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Gonbad-e Alavian © Anton_Ivanov, Shutterstock
Exploring the area around Hamadan reveals a land rich with spectacular scenery and historic sites.
The Tomb of Avicenna
This 10th-century Muslim scientist, who originated from Bukhara, central Asia, was mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales but the monument itself dates from 1952 and was clearly inspired by the early 11th-century Gonbad-e Qabus monument in northeastern Iran. The museum on the ground floor was once dull and uninformative, but it has been been completely reorganised and is now a delight. Local artefacts are located in the first room to the left on entry, while the room to the right is a library with interesting displays of historical medical instruments, such as the glass bloodletting suction ‘cuppers’ and manuscripts, while the main hall with the memorial to Avicenna shows the herbs, plants and seeds (with their Latin names) used in pharmacy with labelling in English and Farsi. There is a good view of Mount Alvand from outside the upper platform, and the gardens are pleasant, although one dices with death crossing to and from the roundabout. Avicenna (born c980ce) fled from his enemies at court in Bukhara (Uzbekistan), arriving in Hamadan in about 1015 to practise as a doctor for some nine years. He then moved to Rayy and Esfahan, returning to Hamadan only to die of colic in 1037. Most of his 130 or so books have been lost but fragments remain to show he wrote knowledgeably on economics, poetry, philosophy (influencing St Thomas Aquinas) and music as well as physics, mathematics and astronomy. His Book of Healing and Canon of Medicine became the standard medical textbooks in Europe until the mid 17th century; it is from Avicenna and other Muslim scientists that we get such words as algebra, alchemy, alcohol and alkaline.
Gonbad-e Alavian is a glorious if dusty tomb building; the girls’ school formerly here has been relocated. It is thought this was the mausoleum for members of the Alavian family, who controlled Hamadan for two centuries, but when it was built exactly is unclear. To some scholars its elaborately carved plaster of leaf and flower motifs resembles Seljuk decoration as found at Divrigi and elsewhere in Turkey – as well as on the 1148 mausoleum Gonbad-e Surkh in Maragheh – but others argue the almost threedimensional, lace-like ‘Baroque’ quality of its motifs is early 14th-century Ilkhanid work. The original roof has gone and much of the brick and plaster strapwork exterior has been restored but don’t be put off by the present monochrome colour, dust and gloom; let the plasterwork speak to you. The Quranic inscriptions inside (Q53:1–35), on the mihrab (Q36:1–9), outside (Q76:1–9) and over the entrance (Q5:55–6) refer to rewards and punishments, death and paradise, the importance of prayer and charity giving – all very apposite for a mausoleum and possibly the plaster leaf and plant forms symbolise the gardens of paradise. A torch is useful for the interior.
Going 60km in a southerly direction from Hamadan towards Malayer, you arrive at Nushijan Tappeh. British archaeologists worked on this small Median site, about one-sixth the size of the main apadana platform at Persepolis, from 1967 to 1974. Four principal buildings were found on this outcrop: two temples, a fort and a columned hall with an enclosing wall. The central temple, probably constructed before 700bce, had a narrow entrance leading into an antechamber possessing a stepped ‘Maltese cross’ groundplan and a spiral ramp to an upper level. It then led to a sanctuary with a triangular cella, or inner body of the temple and large blind windows with ‘toothed’ lintels decorating the walls. A brick fire altar (85cm high) with four steps was screened from the entrance and, perhaps to protect its sanctity from later squatters, the temple was filled with shale to a depth of 6m and carefully bricked in. This was a tremendously important find: perhaps the earliest temple with a fire altar in situ found in western Iran. The second temple, located just to the west, had similar rooms and a spiral ramp but with a different orientation and an asymmetrical groundplan. The fort measured 25m x 22m, approximately the size of the Gate of All Nations at Persepolis, with four long magazines and a guardroom with another spiral ramp for access to at least one other floor, while the hall with a slightly irregular groundplan was somewhat smaller with 12 columns supporting a flat roof. Very little stone was used in construction throughout the site but the bricks (especially in the vaults) were often carefully shaped. For some reason the site was then left largely unoccupied until the Parthian period (c1st century ce). At present the original structure is protected by an aesthetically unappealing steel roof, which regrettably spoils the authentic beauty of the site.