Gonbad-e Qābus is a monumental tomb tower that is an outstanding achievement of early Islamic brick architecture.
The 53 metres high tower was constructed to an intricate geometric plan so the brickwork could bear the load. Its form is cylindrical with a conical roof, which became the prototype for the construction of tomb towers in the wider region. It was built in 1006 as a tomb for emir Qābus ibn Voshmgir, but no traces of remains have been found inside the tower.
Community Perspective: This one is a long way off the route for visiting Iran’s other WHS. For a fee, you can enter the enclosure and climb its mound. After around half an hour and a few circumambulations, you will have seen it.
Map of Gonbad-e QâbusLoad map
The Gonbad-e Qābus, meaning “Dome of Qābus,” was visited on Friday, 16 May 2014, on a three-day extension of a guided tour of Iran. It had been the subject of an art history master’s degree thesis in 1966, so there was a long term wish to visit what is said to be Earth’s tallest tower of unglazed, fired brick and one the the earliest Iranian monuments bearing its date and the name of the Ziyarid dynasty emir responsible for its construction.
The tower was first designated a protected monument under Iran’s Law for Protection of National Heritage in 1930. In 1975 it was cited by the Iranian Cultural, Heritage, Handicraft and Tourism Organization (ICHHTO) as number 1097. In 2012, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site with the number, 1398.
Today, the tower sits off center atop an artificial hill measuring 10m in height in the center of the city of Gonbad-e Kāvus, located in Golestan province in northeastern Iran near the Turkmenistan border to the north and the Caspian Sea to the west. Originally the tower stood 3km from the ancient Ziyarid dynasty capital city of Gurgan which was destroyed in the 14th-15th centuries CE. Sitting in a park in the city which has grown up around it largely since the Revolution, the monument remains as the only remanent of the dynasty that one ruled most of northeastern Iran.
The inscription in Kufic style Arabic, built into the brick fabric of the tower and duplicated on two separate levels of the tower is regarded as one of its most important features. Both inscriptions are located in ten brick panels located between the ten, right-angled buttresses that break up the cylindrical stem of the tower. The lower inscription sits 8m above ground level, while the upper inscription sits below a ring of corbel brickwork supporting the tower’s steep, conical, brick roof.
The inscription, which is to be read clockwise from right to left and which begins in the bay to the right of the tower’s ground level entrance, has been translated as follows:
In the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful, this castle (also translated as “high place”) was built by the Amir, Shams al-Ma’ali, the Amir, Son of the Amir, Qābus, son of Wushmgir, who ordered it built during his lifetime in the lunar year 397 and the solar year 375.
The dates correspond to September, 1006 CE, to March, 1007 CE. The use of the solar date, which is more infrequently used, has been cited as Zoroastrian influences on what is otherwise a predominantly an Islamic monument.
The use in the inscription of the Arabic term, qasr, usually translated as “castle” or “palace” has led to the theory that the tower was intended as a mausoleum housing the remains of Qābus. On the other hand, excavations, laser scans, and photogrammetry surveys have revealed no traces of any burial, and the lack of access to the tower’s top have led to many controversies as to the tower’s intended function.
Adding to the controversy is a legend told by an Arabic historian, named al-Jannabi, that Qābus was encased in a glass or crystal coffin and hung by chains from the top of the tower’s interior. The legend has persisted, although it has no basis in fact. No remains of such a burial have been found at the tower’s top where the interior is shown to follow closely the exterior, conical roof. There is also no evidence of an inner, hemispherical dome, leading some to claim that the tower has a “conical dome.” The tower’s interior also remains a total void with unbroken brickwork from top to bottom except for the ground level entrance and a small, arched roof window facing east.
Although the Gonbad-e Qābus is seen as the prototype of a series of so-called tomb towers located in Iran and Anatolia, much about the tower remains unique. It is seen as having few, if any precursors, and remains unique for its exceptional height and for apparently not being intended as a funerary monument. One theory as to its possible function is that it was intended primarily to glorify the emir building it as evidenced by the duplication of the inscription, its being built into the very brick fabric of the tower, and its specificity in giving the name of Qābus and the two dates.
Other theories claim that it was intended as a landmark along ancient trade routes, as proclaiming Islam as the dominant religion in a region where Zoroastrianism still prevailed, and as having been inspired by the circular, conically roofed tents of the Central Asian nomads living in the surrounding area. It is also notable for its use of sophisticated proportions and mathematics as seen in its design, leading to its frequently being called a work of human genius.
Unfortunately, its out-of-the-way location makes such a remarkably important ancient, Persian monument difficult to visit, and much more needs to be done to impress upon it infrequent visitors its true importance as a world class structure within the annals of world architecture.
Much more very detailed information prepared by ICHHTO for the tower’s UNESCO Heritage Site designation can be found in a downloadable PDF document on the internet at: https://whc.unesco.org/uploads/nominations/1398.pdf.
David J. Patten, Saint Petersburg, FL
A lot has been said in the below review that I can't really add much. The site is remote, even with he nearby forests/parks probably WHS soon, as well the “on paper” great wall of Gorgan to visit.
