A Family of Woodworkers

The work of Master Faḫr al-dīn and his son ‘Alī in the Māzandarān (Iran, end 15th c.)*   [DYNTRAN WORKING PAPER 25, June 2017]

by Sandra AUBE

Medieval Iranian woodcarving is quite unknown. Unlike calligraphers or painters, the woodworkers usually did not appear in biographical or other Persian sources, and many wooden pieces of art have nowadays vanished. In this context, the remarkable corpus of wooden pieces of furniture found in the Māzandarān (Northern Iran) allows for new perspectives. About thirty wooden doors and cenotaphs of the fifteenth or early sixteenth century are still standing in the Māzandarān. Many of them mention the names of the woodworkers (or “carpenters”, najjārs). This Working Paper presents two woodworkers whose names emerge in the inscriptions of this exceptional corpus: Master (ustād) Faḫr al-dīn and his son Master (ustād) ‘Alī. The first is documented in Sārī around the 840s/1440s, the latter in Bābul and Bābulsar between 876/1471-1472 and 906/1500. The case of this family is of great interest to understand the legacy of a master, Faḫr al-dīn, to his son and disciple, ‘Alī. The work of the latter also constitutes a rare opportunity to analyse the stylistic evolution of one woodworker during his professional life. Using a comparative approach, our final discussion encompasses the transmission of skills and models through a professional and family networks, as well as their circulation on a regional scale.

The signature of Ustād Faḫr al-dīn b. Ustād ‘Alī najjār from the Imāmzāda Yāhyā in Sārī

Fig.1: Undated wooden door signed by Ustād Faḫr al-dīn b. Ustād ‘Alī, Mausoleum Yāhyā in Sārī. (© Ehsan Shavarebi 2017)

The mausoleum known today as “Imāmzāda Yāhyā” in Sārī is a circular brick tomb-tower, surmounted by an inner cupola and an external pyramidal roof (12 sides); a modern prier hall is today attached to the medieval tomb-tower. The monument is undated, but it had housed several wooden pieces of work dating back to the years 846-849/1442-1446 (Rabino 1928, p. 22 [Persian text], Mayer 1956, pp. 40-1, Bivar, Yarshater 1978, p. 8, Hillenbrand 1974, pp. 380-1). The wooden panels were all removed from the mausoleum (details in Aube 2017), but an undated wooden door is still standing (fig. 1), placed at the entrance of the tomb-tower itself. This door is composed of two symmetrical leaves. Its decoration follows the traditional composition of Māzandarāni wooden doors made during the 15th century: each leaf being composed of three decorative panels—one large in the central register, and two small at the bottom and the top—surrounded by several kinds of borders. The two symmetrical panels in the bottom (fig. 5, panel D) give the following inscription, written in the Thuluth script:

عمل فخر الدين بن استاد على نجار (A)

صحبه رستم ابن نظام (B)

(A) Work of Faḫr al-dīn son of Master ‘Alī the Woodworker

(B) Rustam son of Niẓām is the owner

The Arabic “Ṣāḥibuhu Rustam ibn Niẓām” can also be understood as “Rustam, son of Niẓām, who is the patron” (Bivar, Yarshater 1978, p. 8). This door is the only known evidence of the work of the woodworker Faḫr al-dīn b. Ustād ‘Alī. His signature indicates that his father was a Master too (ustād). His work is not dated by the inscription, but a comparison with a wooden window standing over the door, dated to the year 849/1445-46, had led to the establishment of a relative date for Faḫr al-dīn’s door at around the same period (see Aube 2017). Thus it can be established that Faḫr al-dīn b. Ustād ‘Alī was active in the 840s/ca.1440s. He created here a design typical of the Māzandarāni woodwork productions of the fifteenth century.

