Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque: Enigmatic beauty of Isfahan
On a sparkling morning in November, 2015, I reached the Naqsh-i-Jahan Square in Iran’s most beautiful city, Isfahan. Alone. A stunning vista opened up in front of me. It was 89600 Sq. Mt. of lush green grass surrounded by three breath-taking monuments, Ali Qapu palace, Shahi mosque and the Lotfollah mosque, and the Kesariyeh bazaar. Each one of these being four hundred years old, at least. Perhaps in time I shall speak, in these columns, of Ali Qapu palace and the Shahi mosque. But presently I shall dwell on my experience of the small Lotfollah Mosque.
Lotfollah Mosque and its reason for small structure
Looking back, I feel the Naqsh-e-Jahan park, in a sense, unprepares you for Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque’s intense beauty. People come here to relax, on the benches lining the immense lawns, or on the grass. Either to escape the grind of the daily routine, or to cool the nerves after confronting any one of these buildings. The whole square is yet another UNESCO inscribed World Heritage Site, because of being ‘one of the largest city squares in the world and an outstanding example of Islamic architecture’.
So I decide to purchase a small paper-bag full of mixed nuts and recline in one of the benches. By the time I looked for a trash-bin to dump the empty paper-bag I am curiously content with life and almost felt like humming a happy song. I take out my itinerary notebook and find Sheikh Lotfollah mosque marked in bold. I had done my bit of homework on the Shi’ite shrine. It’s a tiny mosque, less than 2500 Sq. Mt.
It’s so small because it was actually the private mosque of the Safavid Emperor Shah Abbas’ s family, who had it built over sixteen years between 1602 and 1618. Of course it has its own curious aberrations: I think it’s the only mosque I have ever seen that doesn’t have minarets. It also has a single dome unlike any other Safavid era mosques. Armed with such data I entered the mosque.
In a flash I was swept off my feet. Only at one other shrine did I ever have a similar feeling: the Dilwara Temple, in mount Abu, Rajasthan. Lotfollah Mosque conjured up in mind an image of Tilottama, a mythological lady in Indian scriptures, created drop by drop with nothing else but pure beauty.
Polychromatic walls of Lotfollah Mosque
The interior of the mosque appeared to me as a single piece of huge and complex fresco, with a centrifugal pull. I shuddered at the thought of the sheer meticulousness of the arrangements of the polychrome glazed Haft-Rangi (seven coloured) tiles of the walls. The arches, the roundel golden-yellow patterns of the dome that in unerring precision gradually reduces in size, from the periphery to the centre, drawing our gaze with them to centre-point.
I tried to imagine: four hundred years ago an architect had actually conceived this whole canvas within his head. He was Baha al-Din Muhammad Ibn Hussein al-Amili AKA Sheikh Bahai, the chief architect of the Safavid court. But then, I remembered, he was also a philosopher, astronomer, mathematician, and a poet.
And then I looked at the calligraphic borders, in Thulth and Nastaliq, which merge with the oneness of the fresco with effortless ease. The magic touch of the master calligrapher Ali Reza Abbasi. That in itself is a whole chapter in the history of the world’s architectural art. Can you remember any single historical monument in the whole world that uses written letters as decorative art other than Islamic architecture? I can’t.
Dazzed in illusion
I stepped forward and I stepped back, I looked straight in front of me and I looked up. The length of the letters appeared not only exactly of the same size but in complete harmony with all the other patterns. Trompe l’oeil, the grand optical illusion, created by gradually increasing the size of the letters as the height of their placement increases. The same illusion we see, but rarely notice, on the walls of Taj Mahal. Finally, there were the filigree windows and the resulting patterns of light and shade, which gave an unearthly colour to the peacock tail pattern formed on the dome. I suddenly felt that the walls, and the arches, the Haft Rangi tiles, the stylized scripts were all grabbing my collar hard, and whispering: look at me. I slipped into uncertain domains.
I came out of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque dazed, with my senses soaked in pure beauty.
(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)