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Coordinates in space and time


Architectural chronograms in Safavid
Iran
Paul Losensky

To emphasize the plural and discontinuous semiotic codes that may contribute to
the meaning of a building, Charles Jencks likens architecture to opera. Both art
forms attempt to achieve a gesamtknstwerk, a totalizing aesthetic experience,1
by forging an impure, pluralistic amalgam2 of diverse artistic and semiotic
systems. Besides the manipulation of space most immediately associated with the
builders art, surface decoration may employ graphic and pictorial design, sculp-
ture, and coloration and draw on the skills of painters, ceramists, metalworkers,
and stonecarvers. The prominence given to the libretto, or verbal text, in this
artistic amalgam constitutes one of the distinguishing features of Islamic archi-
tecture. Calligraphy is, after all, the most prestigious visual art in the Islamic
world and may sometimes fill roles played by the figurative arts in Western archi-
tecture.3 The texts of these architectural librettos often come ready made, as in the
complex programs of Quranic inscriptions found in many mosques and tombs.
In secular buildings, however, we may find librettos that are composed specifi-
cally for their setting, such as the poems that adorn the walls and fountains of the
Alhambra palace.4 In addition to poems inscribed on the building itself, others
were designed to be performed on the stage of the building, celebrating the struc-
ture and its patron and adding an aural dimension to the architectural experience.5
Though poetic inscriptions and architectural panegyrics date back to at least
Copyright 2011. Taylor and Francis. All rights reserved.

Abbasid times,6 a new text type emerged in Persian in the fifteenth century that
was to prove ideally suited to providing a visual and verbal libretto for buildings
of all types the mdda trikh, or the chronogram-poem.7 The basis of this genre
was the abjad system, in which each letter of the Arabo-Persian alphabet carries
a specific numerical value. A short example will serve to illustrate how this sys-
tem is put to use in the chronogram-poem. In the following three-verse poem
(qeta), Mohtasham of Kashan memorializes the construction of a public bath
built by one Qotb al-Din Mohammad:

    

   

   

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Coordinates in space and time: architectural chronograms 199
Qotb, the axis of time, named for the Prophet,
before whom the sea and the mine
held out needy hands as beggars,
whose servants of pure clay and auspicious behavior,
when they set their aspirations on this happy structure,
the punctilious writers of inscriptions
indited its chronogram:
The pure, blessed bathhouse.8

The first and defining element of the genre is the motto, the phrase that
encodes the year in the form of a memorable word, phrase, or sentence.9 The
motto normally appears, as here, in the final verse of the poem hammm-e
ther-e motabarrek, the pure, blessed bathhouse. This motto is decoded
according to the rules of hesb al-jommal, phrasal reckoning, by tallying up
the numeric values of the letters in the phrase. Here, the sum of the abjad-
values of the words in the phrase (89 + 215 + 662) yields the year the bath
was constructed, 966/155859. The reader is explicitly instructed to apply
these operations by the second basic element of the chronogram-poem, the
signal. As in this poem, the signal is normally the word trikh, which means
both date and chronogram. The rest of the poem provides the context,
defining the occasion for which the chronogram was composed. In architec-
tural chronograms, the context minimally names the patron or specifies the
type of building commissioned. Here the name of the patron, Qotb al-Din
Mohammad, is introduced obliquely in the opening two phrases, but the
building type is not identified until the motto, a delay that gives this closing
phrase an extra emphasis.
But picking out the three basic components of the genre motto, signal, and
context hardly exhausts the meaning of this short poem. In naming the patron,
Mohtasham initiates a compact panegyric that celebrates both the patrons piety
and his largesse, which vies with the sea and the mine as sources of fecundity and
wealth. In the second verse, his generosity is channeled through the workers and
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builders whose energies are harnessed for a construction project designed to serve
the public weal. In terms of Charles Jenckss rough hierarchy of architectural
codes, part of the meaning of the finished structure is as a sign of building
activity,10 of the skills and resources that went into its construction: here the bath
represents the wealth and energy, the personal endeavor and identity, even ful-
fillment11 of Qotb al-Din. The signal makes the chronogram itself part of this
building process by stressing the agency of the ketba-negrn, the writers of
inscriptions. These presumably include not only Mohtasham, the author of the
motto, but also the calligrapher and craftsmen responsible for casting the motto
in tile or carving it in stone for installation in the faade of the bath. Through their
collective activity, the chronogram not only celebrates the building, but becomes
part of the fabric of the structure itself. Finally, the significance of the motto goes
beyond simply identifying the building type. The word ther, pure, summons
up the notion of tahrat, the bodily ablutions and ritual purity required for prayer

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200 Paul Losensky
in Islam, and recalls the piety implied by the patrons very name. The word mot-
abarrek, blessed, not only adds its value to the sum of the date, but offers a
benediction for the new bathhouse. As it situates the construction of the building in
time, this chronogram-poem also forms a signifying part of its structure, explicates its
semiotics, and celebrates and blesses its patron, its builders, and its future users.
This poem is only one small sample of the architectural chronograms to be found
throughout Safavid Persia, carved in stone, cast in tile, or inked on paper. To gauge
the range and the variety of this genre, I examined the works of four poets whose
careers span the two centuries of Safavid rule: Mohtasham of Kashan (d. 996/1588),
Ali Naqi of Kamra (d. 1030/1621), Vez of Qazvin (d. 1089/1678), and Najib of
Kashan (d. 1123/1711). Their divns yield a total of some eighty-five poems, rang-
ing in length from one to ninety-two verses, with an average of eight to twelve
verses. In mapping the built environment, this corpus foregrounds three types of
buildings. First, we find poems dedicated to a variety of public works, such as
caravansaries, bridges, bathhouses, water cisterns, and public fountains. Second,
there are dwellings, homes, and mansions; in this category, we can also place royal
palaces, as well as poems celebrating home additions and renovations, such as a
new gazebo, terrace, or mirrored hall. Mosques, madrasas, and shrines make up a
third category of religious buildings. Broadly speaking, the number of poems on
public works declines over the course of the period, while those on religious struc-
tures increases.12 This trend may mark a shift in dynastic priorities, but may also be
due to the differing proximity of these particular poets to the royal court.
As in the example above, the motto encoding the date of construction usually
comes at the end of the poem. These mottoes most obviously serve as a social
aide de memoire, providing the art historian with a handy source of reliable data.
More profoundly, however, they strive to take control of time itself by inscribing
meaning on the seemingly arbitrary succession of calendar years. Mottoes in
architectural chronograms can fix the temporal place of a building in several
ways. They can identify some aspect of the structure the patron, the building
type, or its function or they can commend its construction by praising the build-
ing or offering a benediction. For example, Najibs motto for the restoration of
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the Chehelsotun Palace identifies the type of building as a tlr, or reception hall,
hints at its royal patron by alluding to the archetypal founder-king Jamshid
and glorifies and blesses the structure:

