Light and ornamentation in the Holy Shrine at Mashhad

Rewâq Dâr al-Siâdeh. Holy Shrine, Mashhad,
Timurid and Qâjâr periods, 15th and 19th century.
Photograph: Masud Nozari (2011)

Note: this text is an extract from a paper presented at the International Conference on Religion in the Mirror of Art (Hamedan, April 10-11, 2012).

The light of the ornamentation

The luminosity of the ornamentation was well noticed by European travelers of the 19th and early 20th century. The major Percy Molesworth Sykes, in a book published in 1910, wrote about the rewâq Dâr al-Siâdeh:

Its decoration consists of a paneling of blue and gold tiles; and above, the wall and ceiling are covered with glass facets resembling diamonds, which, were not the chamber dark, would make the gazer blind. [1]

The ornamental techniques used in the Holy Shrine, be it tiles, mirror-work or gold, constitute different ways to capture light. In the Iranian world, mainly from the Mongol period on, ceramic decoration has been favored to cover the walls of important mosques, palaces or mausoleums. The creation of polychrome tiles (haft-rang) and mosaic tiles (moʿarraq) may convey a deep symbolism, as it consists of the transformation of a modest and opaque material (clay) into a luminous piece of art (glazed bricks or tiles), reflecting light and shining in the sun. Rudolf Schnyder drew a symbolic parallel between the production of new white ceramics in Central Iran near the end of the great Saljuq period, and the mystical ideal of a spiritual transmutation of man: “the attempt to produce white ceramics, which resulted in a white body purified through and through, appears a grand metaphor of the journey into the interior traversed by the mystical thinking of those days.” [2] The wide range of ceramic decorations in the Holy Shrine can also be seen from this symbolic point of view: from the ilkhanid mihrabs (now in the Shrine museum) to the tiles created to clothe in color the courtyards built after the Islamic Revolution, the beauty of the glazed tiles is a vivid metaphor of a spiritual transfiguration and of an inner translucency towards the light of God.

In the interior parts of the Holy Shrine, almost all the upper parts of the rewâq or porticos (upper walls, ceilings, domes) are covered with mirror-work mosaics [3]. Made of mirror-glass pieces cut into various geometric shapes, these mosaics were first introduced during the Qâjâr period and they often replaced an earlier tiled or painted decoration. The rewâq surrounding the tomb chamber and built after the Islamic Revolution are also covered with the same type of mirror-work ornamentation. The general effect is a world of luminous infinity and depth, where light is increased by its indefinite reflections and refractions. Till the end of the Qâjâr period the mirror-work was illuminated by the flames of candles. James B. Fraser wrote about the illumination of the Holy Shrine in the beginning of the 19th century:

The lights, which are kept continually burning, and which are chiefly of wax, form one of the heaviest items in the expenditure; and the cost of these is defrayed from the rents of a caravanserai, and the bazaar belonging to the establishment […]. [4]

The candles have been since then replaced by electric lighting, and it is now difficult for contemporary visitors to imagine the visual effect provided by hundreds of flames burning between walls covered by thousands of pieces of mirror glass.

Gold was also used in specific parts of the Holy Shrine. The dome over the tomb chamber was gilded during the reign of Shâh Tahmâsp I, and gilded again by Shâh Abbâs I. The minaret next to this dome, as well as the minaret over the opposite eivân, was also gilded during the Safavid period. In the 18th century Nâder Shâh ordered the eivân in the Old courtyard (sahn-e Atiq / sahn-e Enghelâb) to be covered with gold. In 1865, under the reign of the Qâjâr Nâser-al-Dîn Shâh, the northwestern eivân in the New Courtyard was gilded following the example of the “Eivân-e Talâi-ye Nâderi” in the Safavid courtyard. After the Islamic Revolution, a new courtyard was built on the northwestern side of the Holy Shrine (sahn-e Djomhuri-ye Eslâmi): its southeastern eivân, which leads to the dome chamber through the big rewâq Dâr al-Welâyeh, was gilded in order to create a visual and symbolic echo to the two other golden eivân. The symbolism of gold is universal: connected with the Sun, gold is the reflection – or even the “incarnation” – of a heavenly and divine light and the alchemical symbol of a purified and spiritualized soul.

This predilection for light in the ornamentation corresponds manifestly to a symbolic intention that can be interpreted on different levels.

