Imam Mosque

East Iwan 1 B2 North I wan 9 B2

East Sanctuary 2 B2 Ritual Ablutions Pool.. .10 B2

Entrance Portal 3 B1 South Iwan (Entrance to

Inner Courtyard 4 A2 Main Sanctuary) 11 A2

Madraseh 5 A2 Ticket Office 12 B1

Madraseh 6 B2 Toilets 13 B2

Main Sanctuary 7 A2 West Iwan 14 A2

Mihrab & Minbar 8 A2 West Sanctuary 15 A2

East Iwan 1 B2 North I wan 9 B2

East Sanctuary 2 B2 Ritual Ablutions Pool.. .10 B2

Entrance Portal 3 B1 South Iwan (Entrance to

Inner Courtyard 4 A2 Main Sanctuary) 11 A2

Madraseh 5 A2 Ticket Office 12 B1

Madraseh 6 B2 Toilets 13 B2

Main Sanctuary 7 A2 West Iwan 14 A2

Mihrab & Minbar 8 A2 West Sanctuary 15 A2

with its pool for ritual ablutions and four imposing iwans. The walls of the courtyard contain the most exquisite sunken porches, framed by painted tiles known as haft rangi (see p66) of deep blue and yellow. Each iwan leads into a vaulted sanctuary. The east and west sanctuaries are covered with particularly fine floral motifs on a blue background.

The main sanctuary is entered via the south iwan. Find yourself a quiet corner in which to sit and contemplate the richness of the domed ceiling, with its golden rose pattern (the flower basket) surrounded by concentric circles of busy mosaics on a deep blue background. The interior ceiling is 36.3m high, but the exterior reaches up to 5 lm due to the double-layering used in construction. The hollow space in between is responsible for the loud echoes heard when you stamp your foot on the black paving stones under the centre of the dome. Although scientists have measured up to 49 echoes, only about 12 are audible to the human ear - more than enough for a speaker to be heard throughout the mosque. The marble mihrab and minbarare also beautifully crafted.

The main sanctuary provides wonderful views back to the two turquoise minarets above the entrance portal. Each is encircled by projecting balconies and white geometric calligraphy in which the names of Mohammed and Ali are picked out over and over again. Each is topped by an elegant dome.

To the east and west of the main sanctuary are the courtyards of two madrasehs. Both provide good views of the main dome with its tiles every shade of turquoise. Cameras are welcome.

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque 1—¿yii v> i n« A study in harmonious understatement, this mosque is the perfect complement to the overwhelming richness of the larger Imam Mosque, and is arguably the most fabulous mosque in Iran. Built between 1602 and 1619, during the reign of Shah Abbas I, the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque (Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah; Map p238; admission IR4000; S 8am-sunset, 8am-11.30am &12.30pm-sunsetsummer) is dedicated to the ruler's father-in-law, Sheikh Lotfollah, a revered Lebanese scholar of Islam who was invited to Esfahan to oversee the king's mosque (now the Imam Mosque) and theological school.

The pale dome makes extensive use of delicate cream-coloured tiles that change colour throughout the day from cream to pink (sunset is usually best). The signature blue-and-turquoise tiles of Esfahan are evident only around the dome's summit.

The pale tones of the cupola stand in contrast to those around the portal, where you'll find some of the best surviving Safavid-era mosaics. The exterior panels contain wonderful arabesques and other intricate floral designs; those displaying a vase framed by the tails of two peacocks are superb. The portal itself contains some particularly fine stalactite work with rich concentrations of blue and yellow motifs.

The mosque is unusual because it has neither a minaret nor a courtyard, and because steps lead up to the entrance. This

SHAH IN A HURRY

When the Imam Mosque was begun, Shah Abbas the Great probably didn't think it would be 25 years before the last of the artisans left the building. He was already 52 when work began, and as he grew older he grew ever-more impatient to see his greatest architectural endeavour completed.

Legend has it Abbas repeatedly demanded that corners be cut to hasten the progress, even insisting work on the walls be started despite the foundations having not yet set. His architect, Ali Akbar Esfahani, was having none of it. He flatly defied his boss before making himself scarce until Abbas calmed down. After all, Abbas was notoriously insecure and had killed two sons and blinded another, so Esfahani was understandably nervous. He eventually returned to the court where, because the wisdom of his decision had been demonstrated, he was welcomed back with a royal pardon.