 
Blessed be the hall of the lofty portico fit for Jamshid
(263 + 7 + 632 + 86 + 68 + 62 = 1118/170607).13

Vez offers up his benediction for a new bathhouse by concisely characterizing


its function in maintaining public health in the motto

 
May there be sound health and well-being
(498 + 6 + 561 + 7 = 1072/166162).14

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Coordinates in space and time: architectural chronograms 201
Patron, building type, and function are all neatly combined in a motto by Mohtasham
that invites the reader to make use of a cistern built for public water distribution:


Drink the water of the well of Sharif Beyg
(3 + 9 + 590 + 32 + 358 = 992/1584).15

During the Safavid period, poets devised a number of ways of elaborating on the basic
rules of hesb al-jommal. These devices typically have the effect of incorporating the
motto more fully into the texture and context of the poem. One of the most frequently
encountered is crafting the motto to fit the meter (and rhyme) of the poem exactly so
that it occupies an entire mesr (half-verse). This is the case, for example, in the
motto by Najib on the Chehelsotun reception hall quoted above. Once the motto
constitutes a complete, metrical half-verse, it becomes possible to construct a full
verse or even an entire poem out of multiple mottoes. In the following twelve-verse
qeta, Mohtasham celebrates the building of a caravansary in Isfahan by one of the
citys native sons, Mirz Hedyat Allh Sefhni. As the signal in the final verse
reveals, each mesr yields the same abjad-value, and the poem as a whole offers
twenty-four verbal transformations of the year of the buildings construction,
989/1581:
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202 Paul Losensky
When, due to the genius of the peerless governor
the persevering and successful prince,
the ocean of good works, Hedyat, whose desires
were fulfilled by fate in this world
this land prospered through business and generated
more profits than the realm can contain,
the enlightened builder determined a place
for summoning this one and that one by name.
Then, he called out to the caravans, while the felicity
of the waystation created safety and security:
Affluent holders of gold coins! A solid house
is better for your wealth than a hundred guards.
Due to this statesman, the midst of Isfahan
is the ornament of the horizons, greater in repute than Egypt.
Behold, in this populous realm, a place has been made
so the waystation will be manifest in prosperity.
Seldom has been seen the extent of its grounds.
Look now at a place of vast expanse.
From its walls and doors, reckon how
to describe the solidity of this lofty station.
By Hedyat, by right guidance, it seems a fortress
has been erected for the protection of caravans.
Every sound half-verse of this discourse has also
given an indication of its date to the ready mind.16

I will leave it to interested readers to work out the arithmetic for each of the
mesrs for themselves, but as an example the words in the final signal verse
tally up as follows: 14 + 205 + 401 + 131 + 67 + 171 = 989 and 45 + 63 +
81 + 8 + 391 + 401 = 989. In a tour de force such as this, the distinctions
between motto, signal, and context collapse, and we come to recognize the
integral relationship between all the component parts in a successful chronogram-
Copyright 2011. Taylor and Francis. All rights reserved.

poem. Despite Mohtashams chronogrammatic pyrotechnics, the verbal text


of the poem reads smoothly, without any jarring grammatical, formal, or
metrical lapses.17 The poem thus merits analysis not just as a rhetorical
showpiece or a historical document, but as a literary work. It is divided into
two major sections, with a transitional verse between them and the signal
verse at the end. In the first section, verses one to four, Mohtasham intro-
duces the patron. The very first epithet used to characterize him, shahryr,
already points to the roles that he and his building will fulfill as the poem
unfolds; although the term probably refers to his position as governor or
mayor of the city, its etymological sense, friend of the city, comes clearly
to the fore in his building activity. Hedyat is praised above all for his ser-
vice to the public good (ehsn) and for promoting commerce; through his