God is “light upon light”
The first level is a metaphysical one. The terrestrial and physical light is a reflection of the divine Light, which encompasses everything, and which is also the very heart of all reality, created and uncreated. The main testimony of this symbolism can be found in the famous qur’ânic “Light Verse”:

“God is the light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of his light is as a niche in which is a lamp; the lamp encased in glass; the glass as if it were a shining star lit from a blessed tree, an olive tree, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would burn bright even if no fire touched it. Light upon light, God guides to his light whom he wishes, and God puts forth parables for human beings, and God is knowing of all things.” [5]

The Prophet and the Imams are light
The second level refers to the Prophet of Islam and to the Imams, who, according to the Shiite tradition, are the keeper of the esoteric meanings of the qur’ânic and prophetic Revelation. If the Qur’ân insists that the Prophet Muhammad is a messenger of God, and a man among other men (Q. 11:12), he is a source of light: “And an inviter to God by his leave, and a light-giving lamp [sirājan munīran]” (Q. 33:46) [6]. From a metaphysical point of view, the Prophet is a manifestation of the divine Intellect. In his Meadows of Gold (Murûj adh-Dhahab) Mas‘ûdî quotes a saying attributed to Imam Ali, describing metaphorically the birth in God of the “Muhammadan Light” (Nûr muhammadi):

When God wished to establish creation, the atoms of creatures, and the beginning of all created things, he first made what he created in the form of small particles. This was before He stretched out the earth or raised the heavens… He cast forth a ray of light, a flame from his splendor, and it was radiant. He scattered this light in the midst of invisible atoms, which he then united in the form of our Prophet.[7]

In the Shiite thought and faith, the twelve Imams are also seen as emanations from the Light of God and of the Prophet. Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi summarizes the different traditions related to this creation by and in the divine light:

From his own light, God made a luminous ray spring forth, and from this ray he made a second ray proceed; the first was the light of Muhammad, that of Prophecy (nubuwwa), that of the exoteric (zâhir); the second, of identical nature but subordinate to the first, was the light of ‘Alî, that of the Imamate or of walâya, of the esoteric (bâtin). “Two thousand years before creation, Muhammad and ‘Alî were one light before God . . . , light formed from one main trunk from which sprang a shining ray. . . . And God said: “Here is a light [drawn] from my Light; its trunk is prophecy and its branch is the Imamate; prophecy belongs to Muhammad, my servant and messenger, and the Imamate belongs to ‘Alî, my Proof and my Friend. […].” [8]

Many traditions closely associate the esoteric and spiritual function of the Imams to the symbolism of the divine or cosmic light:

According to a whole series of traditions, from the moment an imam is born, God makes a light appear for him; this light is described in several ways: the most frequent description is that of a column of light or a column made of light, but it has also been called a “minaret of light,” “a lamp made of light,” or even “a light like a gold ingot.” At the moment of its appearance, the column of light fills all of space, linking the divine Throne with the earth or, according to another version, linking God with the imam. [9]

In a hymn attributed to Ali, the first Imam describes himself in terms of light:

I am the Tree of Lights; I am the Guide of the Heavens; I am the One who is intimate with those who pray God; […]; I am the Face of God; I am the Eye of God; I am the Hand of God; I am the Tongue of God; I am the Light of God; I am the Treasure of God in the heavens and on the earth; […]. [10]

The paradise is light
In the Qur’ân and in the prophetic traditions, the paradise is described as a garden full of trees and rivers, and providing all kinds of delights and pleasures. The idea that this paradise is made of light, illuminated by the presence of God, is apparent or underlying in most of texts. Qur’ânic verses say that the inhabitants of the paradisiacal gardens wear green garments of silk and brocade (Q. 18:31; 76:21), gold and silver bracelets (Q. 18:31; 22:23; 35:33; 76:21). They drink and eat in vessels of silver and goblets of crystal (Q. 76:15), and use plates and trays made of gold (Q. 43:71). The hadiths offer more detailed descriptions, and the metaphors used to describe an unimaginable reality frequently refer to light and illumination. “The garden has bricks of silver and gold, and its mortar is pungent musk. […] The people of the garden will sweat musk and use censers of aloes, their vessels will be of gold and their combs of gold and silver. They will have seats of pearl, sapphire, chrysolite, and gold, and heaps of musk and camphor.” [11] In the stories narrating the heavenly journey of the Prophet (mi’râj), many descriptions stress on the dazzling and supernatural light of the paradisiacal and divine abodes [12].

The Qu’rân and the Prophecy are light
In the Qur’ân, the prophecy and the sacred Book itself are very often described as a light sent by God to men:

“So believe in God and his messenger, and the light [nûr] that we sent down” (Q. 64:8).

“And thus we sent to you a spirit by our command. You did not know what the book was nor faith, but we made it a light [nûr] with which we guide whom we wish of our servants” (Q. 42:52).

