11 july 2007

click to enlargeAccording to Colin Thubron, Robert Byron wrote that the catalyst for his fascination with Persian art was a photograph of Gunbad-i-Kabus, the great 11th-century tomb-tower near the Caspian sea. It's an unexpected building; none of the curves and floridity we expect from the later art and architecture of the region. Here are the pictures he took of it in the 1930s, and here's how he approached it:

The Elburz now began to curve round in front of us, enclosing a green bay. In the middle of this, twenty miles away, a small cream needle stood up against the blue of the mountains, which we knew for the tower of Kabus . . . the tower stands on the north of the town, helped into the sky by a green hillock of irregular shape, but artificial, and of great age. (The Road to Oxiana)

The tower is empty; it was the mausoleum of a prince who was suspended from its ceiling in a glass coffin in the year 1007. What became of it or him is uncertain. Byron described the building thus:

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 bricks are long and thin, and as sharp as when they left the kiln, thus dividing the shadow from the sunshine of each buttress with knife-like precision. As the buttresses recede from the direction of the sun, the shadows extend on to the curving wall of the cylinder between them, so that the stripes of light and shade, varying in width, attain an extraordinary momentum. It is the opposition of this vertical momentum click to enlargeto the lateral embrace of the Kufic rings that gives the building its character, a character unlike anything else in architecture.

I still hold the opinion I formed before going to Persia, and confirmed that evening on the steppe: that the Gunbad-i-Kabus ranks with the great buildings of the world. (ibid.)