Travel

Imam Mosque vs St. Peter’s Basilica

Isfahan’s Imam Mosque is an architectural masterpiece of almost overwhelming loveliness and a far cry from the hustle and bustle of St. Peter’s in Rome

Few buildings in the world can match the refined proportions and exquisite decoration of Isfahan’s Imam Mosque. In contrast to the vast, marble-clad interior of St. Peter’s Basilica, the entrance of the Imam Mosque leads the visitor to a sun-filled open courtyard, surrounded on three sides by enormous, vaulted chambers, the largest of these framed by slender minarets and backed by a monumental dome. Almost every visible surface is covered with dazzling blue tiles with which, for many, Islamic architecture is synonymous. It is almost as if the building had been turned inside-out (or outside in). Viewed from the outside, against a medley of sunbaked ochre rooftops and low, jagged hills rising beyond the city’s edge, only the mosque’s lovely dome and its towering entrance give any inkling of the mesmerizing beauty of the interior.

Forget St. Peter’s Basilica?

THE BUILD-UP

St. Peter’s Basilica is justifiably famous, its spectacular design and decoration incorporating the successive talents of Bramante, Michelangelo, Maderno, and Bernini, among others. Its scale is staggering by any standards, and its dome, at 446 ft (136 m), is the highest in the world.

The letdown

The problem is that St. Peter’s, like Rome as a whole, attracts an enormous number of visitors, tourists, and pilgrims. The grand architectural design cannot help but lose something of its impact when seen amid a sea of bodies and voices. Expect long lines and security checks before you get in, and crowds once you’re inside. Michelangelo’s exquisite sculpture, the Pietà, is now surrounded with bullet-proof glass after a visitor attacked it with a geologist’s hammer in the 1970s.

Going anyway?

If you do plan to visit St. Peter’s, try to arrive early in the day, to miss the worst of the lines. There is no shade in the square, so it’s a good idea to carry a hat and some water. It is best to visit outside of July and August and to avoid Easter.

Practical information

Getting There and Around

Isfahan’s airport is about 15 miles (25 km) from the city. There is no shuttle service, but there are local buses as well as taxis. There are regular flights to Isfahan from Tehran and frequent bus services from cities across Iran.

Where to Eat

Shahrzad serves one of the best selections of Persian cuisine in Isfahan. Restoran-e Sa’di, opposite the Amir Kabir Hostel, is an excellent, cheap alternative. For a real Isfahan experience, watch the world go by at the Qeysarieh Tea Shop on Imam Square.

Where to Stay

Isfahan’s landmark resting place is the Abbasi Hotel, a historic caravanserai with a stunning courtyard garden (www. abbasihotel.com). Another good, convenient option is the Hasht Behesht Apartment Hotel, not far from the Meydan-e Imam.

When to Go

Spring and fall are the best times to visit Isfahan – summer can be very hot. Schedule your visit to the mosque to avoid prayer times, especially on Fridays. The best time of day to photograph the building is in the morning or early evening.

Budget per Day for Two

US$30–65 for entry fees, accommodations, and meals.

Last word

Although the gateway faces squarely onto the Meydan, the interior of the mosque is offset from this so that the main prayer hall faces towards Mecca. The dome has a double-shelled construction, it’s exterior rising to a height of 170 ft (52 m). In spite of its size, the dome almost gives the illusion of floating, a yellow arabesque pattern meandering lazily across the pale blue surface. Its twin shells produce a remarkable acoustic effect, replicating individual sounds in a series of clear echoes.

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