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Review of article: “Origins and Development of the Shia Islamic Shrine”

Shafaqna English- Ali-Reza Goudarzi has conducted an independent study on “Origins and Development of the Shia Islamic Shrine: A Study on the Shrines of Iran and Iraq” in University of Washington. The study was done in collaboration with Vikramaditya Prakash and is published in autumn 2017. What follows is a review of the paper by Shafaqna English. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and Shafaqna do not endorse them. 

According to Shafaqna, Ali-Reza Goudarzi writes: Within Iran and Iraq, there exist very few studies on the shrines as monuments of specific architectural significance. There are, however, records from the historical accounts of travelers such as Muhammad ibn Battuta (1304-1377) and wealthy patrons who contributed to the shrines. Among Westerners, any attention given to these shrines has usually been by archaeologists and orientalists as a side activity during their expeditions in ancient cities during the 19th and early 20th century, for example, Alistair Northedge’s expedition in Samarra in the 1910 season (Allen, 7).

Shrine of Al Abbas-Karbala 17th century, drawing by Nöldeke, 1908

A German orientalist by the name Arnold Nöldeke (1875-1964) made several journeys to the shrine cities between 1900 and 1909 (Allen, 10). Curiously, Nöldeke was warranted the unique privilege of entering and making plan drawings of all the grand shrines of Iraq. He published these drawings in a 1909 work titled Das Heiligtum al-Husains zu Kerbelâ (The Shrine of Hussain in Karbala). Hence the study of Shia Holy Shrines has long been neglected.

The Position of the Shrine in Shia Islam

In the Shia belief, the succession to the Prophet (PBUH) was appointed to Ali ibn Abi Talib (AS) and then to the subsequent 12 Imams from the lineage of Ali (AS) and the Prophet’s (PBUH) daughter, Fatimah Zahra (SA), according to divine command.

Over time, as Imam Hussain’s (AS) successors were killed similarly, and their followers underwent more and more persecution, the visitation to their graves became more central to Shia identity. Ruling caliphs feared this practice as a form of silent protest to their rule and outlawed those who made such pilgrimages to these graves. Those who continued to make pilgrimages, often were either killed or had their bodies mutilated. At minimum there was a constant struggle of demolishing any marker, shelter, or structure that was built over the graves of the Imams.

Shia Shrine Architecture as its own Typology

Due to the harsh political contexts that dominated the Shia world in the early Islamic period, pilgrimages to the Imam’s graves were seriously inhibited. The constant demolition and reconstruction of Shia Shrines underwent, stunted their architectural and aesthetic development in these early years. Very little is known about the early shrines other than they were typically vernacular-inspired structures with a small Qubba over the grave to shelter pilgrims while performing their visitation. Only with the decline of the Abbasid dynasty and the gradual fall of the caliphate in the 11th century were Shias given some freedom to begin developing their arts. It is for this reason that the focus of this study is on the development of the Shia Shrine from the 11th century onward.

Though all shrines may exhibit similar spiritual qualities, they vary in their architectural qualities. The Shia Shrine is a category of its own and cannot be combined with the category of Sufi Shrines, even those built within the same region.

Throughout Iran and Iraq alone, there are tens of thousands of Shia Shrines

The Shia Shrine maintains a close relationship with Iranian architecture given the frequent patronage from Iranian kings and nobility, as Iran has long been the heart of the Shia world (Allen, 21). Even before the formal conversion to Shia Islam as the state religion of Iran at the beginning of the Safavid period, many kings and governors had converted to Shiism on their own will since the 11th century.

Given Shia Shrines significance among a much larger number of adherents, their shrines brought devotees from many lands to settle near the shrine and build cities to protect and ensure the constant maintenance of these shrines (Panjwani, 37).

Varying Degrees of Importance

Even among the more specific typology of the Shia Shrines, there are shrines of vastly different levels of significance, in both spiritual and architectural measures.

It is important to understand that throughout Iran and Iraq alone, there are tens of thousands of Shia Shrines. Ranging from the grand shrines of the Imams that are visited by tens of millions of pilgrims each year, to the smallest of shrines that sometimes just serve a small village population. These smaller shrines are often built using vernacular techniques, but the influence of the grand shrines is always present in unique ways, although on a smaller level of attention and detail.

The Shia Shrine is a category of its own

Goudarzi proposes that these many Shia Shrines that are found scattered throughout Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon be categorized into four main groups:

Degree 1 (Grand Shrines) – The most significant of shrines and those housing the tombs of the beloved Shia Imams. These shrines exhibit the most architectural significance and embody the finest of craft arts, such as calligraphy, metalwork, woodwork, etc.