Signatures of Ustād ‘Alī b. Ustād Faḫr al-dīn b. Ustād ‘Alī najjār in Bābul and Bābulsar

Fig. 2: Door of the mausoleum of Sulṭān Ṭāḥir b. Mūsā in Bābul (© Aube 2014)

The woodworker Ustād ‘Alī, son of Ustād Faḫr al-dīn, son of Ustād ‘Alī najjār is known for having signed two wooden doors at different stages of his career. The first door is located in Bābul, in the mausoleum of Sulṭān Muḥammad Ṭāḥir b. Mūsā (fig. 2). The building is an octagonal tomb-tower surmounted by an inner cupola and an extern pyramidal roof (Hillenbrand 1974, pp. 354-6). A wooden cenotaph is housed inside, nowadays covered by a large sheet of cloth; its inscription indicates that the construction works in the mausoleum were undertaken in 875/1470-1471 by the architect (mi‘mār) Ustād Mawlānā Šams al-dīn b. Naṣrullāh al-Muṭṭahirī (Rabino 1928 n. 76 p. 159 and pp. 18-9 [Persian text], and Miškātī 1970, p. 181). The same name is found on the wooden door made one year later (fig. 2). Its decoration follows the traditional composition of Māzandarānis wooden doors made during this period (for more analysis, see Aube 2017). The door’s inscription has been placed between the upper and middle registers (fig. 6, panel E). It is constituted of two horizontal bands (one on each leaf) and written in Naskhi script:

عمل استاد علی بن استاد فخر الدین نجار راضی سنة ثمانمائة و ست و سبعين (A)

معمار هذا العمارت مولانا شمس الدين نصرالله مططهرى (B)

(A) Work of Master ‘Alī son of Master Faḫr al-dīn the Willing Woodworker [najjār-i Rāżī] in the year eight hundred seventy six

(B) The architect of this building [is] Mawlānā Šams al-dīn Naṣrullāh Muṭṭahirī

The signature of Ustād ‘Alī establishes that he is the son of the woodworker Faḫr al-dīn. This is the first evidence of his work, and it dates to 876/1471-1472 (more discussion on the date in Aube 2017).

Thirty years later, Ustād ‘Alī signed another wooden door in Bābulsar (fig. 3), located circa 20 km. north from Bābul. The mausoleum of Ibrāhīm Abū Jawāb is an octagonal tomb-tower, with a pyramidal roof. Although it belongs to the same architectural type that the mausoleum of Sulṭān Ṭāḥir b. Mūsā in Bābul, the monument has been largely transformed in the recent decades, especially by the addition of a vast modern prier hall surrounding the original tomb-tower.

Inside this mausoleum, four double wooden doors testified of two phases of patronage: the first phase between 841/1437 and 858/1454, and the second in 905-906/1499-1500 (see Rabino 1928, pp. 47 and 19-21 [Persian text], Bronstein in Pope 1938, p. 2622 n. 3/2, Šāyān 1957, pp. 298-9, Mayer 1958, pp. 39, 55-56, Hillenbrand 1974, p. 352).

Fig. 3: One leaf of Ustād ‘Alī’s door inside the Mausoleum Ibrāhīm Abū Javāb in Bābulsar (© Aube 2014)

A fifth wooden door formerly stood in a building adjacent to the mausoleum, but the monument was already in ruins at the beginning of the twentieth century (Rabino 1928, p. 47). The door has been replaced in the main mausoleum. Its design is again organized according to the tripartite organization of most double doors in the Māzandarān (fig. 3, 7). Between each register runs a horizontal inscription (fig. 7, panels E and F): it starts on the right panel of the top level (fig. 7, panel E), continues on the left panel of the top, then goes back to the right panel of the bottom register, and ends on the bottom left side panel (fig. 7, panel F; see Rabino 1928, p. 21 and Hillenbrand in Golombek, Wilber 1988, I, p. 436-7):

بانی هذا العمارة الشريفة عليا حضرة سيدة بیبی فضه خاتون بنت امير صاعد (A)

حرم سلطان الاعظم سلطان امير شمس الدين طاب ثراه و جعل بجنة مثواه (B)

عمل استاد على بن استاد فخر الدين بن استاد على نجار كتبه احمد بن حسين (C)

فى شهر محرم الحرام سنة ست و تسعماية هجرة النبوية عليه السلام (D)

(A) The builder of this high noble building is Sayyida Bībī Fiżża Khātūn daughter of Amīr Ṣā‘id

(B) Wife of the Supreme Sultan Amir Sultan Šams al-dīn, to be received and rest in paradise

(C) Work of Master ‘Alī son of Master Faḫr al-dīn son of Master ‘Alī the Carpenter, written by Aḥmad son of Ḥusayn. . . .

