Tag Archives: Robert Byron

Iran’s ‘Colossal’ Ceilings

I have posted before about Robert Byron’s description of the Sheikh-Lotfollah’s mosque in Esfahan, Iran, in his Road to Oxiana.  I am yet to travel to Iran, but long to visit the country and explore its architectural splendours. For the time-being however I can read, use my imagination, and explore them through the internet.

One element of their design captures my imagination above all else… the intricately tiled iwans and ceilings, often featuring complex tessellations and honeycombs. Last night I came across a fabulous collection of photographs of them here on the ‘This is Colossal’ website. Well worth a look, but must be even better to see with one’s own eyes.

Sheikh-Lotfollah’s mosque in Esfahan

Of the interior if the dome Byron wrote “I know of no finer example of the Persian Islamic genius than the interior of the dome: The dome is inset with a network of lemon-shaped compartments, which decrease in size as they ascend towards the formalised peacock at the apex… The mihrāb in the west wall is enamelled with tiny flowers on a deep blue meadow. Each part of the design, each plane, each repetition, each separate branch or blossom has its own sombre beauty. But the beauty of the whole comes as you move. Again, the highlights are broken by the play of glazed and unglazed surfaces; so that with every step they rearrange themselves in countless shining patterns… I have never encountered splendour of this kind before.”

But as fans of this genre of architecture, can you tell me where the ceiling shown below can be found?Mystery roof

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… and dust his finger-tips in Yorkshire fog.

I have long been a fan of Robert Byron; art critic, historian, and travel writer best known for his The Road to Oxiana If you have not read it, I can only envy you opening it for the first time. But this week I four a ‘poem’ by him… it’s not in the same league as his travel writing, but it captures some of his charm, style, languid yet vast lexicon, and effortless ability to capture the moment and transplant it to the reader’s mind.

All These I Learnt  by Robert Byron 

If I have a son, he shall salute the lords and ladies who unfurl green hoods to the March rains, and shall know them afterwards by their scarlet fruit. He shall know the celandine, and the frigid, sightless flowers of the woods, spurge and spurge laurel, dogs’ mercury, wood-sorrel and queer four-leaved herb-paris fit to trim a bonnet with its purple dot. He shall see the marshes gold with flags and kingcups and find shepherd’s purse on a slag-heap. He shall know the tree-flowers, scented lime-tassels, blood-pink larch-tufts, white strands of the Spanish chestnut and tattered oak-plumes. He shall know orchids, mauve-winged bees and claret-coloured flies climbing up from mottled leaves. He shall see June red and white with ragged robin and cow parsley and the two campions. He shall tell a dandelion from sow thistle or goat’s beard. He shall know the field flowers, lady’s bedstraw and lady’s slipper, purple mallow, blue chicory and the cranesbills – dusky, bloody, and blue as heaven. In the cool summer wind he shall listen to the rattle of harebells against the whistle of a distant train, shall watch clover blush and scabious nod, pinch the ample veitches, and savour the virgin turf. He shall know grasses, timothy and wag-wanton, and dust his finger-tips in Yorkshire fog. By the river he shall know pink willow-herb and purple spikes of loosestrife, and the sweetshop smell of water-mint where the rat dives silently from its hole. He shall know the velvet leaves and yellow spike of the old dowager, mullein, recognise the whole company of thistles, and greet the relatives of the nettle, wound-wort and hore-hound, yellow rattle, betony, bugle and archangel. In autumn, he shall know the hedge lanterns, hips and haws and bryony. At Christmas he shall climb an old apple-tree for mistletoe, and know whom to kiss and how.

