Iran’s Gonbad-e Qabus

By David J. Patten
This item appears on page 26 of the February 2017 issue.

The early-11th-century tower Dome of Qabus stands on a low hill in northeastern Iran. Photo by David J. Patten
Starting from Tehran, it took nine hours by car to reach the modern city of Gonbad-e Ka¯vus, located in Golesta¯n Province in northern Iran, east of the Caspian Sea and near the Turkmenistan border.

It was May 16, 2014, and I was on a 3-day customized tour arranged by Spiekermann Travel Service (Eastpointe, MI; 800/645-3233, mideasttrvl.com) to follow their “Grand Tour of Persia: Ancient & Modern Iran.” My expert local guide was Jalil Charkhian of Pasargad Tours (Tehran, Iran; www.pasargad-tours.com).

Riding through the typical Iranian city, we suddenly stopped. Only then, looking high up out of the window, did I realize we had arrived at our destination. Standing tall and alone on a low artificial hill in a park, the Gonbad-e Qa¯bus is an enormous tower and reputed to be the world’s tallest structure constructed exclusively of unglazed, fired brick.

Rising 236 feet, including its platform, the so-called “Dome of Qa¯bus” is a tapering cylinder with 10-foot-thick walls and 10 equally spaced right-angled flanges that form a decagon. At the base is an entrance topped by a window grill, while in the conical roof there is a small window facing east. Otherwise, the tower is a solid mass of brick. 

The upper Kufic inscription panels are just below the conical roof. Photo by David J. Patten

Its only decorations are the inscriptions, located between the flanges at two levels. The Kufic-style Arabic inscriptions are made of fired brick and are part of the fabric of the tower. Those making the bricks obviously had difficulty forming the Kufic text in that it does not match the sophisticated brickwork on the rest of the structure.

The inscriptions state that the tower was commissioned by the Ziyarid Amir, Shams al-Ma’ali Qa¯bus ibn Wushmgir. They also give the dates of 397 of the lunar Hegira and the year 375 of the solar Hegira, corresponding to AD 1006-1007, making it Iran’s earliest building bearing a date.

Many have said that the tower served as the final resting place of Qa¯bus, but no evidence of any burial has ever been found.

Russian excavations in 1899 revealed that the tower’s walls extend 35 feet below the interior ground level. An elderly man at the site told us he remembered a deep pit in the center of the floor inside. It has since been covered with cobblestones.

An inscription panel in Kufic-style Arabic on the tower. Photo by David J. Patten

Even with the halogen lights installed inside, it remains a dark and inhospitable space, with no access to its top. No significant light enters the tower through the roof’s window. I could see only a dark void when I looked up while inside.

The best explanation for the purpose of the tower is that suggested by authorities at the Gonbad-e
Qa¯bus World Heritage Base in Gorgan, Golesta¯n Province, which I visited the following day.

They believe that Qa¯bus built the tower primarily to glorify and immortalize himself. For over a millennium, the tower was a prominent landmark on a major overland trade route. It is largely because of this tower that one ever hears of the Zayarid Dynasty and its amir of the early 11th century.

I believe that Qa¯bus built for himself a highly original architectural masterwork that had no historic precedent at the time. If he built it as part of his legacy and to survive the vicissitudes of time, he did very well.

An upward view shows both the upper and lower inscription panels and the corbels supporting the conical roof. Photo by David J. Patten

The Gonbad-e Qa¯bus became a “protected site” as far back as 1930, with the enactment of Iran’s National Heritage Protection Act. In 1975, it was cited by the Iran Cultural Heritage, Handcrafts & Tourism Organization. In 2012, it was designated a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.

After standing on the hill for over 1,000 years, the tower is still recognized as a major masterpiece of world architecture. As seen in the open-work tower built in 1954 over the mausoleum of the famous Persian philosopher Avicenna, in Hamadan, its influence has extended even into the 20th century.

DAVID J. PATTEN
Saint Petersburg, FL