The Tomb of Uljaytu or the Dome of Sultaniyya

One thinks of Brunelleschi

The Tomb of Uljaytu is the first great monument Robert Byron saw in Persia as he would recall 6 months later his first visit, on the 12th of October 1933. On that occasion, Byron praise the monument as an example of Central Asian greatness and virility [sic!].

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Exterior view of the Tomb of Uljaytu. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

The ‘gigantic memorial’, in the eyes of the traveller, was used as ‘the prototype for the Taj [Mahal] and a hundred of other shrines’. Yet, in Byron’s own words, the monument is not beautiful because of the perfection or grace of its forms, on the contrary: ‘the graces are sacrificed to the idea, and the result, imperfect as it may be, represents the triumph of the idea over technical limitations’. The idea behind the architecture is thus more important than the final result.
All this, written by Byron when the author was just at the beginning of his long travel throughout the region. Nonetheless, on the 12th of April 1934, exactly six months after his first visit, the traveler records ‘I had no standard of comparison then, and I was afraid it might disappoint me now. It does not’.

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Exterior detail, corner of upper gallery with muqarnas and glazed tile ornament. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

The Tomb of Uljaytu, also known as the Dome of Sultaniyya, is all that is left of the city, Sultaniyya “the Imperial”, founded by the Il-Khan Arghun around 1285, and declared as the capital by his son, Sultan Uljaytu, in 1313.
The tomb was originally part of a bigger complex. It is an enormous octagonal space surmounted by an egg-shaped dome ringed by eight minarets. The facade is enriched by the arcades, running around the perimeter of the domed chamber.

The importance of this monument is underlined also by the attention Pope gives to the Dome of Sultaniyya in his Survey. To the Dome, the author and editor of the Survey dedicates one full chapter, something that rarely happens. Nevertheless, much more attention is given to the historical and architectural part, whereas the decoration is quite overlooked. The inscriptions are not even considered. Which is a pity, since they prove to be so important.

The decoration in two phases and how the inscriptions can help us

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Interior view, recess with carved stucco ornament on arch soffit. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

What is most interesting in the monument, still, is the decoration. On the one hand, the external decorations: they resemble closely contemporary manuscript illumination which suggests that the Il-Kahinid used provided patterns on different scales, both in architecture and in manuscript.
On the other hand, the interior decorations show the history of the monument and how the tomb was decorated in two different phases.
The interior decoration was realized at first using bricks and tile, and afterward, a second layer of decoration was done, over the first one, using plaster.

The first theories attributed the redecoration to the Safavids.
A second theory saw the changing in the decoration as linked to the change in the use of the building. According to this theory, the monument was designed at first as the mausoleum of Uljaytu, yet, shortly after the beginning of its construction, Uljaytu decided to make it a shrine for the Shii Imam ‘Ali. According to another version, he wanted to bring there the bodies of both ‘Ali and Husayn to the city, so that Sultaniya could become a center of pilgrimage. Afterwards, the plan of making it a shrine was reconsidered, due to the Sultan’s conversion to Sunnism (again) and the building went back to be the mausoleum of the ruler.

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Exterior view with archaeological remains in foreground. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

The fact that there is the funerary chapel beyond the southern wall, a mihrab included on the qibla wall of this chapel; and externally, the prioritization of the exterior wall facing Mecca, with more opulent decoration, reinforce for someone this theory. Also, a religious monument, the shrine, would have been more lavishly decorated, than the ‘secular’ mausoleum of the ruler. In fact, even if the last point can be valid, the fact that the qibla wall and the exterior wall facing Mecca are more decorated, is not strange or unique: it happens almost with every monument.

The inscriptions, though, can help us clarify the construction (and decoration) phases of the monument. As Sheila Blair pointed out, the Dome of Sultaniya contains an immense quantity of epigraphical material, and many of its inscriptions are legible.

The most plausible interpretation of these two decoration phases is the one based on the inscriptions that can be found on the monument. The inscriptions provide three fixed moments in the history of the Dome of Sultaniya. In 1310 the exterior decoration was complete. In 1313 the building was dedicated and by this time, the first, brick-and-tile decoration, was finished. The redecoration was ordered sometime before December 1316, when Sultan Uljaytu died. These dates do not correspond to any shift in piety or taste: from historical analysis, it appears that Uljaytu converted to Shiism before starting the construction of the mausoleum, and no reliable source informs about a re-conversion to Sunnism in those years.

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Interior detail, small recess with painted ornament and epigraphy. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

Most likely, the redecoration was ordered to commemorate the brief interlude when Uljaytu was recognized protector of the Holy Cities of Arabia: this is clear from the reading of the Qur’anic inscriptions and how they are set into context by Sheila Blair in her article “The epigraphic program of the Tomb of Uljaytu at Sultaniyya: meaning in Mongol architecture”.

Regardless why and how the monument was built, the Dome of Sultaniyya remains one incredible and important landmark, even more so, it is the only witness of the city as imagined by Uljaytu. In Byron’s words,  ‘against the flat desert, pressed about by mud hovels, this gigantic memorial of the Mongol Empire’ witnesses the ‘virility’ of the Mongols. 

As William Dalrymple notes, Uljaytu intended Sultaniyya to be ‘the largest and most magnificent’ city in the world but that the dream ‘died with him’ and is now ‘a deserted, crumbling spread of ruins’.

Sources

S. S. Blair and J. M. Bloom, The Art and Architecture of Islam 1250-1800, Yale University Press, New Haven 1994, pp. 7-8.
S. S. Blair, “The epigraphic program of the Tomb of Uljaytu at Sultaniyya: meaning in Mongol architecture”, in Islamic Art, 2 (1987), pp. 43-96. [available online]
G. Michell, Architecture of the Islamic World, Thames and Hudson, London 1978, p. 257.
A. U. Pope, A Survey of Persian Art, Oxford University Press, London and New York 1939, vol. II, pp. 1103-1118.
The website sultaniyya.org contains an updated and vast list of articles and essays over the history of the city and its dome.

Further information and images to be found on archnet.org.

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