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Early Tombstones in Islamic Period and Their Connection with the 'Prayer Niche' in Islamic Architecture

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Tombstones with mihrab designs from early Islamic times that survived the Hijra period had initially appeared in countries like Iran, Syria, and Egypt. These stone, marble, stucco, or faience plaques were looked upon as Mihrabs or simply as tombstones in certain regions. It is, indeed, difficult to distinguish them, unless an inscription clarifies their purpose beyond any doubt. Since tombstones with mihrab designs were frequently used during Hijra, a period indicating Prophet Muhammad’s migration (622 CE) from Mecca to Medina and a date that represents the starting point of Muslim era, in various countries the form of these mihrab designs on stele always followed the types of prayer niches used in the Mosque designed in that particular country. One of the earliest tombstones with a mihrab comes from Mosul. It was found in the Jami' al-'Umariyya and can be dated between 180/797 and 200/815. Tombstones in Asia Minor followed the form of local mihrabs, for instance, a tombstone from Bursa has a muqarnas head placed over a shallow rectangular recess (Fehervari, 1926). It was observed in Geza Fehervari ‘s ‘Tombstone or Mihrab? A Speculation’ article that: “The tombstones originating from Iran initially had simple pilasters, capitals and a pointed arch - all of these formed by three filets – with Kufic inscription within in high relief. The later Persian tombstones developed in Iran were complex in design, in terms of their inscriptions forming the frame while the central parts followed the form of multi-recessed Persian mihrabs” (Fehervari, 241).

To understand development of early tombstones which later had features similar to a prayer-niches, here I would focus on the correlation between the early tombstones and the prayer niche through the object ‘Tombstone in shape of prayer niche’ from the Seljuq dynasty, found in Iran, dating back to 507 A.H. or A.D.1113. This object is rectangular like a tabloid with written and decorative inscriptions on it. It is made of Marble with ornamentation and calligraphic script on one side of the object and is flat-surfaced on the rest of the three sides. To call a tombstone an inspiration for Mihrab, it is important to understand the purpose and the concept in creating a prayer niche.

The formal study of the mihrab properly begins with the reconstruction of the Mosque of the Prophet at Medina during the caliphate of al-Walid I (86-96/705- 715) and the governorship of 'Umar ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz (87-95/706-712) (Whelan, 1986). According to the documentary sources, this mosque is where the mihrab mujawwaf, or semicircular niche, was first introduced into a mosque. The precise origin of the word 'mihrab' itself is not clear and is still researched by various scholars (Whelan, 1986). According to Fehervari, interpretation of the word 'mihrab' refers to a tombstone. His sole piece of evidence for this usage at an early date is a couplet from a poem attributed to the Arab poet al-A'sha (dated after 4/625). As per Estelle Whelan’s paper, it is defined “in the Qur’an, 'mihrab' signifies an indeterminate part of a building, a sovereign's tribunal audience hall, and a temple sanctuary”. Finally, when we connect Whelan’s reference of ‘mihrab’ in Qur’an and Fehervari’s proof of Mihrab being mentioned in early date couplet, we can understand the philosophical or religious connection shared between a prayer niche and early tombstone. Tombs were earlier observed as a spiritual bridge for an afterlife and this concept was applied into a bigger architecture space, where devotees were connecting themselves spiritually.

“The first unusual feature of the mihrab, which is also seen in these early tombstones, is the variation in its arch forms. Its pointed and stilted upper section is much too large for the pair of lobes on which it rests” (Baer, 1985). The early head on these niches as well as on the tombstone was in the shape of a scallop. Apart from this arch form transitions seen in the mihrabs from the tombstone and mihrab in the cave, it was also mentioned in Fehervari’s research that: “There are three stages preceding the creation of pointed arches for the niche. The first phase which was seen in Egypt depicted the edge of the scallop framed by a panel following the outline of the shell. The earliest known and dated example of Mihrab of the tomb is in the Mausoleum of Umm Kulthum in Cairo, erected in 516/1122. The second phase can be connected with the development of the muqarnas since the border of the scallop is combined by cones of muqarnases, placed in two or more lines above each other. The earliest example for this phase appears in the Mausoleum of Sayyida Ruqayya, built during 527/1133. The third phase of mihrab development with the form of the scalloped niche head was in Asia Minor. This scalloped shape arch head was placed inside a second and larger niche that had a lobed arch. This phase brings us to our object which was found in Iran and can be parallelly seen being implemented as Mihrab in the Duvazdah Imam in Yezd (429/1037), in the Masjid-I Jami' of Zawareh (551/1156-57), and the main mihrab of the Masjid-I Jami' of Ardistan (553-55/1158-60)” (Fehervari, 244).

