An Âmoli Architectural Style?

Architect signature and architectural transmissions in 15th century tomb-towers of Mâzanderân (Iran) [DYNTRAN WORKING PAPER 3, August 2015]

by Sandra AUBE

Throughout the 15th century, the Iranian history of architecture appears to be mainly an anonymous history. Most of the architects of the famous tomb-towers from Mâzanderân during the Mar‘ashi period (760/1358-1359 – second half of the 16th c.) remain unknown. Among the few exceptions is Seyyed ‘Ali ebn Seyyed Kamâl al-din Bannâ Âmoli, whose work leads to the question of an artistic signature and its transmission through the Mâzanderân region during the 15th century.

Zeyn al-‘Âbedin Mausoleum, Sâri (© Aube 2014)
Zeyn al-‘Âbedin Mausoleum, Sâri (© Aube 2014)

The name of Seyyed ‘Ali is known from a vanished inscription displayed on the main façade of the Zeyn al-‘Âbedin Mausoleum in Sâri. The text was recorded by Noṣratollâh Meshkâti before restorations held in 1973 (Meshkâti 1970, p. 185): “‘amal-e [work of] Seyyed ‘Ali ebn-e Seyyed Kamâl al-din Bannâ Âmoli”. Other monumental inscriptions provide additional details about the establishment of the foundation. One dissociated “black line” ceramic tile panel gives the name of the Mar‘ashi ruler Amir Zeyn al-‘Âbedin ebn al-… Kamâl al-din al-Ḥoseyni (one part of it is nowadays presented on the Eastern interior wall, while the final part is standing above the entrance door). The French scholar Hyacinthe Louis Rabino reported about another inscription, above the entrance, that indicated the name of the patron (Rabino 1928, p. 55), and translated as: “This monument was built and completed with the efforts of this slave of the court ‘Ala‘ al-din ebn Darvish Moḥammad Abu al-Vafâ” (Banâ va aqâm yâft in ‘emârat be-sa‘i va ehtemâm-e in bande-ye dargâh ‘Alâ’ al-din ebn-e Darvish Moḥammad Abu al-Vafâ). Rabino also mentioned the date of 894/1489 above the entrance door of the mausoleum, but no traces have survived from these two latter inscriptions.

Although largely vanished, these inscriptions delivered important information on the actors of this construction. The name of the architect-designer (bannâ) has to be connected to a quite specific plan. The Zeyn al-‘Âbedin Mausoleum is a square tomb-tower (about 7 m. wide), covered by a pyramidal roof organized on two levels: it starts at the bottom with the base of a four-sided roof, cut by a narrower octagonal drum, topped by an eight-sided roof. The two cornices introducing the roofs are dressed with muqarnas. This brick construction was ornamented with ceramic tile panels: turquoise monochrome tiles are still standing into the arcade level above the first range of muqarnas, and empty panels intended for tile decoration are visible on façades. Only a fragment of “black line” ceramic panel remains here today, but more pieces of evidence were observable on old photographs (Sarre 1901, fig.132, pl. LXXX).

Emâmzâde Ebrâhim, Amol (© Aube 2014)
Emâmzâde Ebrâhim, Âmol (© Aube 2014)

This architecture shares some of its traits with a large scale of tomb-towers in Mâzanderân built during the 15th century: small centered-plan with circular, octagonal or square shapes, surmounted by a pyramidal roof, often introduced by a muqarnas level associated with a series of small arcades. One can often see several empty spaces where decorative panels were meant to be placed. These combined specificities form the style of funerary architecture in the Mâzanderân during this century. But the plan of the Zeyn al-‘Âbedin Mausoleum is more specific and it has to be connected with other mausoleums that display the exact same organization: the same square plan, the same double pyramidal roof, the same cornices, the same openings, the same decoration… In fact, the exact reproduction of the Zeyn al-‘Âbedin Mausoleum is repeated on the architecture of the Emâmzâde Ebrâhim in Âmol, the Gonbad-e Nâṣer al-Ḥaqq in Âmol, the Gonbad-e Gabri in Âmol once again, and other structures like the Emâmzâde ‘Abd al-Ṣâleh in Marz Rud (about 10 km North from Sâri), or Emâmzâdeh Seyyed Moḥammad Zarin Navâ in Qâ‘em Shahr (on the South road between Bâbol and Sâri, about 20 km from both). All these monuments are located in the same area between Sâri and Âmol – and even in Âmol itself for most of them. Only the name of the architect-designer of the Zeyn al-‘Âbedin Mausoleum is known, and its nisba indicates that he probably originated from Âmol. Thus this group constitutes a coherent corpus of monuments that could have been designed by Seyyed ‘Ali himself or its atelier.

fig.5_Gabri-Amol_Aube 2014
Gonbad-e Gabri, Âmol. (© Aube 2014)
Fakhr al-din Shrine in Bâbol (© Aube 2014)

Besides these six identical structures, it is noteworthy to mention some related mausoleums. For example the Emâmzâde ‘Abbâs in Sâri or the quite renovated Darvish Fakhr al-din Shrine in Bâbol display respectively an octagonal and circular plan surmounted by a double roof based on one muqarnas cornice. If this combination does not exactly match the previous group of six, its conception is however very close. Could they have been designed by the same architectural “school” too?

