The simple tomb-tower of Chelebi Oghlu

an octagonal tomb-tower of the thirteenth century

When Robert Byron is back to Sultaniyya, on the 12th April 1934, he does not only remember the first time he saw the Tomb of Uljaytu (that does not disappoint him, not even now that has visited many monuments), but visits other monuments, one of which is the Chelebi Oghlu tomb-tower. Byron has learned to know tomb towers throughout his journey: the Gunbad-i ‘Ala al-Din, the Gunbad-i Pir-i ‘Alamdar, and the Gundab-i Bastam, just to name a few. Maybe this is why Byron is not providing any detailed information on the monument. He simply writes: an octagonal tomb-tower of the thirteenth century known as that of Sultan Cheilabi”.

General view of the tomb tower. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

Even if this description looks short and to the point, it contains one major inaccuracy: the date of construction. Instead of dating back to the 13th century, as Byron states, the tomb tower is considered to have been built in the 14th century, around 1330.

The tomb tower has an octagonal plan and is topped by a small dome. It is entirely made of brick, and as commonly happens with Iranian tomb towers, the brick is not only the construction material but also the decorative element. The eight sides of the tomb are decorated, on the outside, by pointed-arch panels, recessed into a rectangular frame. On the sides of the pointed arch, it is possible to see hexagonal recesses, that originally contained decorated tiles, that have long been lost. The niches on each side are decorated by geometric brick lay up to half of their height.

Detail of the external brickwork. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

Byron recognizes the beauty of the decoration made of brick and writes: The brickwork […] still pointed as though built yesterday, excels the best work of those masters of European brick, the Dutch.

Byron did not visit the interior of the tomb tower. There, he would have found a hole in the ground, that connects to the crypt. In the inside, the walls are coated in plaster but are still decorated with pointed arches, both the eight wall faces and the sixteen sections of the zone of transition of the dome. The tomb tower contains a mihrab, decorated with muqarnas.

The khanqa, with the tomb tower visible behind the ruins. Photo by Marie-Thérèse Ullens de Schooten (archnet).

Something that Byron does not mention is that the tomb tower is not standing completely alone: just next to it there are the ruins of a small complex, a khanqa, to be precise, that is a Sufi hospice. The khanqa is heavily damaged, but it’s still visible the iwan of the mihrab and the qibla wall, covered with inscriptions. It is not clear whether the khanqa and the tomb tower were built simultaneusly, but it is probable that there is no connection between the two.

Sources and further reading

Archnet is the primary source for images and general information on the tomb-tower of Chelebi Oghlu.

Arthur U. Pope and Ackerman (eds.), A Survey of Persian Art, Soroush Press, Tehran 1977, p.1099.
Donald Wilber,  The Architecture of Islamic Iran, Greenwood Press, New York 1969, p.173.
Nomination file 1188, UNESCO World Heritage Center, pp. 22-23. [available online (last accessed: 28th March 2018)]


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