Byron and the Shrine of Khoja Abu Nasr Parsa

An unknown force seems to be squeezing it upwards.

It is the 30th of May 1934 when Byron writes in his travelogue that he is in Balkh, where he spent the whole day. In this entry, Byron also describes a monument: the Shrine of a spiritual leader, that died in 1460 c.e.: Khoja Abu Nasr Parsa.

Before talking about the monument and the description Byron gives, let me make a short digression. It is known that Byron worked on his travelogue long before publishing and that The Road to Oxiana is not an actual travelogue: it has not been written during the actual journey, but it is an account made after the journey and written after the events took place (even if surely it is based on real facts). This time lapse allowed Byron to learn and study more and more about the monuments he encountered. The case of this shrine is a beautiful example.

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Exterior view. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

In 1935 Byron wrote an article on the shrine:  “The Shrine of Khwaja Abu Nasr Parsa at Balkh”, published on the Bulletin of the American Institute for Persian Art and Archaeology. After two years, The Road to Oxiana is published. And from the description of this monument, the Shrine of Khoja Abu Nasr Parsa, that Byron gives in the travelogue, it is possible to infer that the account is based not only on a brief visit but on a long study and research on the monument.

 

“The body of the building is a plain brick octagon, which is concealed, and overtopped, by a tiled façade, standing on the octagon, the fluted dome rising to a height of eighty feet. Two minarets also stand on the octagon, clumped in between dome and façade.

The colours of the façade are confined to white and dark and light blue, reinforced by discreet touches of black. It is the absence of purple and other warm tints which produces the silvery effect that struck us on first arrival. This effect is continued by the dome, whose fat round ribs are covered with tiny bricks glazed with greenish turquoise; where the glaze has worn off, at the top, the ribs are white and look as if they had received a fall of snow. Like the other two domes of this type at Herat and Samarcand, that of Abu Nasr Parsa has a monumental pride. But the building as a whole is unsubstantial and romantic. An unknown force seems to be squeezing it upwards. The result is fantasy, and in some lights, an unearthly beauty.

We could not enter; but on creeping into one of the sixteen window embrasures that surround the drum, were assailed by the sound of a village choir-practice. This arose, as usual, from a mullah and his pupils.”

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

In the rigorous (and at times boring) description of the monument, Byron inserts a couple of indications that make the description fit the travelogue: the first impression on their arrival, a brief sentence on the overall structure and image, and the obstacle of not being able to enter the place. This is it. But for the rest, this is a description that can be found in a textbook.

 

Also, the description of the person for whom the shrine had been built looks like an encyclopedia entry:

“put up to the memory of Khoja Abu Nasr Parsa, the son of a more famous saint, Khoja Mohammad Parsa, who brought religion to the poet Jami when he was five years old and died at Medina in 1419. Abu Nasr Parsa became a theological lecturer in Herat, at the college founded by Firuza Begum, the mother of Hussein Baikara. Later he seems to have settled at Balkh, for in 1452 he came forward there to advise Babur, son of Baisanghor, against crossing the Oxus and attacking Abu Said. He died in 1460.

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Exterior view after the restoration of 1975. Photo by Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom (archnet).

Interestingly enough, Byron does not inform the readers about the fact that there is not clear evidence that the shrine was actually built for Khoja Abu Nasr Parsa. No epigraphic evidence points out that the shrine was built for him (or who built it altogether). Golombek and Wilber have identified, more recently, of course, two unmarked tombstones: they concluded that the one in front of the portal must have marked the burial site of the Khoja, whereas the one found in the crypt must have been the tomb of the patron of the monument.

 

Sources and further readings:

Robert Byron, “The Shrine of Khwaja Abu Nasr Parsa at Balkh”, in Bulletin of the American Institute for Persian Art and Archaeology, IV, no. 1 (1935), pp. 12-14.
Robert Byron, “Timurid Architecture: General Trends”, in Arthur Upham Pope and Phyllis Ackerman (eds.), in A Survey of Persian Art: from Prehistoric Times to the Present III, Soroush Press, Tehran 1939, pp.  1119-1144.
Lisa Golombek and Donald Wilber, The Timurid Architecture of Iran and Turan, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1988, pp. 295-296.
Bernard O’Kane, “The Uzbek Architecture of Afghanistan”, in Cahiers d’Asie centrale, 8 (2000), pp. 130-143.

And of course, as always, the Archnet page of the monument, for photos and a detailed description of the architecture.

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