‘From a distance, it resembles a ruined abbey’
The Friday Mosque of Varamin is the last monument Byron includes in his account under the 10th October 1933. Byron starts his brief description of the monument comparing it with the Tintern Abbey, in Wales. The only difference, according to Byron, the fact that the mosque ‘has a dome instead of a steeple’.
The monument seems to give Byron a sense of peace and strength: in his description ‘[t]he whole is of plain, café-au-lait brick, strong, unpretentious, and well-proportioned; it expresses the idea of content’. But the mosque’s importance is not about its proportions or its peacefulness. The Friday Mosque of Varamin, whose construction was ordered by Uljaitu’s son Abu Sa’id in 1332, is the earliest surviving example of the Mongol period, and it is a splendid example of the congregational mosque with four iwans and a domed chamber of the period. The structure with four iwans and domed chamber(s) has already been employed extensively in Iran, starting with the Seljuks. Anyhow, under the Ilkhanid rule, the proportions change: what distinguishes the Friday Mosque of Varamin from its Seljuk counterparts is its attenuated proportions, its small courts and the extensive use of tile mosaic.
The treatment of the surface is indeed an interesting feature of the Mosque of Varamin: the structure made of bricks is clad almost entirely with plaster, glazed and unglazed terracotta, and tile mosaics.
In general, the decoration is a predominant feature of the building, and if from a distance the surfaces look totally ‘of plain, café-au-lait’, the interior reveals what should once have been a lavish decoration. The portals of the iwans are decorated with blue terracotta tiles that form geometric arabesques. The mihrab on the southern qibla wall is lavishly decorated with flower patterns. Byron compares the stucco decoration of this mihrab with that of the Gunbad-i ‘Alaviyyan, that he visited some 8 days before this mosque. The comparison does not seem appropriate since the Gunbad-i ‘Alaviyyan is actually dated some 150 years earlier than the mosque: Byron anyhow goes on saying that ‘the same technique [is used]; but the design [in the Mosque], being later, is coarse and confused‘.
Being the first Friday Mosque of the Ilkhanid period, Byron could of course not notice that what he was visiting was a splendid, early example of four-iwan mosque by the Ilkhanids. The fact that he despises the mihrab decoration, also, is symptom of his own idiosyncrasies over Islamic art: going on in his travelogue it will become more and more clear how he prefers the Seljuk art: Seljuk architecture, writes Byron the 15th of June 1934, ‘attained a perfect balance between ornament and construction’.
Something that is not mentioned at all in Byron’s description, is the presence of inscriptions. Calligraphic friezes are visible in many parts of the mosques: they decorate the dome chamber, the iwans, and the mihrab. Byron himself takes some photos of the inscriptions.
The inscriptions are in different styles: the walls are decorated with square Kufic ornaments bearing the name of the Prophet Muhammad. The upper portion of the mihrab, instead, is decorated with a ornated Kufic frieze, whereas around the inner walls of the domed chamber runs a cursive calligraphic band. Unfortunately, the photos do not allow any coherent reading of the inscribed text.
Robert Byron, in general, will never pay much attention to the inscriptions, and his analysis will always concentrate more on the structure of the monument, rather than the single decorative features. His eye is more interested in the overall architectural shapes, missing in some instances the decorative details.
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