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The Emamzadeh Yahya at Varamin: A Present History of a Living Shrine, 2018–20

In: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World
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  • 1 Independent Scholar , Santa Barbara, CA, USA
  • | 2 Graduate Student, History of Art, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, USA
Open Access

Abstract

The Emamzadeh Yahya at Varamin, a tomb-shrine located south of Tehran, is well known for supplying global museums with iconic examples of Ilkhanid-period luster tilework. After providing a historiography of the site, including its plunder in the late nineteenth century, we explore its current (2018–20) “life” in order to illuminate the many ways that it can be accessed, used, perceived, and packaged by a wide range of local, national, and global stakeholders. Merging past and present history, art history and amateur anthropology, and the academic, personal, and popular voice, this article explores the Emamzadeh Yahya’s delicate and active existence between historical monument, museum object, sacred space, and cultural heritage.

Abstract

The Emamzadeh Yahya at Varamin, a tomb-shrine located south of Tehran, is well known for supplying global museums with iconic examples of Ilkhanid-period luster tilework. After providing a historiography of the site, including its plunder in the late nineteenth century, we explore its current (2018–20) “life” in order to illuminate the many ways that it can be accessed, used, perceived, and packaged by a wide range of local, national, and global stakeholders. Merging past and present history, art history and amateur anthropology, and the academic, personal, and popular voice, this article explores the Emamzadeh Yahya’s delicate and active existence between historical monument, museum object, sacred space, and cultural heritage.

The Emamzadeh Yahya at Varamin (35.31614, 51.648336) poses a number of art historical conundrums. Despite the fact that it is located just 35 miles south of Tehran and its Ilkhanid period (1256–1353) luster tilework enjoys endless visibility online, in print, and in museums (fig. 1), the shrine itself remains relatively anonymous beyond its immediate demographic and specialist research. In the age of ongoing renovations of Islamic art galleries, we expect to see its famous tiles redisplayed and reevaluated, but the complex’s history and interpretation tend to end at its moment of rupture in the late nineteenth century, when its tilework was systematically removed and dispersed across the globe. The opening description of the emāmzādeh on MIT’s Archnet – an open access, visual database surveying architectural sites across the Muslim world – paints a dismal picture: “Originally part of a larger shrine complex including an octagonal tomb tower and entrance portal, the remaining naked tomb shrine is victim of over one hundred years of looting.”1 This begs the questions: How has the complex fared since? What is its present reality?

Figure 1
Figure 1

Pair of star and cross tiles (upper right) from the Emamzadeh Yahya at Varamin on display in the Art Institute of Chicago

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 1, 1-2 (2020) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340005

Photo: Kimia Maleki, 2018

Building on substantive research of the Emamzadeh Yahya as an Ilkhanid monument, this article redirects attention to its current circumstance.2 Who are its visitors and audiences? How has the shrine responded to its vexed past? What are its imminent concerns? While it is hoped that this study might contribute to future reconciliations of the tomb’s tilework and walls, hence improving understanding of its Ilkhanid aesthetic, we are primarily concerned with how the shrine complex as a whole looks, ticks, and functions in the present. Like all fieldwork conducted in Iran, our research is the product of specific contingencies and timing, some more dramatic than others. While we were able to visit the shrine in 2018 and 2019 under relatively normal circumstances, the outbreak of COVID-19 in February 2020 forced an adjustment of our present history in light of the “new normal.” After providing a historiography of the Emamzadeh Yahya, we recount our respective experiences of the site in order to illuminate the many ways that it can be (and has been) accessed, used, perceived, and packaged by a wide range of local, national, and global stakeholders. Merging past and present history, art history and amateur anthropology, and the academic, personal, and popular voice, we explore the Emamzadeh Yahya’s delicate existence between historical monument, museum object, sacred space, and cultural heritage.3

1 Historiography

The Emamzadeh Yahya is one of many emāmzādehs, or tombs of descendants of one of the Twelve Imams, that sprinkle the Iranian landscape. Its commemoration of Emamzadeh Yahya (d. ca. 900), a sixth-generation descendant of the second Imam Hasan b. ʿAli (d. 670), makes it somewhat unique as most emāmzādehs are dedicated to descendants of the seventh Imam Musa b. Jaʿfar al-Kazim (d. 799).4 When Jane Dieulafoy (d. 1916) visited the Emamzadeh Yahya in 1881, it included a monumental entrance portal, an octagonal tower with a conical roof on the west side, and the main tomb on the south, all of which are visible in a woodcut published in her 1887 travelogue.5 Based on this woodcut, Donald Wilber proposed a hypothetical plan of the complex.6

The only extant historical structure of the Emamzadeh Yahya is the tomb proper, a domed square surrounded by smaller vaulted rooms added at a later date.7 Between 1260 and 1310, when Varamin was the Ilkhanid capital of Rayy (Rey) province, the interior of the tomb was decorated in the finest materials and techniques of the day: twice-fired luster tilework and carved and painted stuccowork. As elucidated by Sheila Blair, one of its known patrons was Fakhr al-Din, the local ruler (mālek) of Rayy and Varamin and a court favorite under Ghazan (r. 1295–1304) and Uljaytu (r. 1304–16).8 Fakhr al-Din’s most conspicuous contribution to the tomb is the large band of stucco epigraphy that wraps the interior at mainly eye level. It begins with Q 62:1–4 (glorifying God, His Messenger, and His Sacred Word), is followed by Fakhr al-Din’s name and the date of Muharram 707/July 1307, and concludes with a hadith: “Whoever does a good deed for one of the children of ʿAbd al-Muttalib [d. 578, grandfather of the Prophet Muhammad] in this life and is not rewarded for it, Allah shall reward him on the Day of Resurrection instead. The Messenger of Allah said the truth.”9 Fakhr al-Din also patronized the nearby tomb tower of his father ʿAlaʾ al-Din (688/1289–90; 35.324943, 51.645684), and Blair has suggested that his father or grandfather may have been responsible for the first stage of the Emamzadeh Yahya’s decoration in the 1260s, thus making its patronage over five decades a family affair.10 Fakhr al-Din’s legacy in Varamin extended to his protégé ʿIzz al-Din Quhadi, who constructed the city’s well-known congregational mosque (722–6/1322–6; 35.322017, 51.641664), the only surviving Ilkhanid example of its kind in Iran.11