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Coordinates in space and time: architectural chronograms 203
actions, business (sud) prospers, and the region becomes profitable (nfe).
The stage is set for his identification as an enlightened builder (bni-ye
rowshandel) in verse four.
The word sal, summon, repeated in verses four and five, marks the transi-
tion to the second section of the poem, an extended call to potential users to
come to the new waystation (manzel) or caravansary. As in Mohtashams
chronogram on the bathhouse, the building becomes identified with the patrons
virtuous action, so much so that it is grammatically possible to assign the fol-
lowing speech to either Hedyat or to the building itself. In either case, the
speech begins by identifying a specific target audience: affluent merchants or
the holders of gold coins. Returning to Jenckss codes of content, we find
that Mohtasham here verbalizes another dimension of architectures semiotic
potential, the building as a marker of economic class.18 This aspect of the build-
ings meaning also emerges from the location of the caravansary in the middle
of the city on real estate that must have been extremely valuable.19 With the
proverb-like adage A solid house is better than a hundred guards, Mohtasham
turns to the physical features of the building itself, or what Jencks would call
its codes of expression.20 The facility that Hedyat has had constructed is
both ample and secure. A vast (por vosat) open space is surrounded by thick
walls and solid doors, and the sense of security and firmness is emphasized by
an etymological pun on mohkam and estehkm at the beginning and end of the
speech. The speech concludes by comparing the caravansary to the archetypal
architectural symbol of protection and prosperity, the fortress (qala). This
dedicatory poem not only memorializes the date of the buildings construction,
but also explores its semiotics, both the content of its message and the means
of expressing that message; the caravansary represents the civic virtue of the
patron and the economic activity that he fosters by means of its formal manipu-
lation of space. Moreover, the structure of Mohtashams poem mimics the
strength and solidity of the building itself. Casting the mottoes in the form of
the basic prosodic unit of the mesr, Mohtasham in effect creates a solid wall
of interconnected metrical building blocks.21
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This poem is, of course, extreme in its conspicuous display of literary ingenu-
ity. But the same basic device using multiple chronograms each occupying a
full mesr can be used more sparingly for various purposes. The final verse of
the following chronogram-poem by Vez Qazvini on Shah Soleymns restora-
tion of a dome at the shrine of Imam Re in Mashhad consists of two chrono-
grams; although both occupy an entire mesr, they yield two different dates two
years apart. The final explanation for this discrepancy appears in the penultimate
signal verse, but the entire poem leads up to this conclusion as it articulates the
multiple meanings of the building and its restoration:

    

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204 Paul Losensky

   

   


   

  

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

In the age of the Just King


the ornament of cincture and crown,
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an Eskandar with the nimbus of Jamshid,


in other words, the Solomon of the time,
the king of kings encamped in the heavens,
the commander of troops numerous as stars,
an ocean-hearted man disposed to good works,
the source of safety and security,
ruler over the mortal realm of water and clay,
eliminating darkness from faith and unbelief,
adding to the splendor of religion and law,
the support and shelter of the Shiites:
The state is a pen his mind, the fingers.
Time is a horse his administration, the reins.
The country is the body his decree, its vital force.
The people are the flock his justice, the shepherd.

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Coordinates in space and time: architectural chronograms 205
By destinys decree, the king suddenly in Tus,
the shrine city of Imam Re, like the earthquake
that had broken the heart of the world. What is the heart?
It is the lofty dome full of light of religions king of kings,
the light of those two eyes, the sun and the moon,
the one whom both humans and jinn follow.
The jinn obey him every moment to gain honor.
The angels rub their faces all around his threshold.
In the eyes of the insightful, it is most appropriate
for the earth to vaunt itself over heaven for it is related
to the dust at this door. Each mote of its dust
is better than a thousand collyriums. Each moment spent
circumambulating it is sweeter than eternal life.
If happiness is a meadow, it is watered by the dust
of this door. If the world gathers in an assembly,
this threshold will sit at its head.
When this news was presented to the Just Kings mind,
the architect of his pure devotion girded itself to restore it.
When the right to perform this service was granted by Gods grace,
the heart of the world was calmed, and the earth, illuminated by it.
When this dome, casting shadows like the sun, was restored,
the heart said, The ancient wheel of the skies is renewed.
The elder of the heavens is rejuvenated.
The pen indited these two half-verses for its dates,
the first for its collapse and the second for its restoration:
If this Kaaba of mortals collapsed from an earthquake,
it was restored again by the order of the Solomon of the time.22

The motto in the first half of the final verse asserts the importance of the shrine
of Imam Re by likening it to the archetypal pilgrimage site in Islam, the Kaaba
at Mecca, states the cause of the collapse of the shrine dome, and as the signal
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verse indicates, gives the year of its destruction, 1084/167374 (486 + 220 + 8 +
79 + 61 + 97 + 36 + 97). Although this motto is a complete metrical unit, it is not
a complete sentence; it requires the motto in second half-verse to satisfy the
grammar of the conditional sentence. This second motto not only yields the year
of the domes restoration, 1086/167576 (304 + 10 + 51 + 356 + 8 + 68 + 191 +
98), but also identifies the patron of the project and his commission to the archi-
tects. The two mottoes thus encapsulate a narrative passage from devastation and
disorder to renovation and order.
But the body of poem, the context, works to place this temporal narrative
within an eternal order, an order that unfolds in time, but exists outside of it. This
effect is achieved through a complex pattern of verbal repetitions and symbolic
correspondences. The final rhyme phrase of the motto, Soleymn-e zamn, for
example, repeats the rhyme of the very first verse and cinches the beginning and
ending of the poem in a ring-structure. The fifteen-verse qeta is divided into

