Signatures on gravestones: two XII century Iranian tombstones

Tombstones are full of surprises, and information: not only on the poor passed away, but also on the iconography, the use of Qur’anic citation, place and time, people, craftsmanship, patronage, religion, public and private sphere…in short: from a tombstone, if you are careful, you can get a whole context.

Let’s take this one for instance

Metropolitan Museum, accession number 33.118 © Metropolitan Museum, New York
Metropolitan Museum, accession number 33.118 © Metropolitan Museum, New York

This tombstone is kept in the Metropolitan Museum of New York (accession number 33.118), it is dated, from the inscription 545/1150 and it come from Yazd (Iran).

What I like most in it are the epigraphic frames around the central element, a two-dimensional mihrab. Also interesting is the use of different scripts in different position.

The inscriptions: what’s written in it and how

The outer frame contains a beautiful inscription in an kufic script, embellished with interlacing and floral decoration. The inscription starts at the right bottom. Following the opening basmala there is a Qur’anic quotation, containing the entire Q 41:31:
“In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate [basmala] – Indeed, those who have said, “Our Lord is Allah ” and then remained on a right course – the angels will descend upon them, [saying], “Do not fear and do not grieve but receive good tidings of Paradise, which you were promised. [Q 41:31 – complete]”

The inner frame is composed in tuluth script. Again it contains the basmala and a Qur’anic quotation: Q 3:18:
“In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate [basmala] – Allah witnesses that there is no deity except Him, and [so do] the angels and those of knowledge – [that He is] maintaining [creation] in justice. There is no deity except Him, the Exalted in Might, the Wise. [Q 3:18 – complete]”

The top horizontal space, between the outer and the inner frames contains the shahada. It is composed in a kufic script similar to that on the outer band, even if it lacks the floral decoration. It reads:
“There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God. [shahada]”

The horizontal line at the bottom contains the signature of the engraver. In this case the kufic script lacks the interlacing and the decoration, it is quite plain, and easier to read:
“Work of Ahmad bin Muhammad Astak”

The fifth inscription of the panel is in the central ground of the two-dimensional mihrab. In this part of the tombstone the information on the deceased person is given. Also in this case, the kufic script lacks the interlacing and the profuse decoration which is to be found in the epigraphic band of the outer border. It reads:
“This is the grave of Abu Sa’d bin Muhammad bin Ahmad bin al-Hasan Karwaih. He died in the month of Muharram of the year 545 [April-May 1150]”

A style for each content

This tombstone is a clear example of how the content of an inscription can influence the style of the script. It is not surprising that the two Qur’anic quotations are carried in decorated scripts, less legible if compared with the kufic used for the signature and the text inside the two-dimensional mihrab: the Qur’anc text is something that pious Muslim perfectly know. A particular Qur’anic passage can be understood by the Muslim even if he or she can actually read but a few words. Together with this, a limited number of passages were frequently used: Q 3:18 is an extensively used quotation in funerary inscriptions. It’s a sort of text that someone can ‘expect’ to be written on a tombstone.

Q 41:30 is less used in tombstones. It is related to the ‘consolation’ theme: the true believer, who has firm faith in God, will be compensated in the afterlife. The reference to the Paradise makes the quotation of course consistent with the context.

I presume that the two quotations are carried out in different scripts (kufic and tuluth) simply for an aesthetic reason.

The ‘informative’ part of the tombstone is carried out in a quite plain kufic script: there is actually some decoration, but it does not affect the reading, as it does in the Qur’anic epigraphic bands. The reason is quite obvious: the reader does not know the text, thus it has to be written clearly.

Signing a tombstone – Ahmad bin Muhammad Astak

Would you ever sign a tombstone? Well if the gravestone or the inscriptions on it are considered a masterpiece or a valuable work of art, why not? And this is not the only example of a signed gravestone: to my knowledge in Iran we can find many examples of signatures on tombstones and, as Sheila Blair reminds us, “inscriptions are particularly important n preserving the names of these people and establishing their careers, for craftsmen are rarely mentioned in traditional histories and chronicles” (Islamic Inscriptions, p. 49).

