In 1598 A.D., Shah Abbas of the Safavid dynasty moved the capital of Iran to Esfahan and initiated one of the grandest architectural programs in Persian history: the complete remaking of this ancient city. The crown jewel in this project was the Shah Mosque, which would replace the much older Jameh Mosque (constructed 771 A.D.) in conducting the Friday prayers. Work started on the magnificent entrance portal in 1611, although it took four years to complete. It was not until 1629, the last year of the reign of Shah Abbas, that the high dome, and therefore the mosque, was completed.
Although each of the mosques parts is a masterpiece, it is the unity of the overall design that leaves a lasting impression. The portal itself, some 30m tall, is decorated with magnificent moarraq kashi (mosaics featuring geometric designs, floral motifs and calligraphy) by the most skilled artists of the age. The splendid niches contain complex stalactite moldings in a honeycomb pattern; each panel has its own intricate design. Although the portal was built to face the central town square, the mosque is oriented towards Mecca and a short, angled corridor neatly connects the square and the inner courtyard, with its pool for ritual ablutions and four imposing iwans. The walls of the courtyard contain the most exquisite sunken porches, framed by haft rangi (painted tiles) of deep blue and yellow. Each iwan leads into a vaulted sanctuary. The main sanctuary is entered via the south iwan. The interior ceiling is 36.3m high, but the exterior reaches up to 51m due to the double-layering used in construction. The hollow space in between is responsible for the loud echoes which are loud enough for a speaker to be heard throughout the mosque.
The combined impact of centuries of desert sunlight plus more recently, air pollution – has resulted in bleaching and fading of the colorful tiles in many sections. However, in spite of the impacts of time – the architectural designs and motifs in Masjid-e Shah are unbelievably beautiful, complex and frankly overwhelming. The sheer level of detail and beauty in small sections surpasses that found in the totality of most other historical buildings. The Shah Mosque is magnificent to behold and I marvel at the craftsmanship that went into building it.