Outside of Varamin and specialist scholarship, the Emamzadeh Yahya is best known for the luster tilework that once decorated the walls of the tomb and is now dispersed across the globe. This revetment was made by master potters in Kashan between 1262 and 1305 and ordered for the tomb’s dado, mihrab, and cenotaph. The dado included interlocked stars and crosses distinguished by their large size (star: 31.6 × 31.3 cm; cross: 21.8 × 21.7 cm), palette of white and luster alone (compare the stars in fig. 1), and diminutive Quranic inscriptions sometimes dated between Dhu l-Hijja 660 and Safar 661/October–December 1262. In his seminal Persian Lustre Ware (1985), Oliver Watson recorded over 150 examples in some twenty-four collections.12 Today, this figure is closer to thirty repositories, if not more, and includes museums in such cities as Doha, St. Petersburg, Tbilisi, London, Oxford, Paris, Glasgow, Baltimore, Chicago (fig. 1), Los Angeles, Tokyo, and probably even Tehran.13 The twelve foot tall mihrab (151 3/8 × 90 × 8 1/2 in.) is composed of more than sixty tiles, includes eight distinct sets of Quranic inscriptions, and is dated Shaʿban 663/May 1265 and signed by ʿAli b. Muhammad b. Abi Tahir. It is preserved in Shangri La, the Honolulu home of the American collector Doris Duke (d. 1993) now open to the public and operated by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.14 The four-piece panel that once covered the top of the cenotaph names the deceased, includes Quranic inscriptions, and is dated 10 Muharram 705/August 2, 1305, signed by Yusuf b. ʿAli b. Muhammad b. Abi Tahir (son of the previous), and in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.15 This panel would have been surrounded by a series of borders, and the sides of the cenotaph would have also been revetted in tiles of various shapes and techniques. The cenotaph as a whole must therefore be reimagined as a sizeable rectangular box.16

During the late nineteenth century, all of this tilework was systematically removed from the tomb and soon appeared in European cities. Tomoko Masuya has concluded that the plunder of the Emamzadeh Yahya occurred in two phases: before 1875 and between 1881 (Dieulafoy’s visit, when the mihrab and cenotaph were apparently in situ) and 1900 (when the mihrab was in Paris and exhibited at the Exposition Universelle).17 Some of the removals thus occurred after the Qajar government had issued an edict protecting religious buildings in 1876, which was inspired by growing concerns about the stripping of tilework from sacred sites, as observed by Dieulafoy.18 The Emamzadeh Yahya was not alone in suffering this fate, and similar lootings occurred at mosques, emāmzādehs, and Sufi shrines in Kashan, Qom, and Natanz.

The illicit removal of sizeable amounts of luster tilework from Iranian tomb-shrines and mosques involved an entangled web of actors and complicity. Depending on the site in question, responsibility for the initial act of plunder rests with the actual looters and possibly also local interlocutors.19 This arduous process entailed the deconstruction of vast walls and surfaces piece by piece. Some tiles would have been large and heavy (consider those forming the hood of a mihrab), while other smaller shapes (stars, crosses, bow ties, octagons) would have been interlocked with their neighbors and required delicate removal to avoid breakage. Processes of transport and export likely involved Tehran-based government officials and concessions.20 Finally, we must consider the wider chain of supply and demand, including internal and external dealers, agents, collectors, and museums.

Moya Carey’s recent study of the Persian collections in the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) illuminates some of these entanglements.21 She traces how the then South Kensington Museum was aware that a set of fifty-two luster tiles purchased in 1875 from the Tehran-based French photographer-instructor Jules Richard (d. 1891) was a “sensitive acquisition.”22 The museum’s buying agent Robert Murdoch Smith (d. 1900) expected that a law would be passed to protect sacred sites – indeed, the 1876 one – and declined the museum’s request for photographs of the original buildings as “impossible.”23 Regarding a three-piece luster panel that once covered a cenotaph and is comparable to the Emamzadeh Yahya (Hermitage) example, Murdoch Smith was told that it had been “hidden underground until an opportunity of smuggling it into Teheran could be found.”24

