A Saint’s Shrine is His Castle: Or, Cautionary Tales from the Ṣafvat al-Ṣafā

Harvard University. Fine Arts Library, Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts, United States FA515.156.4 PF Calligraphy
A lithographic reproduction of some of the spectacular calligraphy and tilework which illumines the exterior of Shaykh Ṣadī al-Dīn’s shrine complex; this lithograph- itself a fine piece of artistic and technical work- comes from Friedrich Sarre’s book Ardabil, Grabmaschee des Schech Safi (Berlin: E. Wasmuth, 1924), the field work and photographs for which were completed in 1897, though writing and publication stretch out over the next two decades.

Everything associated with the veneration of the Safavid eponym Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn (on whom see this post and those prior to it) is monumental, it seems: his shrine complex is one of the most spectacular in the Islamicate world, his ‘official’ hagiography, Ṣafvat al-ṣafā, is a sprawling beast of a text, and the Ṣafavī ṭarīqa which grew up around his memory and practices would have an impact on world history rivaled by few other entities, sufi or otherwise, of the late medieval world. But while the Ṣafavī ṭarīqa would become the most famous and arguably significant legacy of the shaykh of Ardabil, his physical shrine in that city played a huge role as a center of veneration and of the religious and political community that formed around it. What follows is an examination of how that shrine was constructed- not primarily in a literal sense, but in terms of how its sacred status and socio-cultural weight was built up over time.

The outlines for the shrine complex were already laid down before the shaykh’s death in 1334, with some structures already in place. However it would be the shaykh’s son Ṣadr al-Dīn who began building the shrine towards its current configuration, and socially and politically cementing the place of the sufi community that had grown up around his father. The following stories, which are but a selection from an extensive chapter detailing miracles of Ṣafī al-Dīn after his death and, in most cases, in connection with his tomb-shrine, illustrate some aspects of the construction of the shrine’s sanctity and of the political role of the community centered on that shrine. A central motif in these stories is the inviolability of the saint’s tomb and, extending out from it, of the sufi community devoted to the saint- those who transgress either the sanctity of the tomb-shrine or who oppress the community of the saint are liable to be punished, sometimes in quite violent and grisly fashion! Another theme that runs through these stories (and across the whole Ṣafvat al-ṣafā in fact) is the role of the saint’s tomb-shrine and of his community as a source and site (quite literally!) of stability. Such stability was in high demand in the tumultuous years after Ṣafī al-Dīn’s death: a mere year after the shaykh’s death the last Ilkhanid khān, Abū Sa’īd, died, with a long period of political disintegration and conflict following. Two of the major contending parties in Iranian Azerbaijan, the Jalāyirids and the Chūbānids, make appearances in the following stories, though other sources of conflict existed, ranging from predatory local strongmen to feuds between semi-autonomous villages. By reinforcing the sanctity of the tomb-shrine Ṣadr al-Dīn and ibn Bazzāz, our hagiographer, worked to render the saint’s shrine and community a sort of anchor in a stormy sea of political change, while also activity intervening in and shaping political events, economic activity, and socio-cultural life in Ardabil and beyond.

Aspects of this work of sanctification already appear in our first account rendered here, which explains why the spectacular tomb-tower, the centerpiece of the entire complex and the physical location of the saint’s tomb, was built in such lofty and monumental fashion:

Harvard University. Fine Arts Library, Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts, United States FA515.156.4 PF Exterior
The exterior of the tomb-tower as it appeared at the end of the 19th century.

Story: [Ṣadr al-Dīn ibn Ṣafī al-Dīn], may his baraka be perpetuated, said: initially the illumined tomb-shrine (mazār) of the Shaykh, God sanctify his secret, was a small poor affair which we had constructed. The tomb-shrine lay below a ceiling with four vaulted walls above it, with small windows fronting the garden within the walls. The atmosphere of the tomb contained by the four walls was dark and gloomy. The ked-khudā [1] named Badr al-Dīn Ṣānūbī saw the Shaykh, God sanctify his secret, in a dream vision, with his blessed hands extended out from the blessed tomb-shrine, saying, ‘I am not contained within the two worlds, yet they have left me here in this gloomy place!’ On a following day he relayed these words to Ḥājjī Nakhjavānī.