He shall know the butterflies that suck the brambles, common whites and marbled white, orange-tip, brimstone, and the carnivorous clouded yellows. He shall watch fritillaries, pearl-bordered and silver-washed, flit like fireballs across the sunlit rides. He shall see that family of capitalists, peacock, painted lady, red admiral and the tortoiseshells, uncurl their trunks to suck blood from bruised plums, while the purple emperor and white admiral glut themselves on the bowels of a rabbit. He shall know the jagged comma, printed with a white c, the manx-tailed iridescent hair-streaks, and the skippers demure as charwomen on Monday morning. He shall run to the glint of silver on a chalk-hill blue – glint of a breeze on water beneath an open sky – and shall follow the brown explorers, meadow brown, brown argus, speckled wood and ringlet. He shall see death and revolution in the burnet moth, black and red, crawling from a house of yellow talc tied half-way up a tall grass. He shall know more rational moths, who like the night, the gaudy tigers, cream-spot and scarlet, and the red and yellow underwings. He shall hear the humming-bird hawk moth arrive like an air-raid on the garden at dusk, and know the other hawks, pink sleek-bodied elephant, poplar, lime, and death’s head. He shall count the pinions of the plume moths, and find the large emerald waiting in the rain-dewed grass.

All these I learnt when I was a child and each recalls a place or occasion that might otherwise be lost. They were my own discoveries. They taught me to look at the world with my own eyes and with attention. They gave me a first content with the universe. Town-dwellers lack this intimate content, but my son shall have it!

 

And if you especially wanted to hear this being read by the heir to the throne, look no further than here.

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The Road to Oxiana and Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque

I just love this photograph of the dome of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran. It was taken by Hamzeh Karbasi, and the chap standing on the edge gives a perfect scale to the majestic dome. I have been wanting to travel to Iran for years, having been smitten by Robert Byron’s Road to Oxiana. If you have not read this book, go now to the nearest bookshop and buy a copy. Take my car. Do it Now. (Or if you must then click here to find it online.) I guarantee you will not be disappointed; OK it’s not exactly Fifty Shades, being a travel account of Persia, Mesopotamia, and Afghanistan in the 1930’s, but it is widely recognised as the greatest of all pre-war travel books. As Paul Fussell neatly put it in Abroad, “What Ulysses is to the novel between the wars, and what The Waste Land is to poetry, The Road to Oxiana is to the travel book.”

Dome of Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque

Sheikh Lutfollah Mosque (مسجد شیخ لطف الله) is one of the architectural masterpieces of Safavid Iranian architecture, standing on the eastern side of Naghsh-i Jahan Square, Isfahan. Construction of the mosque started in 1603 and was finished in 1618. It was built by the chief architect Shaykh Bahai, during the reign of Shah Abbas I of the Safavid dynasty.

Shah Abbas dedicated the mosque to his father-in-law, Sheikh Lotfollah, a prominent religious scholar and teacher who came to Isfahan at the orders of Shah ‘Abbas, and resided on the site. This beautifully proportioned and decorated mosque, with arguably (I am told… I am no expert!) the best mosaics from that era, took nearly 20 years to complete. The pale tiles of the dome change colour, from cream through to pink, depending on the light conditions. The mosque is unusual because it has no minaret or courtyard as it was intended as a private mosque of the royal court, and therefore needed no call to prayer.

The interior of the dome is simply stunning. One of the unique characteristics of the mosque is the peacock at the center of its dome. It is said that if you stand at the entrance gate of the inner hall and look at the center of the dome, a peacock’s tail is formed by the sunrays coming in from the hole in the ceiling.

Byron has been described as a writer of breathtaking prose – “prose whose sensuous, chiselled beauty has cast its spell on English travel writing ever since.” At his best Byron had a remarkable ability to evoke place, to bring to life a whole world in a single unexpected image, to pull a perfect sentence out of the air with the ease of a child netting a butterfly. The perfection and visual precision of the writing in Oxiana, combined with its wit, its farcical playlets, its intriguing scholarly essays and its fierce passion for its subject – a search for the Central Asian roots of Islamic architecture – make the book a timeless classic. I can’t recommend it enough.

Of the interior if the dome Byron wrote “I know of no finer example of the Persian Islamic genius than the interior of the dome: The dome is inset with a network of lemon-shaped compartments, which decrease in size as they ascend towards the formalised peacock at the apex… The mihrāb in the west wall is enamelled with tiny flowers on a deep blue meadow. Each part of the design, each plane, each repetition, each separate branch or blossom has its own sombre beauty. But the beauty of the whole comes as you move. Again, the highlights are broken by the play of glazed and unglazed surfaces; so that with every step they rearrange themselves in countless shining patterns… I have never encountered splendour of this kind before.”

Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque

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