All together, the luster tilework of the Emamzadeh Yahya is a staple of scholarship on the ceramics industry of medieval Kashan as well as later histories of collecting. The mihrab is particularly famous as one of just six surviving intact examples dated between 612/1215 and 734/1334. Doris Duke purchased it in 1940 from Hagop Kevorkian (d. 1962), and it remains on view in Shangri La’s “Mihrab Room.” The five others are likewise preserved in museums – three in the Central Museum of the Shrine of Imam Reza (Āstān-e Quds-e Rażavī) at Mashhad (fig. 2) and one each in Tehran’s Islamic Museum and Berlin’s Museum of Islamic Art.25 Whereas the Varamin (Honolulu) and Kashan (Berlin) mihrabs were illicitly removed and exported during the late nineteenth century, the three now in the Mashhad shrine museum were transferred there in the late 1970s for purposes of preservation.26 The history of the mihrab now in Tehran’s Islamic Museum is more complicated. Its original home – the Emamzadeh ʿAli b. Jaʿfar at Qom – was denuded during the nineteenth century. The mihrab and parts of the cenotaph were acquired by the National Museum of Iran in the 1930s, and most of the rest of the revetment is in the Shrine Museum of Fatima Masumeh at Qom.27 Today, the mihrab is on view in a gallery of Tehran’s Islamic Museum inclusive of a stucco mihrab from Oshtorjan (707/1308), and this museum includes innumerable other luster tiles from both known and anonymous sites. It is thus important to reiterate that the preservation, and by extension decontextualization, of luster tilework is not just the purview of foreign museums, but also part and parcel of Iranian collections of all kinds, including site museums (e.g., Mashhad, Qom, Takht-e Suleyman), the National Museum in Tehran, regional museums (e.g., the Azerbaijan Museum in Tabriz), and private collections. The key differences between Iranian and foreign museums rest in processes of acquisition and the fact that only the latter preserve collections that might warrant consideration for repatriation.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Luster mihrab signed by Abu Zayd and Muhammad b. Abi Tahir and dated Rabiʿ II 612/August 1215. Originally in the tomb of Imam Reza in the Shrine of Imam Reza at Mashhad, it is now on display in the Central Museum of Astan-e Quds-e Razavi

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 1, 1-2 (2020) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340005

Photo: Keelan Overton, 2014

Due to the inherent deconstructability of a luster mihrab – most are composed of fifty to sixty individual tiles secured to the wall with mortar – its physical fate could vary dramatically upon removal. In the six cases mentioned above, the mihrab survived relatively intact in its new museum context. By contrast, the fifty to sixty tiles once forming the luster mihrabs in the mosque and tomb (fig. 3) of the shrine of Shaykh ʿAbd al-Samad at Natanz (704–25/1304–25) were dispersed across collections and often remain unidentified as parts of a mihrab. The imprints left behind by their mortar (fig. 3) are among the best “maps” for their virtual reconstruction, as are their once continuous Quranic inscriptions.28 In recent years, scholars have retraced the external trails and travails of the Kashan, Natanz, and Varamin mihrabs through a close reading of European and American sales catalogs and museum archives.29 For the Kashan case, a critical internal perspective has also been provided by the Kashan-based potter Abbas Akbari, who has revived the luster technique, reinterpreted the Kashan (Berlin) mihrab on his own terms, and conducted research on historical sites in and around Kashan.30

Figure 3
Figure 3

Mihrab void in the tomb of Shaykh ʿAbd al-Samad (d. 1299) at Natanz. Visible are the impressions of the ~50–60 individual tiles that once formed the luster mihrab

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 1, 1-2 (2020) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340005

Photo: Keelan Overton, 2016

It is not an exaggeration to say that the luster tilework of the Emamzadeh Yahya has effectively “made” the monument in art historical circles. The shrine’s tiles are literal “world heritage” in the sense that they are dispersed across the globe and seen by international audiences on a regular basis. In the museum, they are consumed as autonomous works of art and often exhibited alongside luster tiles from other sites. Such displays prioritize the luster technique over architectural context (fig. 1) and at times parallel those found in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century sales catalogs.31 In most museum labels, information on the tomb is typically limited to the basic provenance phrase “from the Emamzadeh Yahya, Varamin,” which is relatively meaningless to most general audiences, or a slightly more descriptive version: “Part of the dado (lower part of the wall) decoration of the mausoleum of a holy man in Varamin, Iran” (as in fig. 1).32 The finest tiles have been professionally photographed and are then posted to museum websites, where they enter the realm of infinite replicability under “fair use.” A case in point is the panel of star and cross tiles in the V&A, which is available as a free high-resolution download and often reproduced in print.33

In contrast to its highly visible luster tiles, the Emamzadeh Yahya itself is relatively under seen and selectively reproduced. The section on the shrine in the Ganjnāmeh, the multi-volume encyclopedia of Iranian Islamic architecture, exemplifies its typical visual curation as a historical monument: plans and elevations of the tomb, a general view of the tomb’s façade, and details of its finest interior passages, including the upper qibla wall and zone of transition toward the dome, a corner niche and squinch, and the stucco epigraphic band.34 Archnet features two exterior views of the tomb and one detail of the stucco band, and the website of the Iran Tourism and Touring Organization (ITTO) includes three aerial views of the tomb, a detail of a squinch, and the aforementioned panel of tiles in the V&A.35 In some publications, images of the displaced tilework are the sole visual representations of the site.36 This is not surprising since museum photography is often readily available, as noted above, and many tilework panels are more impressive “works of art” in reproduction than the tomb’s modest and reworked façade. It also goes without saying that images of the bare walls left behind in the tomb are not exactly coveted in textbooks and museum monographs, which tend to favor the pristine and present the best “face” of a topic to general audiences.

With this existing visual canon in mind, the personal journeys narrated below focus on aspects of the Emamzadeh Yahya that are not typically reproduced and discussed in art historical scholarship: its function as a living sacred space and the “ghosts” of its luster tilework.37 Although we both first learned of the shrine through its tiles preserved in museums, our site visits in 2018 and 2019 differed according to many factors, including timing, oversight, and varying levels of insider/outsider-ness. The outbreak of COVID-19 in February 2020 transformed our anticipated visits in 2020 into an entirely remote exercise, and we have allotted a final section to exploring patterns of religiosity and adaptability within the “new normal.” Notwithstanding some of its limitations and unforeseen directions, this research will hopefully contribute to the reseeing, reappreciation, and reknowing of the Emamzadeh Yahya in the twenty-first century.

