Save

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

In: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World
Authors:
Keelan Overton Independent Scholar Santa Barbara, CA USA

Search for other papers by Keelan Overton in
Current site
Google Scholar
PubMed
Close
and
Kimia Maleki Graduate Student, History of Art, Johns Hopkins University Baltimore, MD USA

Search for other papers by Kimia Maleki in
Current site
Google Scholar
PubMed
Close
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.

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