The Tomb of Sultan Mahmud and its gates, commented by Robert Byron

The Tomb of Sultan Mahmud […] has attracted the notice of more travellers than the towers

The tomb of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, who ruled the Ghaznavid Empire from 998 to 1030, was built in the village of Rauza, in a spot known as ‘Victory Garden’. In that spot, the Sultan liked to spend his days, far away from the city. The tomb was built soon after the death of the Sultan, most probably by his son, Mas’ud I.

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Mahmud’s now-gateless tomb in Ghazni; a photo from 1969. Source: columbia.edu.

Byron describes his visit to the tomb,  that took place on the 15th of June 1934. Byron’s description is packed with information, but in just one sentence, our dear traveler is able to infuse a sense of peace to the reader:

“Three old men were chanting from large Korans, while our guides leant over a wooden railing to take off the black pall, shaking the rose-petals that covered it into a heap at one end.”

One can easily compare this evocative sentence with the lithograph by Lieutenant James Rattray. The lithograph shows the interior of the tomb, where the carved grave is located. It is maybe a happy coincidence that in the lithograph, too, there are three men, praying in front of a big Qur’an. It is a fact that Byron compiled his travelogue once he was back in England, and it is possible that this lithograph influenced his memory: from the detailed description he gives of the monument (or monuments, in general), it is clear that he studied the subject thoroughly.

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Lithograph taken from plate 10 of ‘Afghaunistan’ by Lieutenant James Rattray. Courtesy British Museum.
Byron provides a detailed description of the interior of the tomb: “an inverted stone cradle with triangular ends, five feet long and twenty inches high, and mounted on a broad plinth. The stone is marble, white and translucent.”

Interestingly, Byron also provides a translation of the inscriptions that decorate the internal chamber. This is something that happens quite rarely in the travelogue. From Byron’s description, it seems that there are two inscription bands on the wall, the first containing a pious phrase, asking God to take the soul of the dead; the second is a foundation inscription, giving the details of the deceased.

“On the side facing Mecca runs a Kufic inscription in two lines begging ‘a gracious reception from God for the noble Prince and Lord Nizam-ad-Din Abulkasim Mahmud ibn Sabaktagin’. On the other side, a small trefoil panel says: ‘He died…in the evening of Thursday when seven nights remained of the month of Rabiat II in the year 421.’ That was 18 February 1030.”

Quite sadly, the most remarkable feature of the monument erected for Mahmud by his son could not be seen by Byron. And he, of course, did not let this fact go unnoticed.

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The alleged “Gates of Somnath” brought from Ghazni by Lord Ellenborough in 1842 still remain on view, in a dilapidated condition, in the Agra Fort. Source: columbia.edu.

The decorated doors of the funerary chamber, in 1840, were removed by the English army and were transported in India. This is because it was thought that the doors had been originally fabricated in India, as Byron beautifully and eloquently explains:

“an English army […] took away the doors of the tomb because some idiot of a historian—I believe it was Ferishta—had said they were the doors of the Hindu Temple of Somnath in Gujerat, which Mahmud had stolen when he sacked it. Prodigies of transport (they measure 16½ feet by 13½) were employed to bring them to Agra […] [This] consigned the doors to permanent obscurity in the fort at Agra, where they still remain. Their wood is that of the Afghan deodar, and an inscription on the lintel invokes the forgiveness of God on Abulkasim Mahmud, son of Sabaktagin. Yet the legend of their Hindu origin still persists in school textbooks. […] Their rape has never even been justified by a published description of the carvings, which are unique in Mohammadan art.”

Byron was not afraid of pointing out the damage caused to monuments by his fellow countrymen in the region. He had a similar critical attitude once he witnessed and described the terrible sad faith of the Musalla of Herat, destroyed by the British troops to prevent the Russian army to use the monuments there as a cover and base.

The doors are now still called ‘Somnath gates’, but it is agreed that the claim that they originally belonged to Somnath was a blatant lie, told to the Indians in order to win their favor. In fact, as Byron correctly says, the door carvings are unique in Islamic art and are considered a masterpiece of Ghaznavid art.

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The modern inscription in the Agra Fort that appears near the alleged “Gates of Somnath”. Source: columbia.edu.

Sources

Quite strangely, I could not find anything on the monument on Archnet.org: something that is totally strange.

There is a quite interesting online publication by UNESCO titled Ghazni, a city of empire builders, scholars and monuments. The tomb of Mahmud is described at pp. 17-18. It is available online [last accessed: 17th July 2018].

Some information on the monument is to be found on the British Museum website, in the description of Rattray’s lithograph. Quite interestingly, the British Museum has a different take on the gates history (or maybe it is simply not updated). This is the link [last accessed: 17th July 2018].

This page, from Colombia, is instead a good resource for photos related to the monument and its history [last accessed: 17th July 2018].

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