The Imamzada of Khvajah Rabi’ by Byron, Yate, and Pope

It suits my mood.

After having gone as far East as Herat, Afghanistan, around Christmas 1933 we find Robert Byron once again in Mashhad, where he had already been in the first half of November 1933.
Between late November and mid-December 1933, Robert Byron tried to move further East, to Turkestan, but bad weather and bad health conditions made him desist. As Byron himself writes down on the 3rd of December at Qal- i Naw, in North-West Afghanistan, about 140 km North-East from Herat:

“Diarrhoea has turned to dysentry. I must go back. It may be cowardice. I prefer to call it common sense. In any case the difference is lost in the disappointment. However, I have discovered the journey can be done, which no one knew before. The weather has cleared, which makes my resolve more difficult. ”

On the 11th of December, in Herat, he writes: “Turkestan was my objective […]. It still is. I shall go back to Persia and wait for the spring.”
After such stressful journey, we can imagine how pleasant should have been for Byron staying every day in front of the peaceful shrine of Khvajah Rabi’, as he writes under the entry dated 24th of December 1933. Having this in mind, we can better understand why Byron describes the shrine as such an idyllic place.

IMG08773
View of the Shrine of Khvajah Rabi’. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

What Byron writes about the mausoleum, is also important from a historical point of view. As frequently happens with the monuments Byron encounters in his journey, today they are in precarious or neglected conditions.

The Imamzada of Khvajah Rabi’ is certainly not the most famous monument in Iran, and many have hardly heard of it. Still, it is quite important, historically and architecturally.

An inscription dated 1672 claims that the statesman Mirza Sadr ad-Din commissioned the building, but most probably he only restored it. In fact, as Byron correctly writes in his travelogue, the shrine was built by Shah Abbas in 1621 (in fact, Byron writes 1622).

The foundation of the mausoleum is recorded in an inscription that Yate, in his book Khurasan & Sistan, translates as  follows:

“The originator of this sublime edifice (firmly) founded as the sky, and the builder of this ground structure whose (pinnacles) touch the heavens, is his Majesty the King of the Kings of the World, the Sovreign of Mankind, the Protector of the Countries of God, the Defender of Men, the Shadow of God, the dust of the threshold of the Prophets, the dog of the porch of Ali, the propagator of the true creed of the Innocent Imams, the King, son of the King, the Emperor, son of the Emperor, Shah Abbas Husaini, Musawi, Sfavi. Completed in 1031 H. (a.d. 1621), under the care and supervision of the most mean and humbke servant, Ulugh Razavi.”

The shrine is the mausoleum of Khvajah Rabi’, revered as one of Ali’s companion. For this exact reason, it is possible that Shah Abbas did not build the shrine from scratches: probably a building existed prior to the one promoted by Shah Abbas. The first structure could have been built just after Khwajah Rabi’ was dead: if we take for legitimate what Yate writes, Imam Reza himself paid a visit to the resting place of Khvajah Rabi’.

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Detail of the decoration. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

Yate translated another ‘modern’ inscription, which has an unusual content: a curse against whoever tries to ruin the shrine.

“Let it be known to the frequenters, both high and low, of this paradise-like ground, that if any of them do the least injury or damage to this holy place, either to its building or to its trees, may the curse of God and the Prophet fall on him, and may he be counted as one of the murderers of Imam Husain, and may he be deprived of hus share of happiness both in this world and the next. Dated 1257 H. (A.D. 1841)”

Yet, as already mentioned, today the shrine is not in a good shape. For this exact reason, The Road to Oxiana is useful to reconstruct the decoration: the tiles that decorated the walls are now in despair, and the original splendor can be only deduced from the historical photos and the description Byron himself makes of the monument.

“The gay tiles, turquoise, lapis, violet, and yellow, have a singular melancholy among the bare trees and empty beds a-flutter with dead leaves. ”

Architecturally,  the structure of the shrine of Khvaja Rabi’ can be compared to the one of another mausoleum that Byron visited around Mashhad: the Qadamgah shrine.

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Detail of the decoration. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

But Byron and Yate are not the only ones that talk about the monument in the early decades of the 1900s. Arthur Upham Pope analyzed the architecture of the Imamzada Khvajah Rabi’. According to him, the form of the mausoleum could have been influenced by the ancient fire temples, the characteristic Zoroastrian monument. And of course one can recognize the two main features of the fire temple in the shrine: the dome and the square room. But Pope’s analysis links the Imamzada not only to the traditional Persian architecture: it goes far beyond. He also suggests that this mausoleum could have influenced the design of no less than the Taj Mahal.

All the inscriptions and architectural references aside, what remains is a shrine, in the middle of paradise-like gardens, as the 19th-century inscription suggests. And we can clearly understand Byron when he writes: ““Every morning I take a two-horse cab to the shrine of Khoja Rabi, where I sit and draw, at peace with the world, as long as the short winter days allow”.


Sources and (short) bibliography
On archnet.org, valuable sources of additional information about the shrine’s architecture, you can find the photos of the mausoleum, the majority of which by Robert Byron.
Arthur Upham Pope and Phyllis Ackerman ( eds.), A Survey of Persian Art from Prehistoric Times to the Present. Vol. 3, Architecture, Its Ornament, City Plans, Gardens, 3rd ed, Soroush Press, Tehran 1977, pp. 1211-1212.
Charles Edward Yate, Khurasan and Sistan, William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh and London 1900, pp. 398-400. [available online at archive.org]

 

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