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206 Paul Losensky
three, balanced five-verse sections. The first proclaims the praises of Shah
Soleymn and is set off from the others by the use of internal rhyme in each verse,
a technique known as sher-e moshajja or tashji. Though Vez manages to
include most of the standard kingly attributes in this rapid succession of rhyming
phrases, he gives the greatest emphasis to his civic virtues: sound administration,
justice, and the maintenance of religion and law. Service to the commonweal is
epitomized here, as in the previous poem, by the word ehsn, good works, a
concept that links the patron and his building activity and is central to architec-
tural panegyrics on religious structures or public works.
With its internal rhymes, verse five formally concludes the first section, but in
terms of content, it introduces the second. Ngah, suddenly, seems to launch
the king into motion, but the opening phrase of the verse lacks a verb, and the
kings appearance in Tus is decreed by destiny. Action is presented as a foreor-
dained state. In his sudden show of power, Shah Soleymn is compared to the
earthquake that broke the heart of the world, but as the opening panegyric sug-
gests and the final section will demonstrate, the king is a creative force for order,
not a destructive agent of chaos. Tus is identified as the shrine-city of Re, and
this juncture of place and person introduces the devotional hymn to the Imam in
the second section. We come into this hymn through architecture. In the rhetorical
question-and-answer at the start of verse six, the image of the heart is explicated
as a metaphor for the dome of the shrine. This key verse goes on to merge the
characteristics of the dome, the King, and the Imam. The light that glints from the
dome is the light of the king of kings; the title shhanshh is the same epithet
used for the Shah at the start of verse two, and its conjunction with din (religion)
extends it to the Imam. The image of Re as the light of the celestial eyes of the
sun and moon celebrates his cosmic power and recalls the spherical shape and
luminosity of the dome. This power is further asserted by the final epithet in the
verse: moqtad-ye ons-o jn. Though the phrase here characterizes the Imam, it
also alludes to the legendary power of the Quranic Solomon to control both
humans and jinn23 and thus to his namesake, the Safavid shah, Soleymn. In cre-
ating a nexus between architecture, temporal power, and religion, verses five and
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six concisely verbalize the archetypal and ideological meaning of the shrine and
the dome looms over it.24
The rest of the second section shifts the gaze from the dome to the shrine as a
whole and elaborates on its functional meaning as a place of pilgrimage. Towf,
circumambulation, in verse nine, looks ahead to the image of the Kaaba in the
first motto. Vezs images of dust and doors also recall the common epithet for
the shrine in Mashhad, stn-e qods, the threshold of the sacred. (Although the
upward thrust of the dome can be used to symbolize the juncture of the earthly
and celestial, this is not a possibility that Vez explores here.) The image of an
assembly (anjoman) in verse ten with the shrine at its head (sadr) returns the
poem to the spaces of temporal power and leads into the final section of the poem.
Verse eleven picks up the narrative: when Shah Soleymn (again called shh-e
ddgar, as in verse one) learns of the earthquake and the collapse of the dome, he
immediately sets his mind on rebuilding it. The dome is again called the heart of

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Coordinates in space and time: architectural chronograms 207
the world (del-e giti) and is imaged forth as a luminous celestial body. The heart
that speaks in verse thirteen belongs simultaneously to the dome and to the
onlooker who admires the results of the kings labors, and its speech plays on the
domes circular shape and radiant brilliance to project it into the heavens even as
it dwells within the onlooker. Having come back around to the doubled mottoes,
we can see how the context lends resonance to their every word. Mamur, to take
one last example, is the final link in a chain of etymological puns, starting with
omr (life) in verse nine and continuing with memr (architect) and tamir (res-
toration) in verses ten and fourteen. The restoration of the dome, with its arche-
typal, ideological, and functional meanings, comes to represent Shah Soleymns
action both in historical time and in mythological time, in illo tempore.25 His
activity as a builder makes him not only the Solomon of the time, but also the
Solomon of time, its magical master and manipulator.
The very centrality of the shrine in Mashhad to Safavid ideology and Shiite
beliefs and ritual threatens to overwhelm the motivating occasion of the poem,
the dome and its restoration, under layers of accumulated meaning. Vez treats
only the most obvious formal features of the dome and conveys little sense of the
somatic, lived experience of architecture. A very different treatment of the same
type of structure can be found in a chronogram-poem written some seventy years
earlier by Ali Naqi Kamrai for the construction of a bathhouse by Allhverdi
Khn. This poem exhibits yet another of the techniques used by Safavid poets to
elaborate and play on the rules of hesb-e jommal or phrasal reckoning. Known
as tamiya, this device involves adding or subtracting letters and numbers to or
from the motto to reach the correct date. Instructions for this operation are usually
indicated more or less explicitly in the text of the poem. Before turning to the
chronogram-poem on the bathhouse, lets look at an isolated signal and motto to
get a sense of the kind of operations involved in tamiya. Ali Naqi concludes a
short inscription for a house in Qazvin with the following verse:

    
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The second garden of paradise: but since paradise has no second,


reason made its chronogram Paradise without the second.26

The motto is the single word rowa, the garden of paradise, which yields the
numerical value 1011. But reason quibbles over the appropriateness of this
sacred metaphor for a place in this world: there is no second or equal of
paradise. So, we arrive at the correct date only by removing the value of the
second letter from the word; since vv has a numerical value of six, the
date of the construction of the house after the application of the rules of
tamiya is 1005/159697. The effect of the device in this verse is to deflate
somewhat the praise for the new residential garden, but in the dedicatory
chronogram to Allhverdi Khns bathhouse, Ali Naqi succeeds in integrat-
ing tamiya into his description of the building and the sensory experience of
being inside it:

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208 Paul Losensky

    

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

God bless this builder and building, for heaven


cannot recall such a building or such a builder.
Could it be that from the loins of the nine fathers of heaven,
this lofty edifice fell into the womb of time like a child?
By the grace of the atmosphere, a picture on each of its bricks
has opened its lips to kiss the hand of the master painter.
The lips of the pictures there are all so rosy red
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youd think they drank the blood of Mni and Behzd.


