Even from a quarter of a mile away I could see the difference in quality of its colour from that of the other courts
The Mosque of Gawhar Shad is one of the monuments that will accompany Byron throughout his whole journey in Iran and Afghanistan. It is part of the Shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad, that Byron spotted the first time on the 16th of November 1933. Anyway, it is not before the Christmas Eve of that same year that we have a more complete description. But also then, the author refrains and takes a decision: “I must and will penetrate this mosque before I leave Persia. But not now; I haven’t the initiative. It must wait till the spring, by which time perhaps I shall have found out more about Gohar Shad.“. And actually, he manages. At this point, it is also interesting to point out, passing by, how Byron is able to create a sense of authenticity in a travelogue written only after he returned to the UK.
Anyway, he manages to penetrate (well, we can discuss at length also about the word-choice here) the mosque on the 6th and the 7th of May 1934, the first time during the night, the second one in the morning. Entering the mosque was not permitted to a non-Muslim, this is why he and his friend and travel-mate Christopher Sykes had to pretend to be Muslim, with make up and dresses. Also here, we can discuss profusely on the going native, the faking of the other and the many Orientalist themes all condensed in this passage.
Anyway, once inside, Byron can really appreciate the mosque and its tile mosaic decoration, an art form that peaked during the Timurid era and that was deployed magnificently in the mosque commissioned by Gawhar Shad. Byron’s description becomes more poetic even:
“Glimpses of arabesques so liquid, so delicately interlaced, that they looked no more like mosaic than a carpet looks like stitches; of larger patterns lost in the murk above our heads; of vaults and friezes alive with calligraphy—these were its actual words. But the sense was larger. An epoch, the Timurids, Gohar Shad herself, and her architect Kavam-ad-Din, ruled the night.“
The next day, the 7th of May, Byron visits the mosque in the daylight. He describes the ‘vision’ of the tile mosaics in a beautifully lyric passage, that accounts also for the structure of the mosque:
“The whole quadrangle was a garden of turquoise, pink, dark red, and dark blue, with touches of purple, green, and yellow, planted among paths of plain buff brick. Huge white arabesques whirled above the ivan arches. The ivans themselves hid other gardens, shadier, fritillary-coloured. The great minarets beside the sanctuary, rising from bases encircled with Kufic the size of a boy, were bedizened with a network of jewelled lozenges. The swollen sea-green dome adorned with yellow tendrils appeared between them. At the opposite end glinted the top of a gold minaret. But in all this variety, the principle of union, the life spark of the whole blazing apparition, was kindled by two great texts: the one, a frieze of white suls writing powdered over a field of gentian blue along the skyline of the entire quadrangle; the other, a border of the same alphabet in daisy white and yellow on a sapphire field, interlaced with turquoise Kufic along its inner edge, and enclosing, in the form of a three-sided oblong, the arch of the main ivan between the minarets. The latter was actually designed, it says, by ‘Baisanghor, son of Shah Rukh, son of Timur Gurkani (Tamerlane), with hope in God, in the year 821 (AD 1418)’. Baisanghor was a famous calligrapher; and being the son of Gohar Shad also, he celebrated his mother’s munificence with an inscription whose glory explains for ever the joy felt by Islam in writing on the face of architecture.”
Regardless of the lyricism of this passage, our traveler wants to keep a sort of objectivity and wants to draw a line between what he is experiencing, and the pure taste of the Orient:
“Islam! Iran! Asia! Mystic, languid, inscrutable!!
One can hear a Frenchman saying that, the silly fool—as if it was an opium den in Marseilles. We felt the opposite; that is why I mention it.”
Byron had a fascination not only for the mesmerizing decoration of the mosque but also for the patron of the building: Gawhar Shad (transcribed by Byron as Gohar Shad). He writes about her life in the entry dated 13th of May 1934. There, Byron records the personal story of this prominent figure of Iranian history, and to underline his admiration, he compares Gawhar Shad to Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria: as it always happens with the monuments, also with people Byron likes tracing parallels between Iran and Europe. He also adds the quite racist and bigot remark “women of this kind are rare in Muhammadan annals”.
The passages that the author devotes to the description of the Gawhar Shad Mosque, his visits, and the mosque’s patron remind the reader that the book written by Byron is far more than a travelogue and that the description of a monument can be read on many different levels. This is one of the parts where Byron’s Orientalism and Imperialism feelings are most visible.
You cannot escape the fascination for the Orient (and Imperialism) if you come from early-20th-century England.
For further reading
Additional photos and information on the architecture of the Gawhar Shad mosque can be found of course on archnet.org
S. S. Blair and J. M. Bloom, The Art and Architecture of Islam 1250-1800, Yale University Press, New Haven 1994.
R. Byron, “Timurid Architecture”, in A. U. Pope, A Survey of Persian Art, Oxford University Press, London and New York 1939, vol. II, pp. 1103-1118.
L. Golombek and D. Wilber, The Timurid Architecture of Iran and Turan, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1988.