“O human kind! Indeed a proof has come to you from your lord. And we sent down to you a manifest light [nûran mubînan]” (Q. 4:174).[13]

Light of the spirituality, clarity of the truth
In the Qur’ân, faith is compared to a progressive access to the light of God: “God is the ally of those who believe: He brings them out of the depths of darkness and into the light.” (Q. 2:257) [14]. The spirituality is a dynamic path which gradually enlightens the believers. This quest for light is well expressed by a prayer transmitted by the Prophet Muhammad:

O God, set light in my heart and light in my tomb and light before me, and light behind me; light on my right hand and light on my left; light above me and light below me; light in my sight and light in my perception; light in my countenance and light in my flesh; light in my blood and light in my bones. Increase to me light and give me light, and appoint for me light and give me more light. Give me more light! [15]

The truth, revealed by the Qur’ân, is light. In his comment of the “Verse light” (Q. 24:35), and more precisely of the words “God is the light of the heavens and the earth”, Mullâ Sadrâ Shîrâzî wrote:

Without doubt, by “light” in this respect is intended the Qurân, because the reality clarifies it, that is, God guides the people by His firm Word [kalâm], which is a clear truth. God named it “light” when He said: “We have sent down to you a clear light” [4:174]. That is because the Qur’ân is the locus of manifestation [maẓhar] of the Light of the reality and of divine knowledge (al-‘irfân), and the illuminator of the hearts of believers. So the reality is the Light and the Qur’ân is its symbol [mathal]. [16]

There is no doubt that the general luminosity of the decoration in the Holy Shrine was intended to be a symbolic or metaphoric illustration of the divine and spiritual light, illuminating the hearts, guiding the pilgrims, and bringing knowledge and wisdom to the conscience. Between walls covered by mirrors illuminated by chandeliers, the believers are immerged in an atmosphere of light which appears to be the physical manifestation of the Imam’s invisible presence and subtle holy grace, and which can also prefigure the omnipresent light of the paradise in the hereafter.

Beyond these very general statements, some specific links can be found between the symbolic aspects mentioned below and precise aesthetics and ornaments. The epigraphy of qur’ânic verses made of mirror-work in some rewâq seems to express the idea that the Qu’rân is light and brings light. The many vegetal motifs in mosaic tiles or glazed tiles may symbolize the light and transparent materiality of the paradisiacal gardens. The tomb chamber of the Imam, living heart of the whole pilgrimage complex, is a kind a scenography of light: marble and tile mosaic on the lower walls, mirror-work mosaic in the muqarnas cupola, bricks clad with gold on the dome. The ornamentation creates a shell of light which seems to emanate from the light of the Imam.

Finally one may see in the countless nuances of light and illuminations created by the variety of the mirror glasses an echo to a cosmology of light. The hierarchy of worlds, from the divine Throne to the earth, is conceived as a hierarchy of lights: each world differentiates from the other by a certain quality and intensity of light, inasmuch as each world reflects the light of the divine Unity in a specific way and according to its existential conditions. The same can be said about the countless creatures existing in the universe: angels do not reflect the divine light as men do, because of their different ontological and cosmic status. The many different refractions of light in the ornamentation can thus directly illustrate the philosophical conception of a universe entirely illuminated by God, but a universe in which each creature and each world is reflecting the infinite light of God in its own and unique way.

A hermeneutic of the mirror-work mosaic

From the Qâjâr period on, the mosaic of mirror-glass has been extensively used in the ornamentation of Iranian shrines and Imâmzâdeh, to such an extent that they have become in the 19th and 20th century a typical adornment for these holy places. This technique certainly dates back to the Safavid period: the first known example of mirror-work mosaic is probably to be found in the eivân of the Chehel Sotun palace in Esfahan (17th century) [17]. The Holy Shrine of Mashhad is certainly the best and most impressive example of this type of decoration. But aside from a strictly visual purpose (increase the luminosity of a room), and apart from a very general interpretation (light as a symbol of spiritual realm, or of the king’s glory or farr), does this type of decoration have a specific meaning? No historical evidence can inform us about a metaphysic or spiritual symbolism connected with the mirror-work mosaic, but its aesthetics may correspond to some precise concepts in Persian and Muslim thought and spirituality.

It is first interesting to notice that although these mirror-work mosaics are reflecting all the objects and persons in a room, no complete image can be seen in the mirrors. In other words, there is no possibility for anyone to admire oneself in front of a wall adorned with this type of art: to look at a mirror-work mosaic is to see, not his own reflection, but a geometric pattern reflecting light. From a symbolic point a view, it could mean that, inside a shrine, the image of the believers is dissolved, or more exactly, transformed into a thousand pieces of light. It is worth noticing that among the rules that pilgrims must obey in Mecca, there is the interdiction to see oneself in a mirror: the pilgrim must think of God only and to lose his self-consciousness in the presence of the Divine. If mirrors may be the symbol and medium of narcissism, the mirror-work mosaics do not convey this ambiguous meaning and power of the mirrors, but convert the reflections into hundreds pieces of light while unifying these pieces by a geometric design.