Its a resurrection, the day of judgment as it happens in heaven
where a person enters naked from this baseless world.
Heavens nine mouths sputter hot air in the domes presence;
they take scornful taunts from the dome.
What need is there to praise it? No sooner do you open
your lips in praise than the dome itself proclaims its status.
Due to its vast expanse, whatever was said one year
inside the dome, it answered back loudly the next.
In order for the voice of benediction to convey
a chronogram to the ear of the soul in the domes own words,
the voice of the mind spoke the date of the following year
aloud: Blessings on the Bath of the Khn!27

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Coordinates in space and time: architectural chronograms 209
The motto appears in the final verse where we expect it, succinctly identifies the
patron and building type, and offers a benediction: hammm-e Khn mobrak
bd, Blessings on the bath of the Khn. But theres a catch: the numeric value
of the motto yields the year 1010 (89 + 651 + 263 + 7), not 1009/160001, the
year the bath was, in fact, constructed. To account for the extra year, we need to
look carefully at the detailed ekphrastic description of the dome that also serves
as an extended signal. In contrast to how Vez treats the shrine dome in
Mashhad, Ali Naqi pays close attention to the physical features of the bathhouse
dome. Its shape triggers an etiological conceit: the nine spheres of heaven, here
called the nine fathers (noh b), have impregnated the earth, giving rise to a
dome that resembles the belly of an expectant mother. Moving inside the bath-
house, Ali Naqi turns his attention to the surface decoration28 of the interior
walls. The steamy atmosphere (b-o hav) seems to bring the painted figures to
life, and they purse their lips to kiss the hand of the master painter, whose work
is the envy of the legendary artists Mni and Behzd. Our attention is again drawn
to the significance of the structure as a sign of the activity, resources, and skill
that went into its construction, but the emphasis falls now not on the patron, but
on the craftsmen whose labor he employed. This populist approach to a public
institution continues in verse five, where the naked bathers call to mind the func-
tional purpose and meaning of the building. The nudity of the bathers evokes the
archetypal scene of the gathering of the human race on the day of resurrection,
and the implications of this image unfold in the following lines. First, of course,
the scene creates a sense of cosmic amplitude; the dome is so vast that its size
mocks the nine spheres (or mouths) of heaven itself. Second, the resurrection is
conventionally associated with the clamor of cries and lamentations, and it is the
sound of the bath, the acoustic properties of the dome, that justify the tamiya in
the chronogram motto. The echo of a voice inside this vast dome takes a full year
to return to its source. To make the dome itself speak the date of its construction
thus requires that a years lead time be built into the motto. By the time it echoes
back, hammm-e Khn mobrak bd will give exactly the right year. As whimsi-
cal as it is, Ali Naqis use of tamiya is not a simple display of literary ingenuity.
Copyright 2011. Taylor and Francis. All rights reserved.

He integrates the formal articulation of the architectural space, its acoustic prop-
erties, and the sensory experience of its inhabitants into his verbal text, melding
space and time and architectural and poetic structures.
Although the motto is the defining feature of the chronogram-poem, Ali
Naqis poem again demonstrates the need to place the motto in its larger poetic
context. The motto here is, if you will, only an echo of how the poem as a whole
conveys the somatic and aural experience of standing within the vast dome of the
bath, whose expansiveness symbolizes the scope of the patrons beneficence. For
a final case study, lets turn to one particularly striking example of how the con-
text of the chronogram-poem represents and contributes to the pluralistic amal-
gam of the architectural sign and substantiates the significance of the motto, even
without the use of formal devices like the mesr-motto and tamiya. This archi-
tectural libretto on a private residence comes from the pen of Vez of Qazvin:

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210 Paul Losensky

 
     
   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   
Copyright 2011. Taylor and Francis. All rights reserved.

   

   

   

   

 

How fair this immaculate, comforting home


where old pleasures are rejuvenated.
Its arches are bent over to sweep
the dust from the hearts of its inhabitants

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Coordinates in space and time: architectural chronograms 211
and friends, or else each arch stoops
to burnish the corrosion from them.
Although they are low-built, they are all
pursed tartly like lovers ruby lips.
What should I say of its moon terrace?
Its hard for moonlight to pass it by.
So radiant shines the moonlight there,
even linen likely envies its carpets.29
It blooms like the mood of the guests there;
it spreads broadly like the brow of their host.
The garden of eloquence cannot contain
the plane tree that has grown in its courtyard.
Fixed and steady, like the light of certainty;
like the holy-day catafalque, it scrapes the skies.
The satin of the sky is filigreed
by its branches rubbing against heaven.
If life itself passes beneath its shade,
it pulls back its reins to look and relax.
Thoughts join hands, but still
its trunk exceeds their embrace.
If its branches keep climbing like this,
theyll leap past the sky like an arrow from the bow.
When the sun appears, it seems no more
than an autumn leaf from beneath the trees branches.
The gaze caught sight of the Milky Way above it and said,
A spider seems to have woven a web in its leaves.
It is so lofty the heavens seem
a seed pod on its smallest twig.
When autumn climbs its heights,
it is knocked back by another spring.
Getting slapped down at its hands, autumn
Copyright 2011. Taylor and Francis. All rights reserved.

is abashed, and thus its colors.


Anyone who sees the skies through its branches
says that a bird has made its nest in them.
Friends offered congratulations for this building,
scattering their benedictions.
I, your least servant, said as a chronogram,
May you dwell in it joyously.30

Although this poem deals with one of the most common building types found in
architectural chronograms the private residence it is unusual in several
respects. At twenty-one verses, it is longer than the norm for this genre. Only
chronogram-poems written for royal patrons normally exceed eight or twelve
verses in length.31 All the more surprising, then, is the lack of any mention of

