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.

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