I just love this photograph of the dome of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran. It was taken by Hamzeh Karbasi, and the chap standing on the edge gives a perfect scale to the majestic dome. I have been wanting to travel to Iran for years, having been smitten by Robert Byron’s Road to Oxiana. If you have not read this book, go now to the nearest bookshop and buy a copy. Take my car. Do it Now. (Or if you must then click here to find it online.) I guarantee you will not be disappointed; OK it’s not exactly Fifty Shades, being a travel account of Persia, Mesopotamia, and Afghanistan in the 1930’s, but it is widely recognised as the greatest of all pre-war travel books. As Paul Fussell neatly put it in Abroad, “What Ulysses is to the novel between the wars, and what The Waste Land is to poetry, The Road to Oxiana is to the travel book.”
Sheikh Lutfollah Mosque (مسجد شیخ لطف الله) is one of the architectural masterpieces of Safavid Iranian architecture, standing on the eastern side of Naghsh-i Jahan Square, Isfahan. Construction of the mosque started in 1603 and was finished in 1618. It was built by the chief architect Shaykh Bahai, during the reign of Shah Abbas I of the Safavid dynasty.
Shah Abbas dedicated the mosque to his father-in-law, Sheikh Lotfollah, a prominent religious scholar and teacher who came to Isfahan at the orders of Shah ‘Abbas, and resided on the site. This beautifully proportioned and decorated mosque, with arguably (I am told… I am no expert!) the best mosaics from that era, took nearly 20 years to complete. The pale tiles of the dome change colour, from cream through to pink, depending on the light conditions. The mosque is unusual because it has no minaret or courtyard as it was intended as a private mosque of the royal court, and therefore needed no call to prayer.
The interior of the dome is simply stunning. One of the unique characteristics of the mosque is the peacock at the center of its dome. It is said that if you stand at the entrance gate of the inner hall and look at the center of the dome, a peacock’s tail is formed by the sunrays coming in from the hole in the ceiling.
Byron has been described as a writer of breathtaking prose – “prose whose sensuous, chiselled beauty has cast its spell on English travel writing ever since.” At his best Byron had a remarkable ability to evoke place, to bring to life a whole world in a single unexpected image, to pull a perfect sentence out of the air with the ease of a child netting a butterfly. The perfection and visual precision of the writing in Oxiana, combined with its wit, its farcical playlets, its intriguing scholarly essays and its fierce passion for its subject – a search for the Central Asian roots of Islamic architecture – make the book a timeless classic. I can’t recommend it enough.
Of the interior if the dome Byron wrote “I know of no finer example of the Persian Islamic genius than the interior of the dome: The dome is inset with a network of lemon-shaped compartments, which decrease in size as they ascend towards the formalised peacock at the apex… The mihrāb in the west wall is enamelled with tiny flowers on a deep blue meadow. Each part of the design, each plane, each repetition, each separate branch or blossom has its own sombre beauty. But the beauty of the whole comes as you move. Again, the highlights are broken by the play of glazed and unglazed surfaces; so that with every step they rearrange themselves in countless shining patterns… I have never encountered splendour of this kind before.”