‘This at last wipes the taste of the Alhambra and the Taj Mahal out of one’s mouth, where Mohammadan art is concerned. I came to Persia to get rid of that taste.’ So wrote Robert Byron in 1933 of a little-known building in Hamadan, the site of the ancient Median city of Ecbatana, in western Iran. In case some of you have mislaid your old copy of his masterpiece, The Road to Oxiana, let me quote here the beginning of the passage to show why he was so spellbound:
At Hamadan, we eschewed the tombs of Esther and Avicenna, but visited the Gumbad-i-Alavian (dome of the Shias), a Seljuq mausoleum of the twelfth century, whose uncoloured stucco panels, puffed and punctured into a riot of vegetable exuberance, are yet as formal and rich as Versailles – perhaps richer considering their economy of means; for when splendour is got by a chisel and a lump of plaster instead of the wealth of the world, it is splendour of design alone.
Seven months later, in May 1934, as he was about to leave Meshed in eastern Iran for Afghanistan, Byron jotted down another sentence that reveals how he had been overwhelmed during his pilgrimage to Iran’s architectural past:
I tremble to think that of the four finest buildings in Persia, the Gumbad-i-Kabus,