its round squat pillars recall an English village church of the Norman period
The last monument Robert Byron visits in Damghan on the 13th of November 1933 is the Tarik Khana Mosque, that he compares to an English village church. Byron loves comparing Iranian buildings to more familiar architectural forms: it already happened, for instance, with the Mosque of Varamin, compared to the Tintern Abbey.
In his description of the Tarik Khana mosque, Byron notes that the building is the oldest of the one he visited that day (the minaret of Semnan, the Gunbad-i Chihil Dukhtaran, and the Gunbad-i Pir-i ‘Alamdar): the Tarik Khana mosque is, in fact, the oldest monument surviving in Damghan, and one of the oldest extant congregational mosques in Iran. Its construction dates back to the 3rd/9th century. It is regarded as the foremost example of hypostyle mosques in Iran.
What Byron writes about the mosque in his travelogue is interesting: “[it] must have inherited their unexpected Romanesque form from Sasanian tradition. The whole of Islamic architecture borrowed from this tradition, once Islam has conquered Persia. But it is interesting to see the process beginning thus crudely, before it attains artistic value”. This paragraph makes it clear what Byron thinks about the origins of Islamic art as a whole. But let’s focus on this mosque: if we carefully read what Byron writes, it is quite obvious that he sees this mosque as an early stage, without any artistic value.
Another interesting feature of this description is that Byron does not mention at all the minaret and does not even take a photo of it.
The minaret is the third monument Abu Harb Bakhtiyar bin Muhammad commissions in the area, after the Gunbad-i Pir-i ‘Alamdar and the minaret of Simnan. This one was commissioned by the patron just after the Pir-i ‘Alamdar. By the time of the construction of the Pir-i ‘Alamdar, Bakhtyar did not have any particular rank, but soon after, he started to climb the social ladder.
This is even clearer when we read the inscription that decorates the minaret of the Tarik Khana.
The only inscription of the minaret is the foundation band, that reads:
بسم الله امر ببناء هذه المنارة الحاجب الجليل ابو حرب بختيار بن محمد فى ولاية الامير السيد الاجل فلك المعالى اعز نصره
Translated by Sheila Blair as follows:
In the name of God. The exalted governor Bakhtyar bin Muhammad ordered the construction of this moment under the sovreignty of the amir, the most exalted lord, Falak al-Ma’ali, may his victory be glorified.
The reference to the victory of Falak al-Ma’ali helps dating the minaret to 418 or 419 (hegira, of course). If we consider it built in 418, it can point to the recognition of Ziyarid sovereignty on the land. On the other hand, if we consider the minaret as built in 419, the victory of Falak al-Ma’ali refers to the invasion of the Ziyarid territory by Mahmud of Ghazna, who had been paid to leave.
It’s interesting that, when in the inscription on the Pir-i ‘Alamdar, Bakhtiar carried no titles, whereas his father was called al-hajib, the “governor”, in this foundation inscription, Bakhtyar has the title of “exalted governor” (al-hajib al-jalil), meaning that the son succeeded his father in the role.
If the styles of the inscriptions of the minaret of the Tarik Khana and the one of the Pir-i ‘Alamdar are to be compared, it seems clear that the two inscriptions are similar. This would suggest that Bakhtyar decided to build the minaret of the congregational mosque of Damghan as soon as he was appointed as the governor, as a pious act. As soon as the masons Bakhtyar recruited for the tomb tower of his father had finished that project, they were moved to the new project of the minaret.
Robert Byron’s 13th November 1933 was full of monuments. Unfortunately, he did not know the connections between the minarets, tomb towers, and mosques he was visiting.
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 info and images can be found on archnet.org.
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