Some of the time-saving techniques were quite innovative: rather than covering the entire complex with millions of individual mosaic tiles, larger prefabricated patterned tiles called haft rangi were created - they've been standard ever since.

was probably because the mosque was never intended for public use, but rather served as the worship place for the women of the shah's harem. The sanctuary or prayer hall is reached via a twisting hallway where the eyes become accustomed to the darkness as subtle shifts of light play across deep blue tilework. This hallway is integral to both the design and function of the mosque because it takes the worshipper from the grand square outside into a prayer hall facing Mecca, and thus on a completely different axis.

Inside the sanctuary you can marvel at the complexity of the mosaics that adorn the walls and ceiling, which is extraordinarily beautiful with its shrinking, yellow motifs drawing the visitor's eye into the exquisite centre. The shafts of sunlight that filter in through the few high, latticed windows produce a constantly changing interplay of light and shadow.

The mihrab is one of the finest in Iran and has an unusually high niche; look for the calligraphic montage that names the architect and the date 1028 AH.

Photography is allowed but flashes are not.

Built at the very end of the 16th century as a residence for Shah Abbas I, the majestic six-storey AM Qapu Palace (Map p238; admission IR4000; S 8am-sunset) also served as a monumental gateway (Ali Qapu means the 'Gate of Ali') to the royal palaces that lay in the parklands beyond. Named for Abbas' hero, the Imam Ali, it was built to make an impression and at six storeys and 48m tall it did. French traveller Sir John Chardin described it as 'the largest palace ever built in any capital'.

The highlight of the palace is arguably the elevated terrace with its 18 slender columns. The terrace affords a wonderful perspective over the square and one of the best views of the Imam Mosque. If you look up, you'll see an attractive wooden ceiling with intricate inlay work and exposed beams, reminiscent of the nearby Chehel Sotun Palace.

Many of the valuable paintings and mosaics that once decorated the small rooms, corridors and stairways were destroyed during the Qajar period and since the 1979 revolution. However, some remain in the throne room, which leads off the terrace.

On the upper floor, the music room is definitely worth the climb. The stucco ceiling is riddled with the shapes of vases and other household utensils cut to enhance the acoustics. This distinctive craftsmanship, considered by some to be one of the finest examples of secular Persian art, extends to the walls.

CHEHEL SOTUN PALACE UJ1^ C15

One of the only surviving palaces from the royal parklands between Imam Sq and Cha-har Bagh Abbasi St, Safavid-era Chehel Sotun (Map p234; Ostandari St; admission IR5000; S 8am-5pm, 8am-noon & 2pm-sunset summer) is today most famous for its frescoes. It was built as a pleasure pavilion and reception hall, using the Achaemenid-inspired talar (columnar porch) style. There are historical references to the palace dating from 1614; however, an inscription uncovered in 1949 says it was completed in 1647 under the watch of Shah Abbas II. Either way, what you see today was rebuilt after a fire in 1706.

The palace is entered via the elegant talar terrace, which perfectly bridges the transition between the Persian love of gardens and interior splendour. Its 20 slender, ribbed wooden pillars rise to a superb wooden ceiling with crossbeams and exquisite inlay work. Chehel Sotun means '40 pillars' - the number reflected in the long pool in front of the palace.

The Great Hall (Throne Hall) contains a rich array of frescoes, miniatures and ceramics. The upper walls are dominated by historical frescoes on a grand scale, sumptuously portraying court life and some of the great battles of the Safavid era. From right to left, above the entrance door, the armies of Shah Ismail do battle with the Uzbeks; Nader Shah battles Sultan Mahmud (astride a white elephant) on an Indian battleground; and Shah Abbas II welcomes King Nader Khan of Turkestan with musicians and dancing girls.

On the wall opposite the door, also from right to left, Shah Abbas I presides over an ostentatious banquet; Shah Ismail battles the janissaries (infantrymen) of Sultan Suleiman; and Shah Tahmasp receives Humayun, the Indian prince who fled to Persia in 1543. These extraordinary works survived the 18th-century invasion by the Afghans, who whitewashed the paintings to show their disapproval of such extravagance. Other items, including Safavid forebear Safi od-Din's hat, are kept in a small museum.

In the garden there is a small teahouse and a bookshop. Early morning is the best time for photos (flash not allowed inside).

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