We here are mentioning these arch form changes to strengthen our point that along with regional influence in these arch forms, there is also periodic development inculcated in the design of arch forms on the tombstones or ‘mihrabs'. The important five points which helps us relate the tombstone’s visual features to prayer niches more closely were given in ‘Tombstone or Mihrab? A Speculation’. These five points are:

  1. The resemblance of the 11th early and the 13th-century dating of the Champlevé, an enameling technique used in decorative art.
  2. The full development of the Naskhi script in the twelfth century, and its appearance on tombstones and mihrabs from the middle of that century.
  3. Much later yet general acceptance of the mosque lamp in the decoration of mihrabs.
  4. The advanced form of the third recess.
  5. The wider appearance of multi-recessed mihrabs during the second half of the twelfth century.

Foregoing with the above-mentioned criteria and its close resemblance to the object- which is also dated in the 12th century, it can be concluded that the object is a flat mihrab rather than a tombstone. Even though we concluded with the visual resemblance and a philosophical idea for connecting tombstone with the Mihrab, the question now arises is regarding the niche design and ornamentation that appears on the tombstone which is similar to Mihrab ornamentation.

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To understand the differences between the ornamentation on early tombstones, the article by Hannah E. McAllister with the title ‘A Fourteenth-Century Persian Tombstone’ explains precisely the purpose and importance of early tombstones as: “History of cemeteries in Persia during the 12th century was built outside the city walls. Tombs of saints and rulers raised conspicuously above the flat grave structures of lesser folk which are crowded closely around them. The buildings erected for marking the tombs varied in size, structure, and ornament. Some of the chapels above the known or supposed last resting places of the saints were small and simple domed buildings of brick, as in the cemetery at Kum. Other mausoleums from the 12th century were more elaborate. Many rulers were rested in sarcophagi in mosques which existed before their deaths or in shrines built specially to house them. These mausoleums, shrines, and mosques were decorated with intricate brickwork, carved stucco, or richly colored glazed tiles, varying according to period and locality and according to the wealth and importance of the deceased and his followers. These mausoleums, shrines, and mosques were decorated with intricate brickwork, carved stucco, or richly colored glazed tiles, varying according to period and locality and according to the wealth and importance of the deceased and his followers” (McAllister, 126).

“It was observed that most of these closely-ranked graves orientated toward Mecca, and were covered by low, flat masonry structures, of different shapes with marble slabs set horizontally in their tops, usually carved with the representation of a mihrab or prayer niche and with stones, which belonged to the tenth and the fourteenth century” (McAllister, 128).

To further analysis the composition of the inscribed surface in our object, we can divide the decorative bands into three major segments. The outermost segment can be ‘Layer A’, the immediate inner band can be ‘Layer B’ while the core surface can be ‘Layer C’ for further detailed inscriptions. These undulations created at the center of the object makes the observer move from the innermost segment of the object to its outer band without reading the text on this object. The geometric shapes seen on the engraved surface is symmetrical laterally, but the scripts on Layer A and Layer B makes the difference when seen closely inside the band details. A detailed floral motif can specifically be observed in Layer C which is described in the sketch above and will be discussed in particular as we proceed. The Islamic style pointed arch resting on bulbous capital columns are symmetrical side to side in its shape and size. The adornment inside the pointed arch looks very similar to arabesques based on curving and branching plant forms. The surface surrounding the pointed arch on Layer C has interlacing curving patterns with floral buds on the ends of its curls identical on bot h corners. Below the pointed arch which is on a higher level than the central part, there are calligraphic words embossed on a sunken surface between the two columns on that layer. As we move out ward the surface level of each band grows superior in minute increments making the object look indented at its center. Moving away from the innermost recessed surface, let us discuss Layer B with calligraphic script arranged inside the band. This layer is surrounding Layer C on three sides and has the interlocked circular ornamentation on its fourth side. Layer B does not show a varied level difference on its surface, apart from the script carvings, but shows orthogonal form in a slated angular manner. We see a similar writing style inside Layer A, but with bigger lettering size. The peculiar feature about Layer A is that it has a stepped capital centrally on its top. This layer surrounds Layer B on three sides and does not have any fourth side on its bottom end. These calligraphic scripts can be better understood in article by Hannah E. McAllister, where it explains these inscriptions as: “The inscriptions, form an integral part of the decoration as always in the art of Islam, and here are placed in three receding bands. Variation and character are given to the tombstone typically created in this period by the use of three different forms of Arabic script. Two types of Kufic script, which was considered more fitting for sacred writings, are used for the religious sentiments and for the quotations from the Qur’an, which we see here” (McAllister, 128).

