Drinking from the spring of Paradise: the inscription of the Gunbad-i ‘Alaviyyan

The Gunbad-i ‘Alaviyyan is not the most famous building of the Iranian heritage, this is for sure. Considered to have been built around 1150, in the city of Hamadan (the Ancient Greek Ectabana), not much is known about the monument: no inscription provides the date or a name whatsoever. The traditional name is Gunbad-i ‘Alaviyyan, even if probably it was built not as a resting place, but as a khanqa.

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Exterior view from north, with the portal. Photo by Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom (archnet).

I started to look into this monument thanks to The Road to Oxiana, by Robert Byron, where the Gunbad is briefly described. In a previous post, I talked about this building, and its decoration, but unfortunately could not find anywhere the details of the inscription that one can see from the photos (which are not clear enough to attempt a reading on my own). While writing that blog post, I was disillusioned: maybe no one recorded the inscription. Even if Persian (or Iranian) art and architecture, of all ages, has been profusely studied, the inscriptions on Islamic monuments are not always easy to find in the usual books. As Sheila Blair writes “Works about epigraphy in Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia are scattered and diverse” (Blair 1998, p. 60). Add to this that the inscription I was looking for did not contain any valuable historical information: why would someone bother to mention it? Most probably it was a Qur’anic, or pious inscription. And this is frequently synonym to ‘disregarded’.

But someone did actually record the inscription.

In the first half of the 20th century, Hamadan was visited not only by Robert Byron but also by Ernst Herzfeld, one of the most famous archeologist of all time that studied, among other things, Persepolis. Byron and Herzfeld would meet there eventually, but this is another story. Ernst Herzfeld traveled throughout Persia (and in general in Central Asia and the Middle East) for roughly 15 years, taking notes, and drawing sketches of almost everything he visited. His notebooks, sketchbooks, and all the materials he produced in those years are kept in the Smithsonian Institution, that also digitized all the contents.

In a sketchbook, (Ernst Herzfeld Papers, Series 2: Sketchbooks, Subseries 2.01, Persia, 1923: Sketchbook 01, page 23), Herzfeld copied and transcribed the inscription of the Gunbad-i ‘Alaviyyan.

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Herzfeld’s sketchbook page with the inscription of the Gunbad-i ‘Alaviyyan. Content digitized by the Smithsonian.

Architectonically speaking

The inscription band that adorns the surface of the Gunbad-i ‘Alaviyyan runs around the upper part of the building, starting, it seems from the photos, on the left side of the portal (Eastern wall) and ending on the other.

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Photo of the Gunbad-i ‘Alaviyyan before the restoration. Unknown author (archnet).

As it is visible from a photo taken before the restoration of the Gunbad, the upper part of the Eastern wall (on the left side facing the portal), was destroyed and heavily damaged. Only on the Western wall is the inscription band still visible. If we assume that the inscription band would have run all around the monument, and we compare it with the length of the inscription that Herzfeld recorded, it is reasonable to think that there was another part of the inscription, that was lost. If that is the case, it would have been the initial part of the inscription band.

The inscription band is made of brick, and display a quite simple style of calligraphy: no particular decoration of the letters, no dots. The only decorative feature seems to be an elongated stem on the letter ح. Apart from that, nothing: the style is a plain, simple, angular Kufic. It’s hard to compare this inscription with those of other monuments, and even more so if we consider that previous studies and survey have determined the date of construction around 1150. But it is also a fact that the styles of Iranian inscriptions are unreliable for dating: “Assigning dates to particular epigraphic styles used in the eastern Islamic land is tricky. […] as the same monument can be assigned to different centuries on stylistic grounds.” And in this case, it might seem that the Gunbad-i ‘Alaviyyan was built waaaaaaay before than 1150.

Talking about content and context

The content of the inscription is Qur’anic: Q 76: 5-6. It is not the most typical text to my knowledge to be chosen for an inscription. But it matches the context anyway:

إن الأبرار يشربون من كأس كان مزاجها كافورا عينا يشرب بها عباد الله يفجرونها تفجيرا

Indeed, the righteous will drink from a cup [of wine] whose mixture is of Kafur, A spring of which the [righteous] servants of Allah will drink; they will make it gush forth in force [and abundance].

In this case, it is hard to say that the Qur’anic verse is clearly helping the understanding of the building. Probably, it sheds even more doubt.

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Allegory of Worldly and Otherworldly Drunkennes, folio from a Divan of Hafiz. Tabriz (Iran), ca. 1531-33. The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Arthur M. Sackler Museum.

About the content of the verses, it seems quite appropriate that this verses were chosen in case the building was a khanqah originally. In case you are asking yourself what a khanqah is, it is a building specifically designed for welcoming Sufis. And the clear reference to the cup of wine is not something at odd with Sufism and Sufi tradition. In Sufism the wine is a metaphor for the spiritual ecstasy: just think about the al-Khamriyyah, the “Wine Song” written by the Egyptian Sufi Ibn al-Farid (1181–1235 A.D.).

On the other hand, the reference to the Kafur (Camphor) is a reference to the Paradise. It is one of the spring of Paradise, where the believer will drink from. This makes the verse quite understandable also in a funerary context, even if personally, at this point and without any other in depth analysis, I would say that the first, khanqah-related interpretation can make more sense.

So, who built it and why?

As the name suggests, the Gunbad-i ‘Alaviyyan could have been built by or for the ‘Alaviyyan family, who ruled Hamadan for roughly 200 years. Hamadan was in fact under the Seljuk rule, who conquered the city in the first half of the 11th century, but virtually it was ruled by the ‘Alavi clan from 846 to 1058, and later by the ‘Ala al-Dawla family between 1058 to 1252.

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View from the West. On the upper part, the last part of the inscription is visible. Photo by Marie-Thérèse Ullens de Schooten (archnet).

Apparently, regardless the name that tradition has given this building, it is possible that the monument was designed originally as a khanqa. This would also explain the content of the inscription. But a conclusion cannot be drawn right here and right now – much more needs to be considered: a comparison with other monuments, inscriptions, a study on the Sufism in the area possibly, and probably also a study of the story of the city itself.

And I can’t help thinking that probably in that part of the damaged epigraphic band, all this could have been written.

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