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Sunday , January 29 2023

In memory of a mashhad lost to a hate older than time

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KUWAIT CITY, Nov 12: Dr Richard Piran McClary presented a detailed account of the mashhad of Imãm Yahyã ibn al-Qãsim in Mosul at a lecture held at the Yarmouk Cultural Centre on Monday evening, as part of the Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah’s 23rd cultural season.

Dr McClary, a PhD in Art History graduate, currently teaches 3rd Year Honours Course entitled “The Golden Age of Islamic Architecture: Masterpieces from Spain to India” at the University of Edinburgh. A prolific author, he has published numerous book reviews, monographs and journal articles, most recently a monograph entitled Rum Seljuq Architecture 1170-1220: The Patronage of Sultans.

Dr McClary began his lecture with a study of the work of earlier scholars on the building, with the aim of providing a reassessment of the structure and its regional context. He then presented some hypotheses regarding the original appearance of the tomb, and examined wide-ranging sources of the formal and decorative elements of the building. The mashhad was the most richly ornamented of the medieval tombs in Iraq which had survived into the modern era, yet it had not been comprehensively studied in over a century.

The term mashhad was used to describe ‘Alid tombs by both al-Muqaddasi and Nãir-i Khusrau, and it was common for a mashhad to be built on the site of a masjid, as was the case with the structure under discussion here, says Dr McClary. He added that the square-plan building, measuring just under 19 metres in height, was constructed on the cliff edge above the southern bank of the Tigris in the citadel of Mosul in circa 637/1239, and was destroyed in an act of cultural terrorism by ISIS on July 23, 2014. The destruction of the building was but one manifestation of a far larger attempt to eradicate the medieval architecture of Mosul, both Christian and Muslim.

Mosul, or al-mausil (the confluence) is the place where the trade routes from Iran, lower Iraq and Syria converge. The city lies on the southern bank of the Tigris in what is now northern Iraq, McClary shared. The ruler of the city and the surrounding region for much of the first half of the thirteenth century was Badr al-Din Lu’lu’, a former Armenian slave who ruled as regent for the Zangids and then, following the death of the last Atãbeg, as independent ruler of Mosul, using the Turkish title togrul-tekin, meaning ‘Falcon Prince’.

He was recognised by the Caliph al-Nãsir in 631/1233 and there followed a cultural boom, which ended with his death in 657/1259. He is known to have been the patron of a large number of buildings and the contemporary chronicler Ibn al-Athir comments on his reputation for kindness towards his subjects, upon whom he bestowed money. However, such a view must be tempered by the fact that Badr al-Din Lu?lu? was a patron of al-Athir, and so may be expected to have painted him in a somewhat generous light, McClary added. Badr al-Din Lu’lu recognized the authority of the Mongols in 1245 and supported their invasion of Mesopotamia, thus saving Mosul from the first wave of destructive attacks on the cities of the region. Shortly after the death of Badr al-Din Lu’lu’ the citadel in Mosul was destroyed by the Mongols, led by Sundãgh, following their capture of the city in 660/1262.

The mashhad was located on the northern edge of the citadel overlooking the Tigris, close to the palace of Badr al-Din Lu’lu’, in the north of Mosul. Originally the site of the Ibn Hamdãn Mosque, founded before 338/949, McClary informed it was subsequently converted into the al-Badriya madrasa, at the behest of Badr al-Din Lu’lu’, for the Shãfiï madhhab, at some point before 615/1218. The mashhad of Yahyã ibn al-Qãsim was added to the madrasa in circa 637/1239. Badr al-D?n Lu’lu’ was buried in the vicinity of the madrasa complex, which, along with his tomb, had disappeared prior to any scholarly documentation of the site, with only the mashhad remaining into the twentieth century.

There was an earthquake in Mosul at midday on 25 Dhu’l Qa’da 623 / 17 November 1226 which destroyed many buildings in the surrounding area, including the nearby citadel at Shahraz?r.

Such destruction, McClary added, may, in part, have been the reason for the construction of the mashhad of Yahyã ibn al-Qãsim, and, furthermore, may suggest that the whole structure, and not just the dated sarcophagus, was built in circa 637/1239. Such a view is supported by the stylistic evidence, such as the amount of glazed tile used on the interior and exterior of the building, which suggests it was built in the first half of the thirteenth century.