This is not the only work signed by Ahmad bin Muhammad Astak: he also designed and produced a tombstone some 10 years earlier, published by Pope in his Survey of Persian Art. Also in this case the tombstone has two inscribed frames, the outer in kufic, the inner in tuluth. In this case between the two epigraphic bands there is a decorative frieze. Again, on a vertical band over the two-dimensional mihrab we find the shahada, in kufic script, and the name of the carver is given in an horizontal band at the bottom of the composition. The text within the mihrab gives us the information about the deceased: “This is the tomb of the blessed (?) Fatima bint Zayd bin Ahmad bin ‘Ali, died in the month of Dhu al-Qadar 535/June 1141.

Tombstone of Fatima bint Zayd bin Ahmad bin 'Ali, 535/1141 © Pope - Ackerman.
Tombstone of Fatima bint Zayd bin Ahmad bin ‘Ali, 535/1141 © Pope – Ackerman.

The inner frame, carried in tuluth, contains Q 3:18, just as in the tombstone of the Metropolitan. The outer frame, in interlaced kufic contains Q 15:45-47, which reads: “Indeed, the righteous will be within gardens and springs. [Having been told], “Enter it in peace, safe [and secure].” And We will remove whatever is in their breasts of resentment, [so they will be] brothers, on thrones facing each other. “. Thus, in both the gravestones in the same position we find verses about the afterlife reward and Paradise. Also in this case, Q 15: 45-47 is not a quotation found commonly on tombstones.

Also comparing the decoration, it is clear that the two tombstones are the work of the same artisan (or should we say artist?). The decoration is conceptually the same, but of course we can notice some difference: the Metropolitan Museum gravestone is more refined, in a way… the artist has improved…

Calligraphist or carver?

Who actually signed the gravestone? Who was Ahmad bin Muhammad Astak? As far as I know, he was an Iranian artist, active in Yazd around 1150,most probably together with a number of craftsmen, maybe part of something similar to a guild.

It is difficult sometimes to define the exact role of the signing person. In architecture it is common that the name is given together with the title, such as ‘builder’ or ‘engineer’. In this case no title is given.

To my opinion, we can think that he was the actual designer and maker of the two gravestones: even if I could only see the pictures of the two tombstones, it seems to me that it is not only the design that have improved through times, but also the way the stone is carved: much more details are visible in the 1150 tombstone. This conclusion would also answer why no title is included in the signature.

How did he work? Hard to say, sorrowfully. What I can say by now, comparing these two tombstones, is that it is possible that the artist tended to reproduce the same design: two frames, two horizontal bands and a two-dimensional mihrab. Also the position and the contents of the text inscribed didn’t change through time, a decade: on the outer frame a verse reminding the Paradise (chosen by the artist or by the family?), on the inner Q 3:18, then a shahada and on the bottom the signature. Inside the mihrab, the information about the deceased. Also the form and the decoration remain consistent throughout the decade. It is as the artist chose and developed one particular design throughout time.

He was not the only tombstone-artist of course: other Iranian funerary steles are signed and dated. From a comparison of the styles and contents further conclusions may be drawn…

… looking forward to saying something about those one, too!


S. Bashir, “Consolation”, in Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an, Brill, Leiden 2001, I, pp. 405-406.

S. Blair, Islamic inscriptions, Edinburgh 1998.
[pp. 0-17pp. 18-39pp. 40-67pp. 68-83 pp. 84-93pp. 94-123pp. 124-145pp. 146-171pp. 172-195 pp. 196-204pp. 205-243]

A. U. Pope e P. Ackerman (ed.), A Survey of Persian Art.

P. P. Soucek, “64. Tombstone of Abu Sa’d ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn al-Hasan Karwaih”, in M. Ekhtiar et. al. (ed.), Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2011, pp. 104-105. [view online, via GoogleBooks]

W. M. Thackston, “The role of calligraphy”, in M. Frishman e H.-U. Khan (ed.), The Mosque: History, Architectural Development & Regional Diversity, Thames and Hudson, London 1994, pp. 43-53.


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