When he, God perpetuate his baraka, came out of the zāviya, Ḥājjī Nakhjavānī repeated to him the gist of the dream to him, with Badr al-Dīn Ṣānūbī present. So he asked [Badr al-Dīn Ṣānūbī] about it, and he said the same thing. In that moment he, may his baraka persist, ordered that the intermediate ceiling of the tomb-shrine as well as the ceiling of the four vaulted walls both be raised, and the high-up windows be expanded to allow for more illumination, and that the door fronting the courtyard where Qur’an reciters and pilgrims sat be widened and increased in size; surrounding this door would be written honorifics of the Shaykh and something noting the date. Mavlānā ‘Azz al-Dīn Khaṭīb oversaw the calligraphy there; he had a nephew named Muḥammad, a young man, who worked on the calligraphic inscriptions with him. As was the custom he stood on the wood scaffolding, but occupied himself with ribald speech and inappropriate behavior, and while they were resting he would not listen [to his uncle?] until at one point he let out an enormous laugh, so that the plank he was standing on rebounded and he fell, was sorely injured, and died three days later.

The tomb-tower of Shaykh Ṣafī is indeed quite distinctive- while vaults and verticality were hardly unknown in shrine architecture, this particular tomb-shrine stands out for its height and its calligraphic-decorative scheme. The story suggests that the scale was meant to reflect the ‘scale’ of Shaykh Ṣafī himself: here is a saint whose ambit is not meant to be confined to one city or province, but has much greater ambitions, as it were. The story also reinforces a key logic to tomb-shrines such as this: actions done to the physical material of the shrine, and the configuration of the space within the shrine, are also done to the saint himself. Honor bestowed upon the shrine translates to honor bestowed to the saint, which ultimately translates to honor bestowed upon God. The second half of the story continues this logic, but in another, rather more punitive direction: the young apprentice working on the shrine’s exterior fails to respect the sanctity of the place, even as it is under construction.  The deadly serious sanctity of the tomb-shrine and its adjacent structures (at this point, primarily the zāviya or sufi ‘lodge’) is highlighted in our next account:

Harvard University. Fine Arts Library, Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts, United States FA515.156.4 PF Interior
The saint’s cenotaph, with a number of finely wrought metal candle-stands arranged before the cenotaph, some lit and supplementing the natural light streaming in from above- copious illumination, just as Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn had stipulated some centuries before!

[Another] Story: Amīr Kulāhdūz Ardabīlī was, by appointment of Amīr Shaykh Ḥasan Jalāyir, supreme governor (ḥākim-i muṭlaq) in Ardabīl. It was the custom of the murīds and the students of the Shayhk, God sanctify his spirit, that they would exert themselves in forbidding and hindering that which was forbidden and reprehensible, reckoning among their most important daily tasks the commanding of the good, in particular forbidding people from intoxication, games of chance, and [presence in] the house of ill-repute [2]. Amīr Kulāhdūz’s mind was disturbed by this, and he set to speaking against this community (ṭā’ife). He established a house of ill-repute in Ardabīl, and said, ‘I am going to the ordū [3], but when I return I am going to build alongside the blessed [sic.!] zāviya a [house] of ill-repute and will set up a tavern, and will give the so-called sufis the lute to play and to which to dance!’ It was impossible by means of polite forbidding to raise or redirect this idea from him, and so having said this he set out to the ordū, with [the saying] the intention of doing evil is worse than its commission stamped in his brain.

It happened that at that time Amīr Shaykh Ḥasan Chūbānī, blessed be his tomb, came forth from Rūm and Amīr Shaykh Ḥasan Jalāyir was defeated and put to flight. The jealous zeal of the Shaykh, God sanctify his secret, made its impression: Amīr Kulāhdūz fell from that position and lofty condition upon the dust of ignominy, and afterwards never again laid eyes on the walls of Ardabīl, later finding death in Baghdād.

First, this story suggests that the politically active role the Ṣafavī ṭarīqa would take in coming years had its start very early on, in this instance through the sufi followers of the shaykh (and after him, of his son) acting as (evidently non-violent) enforcers of the Islamic duty of ‘commanding the right and forbidding the wrong’ (al-amr bi-l-maʿrūf wa al-nahy ʿan al-munkar). What exactly this practice was supposed to entail, and who was supposed to enforce it, was a matter of great debate among medieval and early modern Muslims; the stance of Shaykh Ṣafī and his followers is clear enough, as is the opposition of a local political elite (a representative of the Jalāyirids, one of the factions fighting for control of the Ilkhanid lands). Amīr Kulāhdūz makes an ultimately fatal mistake however in his attempt to undermine the sanctity of Shaykh Ṣafī’s tomb-shrine: not only are his plans to erect a ‘house of ill-repute’ (perhaps a brothel or a tavern?) adjacent to the sufis’ zāviya brought to nought, he is driven out of Ardabil entirely and ultimately dies, due, we are to understand, to his transgression.

