a sudden reprieve, a blessing of water and rustle of leaves
The passage Robert Byron writes on the Nur al-Din Ni’matullah Vali Shrine is among the most poetic section of his travelogue. The entry is dated 25th of March 1934, and the writer, here, describes the night between the 24th and the 25th of March. The description of the shrine and its surroundings occupies the whole entry, making it one of the most beautiful parts of Byron’s travelogue, to me at least.
In the passage, Byron describes his night at Mahan, next to the shrine of Ni’matullah: in his description, the shrine becomes part of nature and Byron records carefully the light variations and the atmosphere around the shrine. Of course, he describes the shrine, but when he does that, is not the precise and informative description he usually gives:
The purple cushions on the judas trees and a confetti of early fruit-blossom are reflected in a long pool. In the next court is another pool, shaped like a cross and surrounded by formal beds newly planted with irises. It is cooler here. Straight black cypresses, overtopped by the waving umbrellas of quicker-growing pines, throw a deep, woody shade. Between them shines a blue dome crossed with black and white spiders’ webs, and a couple of blue minarets…A dervish totters out, wearing a conical hat and an embroidered yellow sheepskin. He leads the way past the tomb of the saint below the dome, through a spacious whitewashed hall, to a third and larger court, which has a second and larger pair of minarets at the far end. A last formal pool, and a mighty plane tree gleaming with new sap, stand outside the last gate. The country round is covered with vineyards, fields of ninepins full of clay cones to support the vines, as mulberries support them on the Lombardy Plain. A high range of mountains in a dress of snow and violet mist bounds the horizon.
Another special characteristic of Byron’s account is how the Shrine is set in the passage of time: from sunset till dawn, giving a vivid and Technicolor description of the monument and surrounding nature. The evening is described at length in the passage above.
After a while, it is night and “Suddenly the sky clears, and the moon is reflected three times, once on the dome and twice on the minarets. In sympathy, a circle of amber light breaks from the balcony over the entrance, and a pilgrim begins to chant”.
The entry ends with the morning: ” An arc of gold lights the blue dome and the sky is fleeced with pink”
Was it the monument that inspired Byron poetic vein, or the trees and birds? We do not know for sure but it is a fact that this mystical description is paired with the shrine of a mystic.
Nur al-Din Ni’matullah Vali, born in Aleppo in 1406, was a Sufi saint. He traveled a lot before settling down in Mahan, a village just outside Kerman. There, he established a dervishes order and died in 1431, aged over 100. Only 5 years after his death, the shrine was erected, ordered by a ruler of the Bahmanid dynasty, Ahmed I Vali. In any case, the building went under renovation and reconstructions in the following centuries: in 1601, Shah Abbas I ordered the renovation and reconstruction of the dome. Having become the shrine a popular pilgrimage site, the Qajar decided to add other courtyards around the shrine, in order to accommodate the increasing number of pilgrims. The Qajari reconstructions are dated in the period from 1848 to 1896.
The site, his relevance to the dervish community and more in general for Muslim pilgrims, probably inspired the lyrical description that Byron composed after his night at the site.
Lisa Golombek and Donald Wilber, The Timurid Architecture of Iran and Turan, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1988, 394-395
Arthur Upham Pope, “Timurid Architecture: b. Typical Monuments”, in 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. 1158-1159.
And archnet, ça va sans dire.