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212 Paul Losensky
the patrons name anywhere in the poem. As we have seen in our earlier exam-
ples, the significance of the building as a sign of the status and prestige of its
patron is usually a key element in the dedicatory chronogram-poem. Attention
here turns instead to two aspects of the buildings semiotics that are seldom
given such prominence: in terms of content, the building as a sign of a way of
life and in terms of form, the integration of the building with its natural setting.
The opening verse immediately links the house with the mood and feelings that
it elicits in its inhabitants. It is a comforting (delgosh) place where old and
familiar pleasures are re-animated. The descriptions of the various formal fea-
tures of the house are all keyed to this mood of pleasure (eysh). The arches are
personified as sweepers or polishers that bend over to cleanse and burnish the
hearts of the residents and their friends. We next climb up to the mahtbi, or
moon terrace, an open-air patio that was raised on top of the archways and often
used for entertaining on hot summer nights. The broad, gleaming white surface
of the mahtbi blooms like the mood of the guests and resembles the open,
smiling face of the host. The house, in effect, partakes in the festivities of its
inhabitants.
It is a commonplace of the architectural panegyric to praise an archway or
eyvn for its loftiness and nearness to the celestial realm. Vez, however,
describes the arches of this house as mokhtasar, squat, low-built, and modest.
Height and the cosmic power it implies are instead invested in the plane tree
(chenr) that grows in the courtyard of the house. In an extended description
that occupies over half of the poem, the branches of the tree scrape against
heaven and are on the verge of shooting past the sky altogether, yet they grow
from a trunk as fixed and steady as the light of certainty, whose girth even the
hands of thought cannot encompass. As this chenr links heaven and earth and
transforms autumn colors into a spring garden, it partakes of such archetypal
images as the axis mundi and the tree of life. Nevertheless, we do not gaze on
this mythic tree from a cosmic vantage point. In the series of fantastic images
at the end of the passage, we look up through the branches from below and are
seated comfortably on the moon terrace. From beneath the trees sheltering
Copyright 2011. Taylor and Francis. All rights reserved.

limbs, the Milky Way looks no bigger than a spiders web, the sky shrinks to
the size of a seed pod or a birds nest, and the sun is no more than another col-
ored leaf. We reside securely in a microcosm where the very rush of life pauses
to take in the view and refresh itself. The integration of the tree into the very
fabric of the building in Vezs chronogram is reminiscent of the architecture
of Odysseuss palace in Ithaka, which is built around a tree that serves as a post
for the bed shared by Odysseus and his wife, Penelope.32 By carefully situating
the reader within the house, Vezs poem enacts the holistic experience of
dwelling within an ideal domestic balance of nature and culture. The home
becomes a sign of a way of life and a set of values, a cultured and generous
ease, which the poem and its performance both represent and participate in.
Neshini dar n shdmn, May you dwell in it joyously: this closing motto of
benediction summarizes and takes its force from the larger context of the poem.

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Coordinates in space and time: architectural chronograms 213
While the motto fixes the transitory moment of construction in time (420 + 204
+ 51 + 396 = 1071/166061), the poem as a whole strives to transcend time by
memorializing the passing contingency in a literary form sanctioned by tradi-
tion and aspiring to perpetuity.
As these case studies show, the development of the mdda trikh in the
Safavid period was remarkable both in the handling of the basic conventions of
hesb-e jommal and in the elaboration of signal and poetic context. In the hier-
archy of literary genres, however, chronogram-poems remained secondary. They
were typically placed at the end of a poets collected works after forms such as
the qasida and, above all, the ghazal. From our modern perspective, this ranking
is all too appropriate. The delight in formal play that is the essence of the motto
is akin to a kind of alpha-numeric Word Jumble and seems inimical to serious
literary art. The chronogram-poem can also appear tainted by its very practical-
ity; as Thomas Bauer has noted, the prevalence of chronogram-poems on deaths
and buildings is probably related to the commercial demand for inscriptions on
tombstones and foundation plaques.33 They were an opportunity, in other words,
for a poet to turn a quick buck. But there are good reasons to pause before
dismissing this minor form too quickly. Structuralist and cognitive approaches
to literature encourage us to see the formal constraints of poetry as much as an
incentive as an impediment to creative expression, and we might better appreci-
ate the well-known and clear-cut rules of hesb-e jommal as similar in kind to
the rules of meter and rhyme. Socially and politically oriented theories of litera-
ture remind us that all poetry is created within an economic system, and it is a
harsh aestheticism that would deny the hard-working poet an opportunity to earn
a living from his talents. And as these case studies have tried to suggest, there
are benefits to taking the chronogram-poem seriously. First, these architectural
chronogram-poems show how thoroughly poetry was integrated into the mate-
rial and public culture of the Safavid period. The apparently arcane verbal math-
ematics of phrasal reckoning serve, above all, a public function of
commemoration, of celebrating the energy, resources, and values that go into
creating a habitable and functional built environment. Moreover, these poems
Copyright 2011. Taylor and Francis. All rights reserved.

show an acute sensitivity to the meanings conveyed by that environment and


strive to articulate the notoriously elusive semiotics and somatics of architec-
tural form. Safavid poetry is perhaps best known for the intricacies of the so-
called Indian or fresh style, but poems like these remind us of the sharp ear for
colloquial idiom and the keen eye for material culture that often inform this
baroque conceptualism.34 Finally, these architectural chronograms bring to the
fore an essential feature of much higher literature. Even as they are born of a
particular occasion or incident indelibly inscribed with the year of its occur-
rence, they work to place that occasion in a lasting system of meanings and
values. These poems repeatedly invoke archetypal scenes, structures, and
images, whether they are describing the public gathering at a bathhouse, the
monumentality of a shrine, or the communal intimacy of a private home. When
such archetypes are foregrounded, architectural imagery takes an individual

Mitchell, Colin P.. New Perspectives on Safavid Iran. : Taylor and Francis, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central. Web. 3 November 2016.
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214 Paul Losensky
from his personal and temporal world into a primordial or eternal existence. 35
In the same way, the chronogram-poem attempts to render the particular eternal
and, by marking time, seeks to stop its passage and render it timelessly
significant.

Appendix
Below is a survey of the architectural chronograms that I examined in preparing
this chapter. They are grouped according to author and classified according to the
general function of the buildings they describe. Where necessary, these functional
categories are broken down into specific building types. I have made note of
where I am uncertain of the proper identification or classification of a particular
building. All page numbers refer to the edition of the poets work listed in the
bibliography.

Mohtasham Kshni
Public works
Cistern and public water source (chh-e sard or b-anbr): 2:1535 / 2:153536 /
2:1536 / 2:154344 / 2:158182 / 2:1606.
Bathhouse (hammm): 2:1535 / 2:1536 / 2:1606.
Caravansary or warehouse (timcha): 2:1583 / 2:1614 / 2:161415.
City gate: 2:1587.

