Standing on the eastern side of Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Esfahan, Iran, and lavished with elaborate calligraphy of Quranic verses and multi-coloured mosaics, Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque was built between 1602 and 1619 during the reign of Shah Abbas I, the 5th Safavid Shah of Iran. Designed by Mohammad-Reza Isfahani, and considered as one of the masterpieces of Iranian architecture built during the Safavid Empire, it was dedicated to the father-in-law of the shah, Sheikh Lotfollah, a revered Lebanese religious scholar and teacher, invited take residence in Iran as part of the policy of the Safavid rulers for promoting Shi’ism in the country.
However, the mosque is small and unusual as it has neither a minaret nor a courtyard since it was not built for public use, and the public did not have any access to it. It was meant to be the sacred praying place for the ladies of the harem, and the prayer hall is to be reached through a twisting tunnel spanning the piazza from the Palace to the mosque. Shah and his women used the tunnel to cross the square from the Ali Qapu Palace to the mosque without being seen by any passerby on the square. Due to the presence of the tunneled way, that helped the women to avoid public gaze, the mosque was once known as the Women’s Mosque.
Nevertheless, the hallway tunnel consisting of two corridors is an integral part of the mosque as it takes the worshipper from the grand square outside into a prayer hall facing Mecca which is located completely on a different axis. As the alignment of the mosque is in the northeast-southwest axis, one has to walk along those two corridors, oriented to the northeast and the southeast respectively, placed adjacent to the northwest and the northeast walls of the prayer hall. After turning southwest to face the Qibla wall, indicating the direction of Mecca, one reaches the domed chamber to face the Mihrab, the semicircular niche indicating the Qibla, on the opposite wall. The journey leading to gradual deep darkness suddenly ends in a room bathed with light reflected on the glazed revetment. Today, the tunnel underneath the square is no longer in use.
The main entrance to the beautifully proportioned and aesthetically decorated Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque is located on the east side of a small court, and instead of being aligned perpendicularly to the eastern wall of the square, the structure lies at an angle of almost 45 degrees. Consequently, the main portal iwan and the dome do not fall on the same axis when viewed from the Square, instead the dome appears behind the main portal iwan, as if having slid around 6.5 m to the right from its axis. This asymmetrical layout, which added the visual complexity to the structure, was intentionally done for reconciling the southwest direction of Mecca with the placement of the Nihrab on the Qibla wall.
In contrast with the sand-brown brick elevation, the Portal Iwan, the gateway through the vaulted space leading to the courtyard, is elaborately ornamented with colourful mosaics. The arch-doorway lies below a band of inscriptions in white on a deep blue background, decorated with motifs in brown, blue, and white, also on a deep blue background. The small mosque consisting of a single domed chamber is flanked by rooms, preceded by the portal iwan overlooking the square. The intricate design of the mosaics adorning the inside walls of the sanctuary, and the wonderful ceiling punctured by yellow motifs, is a perfect example of Islamic architectural beauty. The rays of sunlight that filter in through the latticed windows located far above creates an interchanging display of light and shadow, clearly showing the enchanting beauty of the enriched walls.
Ornamented with floral motifs in white, brown, blue, and black on a yellowish background, the dome of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, 43 feet (13 m) in diameter, is a single-shell dome consisting of three levels. Framed by a band with white and blue inscriptions, demarcated by blue cable moldings, the four pointed-arched panels ascend from the floor to support sixteen kite-shaped shields. The shields, in their turn, support sixteen kite-shaped shields. The shields, in their turn, support the drum comprising alternating double-grill windows, enriched with arabesque pattern. One of the most remarkable and interesting features of the dome is the unique peacock-shaped illusion created in its inner side. During a particular time of the day, with the filtering rays through a tiny hole in the ceiling, the rays seem to appear the tail of a peacock inside the dome.
The beautiful Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, which once served as a private sanctuary, and was prohibited to the public, is now open to everyone and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.