Blaming the murderer: an inscription of the Ziyarat-i ‘Abd Allah Ansari

Everyone goes to Gazar Gah

After his visit to the citadel of Herat, where he fancied for a second about becoming a spy for His Majesty the King of England, on the 24th of November 1933, Byron took a cab that drove him to what he calls “the shrine of Gazar Gah”. In fact, the Ziyarat-i ‘Abd Allah Ansari, in Gazargah, is much more than a shrine. It is a funerary compound that comprises, besides the funerary shrine, the Zarnigar Khana (Gilded Room), a summer mosque, the Mir’s house, and a long strip of walled gardens that include an underground mosque, an ablution pool and a structure known as the Namakdan (Salt Cellar). Also, other buildings were once part of the complex, but they did not survive the 20th century.

Courtyard view of southwest wing and iwan. Photo by Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom (archnet).

Among the tombstones that are in the cemetery forecourt of the funerary shrine, there is the “Stone of the Seven Pens”, that Byron ‘relocated’, maybe by mistake, next to the Musalla Complex.

It is a pity then that Byron does not indulge more in a detailed description of this place.

As Byron points out, Gazargah and the funerary compound became, after the death of Abd Allah Ansari, a major pilgrimage center for Sunnis. It was Shah Rukh (that apparently built almost everything around) that commissioned the construction of the shrine, that was completed in 1425. The structure was then renovated in 1499, patron of this was Alishir Nava’i, as it was damaged six years earlier due to a flood.

Southwest iwan. Photo by Oskar von Niedermayer (archnet).

Khwaja ‘Abd Allah Ansari, was a Sufi saint, also known as the guardian pir (wise man) of Herat. He died in 1098 (Byron writes 1088), because some boys threw stones at him, while he was at penance, explains Byron. And his comments are quite sacrilegious, but nonetheless funny: “One sympathizes with those boys: even among saints he was a prodigious bore. He spoke in the cradle; he began to preach at fourteen; during his life he held intercourse with loon sheikhs, learnt 100,000 verses by heart (some say 1,200,000) and composed as many more. He doted on cats”.

Apparently, Byron is not much interested in defining the different structures that constitute the complex. He focuses on two aspects: the decoration and the inscription.

About the decoration, he notes the Chinese influences in the iwan of the shrine: “This was the period of the Chinese embassies, which may account for the patterns in the ivan”.

Detail of northeast iwan in shrine courtyard, with tombtones in front. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

His attention is also caught by one of the funerary inscriptions: the one of Muhammad al-Muzaffar, brother of Husain Baiqara, “whose inscription, rejecting funerary platitudes, informs posterity that he was murdered by his cousin Mohammad, son of Baisanghor.”

Unfortunately, I could not find any photo of the funerary inscription of Muhammad al-Muzaffar, nor any transcription or mention in other sources.

But it would be quite a text: imagine a funerary inscription that instead of glorifying the deceased, intentionally points out the murderer. Inscriptions never stop surprising you.

For further reading

On a detailed description of every structure of the funerary compound can be found, together with the images.

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.



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