With the loss of the building itself, McClary pointed out that it is the surviving drawings and photographs which now provide the evidence for the presence of craftsmen working at the highest register of technical ability for a prolific patron of religious and funerary architecture in Mosul in the middle of the thirteenth century.

One of the earliest descriptions of the mashhad is by Carsten Niebuhr, who lived from 1733 to 1815, in his Voyage en Arabie & en d’autres Pays circonvoisins, published in Amsterdam in 1776. He describes the madrasa of “Lulu” and the superb edifice for the tomb of “Pachia ibn el Khassen”, also known as “Abul Khassen”. He notes that the Christians regard him as a great saint, and know him as “Jacha el äsraki”. Thus the full name is shown to have been known in composite, with the usage split between the Muslim and Christian communities. Niebuhr goes on to describe the epigraphic band that ran around the interior; it was of marble carved out and filled with lime plaster. He also mentions another inscription of carved clay. He gives the correct orientation of the building and notes that because it does not face Makkah, it is suitable for Christians to use the mashhad as well as Muslims. Niebuhr suggests this misalignment was a mistake, stating il n’a pas été mis ainsi, meaning “it was not put well”, and marks the location on his map of the city.

Niebuhr’s account of the use of the mashhad by both Christians and Muslims may be seen as evidence for the longevity and flexible use of such buildings. The mashhad was documented by Ernst Herzfeld (1879-1948) and Friedrich Sarre (1865-1945) during their first trip along the Tigris between October 1907 and March 1908.

McClary shared that it was subsequently photographed by Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) in the spring of 1909, during her first journey through Mesopotamia. One of the photographs she took, of the entrance façade, was published in 1911 in Amurath to Amurath, but Bell gives little detail about the building in the text. She had little to say about the building, other than describing it as ‘beautiful’, and noting the deeply undercut stone carving inside. The most thorough published study of the building is in Sarre and Herzfeld’s Archäologische Reise im Euphrat- und Tigris-Gebiet, a four volume set published in Berlin between 1911 and 1920. In addition to their trip in 1907-08, research for the book was conducted during Sarre and Herzfeld’s second trip to Mesopotamia, which took place between January and May 1911.

In November and December 1964 Roberto Pagliero surveyed the mashhad in order to make a plan for further restoration and stabilisation of the building. He noted that the buttresses were performing no useful function, as they were detached from the building and were, in fact, causing more harm because their weight of some four hundred tonnes was responsible for much of the deformation of the bastion which was actually holding the building up. Not only had the structure split in two as the northeast half started to slip towards the edge of the cliff overlooking the Tigris, but there was also a small degree of movement in the opposite plane. The mashhad had experienced at least three major phases of reconstruction prior to 1964, and more recent images show that another major restoration, including re-plastering the entire exterior surface, had occurred prior to the destruction of the building in 2014.

So much for the context and the brief history of the mashhad, says McClary. It is with the entrance façade that the analysis of the formal and decorative characteristics of the structure begins. The majority of the load bearing structural elements was built using the half-off-set or common horizontal bond, known as hal wa shad (tie and untie).

McClary then highlighted the epigraphy on the building. A large stone epigraphic panel was set into the bottom of the wall beneath the tall narrow pointed arch panel to the right of the door.

It can be seen in this earlier image, but is not present in images from after 1980. McClary added that the panel had three lines of script, described by van Berchem as being Ayyubid naskhi. He read the inscription as follows:

… and al-Hasan ibn ‘Al- al- ‘Askari [the eleventh Imãm] our lord and master, heir of the proof, Muhammad ibn al-hasan [the twelfth Imãm] lord of time, upon them be greetings and peace. The command for making this was issued by the pilgrim Ibrãhim Ahmad al-Ashqari who wished to draw near to God the most high, and to his prophet and to the members of his household, may God’s greetings be upon them all.

The presence of the names of two of the twelve Im?ms on the slab, along with the lower band of epigraphy inside the mashhad which featured the names of at least some, and probably all, of the twelve Im?ms, does indicate there may have been a somewhat more overtly Shii character to the building, explained McClary. The location of the slab does not allow for the companion slab that would have contained the names of the first ten Imãms. This suggests that it was taken from another building and added to the mashhad after the initial phase of construction.

