Gunbad-i Haruniyya: before and after Byron’s visit

It alone survives of the splendours of Tus

The ancient city of Tus has a long and important history. Long before Robert Byron recorded his visit in his travelogue, on the 18th of November 1933, Tus had been one of the most important and flourishing cities in Iran. It was known to the Greek, who called it Susia, and Alexander the Great conquered it in the 4th century before Christ. It was later seized by the Arabs, under the Umayyads. Through centuries, many notable men were born in the city: al-Tusi, the astronomer of the Rasatkhana; Nizam al-Mulk, the Seljuk wazir patron of the southern dome of the Mosque of Isfahan; al-Ghazali, the mystic; and Firdawsi, author of the Shahnamah, whose mausoleum now dominates the town. But Firdawsi’s mausoleum was completed in 1934, the year of the millennium of his birth, just the year after Byron paid his visit to the city. The author of The Road to Oxiana, anyway, records the construction of the monument and the “peace in the unpretentious shrine”.

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General view of the Gunbad-i Haruniyya. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

At the time, it was another mausoleum that dominated the ancient city: “a massive domed mausoleum, whose brick is the colour of dead rose-leaves, [that] stands up against the blue mountains”. Byron does not record the name of the monument, but it is the Gunbad-i Haruniyya. When Byron was writing his travelogue, small information was available, and as the author writes “[n]o one knows whom this commemorated” and suggests that “from its resemblance to the mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar at Merv, it seems to have been built in the twelfth century”.

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Cross-section of the mausoleum. By E. Diez (archnet).

In fact, today we do have some additional information about it: possibly the owner of the mausoleum was the famous thinker, born in Tus, al-Ghazali. This theory is backed by the fact that a gravestone belonging to al-Ghazali was found in the vicinities of the monument, as reported on archnet. Still, there is no certainty about it.

Also, what Byron did not know was the probable dating of the monument: 14th century. In any case, no inscriptions are to be found on the surfaces of the monument to my knowledge.

Another thing that has changed from the time Robert Byron visited the mausoleum, is the dome: while in Byron’s photos we can see that the outer dome was missing, probably it collapsed, today this part of the monument has been re-built and the mausoleum, in general, has been extensively renovated.

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Exterior view looking West. Photo by Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom (archnet).

Sources
Further images and information on the architecture of the Gunbad-i Haruniyya can be found on archnet.org.

V. Minorsky, “Tus”, in The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Vol. X, Brill, Leiden 2000, p. 741.
A. U. Pope, “Architecture, Its Ornament, City Plans, Gardens”, in A. U. Pope, A Survey of Persian Art, Oxford University Press, London and New York 1939, 3rd edition, vol. III, pp. 1072-1077.

 

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