The works of a Persian philosopher of the 14th century, Seyyed Haydar Âmolî, give us a clue for another meaning of the mirror-work mosaic. In his Nass al-Nosûs, a commentary on Ibn al-ʿArabî’s Fosûs al-hekam, he illustrated the metaphysical problem of the relationship between the divine Unity and the multiplicity of the creatures by a diagram: a flame is burning in the middle of a circle of twenty-one mirrors [18]. The mirrors are all reflecting the same flame, and the mirrors are also reflecting some other mirrors and the light given by the reflections. The central flame is a symbol of the divine light, center and origin of all reality; the mirrors, which all reflect the same light, are the symbols of the many realities of the Universe, which reflect in many different ways a unique – divine – light. On an anthropological and spiritual level, the mirrors encircling the central light can be compared to the hearts of the sanctified men, whose soul has become the pure mirror of the luminous and shining presence of God.

This symbolic diagram can inspire a hermeneutic of the mirror-work mosaic. Inside a shrine there are several different sources of light (sun, candles), and not a single source of illumination. Nevertheless, light is light: it has its one unity, and be it natural or artificial, light gives a unity to the entire architectural space, unifying the different parts of the interior volume and giving life to the ornamentation. As nothing can be seen and nothing exists without illumination, light is the immediate and evident metaphor of the Divine: “God is the light of the heavens and the earth” (Q. 24:35). Within this symbolic perspective, the mirror-work mosaic may appear either as the symbol of the infinite realities of the created universe, which mirror the luminous archetypes of their unique Creator, or as the symbols of the souls of the believers, whose hearts are like mirrors to be purified and cleaned by spirituality in order to reflect a spiritual and divine light. Following this hermeneutics, the mirror-work mosaic in the Holy Shrine of Mashhad, and in other Iranian shrines, can be interpreted as an ornamental metaphor of the cosmic and spiritual situation of the believers. Each pilgrim is a mirror connected to the mirrors of all other human beings, and all these mirrors, each one having its assigned place in the harmonious design of the universe, are reflecting the unique light of God.

[1] The Glory of the Shia World. The Tale of a Pilgrimage, London : MacMillan and Co, 1910, p. 248.
[2] “In Search of the Substance of Light”, Robert Hillenbrand (ed.), The Art of the Saljûqs in Iran and Anatolia, Costa Mesa : Mazda Publishers, 1994, p. 169.
[3] E. G. Sims, “Â’îna-kârî”, Encyclopaedia Iranica, vol. 1, pp. 692-694
[4] Narrative of a Journey into Khorasân in the Years 1821 and 1822, p. 455.
[5] Q. 24:35, cited in Jane Dammen McAuliffe (ed.), Encyclopaedia of the Qur’ân, vol. 3, Leiden - Boston: Brill, 2003-2004, p. 187.
[6] Cited in Jane Dammen McAuliffe (ed.), Encyclopaedia of the Qur’ān, vol. 3, p. 186.
[7] Cited by Cyril Glassé, The New Encyclopedia of Islam. Revised Edition of the Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 2002, p. 347.
[8] Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi Amir-Moezzi, The Divine Guide in Early Shi‘ism. The Sources of Esotericism in Islam, translated from the French by David Streight, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994, p. 30.
[9] M. A. Amir-Moezzi, The Divine Guide in Early Shi‘ism. The Sources of Esotericism in Islam, p. 58.
[10] Cited by Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, The Spirituality of Shi’i Islam, London: I. B. Tauris, 2011, p. 126-127.
[11] Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom (eds.), Images of Paradise in Islamic Art, Hanover: Hood Museum of Art / Dartmouth College, 1991, p. 17.
[12] See for instance Frederick S. Colby, Narrating Muḥammad’s Night Journey. Tracing the Development of the Ibn ‘Abbâs Ascension Discourse, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008, p. 175-234; Le livre de l’échelle de Mahomet. Liber Scale Machometi, Latin original text and French translation by Gisèle Besson and Michèle Brossard-Dandré, Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 1991.
[13] Cited in Jane Dammen McAuliffe (ed.), Encyclopaedia of the Qur’ân, vol. 3, p. 186.
[14] The Qur’an, a new translation by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 29.
[15] Cited by Annemarie Schimmel, Deciphering the Signs of God. A Phenomenological Approach to Islam, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994, p. 12.
[16] Mullâ Ṣadrâ Shîrâzî, On the Hermeneutics of the Light Verse of the Qur’ân (Tafsîr Âyat al-Nûr), Translated, introduced and annotated by Latimah-Parvin Peerwani, London: ICAS Press, 2004, p. 39.
[17] Yves Porter, Palais et jardins de Perse, Paris : Flammarion, 2002, p. 220.
[18] Henry Corbin, Le paradoxe du monothéisme, Paris: L’Herne, 1981, p. 35.

Patrick Ringgenberg