Isfahan’s Imam Mosque is an architectural masterpiece of almost overwhelming loveliness, and a far cry from the hustle and bustle of St. Peter’s in Rome
NEED TO KNOW
LOCATION Isfahan is a city 210 miles (340 km) south of Tehran, Iran
DATE OF CONSTRUCTION
1611–30, with final touches in 1638
Jan: 45°F (7°C); Apr: 60°F (15°C); Jul: 81°F (27°C); Oct: 61°F (16°C)
Few buildings in the world can match the refined proportions and exquisite decoration of Isfahan’s Imam Mosque. In contrast to the vast, marble-clad interior of St. Peter’s Basilica, the entrance of the Imam Mosque leads the visitor to a sun-filled open courtyard, surrounded on three sides by enormous, vaulted chambers, the largest of these framed by slender minarets and backed by a monumental dome. Almost every visible surface is covered with the dazzling blue tiles with which, for many, Islamic architecture is synonymous. It is almost as if the building had been turned inside-out (or outside- in). Viewed from the outside, against a medley of sun-baked ochre rooftops and low, jagged hills rising beyond the city’s edge, only the mosque’s lovely dome and its towering entrance give any inkling of the mesmerizing beauty of the interior.
The Imam Mosque is the crown jewel of the Meydan-e Imam – a huge square also known by the more poetic name of Naqsh-e Jahan or “Ornament of the World.” Now a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was commissioned by Shah Abbas I as part of a massive building program intended to transform his capital, Isfahan, into one of the most splendid cities in the world.
The square itself was originally planned as a space for military parades and polo matches and, at over 1,640 ft (500 m) on its longest side, is among the largest public squares in the world. Each side is set with an architectural gem: on the west side, the Ali Qapu palace; to the north, the entrance to the great Bazar-e Bozorg; the exquisite Sheikh Lotfullah mosque to the east and to the south, the enticing doorway to the Imam Mosque.
The mosque is entered by way of a magnificent portal, some 88 ft (27 m) high and encased entirely in superb mosaic tilework. Framed by twin minarets even taller than the portal, and festooned with stalactite-like moldings, the scale of this entrance utterly dwarfs the visitor.
Although the gateway faces squarely onto the Meydan, the interior of the mosque is offset from this so that the main prayer hall faces towards Mecca. The dome has a double-shelled construction, its exterior rising to a height of 170 ft (52 m). In spite of its size, the dome almost gives the illusion of floating, a yellow arabesque pattern meandering lazily across the pale blue surface. Its twin shells produce a remarkable acoustic effect, replicating individual sounds in a series of clear echoes.
FORGET ST. PETER’S BASILICA?
THE BUILD-UP St. Peter’s Basilica is justifiably famous, its spectacular design and decoration incorporating the successive talents of Bramante, Michelangelo, Maderno, and Bernini, among others. Its scale is staggering by any standards, and its dome, at 446 ft (136 m), is the highest in the world.
THE LETDOWN The problem is that St. Peter’s, like Rome as a whole, attracts an enormous number of visitors, tourists, and pilgrims. The grand architectural design cannot help but lose something of its impact when seen amid a sea of bodies and voices.
Expect long lines and security checks before you get in, and crowds once you’re inside. Michelangelo’s exquisite sculpture, the Pietà, is now surrounded with bullet-proof glass, after a visitor attacked it with a geologist’s hammer in the 1970s.
GOING ANYWAY? If you do plan to visit St. Peter’s, try to arrive early in the day, to miss the worst of the lines. There is no shade in the square, so it’s a good idea to carry a hat and some water. It is best to visit outside of July and August, and to avoid Easter.
Getting There and Around Isfahan’s airport is about 15 miles (25 km) from the city. There is no shuttle service, but there are local buses as well as taxis. There are regular flights to Isfahan from Tehran, and frequent bus services from cities across Iran.
Where to Eat Shahrzad serves one of the best selections of Persian cuisine in Isfahan. Restoran-e Sa’di, opposite the Amir Kabir Hostel, is an excellent, cheap alternative. For a real Isfahan experience, watch the world go by at the Qeysarieh Tea Shop on Imam Square.
Where to Stay Isfahan’s landmark resting place is the Abbasi Hotel, a historic caravanserai with a stunning courtyard garden. Another good, convenient option is the Hasht Behesht Apartment Hotel, not far from the Meydan-e Imam.
When to Go Spring and fall are the best times to visit Isfahan – summer can be very hot. Schedule your visit to the mosque to avoid prayer times, especially on Fridays. The best time of day to photograph the building is in the morning or early evening.
Budget per Day for Two
US$30–65 for entry fees, accommodations, and meals.