Our last story points to not just the political role of the saint’s shrine and community in Ardabil but its ties to the countryside:

[Another] Story: Among the best-known and witnessed incidents is that there was a Turk named ‘Ayne Ghāzī who had an ongoing dispute with the community of Ālārqiyān, and because of the relationship the village of Ālārqiyān had with Shaykh Ṣadr al-Dīn, God perpetuate his baraka, ‘Ayne Ghāzī commenced to saying impertinent things about the Shaykh, God sanctify his secret. He came to the city of Ardabīl and entered the dīvān, going to the presence of the malik [4] and the garrison commander. In the dīvān a group of people spoke with him, saying, ‘It is not appropriate to speak such impertinent words!’ Yet once again he commenced to say, ‘What of the Shaykh? I will break the beams of his zāviya and cast them into the wilderness!’

Shaykh Ṣadr al-Dīn, God perpetuate his baraka, sought him out and offered him words of council, but they did not reach him and had no effect, rather, he said nothing and instead became silent. When they had brought forth the sufra [5] and the wash-basin [to prepare for dining] into their midst, suddenly a servant came from ‘Ayne Ghāzī’s retinue and said, ‘An enemy has come.’ This was the time when Amīr Nawrūz Ankūt-i Bāzūshawka had become rebellious. In that moment ‘Ayne Ghāzī arose in order to depart. People said to him, ‘First eat and gain the baraka of the zāviya, then go!’ But he paid no heed. Malik Ṣadr al-Dīn Yūghrūsh interceded but it was of no use, he went away. When they sent word to Shaykh Ṣadr al-Dīn, may his baraka be perpetuated, that he was not returning, he said, ‘Since he will not return and eat the bread of the zāviya, let him be cursed and shot with an arrow.’

‘Ayne Ghāzī, stewing with anger, mounted up and rapidly rode off. When he had come, the nobility of the city with him, the to the old Atrāb bridge, which is well known in the district of Adrabīl, report came to Amīr Nawrūz Ankūt, and he came before him to give battle, and an arrow hit ‘Ayne Ghāzī in the mouth, such that it almost came out through the nape of his neck. In that moment he fell to the ground from his horse and died.

The men and nobility of the city were put to flight, and that night [‘Ayne Ghāzī’s] corpse lay in the wilderness. Another day a crowd of people were sent by [Ṣadr al-Dīn], God perpetuate his baraka, to fetch his body from that place so as to bear it away and bury it.

When they bore him away from that place they saw that a dog had ripped his tongue out and eaten it—though nothing else of his body had been eaten. They placed him upon a cart and bore him away from that place to the village of Khayrvāniq, one of the villages in the vicinity of Ardabīl. That night another had fallen in that village, and from him came to sound of the dog [?]. The next day they bore him away and buried him. [6]

‘Ayne Ghāzī is a local military elite, no doubt working to make his own way in the midst of Ilkhanid disintegration, but whose conflict with a village near Ardabil brings him into conflict with the village’s protector, Shaykh Ṣadr al-Dīn, and, through him, the shaykh’s saintly father. The underlying point here is that just as Shaykh Ṣafī protects his ‘house,’ he extends his protection to others. His tomb-shrine acts as a locus of protection and stability, the shadow of its powerful sanctity falling upon those who seek out the saint’s protection and political intervention. ‘Ayne Ghāzī rightly identifies the zāviya- the whole complex oriented around the shrine- as the source of his troubles, and threatens to destroy it. But instead, spurning the offer of reconciliation extended to him by Ṣadr al-Dīn, he is himself destroyed, consumed by the very political instability which lent Shaykh Ṣafī’s tomb-shrine and community so much of its meaning and popularity in an uncertain and dangerous late medieval, post-Mongol world.


[1] Here, either a functionary in the city, or a supervisor within the tomb-shrine complex or its construction.

[2] The last term is somewhat ambiguous- perhaps a brothel, or a tavern is meant?

[3] Ordū here means both military camp and perambulate court, in this case, of the Jalāyirids.

[4] Malik can mean king or prince but here apparently refers to a military or administrative position.

[5] A dining cloth for placing food upon, but also serving as a synecdoche for the meal as a whole.

[6] Ibn Bazzāz Ardabīlī, Ṣafvat al-ṣafā: dar tarjumah-ʼi aḥvāl va aqvāl va karāmāt-i Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn Isḥaq Ardabīlī, ed. Ghulām Riẓā Ṭabāṭabāʼī Majd (Tabriz: G.R. Ṭabāṭabāʼī Majd , 1373 [1994]), 1053-4, 1055-7. In this last excerpt I have not included three lines of poetry that are interspersed, mostly because of time constraints and the difficulty of rendering poetry well into English- as time permits I will try and go back and add them, however, given the importance of poetic asides in this tradition.


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