Gunbad-i Qabud

built of plum-red brick […] transferred as it were from an English kitchen garden to the service of Koranic texts

Robert Byron arrives in Maragha on the 16th of October 1933 where he visits and takes pictures of one of the three tombs that are to be found there: the Gundab-i Qabud.

Byron himself recognizes the beauty of this Seljuk tomb tower and of its decoration, judging from the way he records his visit:

“a fine polygonal grave tower of the twelfth century, which is known as the grave of the Mother of Hulagu and is built of plum-red brick arranged in patterns and inscriptions. The effect of this cosy old material, transferred as it were from an English kitchen garden to the service of Koranic texts, and inlaid with glistening blue, is surprisingly beautiful. There is a Kufic frieze inside, below which the walls have been lined with nesting-holes for pigeons.”.

Elevated view showing damaged dome. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

The tomb tower is a decagonal brick chamber, originally covered by two domes: an inner, spherical dome, surmounted by a higher dome in the form of a polyhedral cone, similar to the majority of tomb towers of the period built in Iran and Azerbaijan. The domes collapsed, and now, only the base of the outer dome is visible.

The most characteristic part of the building is the surface decoration. The external surfaces are completely covered with interlacing polygonal patterns made of bricks. Above each the panels decorated with such patterns, a pointed arch completes the decoration. The tympanum of each arch is carved with a three-tier muqarnas. All over, the bricks and mosaics create a decoration of serpentine patterns. The decoration of the monument relates it to another tomb tower, built some 10 years earlier, in 1186: the Tomb of Mu’mina Khatun located in Nakhchivan, 200 km north of Maragha.

Exterior detail of brick ornamentation. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

An inscription band above the pointed arches, that runs around the chamber, complete the decoration. The inscription is made of bricks, just as the rest of the decoration on the outer surface. The content of the inscription is Qur’anic, in particular, Q 2:26:

“Indeed, Allah is not timid to present an example – that of a mosquito or what is smaller than it. And those who have believed know that it is the truth from their Lord. But as for those who disbelieve, they say, “What did Allah intend by this as an example?” He misleads many thereby and guides many thereby. And He misleads not except the defiantly disobedient”

This is not the only inscription on the monument. The tomb tower displays on the inside three other inscriptions. One, carved just above the entrance, is the foundation inscription, which is now damaged, that contains the date of the building: 593 AH (1196/1167 AD).

Detail of the external decoration. Photo by Hamid Abhari (archnet).

More interestingly for me, though, are the two Qur’anic inscriptions that are carved on the interior walls. The first inscription runs around the zone of transition of the dome. It is carved in the plaster that covers the surface, in Nashki style. It contains the verses Q 67:1-5:

“[1] Blessed is He in whose hand is dominion, and He is over all things competent – [2] [He] who created death and life to test you [as to] which of you is best in deed – and He is the Exalted in Might, the Forgiving – [3] [And] who created seven heavens in layers. You do not see in the creation of the Most Merciful any inconsistency. So return [your] vision [to the sky]; do you see any breaks? [4] Then return [your] vision twice again. [Your] vision will return to you humbled while it is fatigued. [5] And We have certainly beautified the nearest heaven with stars and have made [from] them what is thrown at the devils and have prepared for them the punishment of the Blaze.”

The third Qur’anic inscription is to be found in a plaster panel carved on the wall of the Greek-cross crypt. Also in this case, the text is in Nashki style, and it contains the verses Q 55:26-27:

“[26] Everyone upon the earth will perish, [27] And there will remain the Face of your Lord, Owner of Majesty and Honor.”

Photo by Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom (archnet).

The calligraphic styles of the inscriptions differ: the outer one is in Kufic, the other two in Nashki. This is anyhow quite understandable when one considers the materials which the inscriptions are made of. Apart from the formal difference, the three inscriptions clearly form a cohesive and consistent epigraphic program: God guides the souls to commit good or bad acts and judges the deeds of the human beings as the creator of everything that exists. In the end, in the crypt, the visitor is reminded that everything will perish, and everything is in God’s own will.

Whose tomb was this? Often, the Gundab-i Qabud is attributed to the Christian mother of Hulagu, the Mongol ruler who conquered Iran in the thirteenth century. Robert Byron also states it in his book. This theory, anyway, has been doubted on the basis of the Qur’anic inscriptions that decorate the building. Still, one must acknowledge that the inscriptions, even if Qur’anic, do not have contents that apply only to Muslims: they are generic verses on death, God will, and afterlife: three concepts that perfectly apply also to Christian eschatology.

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