The chinoiserie of the Ganj-i Ali Khan Complex

an ugly building, and not so old, but retaining patches of mosaic

It is the 24th of March 1934, and Byron is still in Kerman, wandering around and looking for monuments. When writing about the city of Kerman, Robert Byron underlines how he found two noteworthy objects: the first is the mihrab of the Friday Mosque of the city, the second is the decoration of the Ganj-i Ali Khan Complex. It is amazing how Byron manages to consider the whole complex “an ugly building”, and yet is able to find some characteristic that catches his eye.

“The other [noteworthy object in Kerman] was the College of Ganj-i-Ali Khan, an ugly building, and not so old, but retaining patches of mosaic. These depict dragons, cranes, and other creatures unusual in Persian iconography, forming a kind of chinoiserie, though how Chinese ideas ever penetrated to this remote city is a mystery.”

The complex of Ganj-i Ali Khan was built in the late 16th/early 17th century. Ganj-i Ali Khan was the military leader and local governor of Kerman, Sistan, and Kandahar provinces, under the rule of the Safavid Shah ‘Abbas I. The complex comprises baths, a madrasa, a caravanserai, a mosque, a mint, cisterns, and shops. Quite a complex, indeed.

Ganj-i Ali was quite prolific when it comes to ordering buildings, particularly pertaining utilitarian architecture. He ordered the constructions of caravanserais (Zayn al-Din caravanserai in Yazd and the Kabutar Khan caravanserai) and cisterns in the area that he governed, but it is this complex his ‘masterpiece’.

 

IIR0487.jpg
Inner courtyard. Photo by Khosrow Bozorgi (archnet).

Yet, Robert Byron considered it ugly. Ugly apart from the decoration. The walls are covered with panels that Byron dubs “chinoiserie”: dragons, cranes, and creatures that do not belong to the Persian iconographic, but that instead are more common in China. Byron asks himself how such Chinese influences could have reached “this remote city”. Yet, Kerman was far from remote, or in anyway unimportant.

Throughout its history, Kerman has served as a relevant administrative city for the region, and also had military importance. This made it also significant for the economic development of the area: Kerman was the crossroad of communication and trade routes, being a major stop on the road to India.

Byron probably did not know that the city of Kerman, that he saw as remote and hardly relevant, had been in fact a key point in the exchanges between East and West. Considering this, the alleged influences of Chinese decoration make a lot more sense, don’t they?

In any case, even if Byron was impressed by the presence of this chinoiserie, it is a fact that he did not take any picture of what he was visiting.

Sources

Archnet provides photos and some more information on the Complex.

Mohammad-Ebrahim Bastani Parizi, “Ganj-‘Ali Khan”, in Encyclopaedia Iranica, December 2015, available online [last accessed: 15th March 2018]

Xavier de Planhol and Bernard Hourcade, “KERMAN ii. Historical Geography,” Encyclopædia Iranica, XVI/3, pp. 251-265, available online [last accessed: 15th March 2018]

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