peacefull Khan Madrasse

The Madraseh-ye Khan is a Safavid-era religious school, seemingly the perfectly peaceful surrounding for teaching

part of the Khan Madreseh

The madrasse here was founded already in 1615, not by Karim Khan, who built so much else in Shiraz, but by an Iman called Gholi Khan. This makes it a Safavid building. Several earthquakes have destroyed most of the  original building, and only the entrance is authentic, the rest has been re-built.

Still, it is a pleasant enough place to visit, very peaceful courtyard, impressive iwan and nice tiling. Apparently, there are more than 70 rooms distributed across the two floors of the school, which is still actively in use.


tiled mosaics in the entrance

and more tiles, I think mostly original

colourful ceiling

inside the Masjed-e Vakil

The large Masjed-e Vakil, next to the bazaar of the same name in Shiraz, is an impressive Zand dynasty structure.

The large Masjed-e Vakil, the Vakil Mosque, is another of those majestic Zand dynasty buildings in Shiraz, begun under the auspice of Karim Khan, and finished in the year of his death, 1779. However, much of the tile decoration of flower designs is from the Qajar era, some 100 years later.

The mosque is unusual in that it has only two iwans around its central courtyard, to the north and the south, and not four, as was the standard at the time. A large rectangular pool aligns the two iwans. Inside the South Iwan is the entrance to the shabestan – prayer hall -, with a large vaulted brick ceiling, supported by no less than 48 stone pillars, all carved in spirals.

Next to the mosque is the Vakil bazaar; needless to say that the mosque provides an oasis of peace next to the busy bazaar.

Mashed-e Vakil, one of the iwans

the roof of the iwan

the vaulted prayer hall

the other iwan, opposite

colourful mosaic, also outside

floral motifs in the tiles

and more flowers in tiles

the hamman section of the Arg-e Karim Kahn

Arg-e Karim Khan is the main Zand-dynasty castle in Shiraz, elegant on the inside yet imposing from the outside.

Where Isfahan is Shah Abbas the Great’s creation, Shiraz is the creation of Karim Khan, the first and only ruler of the Zand dynasty. He made Shiraz the Persian capital, in 1750, and the subsequent construction boom is what makes the city so appealing.

the imposing outside of the Arg-e Karim Khan

First and foremost, Karim’s residence, Arg-e Karim Khan, the castle north-west of the bazaar. High, crenulated wall and imposing round watch towers on the outside, but inside is a large garden and pool, surrounded by several one-storey buildings, perhaps winter and summer residences. One of them is topped by a huge baghdir, a wind-catcher: a chimney-like structure that will funnel each and every breeze of wind, from each and every direction, down into the rooms below. Early airco, so to speak.

de baghdir van de Arg-e Khan

one of the many passages in the castle

one of the windows, from the outside

and the same window, on the inside

more of the stained-glass windows

As with so many Iranian buildings, there is a large portico, with a wooden ceiling – probably new, having replaced the original inlaid ceiling – and slender pillars supporting. Stucco and frescos decorate the porticos, and the passages through to the rooms inside. Not all the rooms are open to the public, but those that are, have also been richly decorated. Large stained-glass windows let in the light, which creates a playful and colourful pattern on some of the floors.

one of the ceilings inside

bird motifs on the ceiling

Highlight is the hamman, the bathhouse in an underground cistern. Marble pools and benches, more stucco, stone pillars and further frescos in geometric patterns make for very attractive quarters, great place to linger.

the entrance and front portal to the bath house, the hamman

pool and marble bench in the hamman

fresco inside the Armenian church in Isfahan

Away from Isfahan’s spectacular Islamic architecture the small Armenian community has built its own churches, like the Vank Cathedral and the Bethlehem Church.

Another upshot of Shah Abbas the Great’s construction drive in Isfahan was the large-scale relocation of thousands of Armenians, skilled craft’s people whose know-how and  expertise were to be used in building the new capital. They were housed south of the river – away from the Islamic centre – in a neighbourhood called New Jolfa, after the town where many came from, now in Northern Iran.

mosaic of the Vank Cathedral, outside the Cathedral

An estimated 5000 Armenians are still living here, and meet in Vank Cathedral, the building of which was completed in 1664. The tile decorations on the lower part of the walls are very similar to those in the mosques of Isfahan, with geometrical shapes and animal motifs, whilst the upper part of the walls contain frescoes with images from the Old and New Testament.