The two panels of epigraphy in the blind niches on either side of the entrance featured knotted tripartite Kufic lettering with foliated hastae tips, with the decoration adorned on the tips of the alif and the l?m of the final Allãh. Each panel consisted of three unglazed sections of irregular width, so as not to cut unduly through the letter forms.

On the left-hand inscription, the break between the second and third panels divided the tail of the n?n at the end of m?m but the intention is clear, and it allowed the entirety of the final Allãh, including the knotting of the hastae, to be placed on the one large tile. The most elaborate knotting was to be found on the alif and l?m hastae, with two examples on the right-hand panel being almost identical to those seen in the, arguably, apotropaic dragon bodies found on several other buildings in the region attributed to Badr al-Din Lu’lu’. An example of such a motif can be seen on the al-Khan gateway near Sinjar. The motif is referred to as the ‘pretzel knot’ and the ‘Syrian knot’ by Gierlichs.

McClary revealed that the use of a decorative motif in the epigraphy flanking the entrance of the mashhad which was identical to the one used for the dragon bodies on buildings patronised by Badr al-Din Lu’lu’ suggests that some sort of apotropaic semiotic value may have been transferred from the zoomorphic to the textual context. In all cases the motif was associated with the entrance to a structure.

The epigraphy in the two small panels is hard to read, says McClary. The panel to the right of the door is described as being the bismillãh by van Berchem, and in his brief note on the inscription he made no mention of the left-hand panel. Unfortunately the extant images of the panel are not very clear, but the reading of the final two words as al-rahmãn al-rahim is problematic.

There is a ligature connecting the lãm and the two different and oddly formed hãs,over the ra, at the beginning of both of the last two words. Despite these orthographic liberties, McClary notes that bismillãh al-rahmãn al-rahim remains the most plausible reading. The unpublished left-hand panel, seen here, also presents a number of difficulties, notably in its middle section, but the opening and closing words are clearer. It appears to read:

That which is under the rule of [our Lord?] is from God

McClary also showed three examples, described by Herzfeld as filler ornaments, füllungs-ornamentes, which were drawn by him and illustrate the split palmette and crown motifs far better than any photographs of the building do. The repertoire of filler motifs included six full shapes, along with a number of partial sections, which were required to fill the spaces where the frame cut the pattern off. The shapes included; kite, diamond, rhombus, octagon, seven-pointed star, and a triangle with a V cut out of one side.

McClary then pointed out the southeast façade of the mashhad which was articulated by three rectangular shallow-recessed panels. The central one originally had a blind pointed arch over a window. It had been bricked up by the time Herzfeld visited the building, but the arch remained visible inside, and although it cannot be seen in Brodführer’s drawing dated 1919, sections of the arch are visible in a photograph taken by Yasser Tabbaa in 1983.

On the drawing of the roof, McClary stated that above the cuboid body an octagonal zone of transition supported the twelve-faceted roof of the mashhad. The pyramidal covering of the spectacular muqarnas cell dome allowed for windows only in the base of the structure. The exterior skin of the roof was originally glazed, but no evidence of such an aesthetic remained at the time of destruction, largely because the exterior was repeatedly plastered over.

McClary revealed that the building retained the wooden sarcophagus commissioned by Badr al-Din Lu’lu’. It featured curvilinear carved patterns, along with an inscription that gave the name of the patron, the full name of Yahyã ibn al-Qãsim and the date. The historical part of the inscription reads:

This is the grave of Yahyã ibn al-Qãsim ibn al-Hasan ibn ‘Ali ibn Abi Tãlib, God’s blessings over them all! Made in the hope of His mercy by the poor servant, Lu’lu’ ibn ‘Abd Allãh protector of Muhammad in the year 637.

In addition to the sarcophagus, McClary shared that Sarre and Herzfeld note the presence of a small wooden box, and although no images survived, there are detailed drawings of two of the decorative panels from the chest, showing the intricately carved arabesques. It has recently been argued that because of the almost exact correlation in pattern, a wooden chest now in the David Collection is the chest which Sarre and Herzfeld saw, and was probably created at the same time as the cenotaph. If this hypothesis is indeed correct, it would make the chest the only surviving element associated with the building.