2 2018: Honolulu to Varamin (Overton)

In April 2018, I left Tehran for the approximately one hour drive south to Varamin. I was in Iran on a twenty-two-day tourist visa and was accompanied by Mojgan Attarzadeh, an Iranian national guide and colleague with whom I would lead a pending tour for the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. I had visited the shrine of Shaykh ʿAbd al-Samad at Natanz in 2014 and 2016 and remained haunted by the visceral scars of its looted tilework (fig. 3) and the general “deadness” of the Ilkhanid tomb and mosque. How had the Emamzadeh Yahya fared by comparison? Had it likewise been deactivated as a sacred space? I had served as Shangri La’s Curator of Islamic Art in 2011–12 and was eager to (finally) see the mihrab’s original home. We also needed to scout the emāmzādeh and two other nearby sites – the congregational mosque and tomb tower of ʿAlaʾ al-Din – for a formal visit a few days later with the tour group. Despite her decades of experience leading cultural tours for foreign museum and university groups, Ms. Attarzadeh had not visited Varamin either. Suffice it to say that the city is not a standard stop on most foreign tourist itineraries.38

The Emamzadeh Yahya is located in the Kohneh Gol neighborhood of southern Varamin, and its main entrance is approached from the north, just off of the Varamin-Tehran highway (#1 in fig. 4).39 The urban fabric in front of the shrine has been cleared and paved, and there is ample space for parking. A low brick wall decorated with pious invocations encloses the rectangular site, and a tiled entrance gate (pīshtāq) in neo-Safavid style identifies it as an āstān-e moqaddas (fig. 5). This gate is relatively recent (post-Revolution) and replaced a modest version in place as of 1978, when the area to the north was still a field.40 The emāmzādeh was registered as a national monument in 1313 sh/1935, during the early Pahlavi period (1925–79), and is one of about eighty registered sites in Varamin alone.41

Figure 4
Figure 4

Google satellite view of the Emamzadeh Yahya at Varamin. The red arrows mark a typical approach to the shrine from Tehran. #1 is the main (north) entrance gate of the walled complex. #2 is a smaller gate on the southern (qibla) side

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 1, 1-2 (2020) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340005

Photo: annotated by Keelan Overton, 2020
Figure 5
Figure 5

Main (north) entrance of the Emamzadeh Yahya at Varamin. A post-Revolution tiled portal (pīshtāq) in neo-Safavid style announces the site as the “Holy Shrine of Emamzadeh Yahya”

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 1, 1-2 (2020) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340005

Photo: Keelan Overton, 2018

Upon passing through the tiled gate, one enters a large courtyard and immediately faces the well-published façade of the tomb (fig. 6). The courtyard is in fact a cemetery filled with predominantly ground-level tombstones on east-west alignment, hence parallel to the qibla (the direction of Mecca, technically 220°) (figs. 6–7). The domed tomb sits in the middle of this enclosure, and some older historical tombstones have been reinstalled on its façade (see the red arrow in fig. 7). The courtyard behind the qibla wall is likewise home to many tombstones. An additional modest gate provides access from the south (#2 in fig. 4) and is approached through the narrow streets of the neighborhood.

Figure 6
Figure 6

Façade of the tomb of Emamzadeh Yahya, just after passing through the entrance gate

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 1, 1-2 (2020) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340005

Photo: Keelan Overton, 2018
Figure 7
Figure 7

View of the tomb from the northeast corner of the courtyard, capturing various ground-level tombstones. The red arrow indicates one of the marble tombstones mounted on the tomb’s façade

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 1, 1-2 (2020) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340005

Photo: Kimia Maleki, 2019

Walking across the uneven tombstones of the courtyard toward the entrance of the tomb, I realized that this would be a much different experience from the Natanz shrine. Whereas the tomb of Shaykh ʿAbd al-Samad is effectively “dead” as a sacred space, the Emamzadeh Yahya is alive and well. As I entered the tomb beneath an electronic sign flashing Yā Ḥossein and passed through a split sheet of hanging plastic, I was immediately struck by the intimacy and serenity of the space. This was far more than a “naked tomb shrine” and “victim of over one hundred years of looting.”42 Nor was it a sanitized, cookie-cutter tourist site. I was wary of being intrusive, but the shrine attendant soon welcomed us, and for the duration of our visit, we were just two of three visitors (the other was a local woman conducting her personal prayers).

The center of the chamber is engulfed by an octagonal żarīḥ, a pierced screen that encloses and protects the cenotaph within. Swaths of green fabric attached to the żarīḥ divide the space by gender and direct the visitor to the left (women) or right (men). Looking up to the squat plain dome, its 16-sided zone of transition features blind arches alternating with pierced grills once inset with colored glass (fig. 9). The four corners of the room are deep niches topped by elaborate squinches decorated with panels of carved and painted stucco. Abundant yellow is still visible, but all of the squinches have large vertical cracks that have been recently restored. As noted above, these architectural features are commonly reproduced online and in print.

Figure 8
Figure 8

Detail of the entrance of the tomb decorated with flags and banners during Muharram (compare to fig. 6)

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 1, 1-2 (2020) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340005

Photo: Kimia Maleki, 2019
Figure 9
Figure 9

Dome, zone of transition, and stucco decoration immediately above the tomb’s mihrab

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 1, 1-2 (2020) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340005

Photo: Kimia Maleki, 2019

The żarīḥ is a ubiquitous feature of living tomb-shrines in Iran and the focus of many rituals of Twelver Shi‘a veneration and pilgrimage (zīyārat).43 Since the purpose of zīyārat is for the pilgrim (zā’er) to gain proximity to the baraka of the deceased, offer prayers in his/her honor, and request intercession in various aspects of daily life, it is common for worshippers to touch and kiss the żarīḥ, pray against it, offer money through its voids, tie votive cloth to it, and sometimes circumambulate it (these rituals are site specific). Like many żarīḥs in Iranian shrines, the example in the Emamzadeh Yahya is gilded in silver and gold, covered in inscriptions, and lovingly decorated with fairy lights, garlands, and vases of faux flowers (fig. 10). The side facing the entrance features a foundation inscription dated 1389 sh/2010 recording that the work was done during the vīlāyāt (lit. guardianship) of Grand Ayatollah Khamenei. The top of the żarīḥ features a continuous band of Quranic inscriptions in white sols (Ar. thulth), and poetic verses in nastaʿlīq are set in cartouches below. The cenotaph within is covered with an inscribed black textile and several objects sit on its surface, including a large mirror, candlesticks, and a Quran on a raḥl (stand) (fig. 11). Paper bills donated by the pious sprinkle the surrounding marble floor.