More frescos, somehow looking more authentic, can be seen in the nearby Bethlehem Church, much smaller than the Cathedral, but also much quieter, allowing a leisurely inspection of the images, and of the tiles that, here, too, are present on the lower wall sections. Worthwhile your visit, if you have the time.

fresco of institutionalised torture, Bethlehem Church

and more of the same, Bethlehem Church

another fesco, Bethlehem Church

and more animal and flower motifs, also Bethlehem Church

one of the colourful tiles in the Bethlehem Church

abundant frescos inside the Cathedral

graphic depiction of the under-world, in the cathedral

tomb stone outside the Cathedral

first floor balcony of the Kakh-e Hasht Behesht

Kakh-e Hasht Behesht is the only 17th Century private mansion left in Isfahan.

During Safavid rule in the 17th Century there were not only the Royal palaces in Isfahan, but also more than 40 mansions of rich merchants and nobility. Kakh-e Hasht Behesht, the palace of Eight Heavens, was one of them, and the only one left. Built in 1669 the building has suffered badly from neglect through the ages, but it looks that some restoration has taken place recently.

The mansion is located inside another example of a Persian Garden, and like the Chehel Sotun palace, has an extensive pillared terrace looking out over a pool. It is just that it is somewhat smaller than the Royal palace.

one of the corners of the Kakh-e Hasht Behesht

delicate tiles have survived on the outside

plaster inside in less solid, after all these years

the niches, with stucco like in the Ali Qapa palace

the house, and the obligatory pond in front

inlaid ceiling supported by slender wooden pillars

the impressive main reception room

mirrored door inside the Kakh-e Chehel Sotun

The vivid frescos in the Kakh-e Chehel Sotun, the Royal palace of Safavid Isfahan, provide an interesting view of Royal life in the 17th Century.

The construction of the Chesel Sotun palace in Isfahan was probably started by Shah Abbas I, but completed by his son, Shah Abbas II, in 1647. However, the present building dates from the beginning of the 18th Century, after a fire destroyed the original palace.

the back of Chehel Sotun palace, mirror-imaged in the pond

A large terrace dominates one side of the building, twenty wooden pillars supporting a brilliantly inlaid wooden ceiling. Inside, several rooms have been decorated by frescos, many of them depicting historical happenings. Most of the frescos today are original, quite something, given that during the Afghan invasion later on in the 18th Century most walls have been whitewashed. The examples here are of the Battle between the Safavid Shah Ismail and Sheibak Khan the Uzbek, of 1511 and the Battle of Chaldoran between the same Ismail and the Ottoman Sultan Salim in 1518, as well as of the Reception for King Humayoun of India by early Safavid Shah Tamesb in 1550, the Reception for Vali Mohammed Khan of Turkestan by Shah Abbas I in 1628 and that of Nadar Mohammed Khan, also of Turkestan, by Shah Abbas II in 1658. All sought refuge in Safavid Persia after having lost control of their court at home. Of later date is the fresco of the Battle between Nader Shah and the Sultan Mohammed of India, seated on a white elephant, in 1756.

the terrace, pillars, inlaid ceiling

and the mirrored back wall

What is striking in these frescos, especially the ones showing the hospitality of the Shahs, but also smaller frescos not related to any of the large, formal depictions, is that the Muslim court at the time was a rather jolly happening, with music and with dancing girls, many of whom openly show their hair. It is hard to believe that the many bottles contain anything else than wine, too. How things have changed over time; or should I say, how the interpretation of an old book has changed, over time?

Chehel Sotun garden

with just a few flowers, this time of the year

The palace is located in the middle of Chehel Sotun Gardens, the quintessential Persian Garden; never mind that, with ongoing urban development, the garden today is a lot smaller than its original size.

the Kakh-e Ali Qapu behind a fountain on the square

The largest Royal palace of Safavid Isfahan has several spectacularly decorated rooms, including the top floor music hall and the spacious, columned terrace overlooking Iman square.

