a ruined arch
In the entry dated 24th of December 1933 Byron mentions a number of monuments of Mashhad, that he missed during his first visit to the city: the Imamzada Khvajah Rabi’, the Masjid-i Shah, and the Musalla of the city.
It is not the first time Byron mentions a musalla: roughly one month before, he had visited the Musalla of Herat, or at least what remained of it. So, what is a musalla exactly? As Petersen explains in his Dictionary of Islamic Architecture, musalla means ‘a place where prayer is performed, although in practice it has come to refer to large open spaces outside cities for that purpose’. And in fact, also in the case of the Musalla of Mashhad, the place is outside the city center (considering it was built in 1680-81).
Being typically an open space designed to perform prayers during festivals, such as the Ramadan, the musallas tend to be quite simple. Frequently, the only architectonic part of a musalla is a wall indicating the direction of the prayer, i.e. the qibla wall. In fact, in this aspect, the Musalla of Mashhad is peculiar and more elaborate architectonically than the typical musalla. The structure that Byron briefly define ‘a ruined arch’ displays, in fact, three iwans, or better, a big iwan, that comprises a finely-decorated mihrab, flanked by two smaller spaces. Behind the two smaller iwans, there is also a big domed chamber.
The lavish decoration, even at the moment when Byron visited the Musalla, was heavily damaged, and one can only imagine how it must have been originally.
Framing the pointed arch of the opening of the main iwan, we find an inscription band.It is a foundation inscription: reading it, we know who built the monument, Shah Suleiman, and when, towards the end of the seventeenth century (1680-81).
Interestingly enough, these are not the only data the inscription provides: we also have the name of the author of the inscription. The name is Muhammad Husayn of Mashhad. Compared to other Islamic lands, where craftsmen’s signatures are rarely found, in Iran, this happens quite frequently. Nevertheless, it is not that common. These signatures, as Sheila Blair points out ‘are important social documents. In addition to identifying the work of individual[s], they help us to establish the career of craftsmen’. (Islamic Inscriptions, p. 51)
Robert Byron simply recorded the Musalla of Mashhad with a short phrase in his travelogue, but certainly, much more can be said of this monument.
References and short bibliography
The photos and main architectonic information on the Musalla can be found on archnet.org.
André Godard, The Art of Iran, Praeger, New York 1965, pp. 274-285.
Bernard O’Kane, Timurid Architecture in Khurasan, Mazdâ Publishers in association with Undena Publications, Costa Mesa 1987, pp. 20, 318.
Andrew Petersen, Dictionary of Islamic Architecture, Routledge, New York 1996, p. 208. [available online (last accessed: 16th Jan 2018)]