The Gunbad-i Qabus: the superlative beauty of a tomb tower

the Gumbad-i-Kabus ranks with the great buildings of the world

Finally! On the 24th of April 1934, Robert Byron finally visits the Gunbad-i Qabus, in Gurgan. Why do I say finally? Right before having the chance to visit the tomb tower of Gurgan, on the 23rd of April 1934, Byron explains that “[i]t was Diez’s picture of Gumbad-i-Kabus that decided me to come to Persia”. We did not know that at the beginning of his travelogue, but now that we do, we cannot but be as impatient as Byron about the visit.

 

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General view. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

As frequently happens, Byron has to fight to be granted the visit to the Gunbad-i Qabus:

“When I asked for permission to visit Gumbad-i-Kabus in Teheran, Jam, the Minister of the Interior, sent me a private message begging me to withdraw the request, since the place was in a military zone and he could not grant it. Hearing this, Pybus, our Military Attaché, offered to put in a word for us with the General Staff. But he had had no answer when we left, and we had come thus far on chance.”

In any case, Byron goes and visits the tomb tower of Gurgan.

The Gunbad-i Qabus is not only one of Byron’s dearest monuments. Its importance has been officially recognized by the UNESCO, having been listed in 2012 among the World Heritage Sites.

As the name suggests, it is a tomb tower, cylindrical, and slightly tapering, as Byron writes:

A tapering cylinder of café-au-lait brick springs from a round plinth to a pointed grey-green roof, which swallows it up like a candle extinguisher. The diameter at the plinth is fifty feet; the total height about a hundred and fifty. Up the cylinder, between plinth and roof, rush ten triangular buttresses, which cut across two narrow garters of Kufic text, one at the top underneath the cornice, one at the bottom over the slender black entrance.”

The tower is made of brick, Byron says “long and thin bricks”.

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Detail of the inscription. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

Its construction was ordered by Qabus himself in 1006-1007 CE, as we read in the Kufic inscription around the tower:

هذا القصر العالي – لامير شمس المعالي – الامير قابوس ابن وشمگير – امر به بنائه في حياته – سنه سبع و تسعين – و ثلثمائه قمريه و سنه خمس و سبعين و ثلثمائه شمسيه

“This tall palace for the prince Shams al-Ma’ali, Amir Qabus ibn Wushmgir ordered to build during his life, in the year 397 the lunar Hegira, and the year 375 the solar Hegira”

Qabus, the most famous Ziyarid ruler, whose honorific title Shams al-Ma’ali was given by the ‘Abbasid caliph, would have been murdered shortly after he ordered the construction of his own tomb tower, in 1012. Qabus was important not for his military achievements, which in fact were quite mediocre, but because of his cultural and literary significance: he was an astrologer, a poet, a calligrapher, and, even more important, a patron of scholars and writers.

Qabus was buried in the tomb tower he ordered. As Byron writes in his travelogue The body of Kabus used to hang there, suspended from the roof in a glass coffin”.

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Detail of the lower portion, with the epigraphic band. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

The Gunbad-i Qabus is important for numerous reasons: it is the major monument of the Ziyarid civilization, its conical roof is a prototype for the development of tomb towers in Iran, and the whole structure is a great achievement in the brick architecture and, as the UNESCO says its ” innovative structural design illustrates the exceptional development of mathematics and science in the Muslim world at the turn of the first millennium AD”.

And Byron was impressed, really impressed. So much impressed that he feels the urge to note down, at the end of the entry devoted to the Gunbad-i Qabus:

[Superlatives applied by travellers to objects which they have seen, but most people have not, are generally suspect; I know it, having been guilty of them. But rereading this diary two years later, in as different an environment as possible (Pekin), I still hold the opinion I formed before going to Persia, and confirmed that evening on the steppe: that the Gumbad-i-Kabus ranks with the great buildings of the world.]”

Sources

Arthur Upham Pope and Phyllis Ackerman (ed.), 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. , 967-974.

Sheila Blair, The Monumental Inscriptions in Early Islamic Iran and Transoxiana, Brill, Leiden 1991, pp. 63-65.

C. Edmund Bosworth, “Ziyarids”, in Encyclopaedia Iranica Online, October 2010 [available online (last accessed 5th Apr 2018)]

Archnet is a great source for photos and the UNESCO website gathers a lot of info over the monument.

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