Perhaps the first of the major buildings to be built by Safavid Shah Abbas the Great at the Iman square of Isfahan – the Naqsh-e Jahan Square, as it is officially called, the second largest square on earth (only Tiananmen Square in Beijing is bigger) – was his own palace, the Ali Qapu palace, in the last years of the 16th Century.



the roof of the terrace, and the pillars

carefully inlaid ceiling

inside the subtle decoration

subtle in detail, too

with matching ceiling

The six-story building is dominated by a large pillared terrace on the third floor, which was also used by the Royals as viewing platform for activities, like military parades, horse racing and polo, on the Iman square below. The view of the square and its surrounding buildings, like the Mashed-e Sheikh Lutfallah and the Mashad-e Shah, has remained, only the activities have changed in the usual tourist happenings. The inlaid wooden ceiling of the terrace and the crafted columns have been heavily, but tastefully restored..

frescos inside, too, in between the Layeh Cheni decorated walls

and another fresco, same wall decorations

Behind the terrace is the reception hall – the Bar Aam hall -, which has been decorated by a technique known as Layeh Cheni in Iranian, using red mud layers as plaster, with gilded plates in between to provide sparkle to the room.

The top floor contains the Music Hall, which is differently decorated. Using a technique called Tong Borie, large open spaces in forms of pots and vases and other utensils are kept behind and in between plaster layers, apparently as to enhance the acoustics in the room. It also creates a strange, but not unattractive character in the hall.

the restoration is ongoing

the stucco in the music hall

called Tong Borie, with open spaces

another niche, decorated

on closer inspection, with angry birds

did I say ‘angry birds’?

Qapu means gate, in Arabic. The Ali Qapu palace was not only reception and entertainment area for the Shah and his guests, but also the entry to a vast area of residences and gardens behind. Isfahan’s central boulevard is called Chahar Bagh, or Four Gardens, and was originally the link between beautiful Persian gardens in four corners and a range of palaces in between. Two of those, Kakh-e Chehel Sotun and Kakh-e Hasht Behesht, still exist, and are accessible to the public.

the balcony, or viewing platform, or terrace – whatever, it is big!

the imposing Ali Qapu palace at the Iman square

the smaller Mashed-e Sheikh Lotfallah

The small Sheikh Lutfallah mosque is the modest, but equally spectacular counterpart of the Mashed-e Shah, elsewhere on the Iman square.

Humbly touted as the most beautiful mosque in the world, the Sheikh Lutfallah mosque, obliquely located on one of the sides of the fabulous Iman square in Isfahan, was dedicated to Shah Abbas the First’ father-in-law. Like all other buildings around the Iman square – the Naqsh-e Jahan Square, as it is officially called –, it was built at the beginning of the 17th Century (in this case 1602-1618), when Shah Abbas I, at the height of the Safavid Empire, moved his capital to Isfahan.

detail on the entrance portal

mosaics and windows on the outside

Unlike the Mashed-e Shah, which was for the public, Sheik Lutfallah mosque was a private mosque for the royal court. To this effect an underground passage had been constructed from the palace, the Kakh-e Ali Qapu on one side of the Iman square, to the mosque on the other side – so shielding the harem woman from public view.



the twisted corridor that leads to the prayer hall

the ceiling in the corridor

the main prayer hall

one of the corners of the prayer hall

the merhab – prayer niche

wall tiles making up a mosaic

another tile decoration

The outside of the mosque is made up of a splendid gateway, decorated with intricate patterns of tiles. The building is topped by a cream-coloured low dome, which changes colour in the changing day light. A tiled corridor provides entrance to the main sanctuary of the mosque, which doesn’t have a minaret neither a courtyard. The low passage gives way to the tall, domed chamber that is the main prayer hall, a simple structure with exceedingly complex, and beautiful, decoration. Mosaics in blue and yellow, latticed windows that produce a constantly changing light pattern, a fine mehrab – prayer niche -, and a fabulous ceiling.

the ceiling inside the main prayer hall

Try to get there early in the morning, ahead of the crowd: the mosque is quite small, and the presence of tour groups somewhat diminishes the impact of this, quite possibly, most beautiful mosque in the world!

the cream-coloured dome

the dome of the Mashad-e Sheikh Lutfallah, along the Iman square

the Mashed-e Shah, dominating the Naqsh-e Jahan square

The impressive Mashed-e Shah is the mosque that was meant to replace the old Friday mosque of Isfahan; no effort was spared to make it into the most splendid building in town, if not in all of Iran, at the time.