I found a parking lot right at the site which acts as a fairground in summer. It also taught me that parking on the side of the road you need to be careful of the large gaps between road and side that act as...drainage? It was rainy but nothing compared to the snowy road from the south that had many people grabbing their snow chains quickly. So I made made it to the tower and looks pretty impressive but woah there is so little to see. I find myself reviewing bad sites more often but I suppose there are so many reviews for the “good” places. I am actually dishing out more stars than what is worth but I like towers.
Indeed you get a leaflet about the site, walk up the ramp and read a couple of panels. Inside, I was so excited, is absolutely nothing! Well, air, and darkness, and a ceiling somewhere up there. If not for that I would probably be ok taking a picture from just outside the entrance like everyone else! So I spend a few more minutes walking around the tower, read the labs again, took more pictures and goodbye tower. I think I spent more time writing the review.
As I said, if you want to spend more time on nearby attractions then it is worth coming otherwise no.
A quick look at the map of Iran will indicate why Gonbad-e Qabus might not yet have been reviewed on this web site and indeed had only 5 recorded visits prior to ours! It is a long way off the route for visiting Iran’s other WHS! Which was a problem for us, as I had set myself the objective of visiting all of Iran’s WHS, other than Shahr-i Sokhta. So I swallowed hard and added 2 days to the end of our circular trip by car after taking in the other 17 – a distance from Tehran of over 500 kms each way. Over 1000 kms just to see a brick “tower”!??
Well – was it worth it? In purely objective terms I guess the answer must be “no” – even for that extra tick! But the trip contained enough other “interests” by taking us to a “new” area of Iran to make it just about worthwhile. Our outward journey took us past 5620m Mt Damavand and down to the Caspian coast at 24m below sea level! Gonbad itself is approached across a plain of wheat fields which predominate in this area SE of the Caspian. To the south, the hazy Elburz mountains create an amazing climatic change – across them, less than 100kms as the crow flies, lies largely empty “desert” Iran. On this side, the mountain slopes are forested and farmers tend rice paddy fields which look as if they could be in SE Asia. The next day, as we drove up into the mountains to cross over and take a different route back to Tehran (an additional 100kms!), our driver/guide commented that this place was “Paradise” to Iranians with all its greenery and running water.
Gonbad itself is a scratty, mainly modern, town of c 120k people undergoing the undistinguished expansion common across Iran in response to its recent massive population increase (On my previous visit to Iran in 1970 its population had been c25 million – it is currently c80 million and rising). It lies only 60kms from the Turkmenistan border and its population is significantly Turkmen. Whilst the women still cover their hair with a scarf as required by Iranian law, they are easily distinguishable by their bright colours and long slim dresses, in contrast to the more subdued hues and trousers/black of Iranians. Rather disappointingly the local men seem to have abandoned their Turkmen hats which we remembered from the other side of the border!
The inscribed brick tomb tower from 1006 AD dominates the view of the town for some kilometres away. On reaching it, your first decision will be whether it is worth paying the 200k rials (cUS6) to enter the enclosure and climb the 10m high mound on which the 53m high tower stands (figures from the AB eval – elsewhere they differ slightly). Of course, having already spent so much time, effort and money to reach the tower, such an “economy” would be irrational but the reality is that little is to be gained by entering since you can easily see and walk round the tower from outside! If you do enter you will be able to
a. pick up a couple of, not too informative, part Farsi/part English brochures – but you have to ask and the ticket seller was very reluctant to give us one since, apparently, it contained a numeric error in its Farsi/Arabic number section!
b. see the displays which line the spiral ramp from the ticket office to the top of the mound showing some nice historic photos of the Tower from the 19th C onwards – including before/after its several “renovations” (c 1930-33, 1938-9 and 2006-7). Interestingly ICOMOS was critical of the ramp which had “slightly damaged the form of the mound”.
c. enter the tower itself by its only door. Inside you will see ……an empty circular brick cavern reaching up into the dark and containing no decorations or features whatsoever apart from a dim light from a small window somewhere “up there”. Any plaster decoration which might once have existed has long gone. Legend holds that the tomb of Qabus was suspended from the roof and our guide claimed that there were indeed the remains of chains before one of the restorations. Whatever – apparently no tomb or any remains of such have ever been discovered despite excavations into the base and ICOMOS even suggested that “geo-radar” techniques might be used to investigate further!
So that’s it – after around half an hour and a few circumambulations you will have seen it! You will have noted the fine raised brickwork which creates the commemorative inscriptions in Kufic calligraphy surrounding the tower at both low and high altitude. You will also have noted the 10 mathematically determined external triangular buttresses – their faces still “sharp” even after 1000 years. You may have picked up that the conical roof contains a twin shelled dome!! Beyond that – well you now have an entrée to the subject of “Tomb Towers” in Iran, Turkey etc. You can even see 2 more on your way back in Shahrud and Damghan. But, at Gonbad you have seen the giant “grand daddy” of this type of structure.
But the Tower isn’t Gonbad’s only historic monument. In the suburbs lie the ruins of the ancient city of Jorjan or Gorgan (Not to be confused with modern Gorgan which lies almost 100kms to the SW) – but with little to see. More interesting to us were some remains of the “Great Wall of Gorgan” the World’s second longest defensive wall after the Great Wall of China situated just 3kms north - albeit that it is now little more than a long mound with occasional squares which were once forts! Indeed, the chance to add this to my seen list of “Walls of the World” helped me mentally “justify” this entire add-on excursion!! It was added to Iran's T List in Feb 2017.
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