Although the presence of a mihrãb in a tomb is not unusual, McClary stated it is uncommon for one to be split into two panels, and set at right angles to each other in the corner of a square plan building. Although such an arrangement preserves the internal proportional integrity of the space, it is somewhat odd that it is not a single panel set at an angle in the corner of the non-qibla orientated building. A very similar mihrãb was in the ’Awn al-Din mashhad in Mosul and the type is referred to as a corner mihrãb.

At the east corner of the building, McClary revealed in addition to the epigraphy around and above the mihrãb there were two long inscription bands running around the interior of the mashhad.

The lower band, he stated, running horizontally one meter above the floor, had white lettering, consisting of gypsum or lime plaster, set flush into grey alabaster or marble. Based on this photograph supplied by Sarre, showing the east corner of the mashhad from the middle of the southeast wall to the reveal of the window in the northeast wall, van Berchem identified the inscription as Qur’ãn 76:8-12. The final part of the inscription includes a description of the rewards in paradise. Having never visited the structure, McClary stated that van Berchem had no way of knowing what the rest of the inscription consisted of. It also included names of at least some, and probably all, of the twelve Imãms.

With regards to the detail of the lower band of epigraphy inside the mashhad, McClary highlighted that the available images allow for the translation of fragments of the text, including the section showed, which contained the name and title of ‘Ali ibn Abi Tãlib, followed by Khadija, the first wife of the Prophet, and the second, and possibly the third, Imãms:

…and Khadija the greatest, and Hasan the chosen one, and Husayn the martyr

McClary added that other sections that have been photographed included the names of the fourth, fifth and sixth Imãms; ‘Ali ibn Husayn Zayn al-‘Abidin, Mu?ammad ibn ‘Ali al-Baqir and Ja‘far ibn Muhammad al-Sãddiq.

McClary then focused on the interior of the wall facing the Tigris stating that the right-hand reveal of the window overlooking the Tigris featured a small arched panel with raised geometric strap work and recessed curvilinear sections executed in a similar manner to the larger panels both inside and outside the building, but unglazed.

Now that the form and decoration of the mausoleum has been described in detail it is necessary to place the building into the broader context of tombs in the wider Iranian world at this time, stated McClary.

The Mosul mashhad fitted into a long tradition of brick-built funerary architecture of square plan, often with at least one façade featuring tripartite articulation. Thus the central entrance was often flanked by either windows or blind niches. Although no Muslim tombs survive in the Islamic world from before 248/862, the square plan and cubic form are common to a wide array of Islamic funerary buildings across the Iranian world, from the S?m?nid tomb in Bukhara, built in circa 390/930, onwards.

By the early eleventh century tall funerary monuments had been adopted as a means of expressing power, and the prominent location of the Mosul mashhad, high up on the cliff overlooking the Tigris, gave a sense of grandeur and verticality when viewed from afar that greatly exceeded its physical dimensions.

The mashhad of Ya?y? ibn al-Q?sim consisted of an innovative blend of imported forms and materials, largely developed in Iran, with the indigenous deeply undercut alabaster or marble carving and two-tone epigraphic inlay techniques for which Mosul was famed.

A wide array of the finest materials were used by the craftsmen who built it, including carved wood, marble, alabaster, glazed tiles and baked bricks. These materials were combined to create a politically motivated mashhad of the finest quality for a major patron of architecture.

McClary shared that the building, almost alone among the medieval structures in the area, survived the Mongol destruction of the citadel in 660/1262 as well as the inherent instability of the ground and the erosion of the cliff edge by the river Tigris over the course of nearly eight hundred years. Alas, the building was unable to resist the explosive power of the dynamite set off inside it by ISIS in 2014, as part of a wider programme of destruction of funerary, Christian, and pre-Islamic sites under their control.

Concluding his lecture, McClary highlighted that after destruction, the site was eviscerated, with the rubble being pushed off the cliff edge to destroy what little of it have remained and onto the banks of the Tigris below.

By Marlon Aquino Malinao – Arab Times Staff