Residences and components


2:1540 / 2:154445 (how-khna) / 2:1548 / 2:154849 / 2:157778 / 2:1578 /
2:1579 (tlr) / 5:1606.

Government buildings
Copyright 2011. Taylor and Francis. All rights reserved.

2:160910 (fortress) / 2:1615 (government guest house) / 2:1615 (same).

Religious structures
2:1511 (pair of doors donated by poet to mosque).

Ali Naqi Kamrai


Religious structures
395 (mosque built over cistern; public work) / 397 (same) / 41415 (shrine to
immzda?) / 409 (garden prepared by poet for religious celebration?) / 421
(tomb of poets son).

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Coordinates in space and time: architectural chronograms 215
Public works
Bridge: 398.
Bathhouse: 40708.
Qant: 408.

Residences
408 / 413 / 414.

Royal palace
39394 / 39495 (how-khna) / 399.

Vez Qazvini
Residences and components
577 / 579 / 580 / 584 / 600 / 60001 (moon terrace) / 60203 / 605.

Religious structures and components


Mosque: 60809 / 587 (door).
Madrasa: 576.
Shrine: 591 (restoration) / 59394 (dome) / 59899 / 61314 (restoration) / 58485
(restoration of dome) / 60607 (restoration of dome).

Public works
Cistern (tlb): 578.
Bathhouse: 585.
Caravansary: 58788.
Copyright 2011. Taylor and Francis. All rights reserved.

Others
Garden: 58889 / 609.
Arch or gateway (tq): 58081 / 60405 / 588.
Window: 57980.
Mirrored room: 587.
Library: 583.

Najib Kshni
Palace (royal residence)
51418 / 59596 / 62324 / 58790 / 593 / 59495 / 65053 / 62829 (tlr) /
66369 (moon terrace built on bridge).

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216 Paul Losensky
Religious structures
Shrine: 59799 (restoration) / 65760 (restoration) / 601 (restoration).
Ablutions house (vou-khna): 608.
Mosque-madrasa: 61617.

Public works
Road: 608.
Bridge: 610.
Market: 62022.

Notes
1 Charles Jencks, The Architectural Sign, in Geoffrey Broadbent, Richard Bunt, and
Charles Jencks (eds), Signs, Symbols, and Architecture, Chichester: John Wiley and
Sons, 1980, pp. 7173.
2 Ibid., p. 101.
3 From the beginning, Islam replaced the iconographic, symbolic, and practical func-
tions of representations in Christian and Buddhist art with inscriptions, first from the
Quran and by extension from other works. Writing not only became an integral part of
the decoration of a building, at times even of an object, but also indicated its purpose
. As a result, calligraphy spread to works other than the Quran and came to be con-
sidered as the greatest of all arts (Richard Ettinghausen, Oleg Grabar, and Marilyn
Jenkins-Madina, Islamic Art and Architecture 8501250, New Haven, CT: Yale
University Press, 2001, pp. 67). But as we will see from the description of figural art
in a bathhouse commemorated by Ali Naqi Kamrai (discussed below), calligraphy
never completely displaced figural representation in Islamic architecture.
4 See the inventory of these inscriptions in Poemas rabes en los muros y fuentes de la
Alhambra, ed. and trans. with an introduction by Emilio Garca Gmez, Madrid:
Instituto egipcio de estudios Islmicos en Madrid, 1985.
5 For examples of poems that were probably recited on the architectural site they
describe, see Paul Losensky, The Equal of Heavens Vault: The Design, Ceremony,
and Poetry of the Hasanbd Bridge, in Beatrice Grundler and Louise Marlow (eds),
Copyright 2011. Taylor and Francis. All rights reserved.

Writers and Rulers: Perspectives on Their Relationship from Abbasid to Safavid Times,
Wiesbaden: Dr Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 2004, pp. 195216.
6 For an overview of the history of architectural panegyric in Arabic and Persian poetry,
see Paul Losensky, The Palace of Praise and the Melons of Time: Descriptive Patterns
in Abd rzs Garden of Eden, Eurasian Studies, 2003, Vol. 2: 45.
7 For an overview of the development of the chronogram in Persian literature, see Paul
Losensky, Mdda trikh, Encyclopaedia Iranica, on-line at: http://www.iranica.com/
newsite/articles/unicode/ot_grp11/ot_madtarikh_20061205.html (accessed 6 June 2008).
8 Kaml al-Din Mohtasham Kshni, Haft Divn, ed. Abd al-Hoseyn Navi and Mehdi
Sadri, 2 vols, Tehran: Mirs-e Maktub, 1380/2001, Vol. 2, p. 1536.
9 This analysis of the component elements of the chronogram is adapted from Thomas
Bauer, Vom Sinn der Zeit: aus der Geschichte des Arabischen Chronogramms,
Arabica, 2003, Vol. 50: 50131.
10 Jencks, Architectural Sign, pp. 10708. The work of architecture as a sign of build-
ing activity belongs to Jenckss codes of content, that is, his list of the kinds of
meanings architecture can convey to its users. Codes of expression are the structural

