Iran Pulse

Which ancient leader is really buried in colossal Tower of Tughrul?

Article Summary
Controversy surrounds a 12th-century tomb tower carrying the name of the founder of the Seljuk dynasty, Tughrul Beg.

These days, the ancient Iranian city of Rey has been reduced to a shadow of its former self. The ancient capital of the Seljuks — a Turkic dynasty that greatly contributed to the rich Turco-Iranian tradition — is now a suburb of the metropolis of Tehran. It is mostly associated with the Shah Abdol Azim shrine, one of the most venerated Shiite sanctuaries in the Tehran area. However, its other key landmark, Borj-e Tughrul (“Tower of Tughrul” in Persian), still stands strong.

Tughrul Beg, the founder of the Seljuk dynasty, declared independence from the Ghaznavids in 1037/1038 CE. Along with his brother Chaghri, he established control over Western Khorasan, northeastern modern-day Iran. Remembered as saving Nishapur from plunder, he established Rey as his capital in 1043. Tughrul led raiding bands as far as modern Iraq and effectively ended Buyid domination in Abbasid Baghdad, and was ultimately declared sultan of Baghdad by the Abbasid caliph. 

Today, Borj-e Tughrul, with its colossal shaft visible from afar, is situated in a garden surrounded by two-story buildings — most of them home to small businesses. Compared with other tomb towers of the period, "The architectural emphasis is on the mass, rather than decoration," according to Bernard O'Kane, an eminent professor of Islamic art and architecture. The strikingly massive monument, which is around 20 meters (65 feet) in height and has a diameter of 16.6 meters (54 feet), is still towering above Rey — and that is without its roof, which has been lost.

The tower is divided into 22 flanges on the outside — which some believe serve as a natural sun clock — and two doorways lead into the interior, a plain cylinder. The other feature that makes it stand out among its contemporaries is the use of a novel architectural technique: the transition of the outer stellar shape to an inner circle housing the dome. The Seljuks, "in the imaginative manipulation of brick masonry have no equals," wrote John Hoag, another eminent professor of Islamic architecture. Just by surviving to this day, with restorations under the Qajar era and also the Islamic Republic, the tower has proven its worth, said Ayse Atici Arayancan, an assistant professor specializing in Seljuk history at Hitit University in Ankara. "The only surviving monument from the Seljuk capital Rey is Borj-e Tughrul, which is important to shed light on the history, culture and the architecture of the period," Arayancan told Al-Monitor.

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The attention paid to the tower also has to do with the controversy over its construction date, which in turn casts doubt on its origin. "The debated association with Tughrul (either I or II) has played a role in the cultural and historical significance of the building," Peyvand Firouzeh, a PhD candidate in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge, told Al-Monitor. There is apparent evidence to back these doubts: a drawing that indicates that an inscribed plaque in University of Michigan Museum of Art's collection was once installed on the door of the tower.

tuğrul1 (1).png

(University of Michigan Museum purchase, 1965/1.67)

The plaque in quasi-Kufic script carries the artisan's name, Abd’ul Wahab, and says his work was completed in the month Rajab of the Islamic year 534 or March 1140, without specifying what that work was. C.G. Miles, quoting German Iranologist Ernst Herzfeld — who owned the plaque — said Herzfeld proved that the plaque is the same one in the drawing by verifying the measurements of the plaque and examining the restored brick. The claim, which is not greatly challenged to this day, indicates that the tower may not in fact be connected to Tughrul I (who died in 1063), the founder or Rey, or Tughrul II (who died in 1134).

However, Arayancan disagrees. She told Al-Monitor that although there are different accounts of where Tughrul Beg was buried, including a site in the city of Marv alongside his brother Chaghri, "The chronicles of the period denote Borj-e Tughrul as his tomb." Of note, Rashid ud'din Fazlollah, the great Iranian historian of Ilkhanid Iran, in his early 14th century work “Jami'ut Tawarikh” — an early Muslim attempt at a world history — says Tughrul Beg died in Tajrisht, a town near Rey. However, he does not mention his burial place.

So why Borj-e Tughrul? "We don’t have any textual evidence of the association of the tower with Tughrul before the Qajars," Firouzeh told Al-Monitor, referring to the dynasty that ruled Iran between 1789 and 1925. Indeed, in an 1884 inscription on the tower, crafted as part of the restoration efforts under the late Naser ud'din Shah, there is a reference to "Tughrul Beg's tomb, the first ruler of the House of Seljuks." It also says the order was issued by head architect Haji Abu'l Hasan, in a spacious garden also called "Tughruliyya."

There are no easy answers to the question of the tomb’s name. One can perhaps talk about the the public memory of a just order, the city’s past grandeur — and Tughrul Beg as the idea’s epitome. One may even speculate about an homage to the Turkic tribal origins of the Qajars, through reverence of the founder of the Seljuk dynasty, in an age when tradition was, in Eric Hobsbawm's terms, often invented or accommodated to suit dynastic national causes.

However, the symbolic value of the tower surpasses the controversy surrounding its origins. Indeed, for Arayancan, "The Turkic people have played an important role in the cultural, architectural and political landscape of the Iranian plateau," of which she claims Borj-e Tughrul is the "most important single trademark."

Along with other Seljuk tomb towers in Iran — including Gonbad-e Ali at Abarkuh, those of Kharraghan in Maraghe and Sultan Sanjar in Marv — Borj-e-Tughrul is a symbol of the shared bond and history between two modern-day countries, given the representation of Seljuks as the second pillar next to the Ottomans in modern Turkish national identity. As Arayancan told Al-Monitor, "Although both nations may have historically followed different routes based on religion, they converge on a common identity with Borj-e Tughrul, other tomb towers and cultural values."

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Found in: turkish international perception, turkish influence in the middle east, seljuks, ottoman empire, iran, history, culture, architecture

Enis Erdem Aydin is a PhD candidate at Bogazici University in Istanbul, specializing in Ottoman-Iranian intellectual history. He is also a foreign news correspondent for CNN Türk. On Twitter: @eerdemaydin

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