The Friday Mosque of Qazvin: getting to know a mosque that Byron ‘discovered’

I believe I am the first person to have noticed the Seljuk stucco in the sanctuary

Robert Byron stops in Qazvin on the 14th of April 1934. There, he visits the Friday Mosque of the town, recording his visit as follows:

“Almost all visitors to Persia travel either by Resht or by Hamadan, and all who do must pass the outside of the Friday Mosque at Kazvin. Yet, except for Godard, the French Director of the Antiquities Service, I believe I am the first person to have noticed the Seljuk stucco in the sanctuary, a lovely scheme of panels, cornice, and arabesque frieze, which dates from 1113. The inscriptions are all interspersed with those graceful trailing flowers, roses, tulips, and irises, which are generally thought to have been invented by the Safavids four centuries later.”

Byron prises himself for having noticed the stucco decoration of the mosque, but, as a fact, he fails to notice much more details, that make the Friday Mosque of Qazvin a really remarkable monument.


General view of the courtyard. Photo by Mansour Naghdi (archnet).

First of all, he must have noticed that the courtyard of this four-iwan mosque is one of the largest mosque courts in Iran, measuring almost 4.000 square meters. Also, from his description, it seems that the mosque is a Seljuk construction, but that is not exactly the case: this is one of the oldest mosques in Iran (together with the Friday Mosque of Na’in).

On the site of the mosque, originally, there was a Sasanid fire temple. The original construction was ordered not by the Seljuks, but by the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid, in 807 CE. The Seljuks ‘simply’ added two iwans to the north of the mosque, between 1038 and 1194. In the 12th century, many parts of the mosque were erected: the main prayer hall, a dome, a courtyard, and a madrasa. The Safavids added the southern and western iwans and arcades. Even down in the Qajar period, major renovations and expansions took place.

View of the dome. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

The construction material of the mosque is brick, but in some parts, the brickwork is clad with tiles and inscriptions. As usual, the most decorated part of the mosque is the prayer hall, that Byron describes accurately.

Something that Byron rightly points out in his description of the mosque is the epigraphic ornament. The inscriptions carried out in Kufic, are so numerous and nicely executed, that they are still taken as a reference for the study of the script.

Detail of the epigraphic ornament. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

So, was Byron really one of the first people that noticed the mosque? Hard to say. It is a fact that Byron was one of the first Europeans that traveled throughout Iran with the intent of visiting the mosques and monuments of the country: as Sykes puts it, Central Asian mosques “had been seen by so few Europeans that no reliable record of them existed; not one single photograph had been taken of them”.

Sources and further readings has many photos of the mosque.

André Godard, The Art of Iran, Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, New York 1965, pp. 277-282.
Arthur Upham Pope, Persian Architecture: The Triumph of Form and Color,George Braziller Inc., New York 1965, pp. 129, 157-158.
Arthur Upham Pope and Phyllis Ackerman (eds.), A Survey of Persian Art from Prehistoric Times to the Present. Vol. 3, Architecture, Its Ornament, City Plans, Gardens, 3rd ed., Soroush Press, Tehran 1977, pp. 990-994.
Janine Sourdel-Thomine and Donald N. Wilber, Monuments seljoukides de Qazwin en Iran, Librarie orientaliste P. Geunthner, Paris 1974.


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