In 1598, when Shah Abbas decided to move the capital of his Persian empire from the northwestern city of Qazvin to the central city of Isfahan, he initiated what would become one of the greatest programs in Persian history; the complete remaking of this ancient city.
By choosing the central city of Isfahan, fertilized by the Zāyandeh River (“The life-giving river“), lying as an oasis of intense cultivation in the midst of a vast area of arid landscape, he both distanced his capital from any future assaults by Iran’s neighboring arch rival, the Ottomans, and at the same time gained more control over the Persian Gulf, which had recently become an important trading route for the Dutch and British East India Companies.
The chief architect of this colossal task of urban planning was Sheikh Bahai, who focused the program on two key features of Shah Abbas’s master plan: the Chahar Bagh avenue, flanked at either side by all the prominent institutions of the city, such as the residences of all foreign dignitaries, and the Naqsh-e Jahan Square (“Exemplar of the World“).
Prior to the Shah’s ascent to power, Persia had a decentralized power structure, in which different institutions battled for power, including both the military (the Qizilbash) and governors of the different provinces making up the empire. Shah Abbas wanted to undermine this political structure, and the recreation of Isfahan, as a Grand capital of Persia, was an important step in centralizing the power. The ingenuity of the square, or Meydan, was that, by building it, Shah Abbas would gather the three main components of power in Persia in his own backyard; the power of the clergy, represented by the Masjed-e Shah, the power of the merchants, represented by the The Imperial Bazaar, and of course, the power of the Shah himself, residing in the Ali Qapu Palace.
The crown jewel in this project was the Masjed-e Shah, which would replace the much older Jame Mosque in conducting the Friday prayers. To achieve this, the Shah Mosque was constructed not only with vision of grandeur, having the largest dome in the city, but Sheikh Bahai also planned the construction of two religious schools and a winter mosque clamped at either side of it. Because of the Shah’s desire to have the building completed during his lifetime, shortcuts were taken in the construction; for example, the Shah ignored warnings by one of the architects Abu’l Qāsim regarding the danger of subsidence in the foundations of the mosque, and he pressed ahead with the construction.The architect proved to have been justified, as in 1662 the building had to undergo major repairs. Also, the Persians invented a new style of tile mosaic (the Seven-color) that was both cheaper and quicker, and that eventually sped up the construction. This job was masterly done by some of the best craftsmen in the country, and the whole work was supervised by Master calligrapher, Reza Abbasi. In the end, the final touches on the mosque were made in late 1629, few months after the death of the Shah.
Also, many historians have wondered about the peculiar orientation of the Royal Square (The Meydan). The portal, almost a building in itself and understood as an aspect of the Meydan rather than of the mosque, forms a welcoming embrace, inviting and guiding the throngs outside into the refuge, security and the renewal the mosque provides. In fact, it is the most thrilling example of human artifice that could be imagined. Its height amounts to 30 m, the flanking minarets are 42 m tall- with the sanctuary minarets higher still, 48 m. The two panels which flank the actual entrance within the recess carry the design of a prayer rug, a reminder of the mosque’s essential purpose.
A mosaic tile inscription by Ali Reza Abbasi can be seen on the main portal of the mosque, which is dated 1616 AD (completion date of the portal).