The Arabic inscription at the head of this slab informs viewers it marks “the tomb of him whom God has exalted by the glory of martyrdom after a life of abundance in the world through leadership and the caliphate; and he is the sultan…” Although the rest of the inscription, which would presumably have included the name of the deceased, has been effaced, these few lines suffice to introduce his piety and power. The splendid and meticulously handled carving that envelopes the tombstone attests to the aesthetic refinement and achievements of the reign of the Timurid dynasty (1397–1501) in Iran and Central Asia.
Historically, Islamic traditions prescribe simple and egalitarian burial practices. Fearing the temptations of ancestor worship or idolatry, the Prophet Muhammad reportedly discouraged permanent or elaborate tomb structures. A compromise between religious purity, human nature, and pre-Islamic burial practices, this tombstone nevertheless evokes Islamic values and symbols. The decorative program excludes the representation of humans or animals, relying instead on Arabic inscriptions in stately naskh or monumental kufic scripts, and a profusion of arabesques.
Invoking the Day of Judgment, the Koranic phrase “Judgment is to God” (12.66) appears in rectangular panels on three sides of the tombstone. Most beautifully written is the inscription in the smaller of two panels on the main side of the tombstone. Here bold letters with interlacing ascenders trace right angles, in contrast to the diminutive floral scroll in the background.
Lotus and peony blossoms punctuate the border channels, evoking not only the influence of Chinese art so prized by the Timurids, but also the Islamic concept of the after-life as a garden. The notion that the faithful will be rewarded in an eternal garden is perhaps also alluded to by the term rawdat, with which the tombstone refers to itself. Although rawdat may be translated as “tomb,” it literally means “garden.”
A self-contained network of vigorous and intricate arabesques fills a long panel on the front face of the slab. Dominating the panel is an extremely stylized arabesque in which large heads formed of split leaves and spirals branch from elastically curling stems. Around and beneath it glides a secondary arabesque composed of more naturalistic flowers and leaves. Crisply and precisely carved, this multi-layered interlacing perfectly expresses the Timurid delight in complexity and virtuosity.
In the upper fourth of the panel, a continuous, cusping line traces the top of an arch, calling to mind a mihrab – the niche or arch in the wall of a mosque that marks the direction toward Mecca. A fundamental requirement of Islam is that worshipers face toward Mecca for prayer, and the mihrab serves as a directional symbol. Its presence on a tombstone is a reminder that in Islamic burial traditions, the body is aligned with Mecca for its final rest.
Source: Mary McWilliams, "Tombstone," in Eye of the Beholder, edited by Alan Chong et al. (Boston: ISGM and Beacon Press, 2003): 164-165.