A minaret Byron forgot to mention: the minaret of Damghan

… … …

It is not clear when Byron actually visited the Minaret of Damghan or anyway when he took the photos of the minaret.

Most probably he visited this minaret while visiting the Tarikh Khana, the Gunbad-i Chihil Dukhtaran and the Pir-i Alamdar (all recorded in his travelogue on the date of 13th of November 1933).

Nonetheless, in his travelogue, he does not describe specifically this minaret.

He stopped in Damghan once again on the 28th of April 1934, but in that case, too, no mention at all of the minaret (or of any other monuments): Byron had problems with his trip, thus probably had other things to talk about.

From the photos that we have attributed to him and an indirect mention to the minaret Byron does when describing the free-standing minarets of Ghazni, on the 15th of June 1934, we must nonetheless infer that Byron visited it, at one point or another of his journey.

IMG08557.jpg
The minaret of the Friday mosque of Damghan. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

THE INSCRIPTIONS

The minaret of the masjid-i jami of Damghan is nearby the city center. It belongs to the Friday mosque but remains a free-standing element.

The minaret is not very different from the other minarets darting to the late 12th century that can be found in the region: both the structure and the decoration are consistent with the tradition, except for the use of the glazed tiles in the upper inscription band. But I will go back later to this upper, glazed inscription.

There is a second inscription set lower on the shaft. Its style is a boarded Kufic, where letters are realized in a very plain and readable style,  with the long letters creating knots and decorations on the upper part, without interfering with the actual letters. This inscription band contains a part of the Light Verse (Q 24:35):

اللَّه نور السماوات والأرضِ مثل نوره كمشكاة فيها مصباح المصباح في زجاجة

Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp, the lamp is within glass

IMG10072.jpg
Detail of the Light Verse inscription. Photo by Josephine Powell (archnet).

The upper inscription is unreadable, something that is caused by the fact that is glazed, quite ironically. Sheila Blair interprets the glazed tile as a way to enhance the visibility of the upper inscription: it is not a case that it is the upper inscription the glazed one. But it is also a fact that the technique is not remarkable and that, in fact, hinders the readability. Many travellers and scholars noticed the presence of the upper inscription, but it was only in 1938 that it was read. Or at least, that someone recognized some characters: from the damaged glazed tiles that survived, nothing certain can be read. Probably this band used to contain a Qur’anic text, and Qushani proposed the text could be Q 3:13, but it is not confirmed, and this interpretation is not consistent with some of the remains.

DATING WITH DECORATIONS

Thus, we have two Qur’anic inscriptions, one of which unreadable. There are no other inscription bands or cartouches: we do not have any foundation inscription then. The dating of the minaret needs to be inferred from the decorative and structural features of the monument.

Speaking about architectural features, the shaft of the minaret of Damghan is slant, slanter than the minaret of Termez (that was dated 417/1026), which can be then taken as the terminus post quem. The base of this minaret, is similar to that of the minaret of Khosrovgerd, in Sabzevar, dated 505/1111, and that can be used as a  terminus ante quem.

IMG08560.jpg
Lower part of the minaret, showing the inscription with the Light Verse. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

In any case, also the use of the glazed tiles can be an indicator of the dating. The first dated glazed tile inscription in Iran is dated to 526/1131: the one on the minaret of Sin. But in that case, the technique was more developed than in the case of Damghan, thus, it can be used a terminus ante quem. Similarly, glazed tiles were used in the Gonbad-e Khaki, the northern dome of the Friday mosque of Isfahan, dated 481/1088-1089. For this reason, it makes sense to date the construction of the minaret of the Friday mosque of Damghan to the second half of the 5th century hijra, corresponding to 1058-1106 CE.

But who was the patron? Hard to tell. Most probably it was a local patron.

THE LIGHT VERSE AND THE MINARET

In Iran, according to Bloom, the function of the minaret is not (not only at least) related to the call to prayer (to the adhan): the minarets were also used to mark the route.  Other scholars, such as Diez and Schroeder, argued that the form of the minaret in Iran developed independently from the minarets in the other parts of the dar al-Islam, on the base of previous architectural traditions. Some of the theories are quite imaginative, and are hardly founded on solid grounds. Still, it is a fact that the minarets in Iran are frequently to be found as free-standing structures, isolated. This is the case with the minaret of Khusrawgird, for instance.

IMG28849
The minaret of Khusrawgird. Photo by Marie-Thérèse Ullens de Schooten (archnet).

Damghan, just like Termez, is located in a passageway: Termez was just on the shore of the Oxus river, Damghan is a natural passage, used as trade route. It would then make sense to have a minaret here, to indicate the route, but also to state that the city belongs to the dar al-Islam.

In this context we can read the Light Verse, even if, since one of the two inscriptions is totally unreadable, the interpretation cannot but be incomplete. The Light Verse has of course a religious meaning, comparing God to light.

It can also be chosen, anyway, because of the etymology of the monument it is decorating: the minaret, manar, place of light. In this sense, the Light Verse relates also to the minaret seen as a landmark.

Sources

Archnet.org is as always a useful starting point, for both information and images.

Adle and A. S. Melikian-Chirvani, “Les monuments du XIe siècle du Damqan”, in Studia Iranica, 1 (1972), pp. 229-297.

S. Blair, The Monumental Inscriptions from early Islamic Iran and Transoxiana, Brill, Leiden 1992.

M. Bloom, “The minaret before the Saljqs”, in R. Hillenbrand (ed.), The Art of the Saljqs in Iran and Anatolia. Proceedings of a Symposium held in Edinburgh in 1982, Mezda Publisher, Costa Mesa 1994, pp. 12-16.

Diez,  “An Historical Outline, B. The Principles and Types”, in A. U. Pope and P. Aackerman (eds.), A Survey of Persian Art, Oxford University Press, London- New York 1967, III, pp. 916-929.

Hillenbrand, Islamic Architecture: Form, Function and Meaning, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.

1994, pp. 115 and ff.

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