(D) Completed in the sacred month of Muḥarram of the year nine hundred and six at the time of the hegira of the Prophet, Peace be upon Him

In Muḥarram 906/August 1500, the woodworker Ustād ‘Alī worked thus with a calligrapher named Aḥmad b. Ḥusayn. Their signatures on the same piece are not only an eloquent example of a teamwork by these two craftsmen, but they also illustrate the practical division of labour within a larger architectural project. It is interesting to note that Ustād ‘Alī didn’t indicate his nisba in this signature. Instead, he specified his genealogy on three generations, thus providing an evidence that his grandfather was a craftsman Master (ustād), too, that he bore the same name as him, as it is very often the case in Muslim societies of the time. Hence, this signature confirms the genealogy that had already been given by his father Faḫr al-dīn in Sārī (cf. Aube 2017).

A Family of woodcarvers

In short, the lineage of Ustād Faḫr al-dīn and Ustād ‘Alī can be established for at least three generations of craftsmen. However, the work of Faḫr al-dīn’s father, Ustād ‘Alī, remains as yet unknown. Ustād Faḫr al-dīn is documented in Sārī and he flourished in ca. 840s/1440s. He most probably trained his son, also named Ustād ‘Alī, to become a woodcarver, too. The son is known for having signed and dated two wooden doors in Bābul and in Bābulsar, which enable us to ascertain that his professional career spanned over a period of at least 30 years, i.e. between 876/1471-1472 and 906/1500. Thus, possibly, Ustād ‘Alī b. Faḫr al-dīn was born in ca. 850s/ca. 1445-55. His work and that of his father Ustād Faḫr al-dīn are thus evidenced in the neighbouring towns of Bābul, Bābulsar and Sārī over at least 60 years, i.e. from the 840s/1440s to the 900s/1500s.

Fig. 4: One leaf of the wooden door signed by Ustād Muḥammad ibn Ustād ‘Alī al-najjār al-Rāżī in 841/1437 in Bābulsar, Mausoleum Ibrāhīm Abū Javāb (© Aube 2014)

Another familial connection might be established with Ustād Muḥammad b. Ustād cAlī najjār-e rāżī, who worked for the Mausoleum Ibrāhīm Abū Javāb in Bābulsar before Ustād cAlī did. In 841/1437, he signed a wooden door that introduced the same patterns and composition employed sixty-five years later by Ustād cAlī (fig. 4; see Aube 2017). This craftsman proclaims a similar genealogy to that of Faḫr al-dīn (b. ustād cAlī najjār-e rāżī). His professional activity is recorded at least between 841/1437 and 858/1454, which corresponds to the same period as Ustād Faḫr al-dīn’s career. It is intriguing to think of the possibility that they may have been brothers—although nothing can confirm such a proposition. In any case, the work of this generation of woodworkers completely assimilates the local stylistic standards from Māzandarān.

About the transmission of decorative models

Fig. 5: Mausoleum Yāhyā in Sārī: Decorative scheme of the door signed by the woodcarver Faḫr al-dīn b. Ustād ‘Alī, ca. 846-849/1442-1446. (© Aube 2017)

The case study of this lineage offers an opportunity to investigate the transmission of skills and models from master to disciple. The wooden doors they produced present close stylistic similarities. The general tripartite composition is the same as in most Māzandarāni wooden doors of this period. Only the panels E and F differ: the general frame is repeated in Faḫr al-dīn’s door (fig. 5, panel A), while they are filled by a different pattern in ‘Alī’s doors (fig. 6 and 7, panels E-F). The main central decoration on each of these doors differs too: Faḫr al-dīn’s door is characterized by the central “fishscale” pattern (fig. 5, panel B), while geometrical networks dominate the decoration of ‘Alī’s doors (fig. 6 and 7, panels B). Despite this remark, both use the same stylistic repertoire. Both productions employ for instance a border of two interlaced braids with knots (see all borders of fig. 5 and fig. 6, panels A, B’ and C’), as well as a repertoire with preeminent trefoil flowers with bilobed petals (see in particular on the frieze illustrated fig. 6, panel F and fig. 7, panels B’, C’, D’). Some panels are even exactly repeated: the composition of tripartite arches made of fine incised lines, overwhelmed by a network of trefoil flowers with bilobed petals, appear on Faḫr al-dīn’s door made circa 849/1445-1446 (fig. 5, panel C) and on the door that ‘Alī made in 906/1500 (fig. 7, panel D). So the same models were clearly shared and repeated over about 60 years. Stylistic changes seem to be quite limited.