Figure 10
Figure 10

Top of the żarīḥ decorated with flowers, lights, and garlands. In the distance is the large chandelier that hangs from the center of the dome

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 1, 1-2 (2020) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340005

Photo: Keelan Overton, 2018
Figure 11
Figure 11

Looking through the żarīḥ toward the current cenotaph of Emamzadeh Yahya

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 1, 1-2 (2020) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340005

Photo: Keelan Overton, 2018

The relatively narrow ambulatory around the żarīḥ is covered in carpets, and pillows are propped up against the walls to support reclining visitors (figs. 12–13). Functional objects, furnishings, and decorations are on full display – bookshelves overflowing with books, mirrors, framed calligraphies and images, vases of flowers, piles of floral chadors (women’s side), a large chandelier hanging from the dome, prayer beads (tasbīḥ), and boxes filled with mohr (lit. seal; Ar. turbah, lit. soil). These prayer stones are made from the sacred soil of Karbala and are an integral component of Shi‘a prayer (during complete prostration, the forehead touches them; see those on the carpet in fig. 13). Also visible throughout the small chamber are the trappings of daily upkeep – dusters, air conditioners, vacuums, and electrical cords.

Figure 12
Figure 12

East ambulatory (women’s side) of the tomb, immediately after entering the building and turning left to avoid the żarīḥ (visible on the right). The squinch of the southeast corner is visible in the background

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 1, 1-2 (2020) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340005

Photo: Keelan Overton, 2018
Figure 13
Figure 13

West ambulatory (men’s side) of the tomb, immediately after entering the building and turning right to avoid the żarīḥ (visible on the left). The red arrow marks prayer stones (mohr) on the carpeted floor

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 1, 1-2 (2020) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340005

Photo: Kimia Maleki, 2019

Walking around the żarīḥ, one quickly approaches the rear wall of the tomb. It takes little imagination to deduce the original location of the luster mihrab: a looming white ghost marks its original position on the qibla wall (fig. 14). The stucco band completed in 707/1307 would have framed it on three sides and begins and ends in the upper right with the basmala and hadith, respectively. Directly above is an outstanding stucco panel with bold yin-yang motifs meticulously filled with Ilkhanid-style strapwork and geometric patterning. This panel is at equal height to the corner niches and immediately above is the 16-sided zone of transition. In reproduction, the mihrab void is typically cut out of views of the upper qibla wall toward the dome (as in fig. 9).

Figure 14
Figure 14

View of the qibla wall (south) and mihrab void from the west side of the tomb. This space once housed the luster mihrab signed by ʿAli b. Muhammad b. Abi Tahir and dated Sha‘ban 663/May 1265, today preserved in the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art (Shangri La) in Honolulu

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 1, 1-2 (2020) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340005

Photo: Keelan Overton, 2018

Looking at the void from a skewed angle on either side of the ambulatory (only female visitors were present so I was free to go on both sides), I was struck by the enormity of the mihrab (fig. 14). It did not need to be that large, and its size further demonstrates the significance of both Varamin and the shrine during the Ilkhanid period, as emphasized by Sheila Blair.44 I also could not help but recall the mihrab on view at Shangri La. There, a 90-degree turn to the right points one toward the dining room and Pacific Ocean beyond, and at one’s back is an arch framed by architectural elements custom-made in Morocco that leads into a living room facing a pool, Playhouse, and ultimately Diamond Head crater.45 The mental juxtaposition was bizarre and unsettling, but this disconnect between original context and adopted sphere is by no means unique to Shangri La. The other five luster mihrabs exist in similarly decontextualized states in their respective museums in Mashhad (fig. 2), Tehran, and Berlin, albeit in varying degrees of physical and interpretive distance from the source site. What sets the Shangri La display apart is that it is not a traditional white cube, but rather conceived by Doris Duke within the context of her then private home.46

In contrast to the mihrab void at Natanz, where the imprints of the 50–60 luster tiles once comprising the niche are on full display as if they were stripped yesterday (fig. 3), the Varamin scars have been covered in smooth white plaster, divided into two arches, and populated with a variety of didactics (fig. 14).47 The most practical are printed and hand-drawn qibla signs whose modesty in comparison to the tiled masterpiece that once served the same function cannot help but give one pause (fig. 15). Nonetheless, they provide a critical update for the visitor. Each is tilted slightly to the right to indicate the accurate qibla, and the hand-drawn example further reads “a little to the right” (kamī be-rāst [sic])… twenty degrees.” Beneath is a textual genealogy of Emamzadeh Yahya based on Shi‘a sources (fig. 16), and on either side is a collage of four images (fig. 17).48 On top are the two woodcuts published in Dieulafoy, including the general view of the complex that has served as the crux of its hypothetical plan.49 On the bottom are photographs of the tomb’s tiles on display in the Hermitage, including the panel naming Emamzadeh Yahya that once covered the top of his cenotaph.

