Dome of Soltaniyeh
|UNESCO World Heritage Site|
|Location||Soltaniyeh, Zanjan Province, Iran|
|Criteria||Cultural: (ii), (iii), (iv)|
|Inscription||2005 (29th Session)|
|Area||14.8 ha (37 acres)|
The Dome of Soltaniyeh in Soltaniyeh city, Zanjan Province, Iran, traditionally so called, is a complex of ruins centering on the Mausoleum of the Mongol ruler Il-khan Öljeitü, also known as Muhammad Khodabandeh.
The main building, erected between 1302 and 1312 AD, may have the oldest double-shell dome in Iran, a view of the construction made by Dieulafoy, but this has been disputed by André Godard. In Godard's view, it is a normal, if spectacularly large dome, with a thin skin on top for the faience, and is not a double dome. However, its importance in the Muslim world is undoubted and it may be compared to that of Brunelleschi's cupola for Christian architecture. It is one of the largest brick domes in the world, just at the theoretical engineering limit for a brick dome and the third largest dome in the world after the domes of Florence Cathedral and Hagia Sophia. The Dome of Soltaniyeh paved the way for more daring Iranian-style cupola constructions in the Muslim world, such as the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasavi and the Taj Mahal. Much of its exterior decoration has been lost, but the interior retains superb mosaics, faience, and murals. People have described the architecture of the building as “anticipating the Taj Mahal.”
The estimated 200 ton dome stands 49 meters (161 ft) tall from its base, and is currently undergoing extensive renovation.
History and Patronage
The Mongol invasion of the Islamic world began with the conquest of eastern Iran in 1221, and ultimately ended the period of Abbasid rule (750-1258). The Mongols conquered most of West Asia, and a branch of the dynasty known as the Ilkhanids (1256-1353) “centered its power in northwest Iran.” While this conquest initially came as a devastation, the Ilkhanid period also saw major developments in the decorative arts. By the architectural masterpiece that is the Dome of Soltaniyeh, also known as the Tomb of Oljeitu, the Ilkhanids proved to be capable as builders.
The Mongol presence in Iran led to a shift away from traditional cities to ones with an emphasis on pasture. An example of this new type of Mongol city was the city of Sultaniyya in northwestern Iran. Arghun, the Ilkhanid ruler of Iran at the time, established the Sultaniyya as his summer capital. His son, Muhammad Oljeitu Khudabanda, furthered the city’s development and transformed it into the capital of the empire. After Oljeitu’s death, the city began a steady decline, and from a once flourishing city it now only has two buildings which show signs of its former wealth and importance, an octagonal tomb and an adjacent khanaqah. A khanaqah is a building designed specifically for Sufi gatherings as a spiritual retreat. The strong quality of the preserved tomb attests to the richness of its patronage.
The large domed tomb chamber of Oljeitu was meant to rival the colossal tomb built by the Seljuq sultan Sanjar at Merv. The tomb of Oljeitu has an octagonal plan, like the Tomb of Ahmed Sanjar (1157), and the idea of the octagonal plan may have came from the Dome of the Rock at Jerusalem, being used as “a symbolical representation of the building having a religious significance.” The tomb complexes were sponsored by the Ilkhanid court and were the “largest and finest of their time.”
Architecture and Interior Design
The Tomb of Oljeitu was one of the largest religious endowments of the 14th century, and was utilized for multiple functions, such as Quran reading, praying, teaching, housing, and medical purposes. The main building is approximately 125 feet across and is crowned by a dome with an average diameter of 80 feet. The tomb is highly visible, due to its unique incorporation of eight minarets enclosing the dome above the gallery. More specifically, Oljeitu’s complex consists of four iwans connected by arcades with muqarnas surrounding the perimeter of a courtyard; this was considered the classic Iranian style. The tomb itself stands behind the southern iwan. Furthermore, the iwans were all plastered and painted, and the courtyard was paved with white marble.
As for the interior of the tomb, it is decorated in tile and plaster. The insides of the iwans’ walls possess white inscriptions that stand out against the blue background. The underside of the iwans are stuccoed with bands of ornamentation, that were later painted. A significant inscription--spotted with ogival forms sculpted over cloth--circles the entire dome. The galleries have low, wooden or marble railings. The windows are fitted with bronze screens, along with bronze knobs and balls set with gold and silver. Some elements from these window grilles were inscribed with their patron’s name or with detailed scenes, such a depictions of a horseman or of falconry.
Following Islamic convention, Oljeitu’s tomb was placed in a garden, known in the Quran as a rawda. This word was also added to the railing of the Prophet Muhammad’s tomb in Medina. Because of this, rawda became the label for funerary structures in Iran. Thus, Oljeitu’s tomb was referred to as a rawda. Additionally, Oljeitu ensured that water could be successfully stored and utilized in the complex, through the use of qanats and wells. A qanat is a downward sloping channel intended to transport water. Due to this, the flora and fauna surrounding the tomb were able to survive for a long time; specifically, “the gardens around the tomb complex were still being maintained in the seventeenth century.”
According to a later drawing of the tomb by Flandin and Coste, one can see possible evidence of a cap wall projecting from the northeast corner. The presence of a cap wall guarantees that there were arcades attached to the tomb. Additionally, once the site was excavated, potential proof of a limestone court encompassing the east, north, and west of the tomb was found. Lastly, another illustration done by Matraqi reveals that the face of the complex was split into two stories and was “flanked by minarets and surmounted by five domes.”
Influence on other Monuments
Because Oljeitu’s tomb was one of the most significant works of its time, it became an inspiration for many other complexes, both within and outside of Ilkhanid culture. Distinct features of the complex were later found on many other monuments, such as placing paired minarets above a portal. This trend began in the Seljuq period, then became a normal inclusion in Ilkhanid buildings.
The Tomb of Oljeitu, like other Ilkhanid tombs, was integrated into a great complex--which no longer remains. These complexes were the “precursors of the type of large, planned funerary complex(es), known as kulliye, that (were) built by the Ottomans at Bursa and elsewhere beginning in the second half of the fourteenth century.”
Another trend derived from Oljeitu’s tomb is the style of five domes placed above the portal. The Blue Mosque built by Saliha Khanum in Tabriz was inspired by this design; its portal and projecting sanctuary were very similar to Oljeitu’s complex. This famous tomb of Oljeitu remained an inspiration for several imperial Mongolian tombs, even the Taj Mahal.
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- Blair (1986), p. 145
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- Komaroff, Linda & Carboni, Stefano. The legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256-1353. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001.
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