Degree 2 Shrines (Intermediate Shrines) – There are many more shrines in this category than in the first category. These shrines are smaller than the grand shrines and some have even been largely reconstructed in the past decades. They utilize the same architectural characteristics but at smaller and less detailed scales. These are typically the shrines of the Imams’ closest familial relations who were known for their piety and devotion to the Imam of their time.

Degree 3 Shrines – There are countless shrines of this type, from the family and companions of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and Imams (AS), to local saints who have experienced visions or other spiritual experiences. The style and grandeur of these shrines vary significantly from highly ornate to very small scale and vernacular.  Nevertheless, artistic and craft styles are derived from the grand shrines. Due to the vast numbers of these shrines it is not possible to mention them all.

Degree 4 Shrines – I consider this a modern typology that is still in its infancy. These are shrines of modern political and religious significance, such as the Shrine of the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini (RA) in Tehran, Iran. Inspiration has been taken from traditional shrines, but the designs of these shrines have not shied away from utilizing modern construction materials and methods (Rizvi, 210).

Architectural History of the Shrines

Little is known about the first shrines constructed over the graves of Shia Imams, other than dates of construction and demolition. It was only beginning in the 10th and 11th centuries that significant and meaningful records emerge that can tell us of the architectural characteristics of the Shia Shrines.

The Shia Shrines today are most famous for their defining grand golden domes and towering cylindrical minarets. Typically, square in plan with many halls, most shrines are surrounded by expansive courtyards on all sides. Other iconic features of the Shrines are their grand entry iwan portals, noble clocktowers, and particular to the shrines in Iraq, their grand Tarimeh porticos.

The Saljuqs & Timurid Dynasty

The Saljuqs (1037 – 1196 AD) were the first major dynasty to rule over parts of Iran after the fall of the Abbasid Caliphate. It is from these years that the first architectural details of a grand shrine are known, though very little of what was built during this era remains today. It is known that the Saljuq King Malek Shah (who was a Sunni) constructed a domed shrine for the tomb of Imam Ali in Najaf, Iraq in the year 1056 AD.

The Imam Ridha’s (AS) Shrine in Mashhad, Iran is the only shrine to retain surviving elements of Saljuq architecture and craft work. The Saljuq period was known for the unique Sanjuri tilework they produced, of which the Imam Ridha’s (AS) Shrine is the only shrine to feature this historic tilework.

From the Illkahnid era, few additions and modifications were made to the Shrine of Imam Ridha (AS). During the reign of Oljeitu (Mohammad Khodabandeh) 1280-1326 a new dome was built over the existing bearing walls of the tomb chamber (Sa’adat, “The Holy Shrine of Imam Ridha (AS)”, 22).

The many domes that adorn the Shrine of Imam Ridha (AS) stand out as distinguishable from the domes of the other major Shia Shrines to even the untrained eye. This is most articulated in the Shrine’s main golden dome that sits directly over the tomb chamber. The similarity all these distinguishable domes have is in their visibly tall profiles and that they are all contributions of Timurid era art and architecture. The Timurids ruled from the mid 1300’s up to the early 1500’s and in this period the Islamic world experienced a renaissance in advancements in the fields of art and architecture (O’Kane 4). The Imam Ridha’s (AS) Shrine is rich in Timurid architecture given its location in historic Khurasan, the heart of the Timurid dynasty.

It was in this period when the Shrine’s iconic golden dome was built as well as the historic Madresseh Du Dar (located next to the Shrine) and Masjed GowharShad (a massive mosque built as an act of devotion by Empress GowharShad).

Safavid Dynasty

To this point the great Shia Shrines in Iraq have not been mentioned. With the establishment of the Safavid Dynasty in Iran in the mid 16th century, Shia Islam was declared as the official state religion. The entire dynamics of shrine construction changed and it at once became the priority of every ruler to leave his mark of devotion on these sacred sites. The shrines of Iraq are all the outcomes of this renaissance. The most important of these shrines are the Shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf, the Shrine of Hussain (AS) and the Shrine of Al-Abbas (AS) in Karbala, the Shrine of Kadhimiyyah in Baghdad, and the Shrine of Al-Askari (AS) in Samarra.

Characteristic of the Iraqi grand shrines are their square and rectangular plans where a central tomb chamber is surrounded by prayer halls. The tomb chambers built in this period are vaster in size than the tomb chambers found in earlier shrines (Allen, 19). The exteriors were decorated with the most intricate of Iranian kashi tilework, which reached a new level of sophistication during this period. Not only were they decorated with geometric patterns, but also floral designs, scenic depictions, and even paintings of human-like angels.

Surrounding the shrines main structure are vast courtyards that are open and connected on all four sides of the main shrines building. This characteristic is unique and not found in almost any shrines in Iran.

