Gunbad-i Surkh


Such classic, cubic perfection, so lyrical and yet so strong, reveals a new architectural world to the European.

In Maragha, on the 17th of October 1933, Byron visits three monuments: the observatory, a cave with altars (not better identified), and, last but certainly not the least, the Gunbad-i Surkh. Robert Byron’s fascination for tomb towers is once again evident in the long description he provides of this monument in his travelogue. In this case, though, Robert Byron does not mention the tomb tower by name, but from his words and accurate description is quite clear he was in front of the Gunbad-i Surkh.

Oblique view of the Gunbad-i Surkh. Photo by Robert Byron (via archnet).

Byron depicts the building vividly:

“I espied another twelfth-century tower just outside the gate, again of old strawberry brick, but square, and mounted on a foundation of cut stone. Three of the sides were divided each into two arched panels, in which the bricks were arranged in tweed patterns. The corners were turned with semicircular columns. On the fourth side, one big panel, framed in a curving inset, surrounded a doorway adorned with Kufic lettering and blue inlay. The interior disclosed a shallow dome upheld by four deep, but very low, squinches. There was no ornament here, and none was needed; the proportions were enough.”

This Seljuk tomb tower was built in 1147-1148 AD (542AH). It is the oldest of the five tomb towers that remain in Maragha and its importance is in the decoration and in the materials used.

The surfaces are decorated, as usual in the Iranian style of the period, thanks to the juxtaposition of the bricks. In the Gunbad-i Surkh, the bricks have been used to create different waves and patterns that highlight the different parts of the surface: the panels, the columns, the arches. Bricks have also been used in the inscription panels that, in Kufic script, decorate the outer surfaces, around the main entrance. Unfortunately, I could not find any detailed photo of the inscription, but Sheila Blair, in her important work The Monumental Inscriptions from early Islamic Iran and Transoxiana, mentions that the text contains Q 39:53. A text quite typical and understandable in a tomb tower. Translated it reads:

Say, “O My servants who have transgressed against themselves [by sinning], do not despair of the mercy of Allah . Indeed, Allah forgives all sins. Indeed, it is He who is the Forgiving, the Merciful.”

The same Qur’anic text is inscribed in the cenotaph of the Taj Mahal, and also in a monument Byron himself will visit shortly after this one: the Gunbad-i Pir-i ‘Alamdar, in Damghan. Too bad Byron could not read the inscription and link the two monuments.

Exterior detail showing corner pilaster and stone capital, and blue faience interwoven with brick. Photo by Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom (via archnet).


Still, the most interesting feature in this tomb tower’s decoration is the use of the faience: the appearance of mosaic faience in architectural decoration marks an important point of transition in the development of decorative styles in Central Asia and Iran. In the Gunbad-i Surkh the mosaic faience is employed in the decorative theme, and it’s one of the first examples we have.

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