All these mausoleums form a consistent group. None of them has kept a dated foundation inscription. They are all attributed to the second quarter to late 15th century on the basis of the wooden carvings they held. Significantly, these wooden works of art constitute a consistent group as well. The ṣanduq of Amir Shams al-din ebn al-Amir Kamâl al-din al-Ḥoseyni (d. jomâda II 905/January 1500), inside the Zeyn al-‘Âbedin Mausoleum, presents close affiliations with the ornamental repertoire seen at the Emâmzâde Ebrâhim in Âmol (ṣanduq dated shavvâl 925/September-October 1519), at the Fakhr al-din Mausoleum in Bâbol (ṣanduq dated 833/1429-1430), as well as in Sâri at the Shâhzâde Ḥoseyn Mausoleum (ṣanduq, plus a wooden door dated to 896/1490-1491) or at the Emâmzâde Yâhyâ (wooden doors dated 846/1442 and ṣanduq from 849/1445-1446). Thus this group displays a homogeneous repertoire and style, developed at least from the 1430s to the 1510s. Such a large chronology could not be the work of a unique craftsman: it marks once again the style of an atelier – as demonstrated by the several signatures of craftsmen on these wooden sculptures. (See Aube 2015).

A pronounced regional style is developed in the area between Sâri and Âmol for both architecture and wooden works of art. In term of architecture, this specificity should be associated with the name of Seyyed ‘Ali ebn Seyyed Kamâl al-din bannâ Âmoli. There is no information about him, except what can be learned from his name – a builder supposed to be originated from Âmol. What could his role be in the conception of the architectural decoration as well? All the quoted monuments present the same kind of decoration: a brick construction ornamented with high muqarnas cornices, surmounted by a band of small arcature highlighted with blue tiles; square and rectangular empty hollows were used to place ceramic tiles, as it can still be seen in several of these monuments. The decorative unity throughout these monuments suggests that the designer of the building also chose its decoration.

Emâmzâde Solṭân Moḥammad Ṭâher b. Musa in Bâbol. (© Aube 2014)

The signature of architects in Mâzanderân during the 15th century are extremely limited. Only one other architect (me‘mar) is known from a related example: its name is Ostâd Mawlanâ Shams al-din ebn Naṣrollâh. Around 873/1468-1469, he built the Emâmzâde Solṭân Moḥammad Ṭâher b. Musa in Bâbol. The mausoleum is identical to the Emâmzâde Se Tan in Âmol. Both are composed of a hexagonal plan topped by high muqarnas level and covered by a hexagonal roof: although such a plan differs from the model designed by Seyyed ‘Ali, their close peculiarities illustrate perfectly the style developed in the Âmol area. The global concept of their monuments as well as their decoration is very similar. But surprisingly, artistic traditions did not seem to have spread beyond this region.

To sum up, an extreme homogeneity exists between mausoleums located in an area that goes from Âmol to Sâri. The two architects signatures, combined with architectural and decorative peculiarities, could testify of a workshop, that may have been located near Âmol. And if it was not the same workshop, at least these monuments clearly illustrate an efficient transmission of models in quite a limited area. It displays once again the strength of regional contributions in artistic productions in Iran during the 15th century.

Sandra Aube (August 2015)

Carte Mazanderan

Selected bibliography :

  • Sandra Aube, « Le mausolée Zeyn al-‘Âbedin à Sâri : contribution à l’étude des tours-tombeaux du Mâzanderân au XVe siècle », Studia Iranica 44/1, 2015. (Forthcoming).
  • Jean Calmard, “Mar‘ashīs”, EI2, vol. 6 (1986), p. 510-518.
  • Abbas Daneshvari, Medieval Tomb Towers in Iran. An Iconographical Study, 1986.
  • Lisa Golombek, Donald Wilber, The Timurid Architecture of Iran and Turan, Princeton, 1988.
  • Noṣrat Allâh Meshkâti, Fehrest-e banâhâ-ye târikhi va amâken-e bâstâni-ye Irân, Téhéran, 1349 sh. (1970).
  • Arthur Upham Pope, A Survey of Persian Art, Londres/New York, 1938.
  • Hyacinthe Louis Rabino, Safar-nâme-ye Mâzandarân va Âstarâbâd, Londres, 1928.
  • Friedrich Sarre, Denkmäler persischer Baukunst, Berlin, 1901.


To quote this publication:

Aube, Sandra, “An Âmoli Architectural Style? Architect signature and architectural transmissions in 15th century tomb-towers of Mâzanderân (Iran)”, DYNTRAN Working Papers, n° 3, online edition, August 2015, available at:

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