It is not a happy combination
On the 17th of February 1934, Byron visits Shiraz and its monuments. In particular, he records the Friday Mosque of the city, also known as Masjid-i ‘Atiq. As often, Byron is not at all enthusiast of the building, particularly of its decoration. As a whole, Shiraz does not make much an impression on him, as we can infer when he writes in his travelogue “The monuments of Shiraz are curious rather than important”.
In any case, his description of the Mosque goes as follows:
“the facing of the court in the Friday Mosque, itself in ruins, seems to cover masonry of great antiquity. A sort of stone tabernacle stands in the middle of the court, flanked by four fat round pillars built of cut stone. The tops of these, which now support nothing, are encircled with texts cut out of stone but surrounded by a blue background. This is the only example I have seen of stone and faience used together. It is not a happy combination, as one can tell from Sarre’s reproductions of Kona.”
Before talking about the ‘Kona’, let’s admit that the Friday Mosque of Shiraz was not in good condition when Byron visited it. To better understand its condition, here goes a brief history of the mosque.
After having been built in 875 by the Saffarid dynasty, the mosque had been restored, rebuilt and repaired various times. The major restoration/rebuilding project was carried out in the 17th century, and to that century dates the majority of what we can see today in this typical four-iwan mosque. It was severely damaged during an earthquake and when Byron visited it, those damages were still visible. It was not before 1935, thus when Byron was already back in England, that the mosque was restored.
The state of the mosque might have influenced Byron’s description, and his unwillingness to spend more time talking about the mosque and its decoration. Who knows if he would have had another opinion if the mosque were in good shape when he was visiting it.
Anyhow, something Byron does mention is the Khuda Khane (that he calls Kona). The Khuda Khane, literally “House of God”, is also called Bayt al-Mashaf, that means “Home of Qur’ans” (mashaf meaning ‘copy/manuscript of the Qur’an’). Its construction was ordered in 1351 by the Inju’id ruler Mahmud Shah (1325-1336). It also underwent severe damages after the earthquakes and was rebuilt and renovated starting from 1935 to 1954.
If you are maybe wondering why we have all these exact dates, well, it is because the walls of the mosque house a great number of inscriptions, many of them providing dates and recording carefully the construction phases. Together with them, also Qur’anic inscriptions are displayed, in some cases the Qur’anic passages being embedded in the foundation inscriptions.
As often happens, scholars have focused much more on the foundation inscriptions. Here, then, I would like to talk about the religious ones.
In the long foundation inscription of the Bayt al Mashaf, made of mosaic faience, we find the Q 24:36 that reads: “in mosques which Allah has ordered to be raised and that His name be mentioned therein; exalting Him within them in the morning and the evenings”. Even if the translation is “in mosques”, it is worth noticing that the Arabic text reads “fi buyut“, being buyut the plural of bayt, the very word used to name the building the inscription was written on. In any case, the clear reference to the houses (or mosques) that God ordered, makes the verse in this context quite understandable. [the same verse was also used in the Mosque al-Nuri in Mosul]
On the portal on the west side of the south iwan, there is another Qur’anic passage: Q 15:45-47, which carries a quite eschatological message: “Indeed, the righteous will be within gardens and springs. [Having been told], “Enter it in peace, safe [and secure]. And We will remove whatever is in their breasts of resentment, [so they will be] brothers, on thrones facing each other.” Indeed, this same passage can be found on an Iranian tombstone dating back to the 12th century: the tombstone of Fatima bint Zayd bin Ahmad bin ‘Ali, 535/1141. Even if the positioning of this inscription in a mosque is not totally strange, it is, anyway, the case that its content looks more suitable for a mausoleum.
Another quite interesting inscription is the one carved on an alabaster slab in the shape of a mihrab, containing within itself four smaller mihrab shapes. Wilber, in his preliminary survey of the inscription kind of dismisses it, saying that its inscription includes “the declaration of faith, the shahada, and several excerpts from Suras of the Qur’an”. …and I’m looking forward to reading it.
Sources and bibliography
As always, I encourage you to go to Archnet.org for additional images and information.
Lisa Golombek and Donald Wilber, The Timurid Architecture of Iran and Turan, Vol. I, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1988, p. 200.
Bernard O’Kane, Studies in Persian Art and Architecture, American University in Cairo Press, Cairo 1995, pp. 252, 267.
Arthur Upham Pope, “The Photographic survey of Persian Islamic Architecture”, in Bulletin of the American Institute for Persian Art and Archaeology, 7 (1934), pp. 21-38.
Donald N. Wilber, The Architecture of Islamic Iran: The Il Khanid Period, Greenwood Press Publishers, New York 1955, p. 183.
Donald N. Wilber, The Masjid-i ‘Atiq of Shiraz, Asia Institute, Pahlavi University, Shiraz 1972, particularly Appendix B, for the inscriptions. [available on Archnet]