The dream of the Rowze-i Sharif

on

[it] owes its existence to a dream

On the 27th of May 1934 Byron visits and describes the Mausoleum of Hazrat Ali (most commonly called Rowze-i Sharif) in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan, and two smaller mausoleums next to it.

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The Rowze-i Sharif. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).
THE LEGEND

The passage Byron dedicates to the Mausoleum opens with a historical account of how it was erected in the first place. And the account that Byron gives is remarkably reliable, considering itis based on the local tradition. Yet, this local tradition is recorded faithfully by our dear traveler. First of all, let’s specify that the tradition wants the mausoleum to be the resting place of Ali bin Abi Talib, the fourth Caliph, who died in 661 CE. A legend wants that the body was moved at one point from the original resting place in Najaf to a secret tomb near Balkh, in Afghanistan, where it was found, quite fortuitously, by a mullah of the village. Byron gives a slightly different account. According to him, the report that the body of Ali bin Abi Talib was there came to Balkh from India, but a mullah of the city denied it, maintaining that the body of the fourth Caliph was in Najaf. It was Ali himself that made the mullah change his mind, appearing one night in a dream, and explaining where he had been buried. Once the grave was found, Sultan Sanjar, decided to build a shrine. It was 1136 CE.

The original mausoleum was probably destroyed during the Mongol invasions, in the first half of the 13th century (according to Byron, it was destroyed by Genghis Khan). It was rebuilt under the Timurid sultan Husain Baiqara, and the mausoleum that we see today dates back to that reconstruction, of 1480-1 CE. Nonetheless, the monument has undergone extensive restoration in the modern era (20th century), especially as it has become a popular pilgrimage site among Shi’i Muslims, particularly in the period of the Nuroz (the Iranian celebration for the New Year).

THE MONUMENT

Byron writes that the exterior of the monument is not such a big issue: the plan, according to Byron, was kind of a copy of the Musalla of Gawhar Shad, and the tiles that decorate the façade and exterior walls are described as a coarse geometric mosaic of white, light blue, yellow, and black.” But, all in all, Byron admits, the result of the original construction plus the later additions, is not that bad, and he resorts, as he frequently does, to a comparison to European architecture: All the same, the group as a whole is not unpleasing; it might be described as a cross between St Mark’s at Venice and an Elizabethan country house translated into blue faience.

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View of the Rowze-i Sharif. Photo by Oskar von Niedermayer (archnet).

In his description of the monument, particularly of the exterior, Byron underlines how things have changed from the visit of Niedermayer, who is Oskar von Niedermayer, who made a research trip in the area with Ernst Diez between 1912 and 1914, and who wrote the book Under the scorching sun: Iran war experiences of the German expedition to Persia and Afghanistan (Dachau, 1925). This, once again, makes the readers aware of the fact that Byron went there well prepared, even if in Byron’s narrative everything seems to happen without anticipation and without following any plan.

Another thing that Byron mentions, are two smaller shrines that stand nearby the shrine of Rowze-i Sharif, which he does not like either, anyway. Their domes have fallen, but each retains panels of mosaic round the drum, ugly in colour owing to an excessive pinkish ochre.” These to shrines were photographed by Byron, and have long been destroyed, by time most probably. They dated back to the 15th century. And here again, the importance of Byron’s account and his photographic reportage of the monuments emerges.

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Two fifteenth-century shrines, demolished. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

Sources:

Lisa Golombek and Donald Wilber, The Timurid Architecture of Iran and Turan, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1988, pp.  336-37.

Archnet, as always, has a detailed description of the monument, and many photos.

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