Figure 15
Figure 15

Detail of the top of the mihrab void. The stucco epigraphic band dated Muharram 707/July 1307 begins on the upper right with the basmala, followed by the beginning of Q: 62. The red arrow marks a fragment of a luster cross salvaged from the dado

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 1, 1-2 (2020) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340005

Photo: Keelan Overton, 2018
Figure 16
Figure 16

Genealogy of Emamzadeh Yahya, mounted in the center of the mihrab void (see fig. 14)

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 1, 1-2 (2020) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340005

Photo: Keelan Overton, 2018
Figure 17
Figure 17

Framed collage of images repeated on both sides of the mihrab void. Visible are the two woodcuts published in Jane Dieulafoy’s La Perse (1887) and photographs taken of the tomb’s tiles on display in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, including the top panel of the cenotaph dated 10 Muharram 705/August 2, 1305

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 1, 1-2 (2020) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340005

Photo: Keelan Overton, 2018

At the very top of the mihrab void is a diminutive yet potent reminder of the luster tilework: a small fragment (3 × 3 in.) of the triangular tip of a luster cross presumably salvaged from the dado and deliberately mounted in this prominent location (fig. 15).50 In the conventional museum display, such crosses are generally in excellent condition and often paired with their adjacent stars (fig. 1). The difference in messaging between the two displays – fragmentation and memory in the tomb versus wholeness and beauty in the museum – throws into sharp relief the conditional nature of interpretation and the often seismic disconnect between architectural sites and the museums preserving their surface revetment.

All together, the level of active response in the mihrab void at Varamin was provocative and unexpected, especially in comparison to the bare cadaver at Natanz (provocative on a different level). In the Emamzadeh Yahya, the ghost has been filled in a way that is simultaneously practical (qibla signs), historical (Dieulafoy prints), commemorative (cross fragment, Hermitage photographs), and spiritual (Emamzadeh Yahya’s genealogy).51 The memory of the luster tiles is anything but forgotten, and it was interesting to juxtapose the amount of information volunteered by the tomb’s “curators” versus the generally sparse labels accompanying the museumified tiles (fig. 1). Whereas the tomb has taken some steps to acknowledge the missing tiles (an elephant in the room), the museum rarely provides substantive information on the shrine (an abstract source). As we shall see (“2019”), the mihrab void is a mutable space that is curated according to the Islamic calendar. It remains to trace its appearance and evolution over the last century, and that of the site in general.52

At the height of about four feet, the stucco inscription running down the left side of the mihrab void makes a sharp turn to run horizontally above the dado (fig. 18). Here, and in other select areas of the dado, nineteenth-century rectangular tiles mask the voids left behind by the Ilkhanid stars and crosses (fig. 19). Although it is known that Qajar potters attempted faithful copies of Ilkhanid luster prototypes, both to fill the gaps of stripped tiles (hence historic restoration) and to sell as authentic (hence deception on the art market), imitation was not the goal here.53 Molded and underglaze painted in dark blue, black, and white on a pale yellow background, these Qajar replacements could never be confused as Ilkhanid, despite their fine execution. Two rectangular tiles are stacked vertically, each has a dark blue border with a central trefoil flanked by single leaves, and together they frame the upper and lower edges of the dado. In the corner niches of the qibla wall, the stucco epigraphic band juts up by about a foot (figs. 12–13), and smaller tiles would have filled these spaces. The current piecemeal state of this Qajar revetment raises questions. Either it was never completed or represents a second and more recent round of illicit removal.54 Save for select areas of loss, disruptions to its borders, and possible overcleaning, the stucco epigraphic band is in excellent condition and prominently displays the date (west wall) before transitioning to the hadith that ultimately climbs up the right side of the mihrab (fig. 14).55 It remains to assess the formal relationship between this impressive stucco band, whose bold letters sit upon a delicate background of diverse floral designs, and the luster mihrab once nested within it. Another area of research concerns the miniature inscriptions written in black in a professional hand (possibly naskh) on some of the large letters of the stucco band. A prayer opening with ilāhī bī-ḥurmatīhī is partially visible on the mīm of muḥarram and attests another level of active response to the space.56

Figure 18
Figure 18

Lower wall to the immediate left of the mihrab void. The stucco inscription continues down the left side and then caps the dado, which was once decorated with star and cross luster tiles dated to the early 660s/1260s. Visible today are replacement luster tiles from the late-nineteenth-century Qajar period

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 1, 1-2 (2020) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340005

Photo: Keelan Overton, 2018
Figure 19
Figure 19

Stucco inscription wrapping the east side (women’s) of the tomb at eye level. The dado below is mostly blank, save for a few Qajar-period replacement tiles

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 1, 1-2 (2020) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340005

Photo: Kimia Maleki, 2019

A few days after my initial visit to Varamin, I returned with the tour group from the Asian Art Museum. We began at the congregational mosque, where an official from the Varamin branch of the Department of Cultural Heritage (Sāzmān-e Mīrās̱-e Farhangī; Mīrās̱ for short) met the group and proceeded to accompany us to the Emamzadeh Yahya and tower of ʿAlaʾ al-Din.57 The visit to the emāmzādeh was a success, at least from the perspective of travelers interested in less touristic sites, and included a lively discussion about the displaced tilework with the shrine’s caretakers. Where and how would it ideally be preserved? Who can take the best care of it? Is the mihrab a sacred object, functional architectural element, work of art, or all of the above?58

It remains to be seen if the Emamzadeh Yahya will ever become a more common destination on the cultural and/or foreign tourist map, but perhaps the more pressing questions are: Should it be, and who should decide? In spite of its looted tilework, the Emamzadeh Yahya is anything but a “naked tomb shrine” but rather a vibrant site of local piety, pride, agency, and beauty. Some would argue that it is best left alone. The world has consumed enough with the aestheticized and commodified tiles, and non-religious foreign tourism would have a detrimental impact on the sacred space. Others might like to see the tomb added to the city’s existing tourist circuit, inclusive of the congregational mosque and tower of ʿAlaʾ al-Din, as this could contribute to the local economy. Still others might prefer a compromise, as long as it has a positive impact on the shrine, neighborhood, and city. As a historian who has studied the impact of tourism on the making and breaking of Iran’s architectural heritage in past centuries, it was fascinating to observe comparable dynamics playing out in the present, especially when our tour group was asked to pose for photographs at the end of the visit. My participation was not without hesitation, however, given the local and intimate nature of the site and the many voices competing for its future.

