kidding, I suppose.

A qanat is a sort of artificial spring. The aquifer had been invented in ancient Persia and spread throughout the Middle East as far as Africa and Central Asia as far as China. Deep water tables at the foothills of mountains are approached by vertical access shafts and horizontal channels. They finally reach the surface and a small artificial runlet will transport the water miles into the desert for agriculture. Constructing qanats is a dangerous task and nowadays strictly regulated by the government. You may find the well-like openings and runlets as well as so called ab anbars (huge domed water reservoirs) in the vicinity of wind towers (badgirs) all over Iran’s deserted countryside, especially in Yazd and Na’in.