January 27: ‘the greatest and finest place in the world’

2012/01/27 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1571 Shah Abbas was born.

Coming to power in 1587 at the age of 16, Abbas I of Persia (d. January 19, 1629) raised the Safavid Dynasty to its highest point of cultural attainment.  In 1598 he moved the seat of the sweeping empire to its central location in Isfahan.  The complex he directed to exemplify his dynasty, constructed next to the existing ancient city, is one of the greatest of urban planning exercises of the period and a powerful symbol of Safavid rule and civic life.

Unlike many similar contemporary projects in Europe, in which single buildings symbolize the power of crown or church, the expression here is an open space.  The Maidan is defined by a two-tiered rectangular enclosure measuring 525 x 1667 feet, into which a series of great buildings open.  These include the Masjed-e Shah (Shah Mosque, from 1611) and Masjed-e Sheykh Lotfollah (Lotfallah Mosque, from 1603).  The centerpieces of Persian Safavid architecture, they are built of vaulted iwans opening from flat rectangular portals that open into grand vaulted spaces topped with elegant, bulbous and pointed domes.  Their relatively simple structural materials are covered with a veneer of brilliantly colored ceramic tile with a dazzling array of decorative motifs drawn from calligraphy and geometry with an effect that is equally brilliant and dazzling.  These main public buildings for religious use are balanced by the palace (airy terraces in shady gardens) and bazaar (a complicated, dense warren of shops and other buildings that are top lit by small openings that allow limited sunlight to illuminate, rather than overheat, the interiors) that together express the essential arenas of public life.

Although less frequently visited by westerners today, already in the seventeenth century Isfahan was a magnet for aristocratic travellers like  Jean de Thevenot, who published Travels into the Levant in 1687, (available here).  Considering it not only as an example of Persian architecture, but rather comparing it with developments in the west as well, he wrote of it:

There are many squares in Ispahan, but of all, that which is called the Meidan is not only the loveliest; but I think, that of all regular Piazzas, it is the greatest and finest place in the world.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Maidan’s comprehensive quality reflected Abbas’ desire to have an expansive and orderly empire, which he achieved–to a certain extent.  Abbas extended relations with Christians to secure greater ties with Europe–even sending emissaries to Rome to meet with Pope Clement VIII–, and established commercial relationships with England, helping to extend the routes of the East India Company.  He was far less interested in working with his own family.  An extreme worry of usurpation motivated his cruel murder or blinding of potential rivals. When he died, he left no heir, and a century later the Safavid Dynasty was at an end (official date 1722).  But Abbas and his successors established important administrative, economic and religious legacies in Iran, with the Maidan as the physical symbol of the lost era.

image: the Maidan with Lotfallah Mosque to the left, Shah Mosque straight ahead, and Palace to the right (from this source)

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You are currently reading January 27: ‘the greatest and finest place in the world’ at Clio’s Calendar: Daily Musings on Architectural History.

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