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Coordinates in space and time: architectural chronograms 217
means an architect uses to convey these meanings. Although Jenckss list of eleven
codes is, in his own words, rough and in need of refinement, it does provide a useful
heuristic for the analysis of architectural chronograms and their representations of the
built environment.
11 Ibid., p. 118.
12 See the Appendix for a listing of these poems by poet and building type.
13 Nur al-Din Mohammad Sharif Najib Kshni, Kolliyt, ed. Asghar Ddbeh and Mehdi
Sadri, Tehran: Mirs-e Maktub, 1382/2003, p. 590.
14 Vez Qazvini, Divn, ed. Sayyed Hoseyn Sdt-Nseri, Tehran: Elmi, 1359/1980,
p. 585.
15 Mohtasham, Haft Divn, Vol. 2, p. 1606.
16 Ibid., Vol. 2, p. 1583.
17 Only the start of verse nine seems less than fully grammatical with its use of apparently
colloquial spellings. Due credit should be given here to the editors of Haft Divn, who
made a number of analogical emendations (tashi h-e qiysi) to the manuscript to bring
each misr to the proper numerical total, usually by slightly tweaking the wording or
grammatical ending. These emendations are most likely the work of Mehdi Sadri,
whose book Hesb-e jommal dar sher-e Frsi va farhang-e tabirt-e ramzi, Tehran:
Markaz-e Nashr-e Dneshghi, 1378/1999 is the definitive study of chronograms in
Persian poetry.
18 Jencks, Architectural Sign, p. 108, number 6.
19 There seems to be an implicit contrast here with the normal location of caravansaries
on the outskirts of the city or along trade routes out in the desert.
20 Jencks, Architectural Sign, pp. 10810. These codes of expression include spatial
manipulation, surface covering, and formal articulation, each of which encompasses a
variety of specific architectural features.
21 Mesr, like other basic terms of Arabo-Persian prosody, is ultimately derived from
the terminology of architecture, including the portable architecture of the tent. The
mesr is one of the matching panels in a two-sided door or one of the flaps of a
tent; the beyt (verse) is a house or tent; and the vatad (metrical foot, pl. awtd) is
the peg that supports the tent. Architectural metaphors for language and texts are
also common in the western tradition. For just one example, see the list of archi-
tectural terms used by Nietzsche for verbal discourse in Rosemary Arrojo, Writing,
Interpreting and the Control of Meaning, in Edwin Gentzler and Maria Tymoczko
Copyright 2011. Taylor and Francis. All rights reserved.

(eds), Translation and Power, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002,


p. 64.
22 Vez, Divn, pp. 60607.
23 For Solomons power over humans and jinn, see Qurn 27:1544, and specifically
verse 17. It is also noteworthy that Solomon employed the jinn in building the throne
and palace that so impressed Belqis, the queen of Sheba.
24 What I term archetypal and ideological meaning would presumably fall into Jenckss
category of the building as a sign of traditional ideas and beliefs (Jencks, Architectural
Sign, p. 108).
25 This phrase, as well as the conception of a/temporality utilized in this analysis, come
from Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return or, Cosmos and History, trans.
Willard R. Trask, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971.
26 Ali-Naqi Kamrai, Divn, ed. Sayyed Abu al-Qsem Serri, in Mirs-e Eslmi-ye Irn,
Vol. 7, ed. Rasul Jafariyn, Qom: Kitbkhna-ye bozorg-e Ayatollh al-Azm
Marashi Najafi, 1377/1998, p. 396.
27 Ibid., pp. 40708.

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218 Paul Losensky
28 Surface decoration is the second of Jenckss three codes of expression: Architectural
Sign, pp. 10910.
29 The conceit in this verse is based on the literary commonplace that linen rots and falls
apart under rays of moonlight (Sirus Shamis, Farhang-e eshrt dar adabiyt-e
Frsi, in 2 vols, Tehran: Ferdows, 1377/1998, Vol. 2, pp. 93739). The terrace in this
home glows so beautifully that linen is willing to rush to its own destruction to enjoy
the scene.
30 Vez, Divn, pp. 60203.
31 The longest poems in my corpus come from the pen of Najib Kshni, a court poet
during the reigns of Shah Safi II and Sultn Hoseyn, but these are not in the usual form
of the qet a: a qasida on Sultn Hoseyns palace runs to 42 verses (Kolliyt, pp. 51418)
and a 92-verse masnavi on a moon terrace constructed on the Pol-e Chubin in Isfahan
during the reign of Safi II (Kolliyt, pp. 66369).
32 The description of this feature of the palace comes in Book 23 of The Odyssey. For a
fascinating discussion of the meaning and structure of Odysseuss palace, see Anthony
C. Antoniades, Epic Space: Toward the Roots of Western Architecture, New York: Van
Nostrand Reinhold, 1992, pp. 6778.
33 Bauer, Vom Sinn der Zeit, p. 514.
34 The introduction of colloquial idioms into poetic diction during this period is largely
responsible for the large number of Persian dictionaries compiled in the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries. For an anthology of verses dealing with everyday life in Isfahan
from the works of the most important poet of the era, Seb Tabrizi, see Khosrow
Ehteshmi Huna-gni, Dar kucha-ye bgh-e zolf: Esfahn dar sher-e Seb, Tehran:
Ketb-sar, 1368/1989.
35 Bettina L. Knapp, Archetype, Architecture, and the Writer, Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1986, p. xi.

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Marashi Najafi, 1377/1998.
Antoniades, Anthony C., Epic Space: Toward the Roots of Western Architecture, New
York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1992.
Copyright 2011. Taylor and Francis. All rights reserved.

Arrojo, Rosemary, Writing, Interpreting and the Control of Meaning, in Edwin Gentzler
and Maria Tymoczko (eds), Translation and Power, Amherst: University of
Massachusetts Press, 2002, pp. 6379.
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Architecture 8501250, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
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Charles Jencks (eds), Signs, Symbols, and Architecture, Chichester: John Wiley and
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Mitchell, Colin P.. New Perspectives on Safavid Iran. : Taylor and Francis, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central. Web. 3 November 2016.
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Coordinates in space and time: architectural chronograms 219
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Copyright 2011. Taylor and Francis. All rights reserved.

Mitchell, Colin P.. New Perspectives on Safavid Iran. : Taylor and Francis, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central. Web. 3 November 2016.
Created from well on 2016-11-03 07:37:22.