Fig. 6: Bābul, Imāmzāda of Sulṭān Ṭāḥir b. Mūsā: Decorative scheme of the door signed by the woodcarver Ustād ‘Alī b. Ustād Faḫr al-dīn in 876/1471-2. (© Aube 2017)

Moreover, it is of interest to appreciate the stylistic evolution of one craftsman throughout his career. The extant pieces of work of the woodworker Ustād ‘Alī allows us to compare his style at two different stages of his career. The general composition is similar on both doors. Their main panels develop very similar geometrical compositions, characterized by an unusual 10-pointed stars in the middle of the composition (fig. 6 and fig. 7, panels B). The floral decorations in the polygons are also identical on each door. Both doors repeat the same repertoire, with even the same frieze of trefoil flowers (see fig. 6, panel F and fig. 7, panels B’, C’, D’, already quoted). Even the aforementioned panel with tripartite incised arches on his door sculpted in 906/1500 (fig. 7, panel D)—imitating Faḫr al-dīn’s door pattern—finds a close parallel to his first door made in 876/1471-2 (fig. 6, panel D). Octagons replaced arches, but it is still an incised polygon overwhelmed by a network of leaves and flowers. So Ustād ‘Alī b. Ustād Faḫr al-dīn demonstrates a coherent style which has not evolved much in the course of 30 years. The comparison between his two wooden doors illustrates how much the decorative models were repeated over the years. It also illustrates the legacy of his father’s style. Fashionable models have evolved little and were transmitted predictably over the generations.

Fig. 7: Bābulsar, Mausoleum Ibrāhīm Abū Javāb: Decorative scheme of the door signed by the woodworker Ustād ‘Alī b. Ustād Faḫr al-dīn in 906/1500. (© Aube 2017)

This being established, it must however be underlined that these models were common to a large part of the wooden repertoire used in the Māzandarān over almost a hundred years (see Aube 2017). So the repertoire employed by Faḫr al-dīn and his son was shared with most of the woodworkers in the region. The constant repetition of these patterns well illustrates the transmission of models over the generations of woodcarvers.

An enhanced social status?

Medieval craftsmen have long been considered to have had a rather modest social status and to have remained mostly anonymous. But the remarkable number of Māzandarāni woodworkers’ signatures illustrates the social recognition of the corporation during this period. Nasser Rabbat demonstrated that some artists met a specific credit in biographical sources when they were associated with an intellectual activity (such as calligraphers, for instance, or even painters since they were employed in the kitāb-khâna) or when they combined several practical skills (Rabbat 1998, pp. 34-6, in a Mamlūk context). Some artists or architects associated with a sovereign or with the ruling elite had also an improved status. But the Māzandarāni woodworkers fit none of these frames. One could wonder whether their association with “saintly” structures might have contributed to increase their status (Tabbaa 2015, p. 190). Yasser Tabbaa explains the number of signatures of woodworkers in Medieval Syria as a “sign of pride in workmanship and, from the patron’s point of view, something like a certificate of quality”, which is by all means an interesting interpretation (see Ibid., pp. 189-90). In any case, the tendency of Māzandarāni woodworkers to sign their work clearly indicates the enhanced status they encountered at this time. The way they sign even demonstrates an improved prestige. Their name is located in quite a prominent place: on one of the main doors of a holy place. In Sārī, the signature of Faḫr al-dīn is inscribed on the same level position that the name of the patron or owner: their respective names appear on each leaf of the door, in the bottom part (fig. 1 and 5, panel D). The size of each panel is equal, the same script is employed, and Faḫr al-dīn’s name is even placed before his patron’s since it is sculpted on the right side of the door. In Bābul, ‘Alī’s signature is well visible in the upper register (fig. 2 and 6, panel E – right door), on the same level and even before the name of the architect (left door). In Bābulsar, he placed his signature in the bottom register, but alongside the name of the calligrapher (fig. 3 and 7, panel F). The script employed for all signatures does not differ from the rest of the inscription, unlike in many other contemporary monument inscriptions where the calligrapher usually signs his name in another and smaller  script. The teamwork is well evidenced in Māzandarāni woodworks, while in other contexts only one master is mentioned. Mayer stresses the high skill required to sculpt and assemble a piece of wooden furniture (Mayer 1958, p. 18). He gives many examples of woodworkers “who combined forces in order to produce a given work of art” (id.). The high standard of such a work could probably explain the number of teamwork instances. The high skill of Māzandarāni woodworkers all along the fifteenth century could be part of the reason why this corporation suddenly leapt from the shadow.

