Gunbad-i Pir-i ‘Alamdar

inscribed and dated as built in the eleventh century

On the 13th of November 1933, while taking a photo of the Gundab-i Pir-i ‘Alamdar in Damghan, Robert Byron probably did not realize he was in front of the oldest monument of Damghan. He recorded this tomb tower together with the Gunbad-i Chihil Dukhtaran, devoting to the two monuments a sentence or two. Not even mentioning the names.

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Exterior view with adjacent structures. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

In fact, the Pir-i ‘Alamdar deserves much more than that. As Sheila Blair writes it “offers a tempting array of treats for the epigrapher”. But it’s not only this: when we read the inscriptions of the Pir-i ‘Alamdar, a whole set of connections emerges. The Pir-i ‘Alamdar is linked in particular ways to other monuments.

It is a quite simple cylindrical tower, crowned by a low hemispherical dome, which is set in from the edge of the cornice, making it visible only at a distance. But let’s focus on the inscriptions and how they link the Pir-i ‘Alamdar to other monuments of the area, but not only.

The foundation inscription and its simple style

The foundation inscription in interlaced Kufic is in a band running around the top of the cylinder, just below the corbels of the roof. It identifies the building, its patron, and the date of construction.

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Detail of the foundation inscription (the basmala). Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

The text contained in the band reads:

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم هذه القبه قصر الحاجب السعيد ابى جعفر مجمد بن ابرهيم قدس الله روحه امر ببناءها ابنه بختيار عمل على بن احمد بن الحسين بن شاه البنا بن البناء سنة سبعة عشر واربع مائه

Translated by Sheila Blair:

Basmala. This tomb (qubba) is the palace (qasr) of the fortunate governor Abu Ja’far Muhammad bin Ibrahim, may God sanctify his spirit. His son Bakhtiyar ordered its construction. The work of ‘Ali bin Ahmad bin Husayn bin Shah, the builder son of the builder [?], in the year 417 [1026-1027].

The word Pir typically refers to an old venerated person, and sometimes to a saint. In this case, the word is used to refer to the tomb of the venerated man, the father of Bakhtiyar. The names of the father and the son are treated differently in the inscription: whereas the reference to the father, Abu Ja’far Muhammad bin Ibrahim, carries titles, the name of Bakhtiyar carries none. This points out that the son, at the time the tomb tower was built, was of a lower rank than his father. Abu Ja’far is called “the fortunate” (al-sa’id), which was commonly used to indicate the deceased in funerary inscriptions. Melikian-Chirvani and Adle point out that the father of Bakhtyar was already deceased when the tomb tower was built. Another title Abu Ja’far carries is al-hajib, translated as “governor”.

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Exterior detail of epigraphy. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

As said, the son Bakhtyar, that ordered the construction of the monument for his father, at the time was of a low rank, but soon this would have changed. In the inscriptions of the other two monuments he commissioned, the minarets of Simnan and of the Tarik Khana, we can learn that he rose to a higher rank.

The tomb (al-qubba) is defined “the palace” of the defunct (al-qasr). This word, qasr, in a tomb tower, can be traced back to the Gunbad-i Qabus, a monument that Abu Ja’far and Bakhtyar undoubtedly knew, as they served under the Ziyarid suzerainty.

Interestingly, the inscription contains the name of the builder: a man called ‘Ali bin Ahmad bin Husayn bin Shah, the builder. The great-grandfather name is quite unclear, but, as Sheila Blair suggests, it is possible that it is to be read as al-banna’ bin al-banna’, thus “the builder son of the builder”: it is indeed probable that in that period the building trade in Damghan was passed down from father to son.

The style of the script is quite simple: a plain Kufic with beveled and bifurcated stems and tails. This simplicity makes the inscription quite easy to read. The readability is understandable if we consider that the inscription contains information over the construction of the building, something that cannot be guessed but needs to be read.

The pious inscription and its simplicity

Over the door, a stucco band is carved in relief. The standard, angular Kufic is clear, legible, Blair says it is “even stolid”. The text it contains is only

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم الملك لله

Which is “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. Dominion belongs to God”.

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Detail view of the portal semidome with inscription. Photo by Josephine Powell (archnet).

This simplicity, which makes the inscription easily readable to everyone, clearly contrasts with the “baroque” style of the Qur’anic inscription that we find inside the circular tower.

The Qur’anic inscription and its complexity

Painted on the plaster covering the interior walls, an inscription containing Q 39:53 runs around the tomb chamber. 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 invocation to God’s mercy for sinners makes this verse appropriate for a funerary context. This is not the only instance of this verse used in a tomb tower or in a mausoleum. Gunbad-i Surkh, in Maragha, visited by Byron on the 17th of October 1933, contains exactly the same text. This verse is also inscribed in the cenotaph and interior of the Taj Mahal, that Byron despised while writing about the Gunbad-i ‘Alaviyyan.

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Interior with painted inscription at base of cupola. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

If you are not used to painted inscriptions, consider that anyway this is not an isolated case: a contemporary example is the Duvazdah Imam (Shrine of the Twelve Imams) in Yazd, that Byron will visit later on. This means that the patron was acquainted with the style used also in neighboring areas. The painted inscriptions remained popular in Iranian area also in the later periods and became a standard architecture feature, particularly under the Ilkhanids.

The style of this inscription is quite complex, the script being between an interlaced and a bordered Kufic. This complexity hinders the legibility of the inscription. It is anyway important to note that the inscription contains Qur’anic text, something clearly known and recognizable for the majority of people at the time. This can explain the reason for such complexity.

The inscriptions on the surfaces of the Pir-i ‘Alamdar present indeed quite a treat for the epigraphers. Their positions and different styles are interesting for the discourse on the readability and legibility of the epigraphic program: in a way, the style of the inscription adapts according to the content, whether it is already ‘known’ or not to the observers. This can explain the difference in styles between the foundation and the Qur’anic inscriptions.

On the other hand, the inscriptions on this monument underline how the Pir-i ‘Alamdar is connected to other monuments and how it cannot be seen and studied as a single monument, but in connection and dialogue with others.


Sources:

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.

Further photos and information can also be found on archnet.org.

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