no idea that abstract pattern was capable of so profound a splendour
“The Shaykh Luftallah mosque is viewed by historians and visitors as one of the most important architectural projects built on Isfahan’s maidan, prominent for its location, scale, design, and ornament”. This is how the long entry Archnet devotes to the Luftallah mosque ends.
This mosque is for sure one of the most famous of Isfahan, if not the most famous. Photos of its mesmerizing patterns are everywhere, and they are commonly used as examples when people discuss the beauty that geometric patterns can achieve in Islamic art.
Robert Byron himself is not immune to its beauty. When he visits the mosque on the 18th of March 1934, his description is long and detailed and focuses on the decoration of the mosque. The mosque is, in Byron’s words, “Persian in the fabulous sense”. What does this mean? Easy explained:
“Colour and pattern are a commonplace in Persian architecture. But here they have a quality which must astonish the European, not because they infringe what he thought was his own monopoly, but because he can previously have had no idea that abstract pattern was capable of so profound a splendour.”
And after a careful description of various parts of the mosque, our traveler concludes:
“I have never encountered splendour of this kind before. Other interiors came into my mind as I stood there, to compare it with: Versailles, or the porcelain rooms at Schónbrunn, or the Doge’s Palace, or St Peter’s. All are rich; but none so rich. Their richness is three-dimensional; it is attended by all the effort of shadow: In the Mosque of Sheikh Lutfullah, it is a richness of light and surface, of pattern and colour only. The architectural form is unimportant. It is not smothered, as in rococo; it is simply the instrument of a spectacle, as earth is the instrument of a garden.”
Byron is pretty fascinated by the mosque: and who wouldn’t?
But if evocative photos of the decoration of the mosque are pretty much anywhere there is someone talking about Islamic art, little is said about the history of the mosque and other characteristics.
Shaikh Luftallah Mosque occupies a prominent position in Isfahan: it is located at the center of the east side of the Maidan-i Shah. The Maidan was built by Shah ‘Abbas I in the last decade of the 16th century. The square has an important symbolic value for the Safavid dynasty: it is the expression of Isfahan as the new economic and political capital. The Luftallah Mosque was built shortly after the construction of the maidan where it stands, in 1603-1604.
The name “Shaykh Luftallah” was given to the mosque in 1622. The new worship place was named after a prominent religious scholar and teacher, Shaykh Luftallah Maysi al-‘Amili, who died that year. The Shaykh was Shah ‘Abbas’s father-in-law, who came to Isfahan at the orders of Shah ‘Abbas and resided on the site. Nevertheless, one should not assume that the Shaykh Luftallah was in any way involved with the construction of the mosque.
The primary source of information about this mosque we have is certainly the foundation inscription. I rarely focus on this type of inscriptions, as I am always more interested in the religious (Qur’anic and pious) inscriptions.
Nevertheless, the foundation inscription of the Luftallah Mosque is a beautiful example that illustrates the typology.
Sheila Blair uses the foundation inscription of the Luftallah Mosque, together with the ones of the Dome of the Rock and of the Complex of Sultan Qala’un, as an example to explain this type of inscriptions, in her important book Islamic Inscriptions.
As Shiela Blair explains, a foundation inscription is typically made of five basic elements, that appear in a set order:
- an invocation to God (often a basmalah)
- a verb, indicating what has been done (building, renovation…)
- the object of the work (the whole building – e.g. mosque, madrasa – or part of it – e.g. dome, courtyard-)
- the name of the patron (who commissioned the work)
- the date of construction
The foundation inscriptions have featured these elements since as early as the 7th and 8th centuries. As time went by, the core contents remained the same, but the inscriptions were enriched and became longer and more complicated.
The beginning of the foundation inscription is marked by the basmalah. In the case of the Luftallah Mosque, the basmalah is at the right edge of the portal. Just after that, the verb that indicates what kind of work was carried out. In the Luftallah, the verb that was chosen is amara “ordered”, followed by bi-insha’ “the establishment”. The object of the construction is specified as a mosque (masjid), and the noun is embellished by an adjective, mubarak (blessed). This is quite common in later foundation inscriptions, whereas in the early ones, the term designating the building stands alone, without attributes. The attribute mubarak, which is pretty common in this type of inscriptions, is to be understood as a rhetorical device, and not as a physical adjective.
The central part of a foundation inscription is the name of the patron: it is treated as far more important than the object built. This happens in every foundation inscriptions, regardless of the period. What changes, anyhow, is the number of the titles, attributes, and names given to the patron. As Sheila Blair writes “Over the centuries, this part of the foundation inscription grew by leaps and bounds and was composed of numerous rhyming phrases that intoned the glory of the patron in ringing verse”. In the case of Shah ‘Abbas, “[h]e is the greatest sultan and noblest khaqan, reviver of the virtues of his pure fathers, propagator of the religious sect of the infallible imams, Abu’l-Muzaffar ‘Abbas al-Husayni al-Musavi al-Safavi Bahadur Khan, and a benediction asks God to make his kingdom endure and his ships sail in the seas of eternity”.
The titles and names, in particular, khaqan and Bahadur Khan, link the sovereign to the Mongol tradition and makes clear how the authority of the Shah is connected with the Shi’ism: he revives the virtues of his pure fathers (the Prophet’s family).
The name of the patron and the titles and eulogies that surround it are set in a prominent position: they are just in the middle of the portal, above the doorway. Also, this part of the inscription was highlighted also stylistically. From the photos available, showing the mosque before the restoration, it appears that this section was written on a lighter ground than the dark blue that was used for the rest of the inscription. The same stylistic device was used in the Masjid-i Imam, that Shah ‘Abbas ordered after a decade.
The final element is the date, of course. In the case of the Luftallah Mosque, the date is squeezed in a small vertical band that also features the name of the calligrapher. The date is given in numerals: 1012 (hijra), which corresponds to 1603-1604 c.e.
As always, I suggest first of all to have a look at the Archnet entry for the monument to get more information about the architecture and see beautiful images.
Sheila S. Blair, Islamic Inscriptions, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh 1998, pp. 29-42. [available online here: pp. 18-39 – pp. 40-67]
Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom, The Art and Architecture of Islam, Yale University Press, New Haven 1994, pp. 185-188.
George Michell, Architecture of the Islamic World, Thames and Hudson, London 1978, p. 254.