Construction of the Shia Shrines in Iraq during the Safavid period incorporated elements of local styles, this is very much seen in these shrines minarets. While they were built under the orders of Iranians, the grand shrines of Iraq’s minarets are unlike any minarets found in Iran. These minarets are characterized by their tall cylindrical shafts (which typically don’t taper) and have a Minaret deck slightly cantilevering out with muqarnas below.

Afsharid and Qajar Dynasties

By the fall of the Safavid dynasty in the early 18th century, all the great Shia Shrines had been built to some degree. In the periods of the Afsharid and Qajar dynasty, many of the artistic crafts evolved and new interventions were introduced. The most significant of these innovations is undoubtedly mirrorwork, which has become a craft almost exclusive to Shia Shrines and Qajar palaces. Gradually Qajar kings commissioned for the removal of kashi tilework from the interiors of the great shrines and their replacement with finely cut tiny mirrors assembled in awestriking arrangements. Mirrorwork was used to adorn all the interior walls, arches, vaults, and most notably the internal domes of the grand shrines.

It was only with the reign of Nadir Shah of the Afsharid dynasty (r.1736-1747), that the great shrines of Iraq began to undergo gilding projects. In the year 1743 Nadir Shah travelled to Iraq and made a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Imam Ali (AS) in Najaf, upon his visit he ordered that the grand Iwan and dome of the Shrine to be stripped of its original Kashi tilework and adorned with the finest of gold plates.

The iconic golden dome, Minarets, and Iwan of the Shrine of Imam Ali (AS), Najaf, Iraq

Of the Qajar contributions, the addition of tarimeh porticos over the main entries to the shrines in Iraq has become, along with the gilded domes, the most striking of elements that defines the Shia Shrines.

The addition of Tarimeh porticos has significantly increased the shrines monumental appearance, it is worthy of mentioning that these porticoes are usually only found in the Shia Shrines of Iraq. The addition of these signature elements was gradual, and the first instance a Tarimeh portico was added to a shrine was to the Kadhimiyyah Shrines in Baghdad in 1848 (Issam). This was followed by the Shrines of Imam Hussain and Al Abbas in Karbala in the later 19th century, and finally the Shrine of Al-Askari in the 1940’s. By this time concrete had been introduced and was being used instead of wood to construct Tarimeh porticoes.

Tarimeh portico of Kadhimiyyah Shrine-Baghdad, Iraq

The last of unique Qajar additions is the construction of clock towers over the entry gates of the shrines outer walls. It is known that the later Qajar kings (notably Nasir Din Shah 1848-1896) made trips to Europe and were enamored by their experiences there. This trend manifested at the Shia Shrines as well, with the introduction of clock towers beginning in the late half of the 19th century (Panjwani, 60). The clock towers of shrines were constructed of masonry and wood over the main axis gate(s).

19th century clock tower over the South entry portal of Kadhimiyyah Shrines-Baghdad, Iraq

Shrines in the Modern Era

The modern era in the context of the Shia Shrines is difficult to assign a strict date to, but it began with a changing political situation in the Middle East (West Asia), the early 20th century in broader terms. A time of economic, military, and cultural strain caused by the collapse of traditional kingdoms, societies, and increased conflict with the Western world. Secularization imposed by governments as that of Reza Pahlavi in Iran resulted in a loss of patronage to the Shia Shrines, along with a struggling Sunni monarchy in Iraq ruling over a Shia majority country. Governmental forces in Iraq and Iran engaged in destructive activities towards the shrines and the structures around them, clearing the historic communities and religious institutions around the shrines.

Damages inflicted onto the Shrine of Al Abbas after the 1991 Karbala uprising

In recent decades, Iran has seen a resurgence in supporting shrines. With Saddam’s fall in Iraq, the administration of shrines underwent significant changes, facilitating Shia from other countries to embark on expansion and reconstruction projects for all shrines.

Mentioned References:

Allan, James W. The Art and Architecture of Twelver Shi’ism: Iraq, Iran and the Indian Sub-Continent. N.p.: Azimuth Editions, 2012. Print.

Dr. Zaid Issam. Telephone interview. “Discussing Architectural Conservation at the Iraqi Shrines.” 25 Nov. 2017.

O’Kane, Bernard. Timurid Architecture in Khurasan. N.p.: Mazda in Association with Undena Publications, 1987. Print.

Panjwani, Imranali, and Charles Tripp. The Shi’a of Samarra: the Heritage and Politics of a Community in Iraq. I.B. Tauris, 2012.

Rizvi, Kishwar. “Religious Icon and National Symbol: The Tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran.” Muqarnas 20 (2003): 209-24. Web.

Sa’adat, Bijan. The Holy Shrine of Imam Reza: Mashhad- History. Asia Institute, 1976.

Source: researchgate

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