The stunningly beautiful mosque that Shah Abbas I built when he moved his Safavid capital to Isfahan at the beginning of the 17th Century is still one of the absolute highlights in the city, if not in entire Iran. Construction took a while, from 1611 to 1629, but the result is a fabulous example of Safavid architecture and decoration.

the inside roof of the entrance portal

Like the Sheik Lotfallah mosque, this one is also obliquely oriented with regards to then huge Iman square – the Naqsh-e Jahan Square -, in order to have the mosque point in the direction of Mecca. Via the tall entrance portal one comes to an inner courtyard, surrounded by four iwans – large vaulted open rooms – leading to vaulted prayer halls. The southern praying hall is the biggest, with an enormous domed ceiling, carefully covered with mosaics of exquisite coloured tiles. The two smaller prayer halls behind the east and west iwan are also beautifully tiled, in blue and yellow, the dominant colours in the mosque.

every passage has been colourfully tiled

detail of one of the side iwans

the interior of one of the prayer halls

another corridor, another tile pattern

mosaic wall decoration

one of the many glazed windows

This is a place where you can wander around for hours. Take your time, and look carefully at the mosaics: the longer you look, the more you discover.

the ceiling in the southern prayer hall, below the dome

another part of the ceiling, in blue and green



the huge turquoise dome of the mosque

the oblique position of the mosque, the huge dome behind the southern iwan, and the entrance portal

Seljuk vaulting in Esfehan’s Mashed-e Jahmed

The Mashed-e Jameh, the Friday mosque in Isfahan, is really an Islamic architectural museum, especially of interest for its Seljuk domed chambers, built of brick, and its beautifully vaulted prayer halls.

The huge Friday mosque in Isfahan is in fact a museum of 800 years Islamic architecture. The mosque was originally built by the Seljuks, who established a Turco-Persian Muslim empire in the 11th Century, uniting the many small entities that existed at the time in the Middle East. Part of the mosque was restored after a fire in the 12th C., and subsequent Muslim rulers added their own specifics.


rolled up carpets

central courtyard and west iwan

view into the southern praying area

the dome chamber of Nezam al-Molk

more brick-decorations (Taj al-Molk dome)

the intricate ceiling of the Taj al-Molk dome

One of the highlights of the mosque is the dome built by Nizam al-Mulk, the vizier – minister – in the time of Malek Shah, then the Seljuk ruler. The brick structure is almost 27 meters high and originates probably from 1086. Its construction is closely followed by another, even more sublime, brick dome, that of Taj al-Mulk, in 1088.

The overall structure of the Friday mosque is one with four iwans – large vaulted open rooms – facing each other around the centre courtyard. Some of those have been rebuilt over the years. So was the Southern Iwan burned down in 1121; the current decorative tile work, as well as the two minarets, are a Safavid addition. The Western Iwan, probably also mostly Safavid in decoration, is topped by a small maazeneh, a platform that served as minaret to call  to prayer. Behind the iwans large, vaulted prayer halls open up, with brick ceilings supported by thick stone columns.

the room of Sultan Uljeitu, with stuccoed merhab

minaret on the south iwan

the little mazeeneh that serves as minaret on the west iwan

A small vaulted room on the side of the Western Iwan is that of Sultan Uljeitu, who reigned at the start of the 14th Century. The room contains one of the finest examples of what is called a stuccoed mehrab – mehrab being the Muslim prayer niche that indicates the direction of Mecca.

The mosque is still actively used, which explains the many rolled up carpets in the courtyard.

a window in the southern praying halls

the rather bare, white-washed winter hall

brick-decorations in the Taj al-Molk dome