I heard of an old minaret, which I found before the police found me.
We cannot say that Robert Byron visited the Friday Mosque of Semnan. It is more correct to say that he passed by and took a photo, at least as long as we trust what’s written in his travelogue. Also, he does not seem to have had any interest in the mosque as a whole, even if it is considered one of the oldest in Iran. He simply wanted to see the minaret, and we cannot but agree with him.
His encounter with the Minaret of Semnan took place on the 13th of November 1933. He managed to take a couple of photos before the police forced him to leave. Byron did not plan to stay in Semnan: his presence there was a step-over, as testifies also the fact that his travel companions were “[drinking] tea in a brick caravanserai” while he went to look for the minaret. Also at the beginning of the 11th century, when the minaret was built, Semnan was a crossing point. The city was on the caravan route connecting Ray with Damghan and the Khorasan, and this position helped the city to flourish, even if its history is spotted with decline periods.
The minaret that Byron visits is a tapering cylinder of bricks, 28.50 meters tall. Originally it was built as a free-standing tower, and only later it was incorporated in the plan of the mosque. The base of the minaret is not squared, as it usually is. The tower is formed by a single long shaft, heavily decorated using bricks, following what Pope called the naked brick style. At the top, a balcony supported by a muqarnas cornice crowns the shaft.
Around the base of the minaret, and on the upper part of the shaft run two inscriptions: the Kufic styles of the two inscriptions are identical. The lower one is the foundation inscription, that reads:
بسم الله امر ببناء هذه المنارة الامير الجليل السيد ابو حرب بختبير بن محمد مولي امير المؤمنين
“In the name of God. The construction of this minaret was ordered by the revered Amir, Abu Harb Bahtiyar bin Muhammad. Client of the Commander of the Faithful”.
This Abu Harb Bakhtiyar commissioned other two monuments: the minaret of the Tarikh Khana Mosque and the Gunbad-i Pir-i ‘Alamdar, both visited by Byron. From the biography that Malikian-Chirvani retraced, it seems that this Bakhtiyar was a man that managed to exploit the political situation to climb the social ladder. The foundation inscription does not contain any exact indication of the construction date, but the reference to the patron as a ‘revered Amir’ suggests that the minaret can be dated to 421/1030, based on the biography of the patron.
The Qur’anic inscription runsaround the top of the minaret. The text contains Q 41:33, the last two words omitted:
[ومن أحسن قولا ممن دعا إلى الله وعمل صالحا وقال إننى [من السلمي
“And who is better in speech than one who invites to Allah and does righteousness and says, “Indeed, I am [of the Muslims.”]”.
The most interesting part of this inscription is the content related to the context. This is the first minaret in Iran where the inscription makes it clear that it was built exactly and solely to perform the ritual call to prayer (the adan). Even if it seems obvious, it is a fact that some of the towers and minarets built in Iran during the Seljuk era cannot be seen solely as minarets, and different functions and interpretations merge.
In this case, the two elements, inscription and minaret, complete and define each other, in a stunning example of a contextual use of Qur’anic inscriptions.
Too bad Robert Byron did not know this.
C. Adle, “Le minaret du Masjed-e Jame’ de Semnan circa 412-25/1030-34”, in Studia Iranica 4 (1975), pp. 177-186.
C. Adle and A. S. Melikian-Chirvani, “Les monuments du XIe siècle du Damqan”, in Studia Iranica, 1 (1972), pp. 229-297.
S. S. Blair, The Monumental Inscriptions from early Islamic Iran and Transoxiana, Brill, Leiden 1992.
J. M. Bloom, “The minaret before the Saljuqs”, in R. Hillenbrand (editor), 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.
A. U. Pope, “Architectural Ornament”, in A. U. Pope e P. Ackerman (editors), A Survey of Persian Art, Oxford University Press, London-New York 1967, III, pp. 1258- 1364.