3 2019: Tehran, Chicago, Varamin (Maleki)

In his well-known speech delivered in Tehran in April 1925, shortly after he had become an advisory curator of “Muhammadan” (today Islamic) art at the Art Institute of Chicago, Arthur Upham Pope singled out Varamin’s congregational mosque (Masjid-e Jameh) for praise.59 In 1976, on the fiftieth anniversary of the advent of the Pahlavi dynasty (1925–79), Pope’s lecture was translated into Persian, published as a book with an introduction by Isa Sadiq, and distributed throughout schools in Iran as a didactic tool.60 During my high school years in Tehran, the Varamin mosque was a staple of the college entrance exam and a curriculum rooted in style. As for the study of zarrīnfām (luster), the curriculum focused on Kashan, the center of production.

Ironically, it was only when I left Iran that I first learned about the Emamzadeh Yahya at Varamin. At the Art Institute of Chicago, where I helped to curate the Islamic galleries between 2016–19, I encountered the museum’s star and cross tiles from the shrine (fig. 1).61 It felt a bit sad and strange to learn about the site through its tiles in an American museum and books in the library, versus Iran itself. Because of travel limitations imposed on Iranians living in the United States, a visit to Varamin was unlikely, but I hoped that I might be able to see the mihrab in Honolulu. Thinking about the transfer of the mihrab from Varamin to Honolulu was a complex and emotional process, given its decontextualization and secularization in an American woman’s home in the middle of the Pacific.62 The star and cross tiles in Chicago sustained my interest in the emāmzādeh, and when I returned to Iran in 2019, I was able to visit it for the first time.

In Muharram/October 2019, Waze, the most popular navigational application available on cell phones in Iran, guided me by car from the ʿAlaʾ al-Din tower in the center of Varamin to the Emamzadeh Yahya to the immediate south. Instead of taking me to the main entrance on the north (fig. 5), the app led me to the back of the complex through narrow alleyways filled with the smells of traditional dishes being cooked on Friday. As I entered the complex through the south gate (#2 in fig. 4), I felt like I was in a private area reserved for neighborhood locals. The peaceful courtyard contains graves and tombs of locals from the medieval period to the present day, including martyrs (sing. shahīd) of the Iran-Iraq war. The site is regulated by the Departments of Endowments and Charity Affairs (Sāzmān-e Awqāf va Omūr-e Khayrīya) and Cultural Heritage (Mīrās̱), and permission for burial is generally restricted to those ones who have stipulated this request in their will (vaṣīyyat-nāmeh).63

Of the around forty-five emāmzādehs in Varamin county, the Emamzadeh Yahya is among the most important. In recent years, the shrine has been the focus of renovation (marremat va bāzsāzī) focused on fixing cracks (terak) resulting from earlier improper restoration.64 The shrine’s surroundings have also been improved, a phenomenon known as beh-sāzī (lit. to make better) or moḥavvaṭeh sāzī (moḥavvaṭeh meaning “surrounding” or “enclosure”). The northern entrance gate (see “2018”) is one such improvement, as are sidewalks, paved roads, and landscaping. The courtyard of the complex has also been enhanced with the planting of trees and flowers and the addition of benches, lights, and water fountains. These external and internal improvements have made the Emamzadeh Yahya popular not only as a sacred emāmzādeh, but also as a park-like space where locals, especially women, gather for picnics and visit the graves of their loved ones. Many Iranian urban shrines are undergoing such transformations into welcoming social spaces, but processes of “improvement” often introduce modern materials that are at odds with the original aesthetic and/or directly threaten the historical fabric.65

Balancing the historical integrity of the Emamzadeh Yahya with the desires of the local community and the demands of urban infrastructure is an ongoing challenge. In June 2019, the digging of a well by the municipality just outside of the shrine’s perimeter wall resulted in the discovery of several Sassanian (224–651) and possibly Seljuk pottery vessels.66 The digging was immediately stopped and an archaeologist was called to the site. It remains to be seen if the Emamzadeh Yahya and its environs will be the focus of future archaeological excavation. The many graves in the courtyard pose obvious challenges.

Over the last five years, Varamin officials have attempted to increase local awareness of the Emamzadeh Yahya’s historical significance. Ironically, one common method of legitimizing the site among Iranian audiences has been to cite the presence of its stolen luster tiles in foreign museums, especially the Hermitage and V&A.67 In August 2015, the emāmzādeh was promoted as the religious center of Varamin and became the site for Arbaeen (Arbaeen means “forty” and refers to the fortieth day after Ashura, when Shi‘a pilgrims gather at the tomb of Imam Hossein at Karbala and major commemorations are held elsewhere). Authorities also recognized that in addition to being an important destination for “religious tourism” (gardeshgarī-e maẕhabī), the emāmzādeh had the potential to become a larger “tourism hub” (qūtb-e gardeshgarī) and center for Islamic learning.68 The welcoming of the tour group from the Asian Art Museum (see “2018”) seems to attest efforts to expand the site’s touristic reach.