Furthermore, the inscription on tombstone transitioned into a prayer niche which is an architectural space was elaborately explained in Jay Bonner’s conference proceeding on the topic ‘Three Tradition of Self-Similarity in Fourteenth and Fifteenth Century Islamic Geometric Ornament’. It was explained here that: “Within the Islamic calligraphic tradition, multiple-level design was primarily used as a form of architectural ornament, where far greater stylistic variation was practiced than in the book arts. Multiple-level calligraphic ornament incorporates a smaller secondary calligraphic element into the background of the primary text. This calligraphic technique most often involved the placing of a smaller scale band of angular Kufi calligraphy behind the upper portion of ascending letters such as the alif in cursive scripts such as Thuluth. Many epigraphic examples of this form of calligraphic ornament were produced, particularly in Persia. A lovely late Ilkhanid example can be seen in the carved stucco ornament of the Masjid-i Jami in Varamin similar to the tombstone”.

This style of writing and ornamentation on the ‘Tombstone shaped as prayer niche’ was repeated in the exact same manner on the Mihrabs of Mosques in Persia. A direct connection of tombstone shaped like a smaller version of Mihrab can be because many of these tombstones of saints and religious people were placed inside the Mosque.

“If one reverts to the community life of the early Muslims at Medina, one finds that the Prophet's role there was more that of a statesman than of a religious leader. He sat in the 'sanctuary' part of his house which was also the first mosque of the Muslims-using the minbar, the pulpit, when receiving delegations, making judgments, con-ducting common prayer, or when performing the khutbah. “The Prophet's place in this primitive mosque at Medina, with the minbar in it, therefore, answers all the descriptions of the pre-Islamic and early Islamic usage of the Mihrab: it must have been a 'high place', a 'meeting place', almost a 'throne recess' (without a recess at that time). After his death, the Prophet was buried in the Mihrab, whereby it became a 'burial place', again answering the description of a Mihrab. It became a highly honored and venerated place but at the same time a 'hated place'. The Muslims then probably put a mark there, not because it indicated the Qiblah, but mainly because the Prophet was buried there. That was the place of the Prophet's grave, and by accident, it also showed the Qiblah direction. It seems more than likely that in Medina it was not the Qiblah that was marked by the large block of stone, but the Mihrab, the Prophet's 'burial place'. It can also be assumed, and rightly so, that the stone had some form of decoration” (Fehervari, 1926).

By connecting the ornamental, scriptural, religious and philosophical ideologies between a tombstone and the prayer niche, we observe several similar factors in both the surfaces as described in above passages. The regional development of tombstone in Islamic history has transformed its importance special after the Prophet’s burial place was looked upon as the Mihrab. The phrases written on the tombstone was meant for the buried to be forgiven for their sins while the quotes engraved on Mihrabs were prayer quotes. All these quotes inscribed has religious importance and are taken from Quran. We can conclude by saying that changing the central unit or functional content of a mihrab set results in mihrabs with different meanings, whereas changing or deleting its framing unit results in mihrabs with different formal guises or none at all.

Works Cited

  1. Baer, Eva. 1985. 'The Mihrab in the Cave of the Dome of the Rock'. Muqarnas (Brill) 3: 8-19.
  2. Bonner, Jay. 'Three traditions of self-similarity in fourteenth and fifteenth century Islamic geometric ornament'. Meeting Alhambra, ISAMA-BRIDGES Conference Proceedings. University of Granada, 2003.
  3. Fehervari, Geza. 1926. 'Tombstone or Mihrab? A Speculation'. Islamic Art in Metropolitan Museum or Art 241-254.
  4. Khoury, Nuha N. 1998. 'The Mihrab: From Text to Form'. International Journal of Middle East Studies 30 (1): 1-27.
  5. Islamic section. “Tombstone in the Shape of a Prayer Niche”. The Art Institute of Chicago, Asian Art,
  6. Whelan, Estelle. 1986. 'The Origins of the Mihrab Mujawwaf: A Reinterpretation'. International Journal of Middle East Studies 18 (2): 203-223.
  7. Wulzinger, K, et al. Das Islamische Milet. Leipzig, 1935, p. 99, fig. 4. Plate A.
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Early Tombstones in Islamic Period and Their Connection with the ‘Prayer Niche’ in Islamic Architecture. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved November 29, 2023, from
“Early Tombstones in Islamic Period and Their Connection with the ‘Prayer Niche’ in Islamic Architecture.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2022,
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