Gonbad-e QĀbus, 1934

To explore the Conway Library’s photographs online, visit https://photocollections.courtauld.ac.uk.
Image: courtesy The Conway Library, Courtauld Institute of Art

As he made his journey through the green steppe, Robert Byron (1905-1941) could see his destination 20 miles away:‘a small cream needle stood up against the blue of the mountains’, as he wrote in The Road to Oxiana, the account of his 1933-1934 travels around Afghanistan and Persia with Christopher Sykes.

This cream needle in north-eastern Iran is Gonbad-e Qābus, the extraordinary funerary tower of Qābus ibn Voshmgir. At a staggering height of 53m, it dominates the surrounding landscape in Byron’s photograph, helped by the 10m-tall artificial mound it sits on. The tower is built out of unglazed brick, with ten buttresses around the tapering central cylinder. Its only decoration comes from two rings of inscriptions, one beneath the steep roof and one above the doorway. These Kufic inscriptions in rhymed prose (and using both the Muslim lunar and Iranian solar calendars) tell visitors that the tower was built in AD 1006-1007 for Qābus – several years before the murder of this ruler of the Ziyarid dynasty in 1012.

The soaring tower, which was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012 and lends its name to the modern town Gonbad-e Qābus (or Gonbad-e Kāvus) that surrounds it, influenced later tomb towers in Iran, Anatolia, and Central Asia – and it had a profound impact on Byron. It was an image of this monument that, Byron says, spurred his decision to travel to Persia, and when he published The Road to Oxiana, he added the note: ‘re-reading this diary two years later, in as different an environment as possible (Pekin), I still hold the opinion I formed before going to Persia, and confirmed that evening on the steppe: that the Gumbad-i-Kabus ranks with the great buildings of the world.’

The image we see here is one of hundreds of photographs taken by Byron that are now in the Conway Library at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. Working with nearly 2,000 in-person volunteers (and a further 12,000 online), the Courtauld has recently completed a five-year project to digitise and make available online around a million images that are in the library. It was founded by art historian, traveller, and mountaineer Lord Conway of Allington (1856-1937) and developed also with the work of his daughter Agnes, before being donated to the Courtauld in 1932. The collection includes images of architecture, sculpture, manuscripts, and decorative arts, among them the archive of photographer Anthony Kersting and unpublished Ministry of Works photographs taken by soldiers, architects, and historians that document the destruction of buildings in the Second World War.