Among Shi‘a believers, Emamzadeh Yahya’s personality (shakhṣīat) continues to resonate, and his tomb is considered mojarrab (lit. experienced, tested, or tried out), meaning that prayers performed there are believed to yield positive results. Since the pilgrim’s wishes are expected to be fulfilled, the shrine has attracted a significant following, including among Afghan immigrants. According to a 2017 news source, approximately 120,000 Afghans live in Varamin.69 The city’s proximity to Tehran has contributed to this influx of immigrants, and Afghans play a key role in construction and farming. The practice of visitation to emāmzādehs is shared between Iranians and Afghans, and this reality contributes to the diversity of such sites in Varamin.

In early December 2018, a group of Varamin locals noticed that one of the historical marble tombstones installed on the right side of the tomb’s façade had gone missing. The news outlet Eskān reported the disappearance in a punchy piece that commented on the shrine’s plundering (tārāj or qārat) and criticized heritage officials for failing to secure its protection.70 Images of the tombstone in place and missing were included in the exposé, as were those of tiles now in the V&A and Walters Art Museum.71 That same evening, as reported in Mehr News Agency, the Varamin Mīrās̱ held a press conference in which the temporary director clarified that the “disappeared” tombstone had in fact been transferred to the inside of the tomb during recent restoration (fig. 20; also see the background of fig. 13).72 The director concluded by thanking the shrine’s board of trustees and appeasing local concerns: “There are strong security measures, like surveillance cameras, in the historical centers of Varamin, especially at the Emamzadeh Yahya” (see the camera on the top of the gate in fig. 5). This incident further demonstrates the local community’s awareness of the site’s looting in the past and concern with its protection in the present. It also reiterates the fact that “local voices” must distinguish between neighborhood residents who go to the site for zīyārat and gravesite visitation and heritage authorities responsible for its security and preservation.

Figure 20
Figure 20

Marble tombstone mounted in the southwest corner niche of the tomb (fig. 13), transferred there from the exterior façade

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 1, 1-2 (2020) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340005

Photo: Kimia Maleki, 2019

During my visit, I realized that local protection of the shrine was not confined to the removal of historical elements. As I was about to take pictures inside the tomb, several residents who had come to the site for Friday prayers asked me for my official permission from the Mīrās̱ to take pictures (I had already confirmed that I did not need a special permission, except if I intended to use a drone). This sensitivity to the purpose of my visit again illustrates local caution toward visitors and wariness about theft. It is clear that the plunder of the luster tilework in the late nineteenth century continues to impact the site. It has also informed the administration’s approach to the crypt (known locally as the sardāb or ganjīneh, lit. treasury), which has never been opened to the public. At present (February 2020), the Mīrās̱ is considering opening the crypt to visitors, but they will need to guarantee its safety and appease local concerns.73

Since I visited the Emamzadeh Yahya during Muharram, its appearance and function had shifted to accommodate the holiday. The site’s sanctity was no longer limited to Emamzadeh Yahya and the personal prayers and rituals undertaken in the tomb proper, but now also focused on the third Imam, Hossein b. ʿAli (d. 680), and the mourning ceremonies (ʿazādārī) that would transpire in the courtyard. Stacks of colorful plastic chairs hinted at crowds and events to come, including processions of men performing rhythmic chest beating (sīneh zanī) and self-flagellation (zanjīr zanī) before proceeding to other nearby emāmzādehs. The façade of the tomb was now covered in black, green, and red banners and textiles to commemorate Muharram (figs. 7–8), and the inside of the tomb had also taken on a different appearance. The mihrab space was no longer decorated with Emamzadeh Yahya’s genealogy and didactics about the luster tilework (figs. 14–17), but instead cloaked in a green banner with an invocation to ʿAbbas b. ʿAli (Abu l-Fazl al-ʿAbbas; d. 680), also martyred at Karbala (fig. 21). The upper portion of the żarīḥ was also covered in black, obscuring the inscriptions and lending a somber air (fig. 13). These differences underscore the fact that the emāmzādeh’s appearance and function vary according to the events of the Islamic calendar.

Figure 21
Figure 21

Mihrab void as decorated during Muharram. The genealogy and didactics have been removed (compare to fig. 14) and replaced with a banner in praise of ‘Abbas b. ʿAli

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 1, 1-2 (2020) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340005

Photo: Kimia Maleki, 2019

The Emamzadeh Yahya is a rich monument of Ilkhanid art and architecture, but it is also a space of daily devotion between locals and the holy person entombed within. Over the centuries, the Shi‘a residents of Varamin have endowed gifts of various kinds in the hopes of having their wishes and requests fulfilled by Emamzadeh Yahya. During the Ilkhanid period, this endowment took the form of lavish luster tiles and stuccowork. Today, residents continue to care for the site in many ways, including safeguarding its historical elements and holding heritage officials accountable. The shrine’s continued activation – its “livingness” – rests in the direct relationship between Emamzadeh Yahya, the local populace, and the architectural complex as a whole.

4 2020: COVID-19

Iran has been tremendously impacted by the global pandemic COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) and continues to adapt to the “new normal.”74 As we have seen, zīyārat is a tactile experience rooted in the touching of communal furnishings and objects (doors, żarīḥs, chadors, mohr, carpets, sacred texts), and the circumambulation of the żarīḥ can be a crowded experience. As potential “hot spots” for the spread of the virus, shrines and emāmzādehs have modified visitation in accordance with social distancing and heightened sanitation. This is not the first time that Iranian shrines have had to adapt to a pandemic. During the nineteenth century, the great plague (1830–1) and frequent outbreaks of cholera forced the closure of its largest shrines.75

During the early days of the c