Sandra Aube (June 2017)

 * This DYNTRAN Working Paper is a prefigurative and summarized version of a forthcoming article: Sandra Aube, “Skills and Style in Heritage: The Woodworker Faḫr al-dīn and his son ‘Alī in the Māzandarān (Iran, ca. 1440-1500)”, Eurasian Studies 15 (2017).

Selected bibliography

  • Aube 2015: Sandra Aube, “Le mausolée Zeyn al-‘Ābedin à Sāri: Contribution à l’étude des tours-tombeaux du Māzanderān au XVe siècle”, Studia Iranica, 44/1 (2015), p. 33-54.
  • Aube 2017: Sandra Aube, “Skills and Style in Heritage: The Woodworker Faḫr al-dīn and his son ‘Alī in the Māzandarān (Iran, ca. 1440-1500)”, Eurasian Studies 15 (2017) [forthcoming].
  • Aube [forthcoming]: “Le mausolée Āqā Shāh Bālu Zāde à Āhudasht. Nouvelle contribution sur l’architecture et le décor des tours-tombeaux du Māzanderān au XVe siècle”, Studia Iranica [forthcoming].
  • Bivar, Yarshater 1978: Adrian D. H. Bivar, Ehsan Yarshater, (ed.), Corpus inscriptionum Iranicarum, Part IV, Persian inscriptions down to the early Safavid period, vol. VI, Māzandarān province, Portfolio I, plates 1-72, Eastern Māzandarān I, London: Lund Humphries, 1978.
  • Bronstein 1938: Leo Bronstein, “Decorative Woodwork of the Islamic period”, in: A Survey of Persian Art, Arthur Upham Pope (ed.), London/New York, 1938, III, p. 2607-2627 and pls. 1460-75.
  • Golombek, Wilber 1988: Lisa Golombek, Donald Wilber, The Timurid Architecture of Iran and Turan, Princeton, 1988.
  • Hillenbrand 1974: Robert Hillenbrand, “The Tomb Towers of Iran to 1550”, PhD dissertation, University of Oxford, Trinity College, 1974.
  • Mayer 1958: Leo Ary Mayer, Islamic Woodcarvers and Their Works, Geneva, 1958.
  • Miškātī 1970: Nuṣratullāh Miškātī, Fihrist-i banāhā-yi tārīḫī wa amākin-i bāstānī-yi Īrān, Tehran, 1349š./1970.
  • Rabbat 1998: Nasser Rabbat, “Architects and Artists in Mamluk Society: The Perspective of the Sources”, Journal of Architectural Education 52/1 (1998), pp. 30-37, DOI: 10.1111/ j.1531-314X.1998.tb00253.x
  • Rabino 1928: Hyacinthe Louis Rabino, Safar-nāma-yi Māzandarān wa Āstarābād, London, 1928.
  • Tabbaa 2015: Yasser Tabbaa, “Originality and Innovation in Syrian Woodwork of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries”, in: Material Evidence and Narrative Sources. Interdisciplinary Studies of the History of the Muslim Middle East, Daniella Talmon-Heller and Katia Cytryn-Silverman (ed.), Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2015, pp. 188-215.
  • Šāyān 1957: ‘Abbās Šāyān, Māzandarān: jūghrafīyah-i tārīḫī wa īqtīsadī [Mazanderan: Historical geography and economy], Tehran, 1336š./1957.
  • Sutūda 1970-88: Manučihr Sutūda, Az Āstārā tā Astārbād, Tehran, 7 vols., 1349-66š./1970-88.

To quote this publication:

Sandra Aube, “A Family of Woodworkers: The Work of Master Faḫr al-dīn and his son ‘Alī in the Māzandarān (Iran, end 15th c.)”, DYNTRAN Working Papers, no. 25, online edition, June 2017, available at:  http://dyntran.hypotheses.org/1886


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