The minaret of Damghan is something that I have always liked. It is not only because it is Seldjuk, and because it is the only part of the mosque that was not replaced during the Qajar period. It is for two main reasons. The first: the inscription in the lower epigraphic band contains the Light Verse. The second: the inscription on the upper epigraphic band is composed of colourful glazed tile.
The minaret and its inscriptions
The minaret of Damghan (Iran) was built between 450 and 500 a.h. (1058-1106 c.e.). It is quite similar to other minarets built in the region in the same period: a long circular shaft decorated with geometrical design obtained through bricks. Two inscription bands, one in the lowers part of the shaft, and one on the top, are carried out in kufic. Thee main difference between this and the other minarets is the material of the upper inscription band: instead of being made of bricks, as the lower one, it was made using glazed tile.
The difference of material brought to a difference in the kufic script: whereas the lower band sticks to the tradition, the kufic on the upper band is somewhat different. Sheila Blair deems the difference to originate actually from the different material used.
While the upper band is extremely difficult to translate, the lower band contains part of the Light Verse (Q 24:35): “Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp (the lamp is within gla[ss])”.
The light verse: nur, nar, manar
The Light Verse is one of the most used verse in mosques, particularly in the mihrab (because of its reference to the niche) or on the mosque lamps. It is also used on minarets.
According to some interpretations, the Light Verse (ayat al-nur) is etymologically and culturally connected to the word manar (minaret, but literally “place of fire”). This connection can tell us more about the cultural significance of this architectural element, that was not included in the mosques of the early period of Islam. The word manar, in Iranian context, was used to indicate a signal, a stand-point, not necessary a fire signal. The minaret of Damghan, and more in general Iranian minarets, can be thus seen not only as an architectural element related to the prayer, but also a stand-point of Islam in a multi-cultural region: Damghan was in a natural corridor between the West and the Far East. The minaret can thus be seen as a earthly lighthouse. And in some cases it also housed a fire (but this is another story…).
The glazed tile
It is hilarious that the upper inscription cannot be read because of the material in which it is made, as that material was actually employed to enhance the legibility of the band. Also, Sheila Blair suggests that the epigrapher was not skilled enough.
Readable or not, legible or not, the inscription was and is visible. That is the main point. The glazed tiles in the upper band were used to emphasize the presence of the inscription: this means that when the minaret was built there was an actual concern for the visibility of the inscriptions. This is clearer if we compare the upper and the lower inscription: the lower in well visible, thus it simply followed the tradition, and was made using plain bricks.
What does it mean?
The two bands give us different clues on the use of (Qur’anic) inscriptions in minarets.
The lower inscription clearly exemplifies the contextual choice of the sacred text: the quotation is chosen because it fits the monument. The upper band makes it clearer that inscriptions were not seen as mere decorative devices: of course they contributed to the general decoration, but they were also important for their content. They were there to be read.
C. Adle e A. S. Melikian-Chirvani, “Les monuments du XIe siècle du Damqan”, in Studia Iranica, 1 (1972), pp. 229-297.
ArchNet, “Masjid-i Jami Damghan: Minaret” [http://archnet.org/sites/1602] (last accessed: Nov 30th, 2014)
S. S. Blair, The Monumental Inscriptions from early Islamic Iran and Transoxiana, Brill, Leiden 1992, pp. 191-192.
[partially accessible via GoogleBooks]
J. M. Bloom, “The minaret before the Saljuqs”, in R. Hillenbrand (ed.), The Art of the Saljuqs in Iran and Anatolia. Proceedings of a Symposium held in Edinburgh in 1982, Mezda Publisher, Costa Mesa 1994, pp. 12-16.
R. Hillenbrand, Islamic Architecture: Form, Function and Meaning, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh 1994.