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Destructuring and piecing together the muqarnas of Shah i Zinda

The beautiful geometric islamic art unknown to many

With the country still in lockdown and a curfew in place, it is not really difficult to reminisce the past and think back to previous trips. My most impressive and off the beaten track trip was back in november 2019, my second to last real trip before the pandemic. While I will probably write a blog post about the trip itself, this post is about muqarnas.

Uzbekistan; For a country that doesn’t have that much international travelers - altough that was starting to change because of new leadership and subsequent easing of visa restrictions - there are a significant number of impressive places to visit. The Registan - pictured above - is probably the most well known attraction, but the Gur-e-Amir - the mausoleum of Amir Timur also known as Tamerlane - is also relatively well known and just as beautiful;

Besides a lot of history - especially that of the silk road - a common denominator between most of Uzbekistans attractions is the extensive decorations, especially muqarnas. Before I was back in Holland, I didn’t even know the name for them, as the few people I asked all answered with different names for them.

Not a lot has been written about muqarnas in English, except for the numerous papers about the Alhambra palace in Spain. Last week, I started a deep dive into them, and stumbled across a very impressive website by Shiro Takahashi with a description about the different styles, a map describing where they occur and detailed plans on how to put their elements together.

After watching a video about elements being constructed, I wanted to experience this awesome puzzle for myself as well. As the ones in the Gur e Amir tomb are the ones that impressed me the most, I started to look for a plan on Shiro Takahashis website. Unfortunately, the plans are only labeled by city, but after a short while looking I came to the conclusion those are not of the sqarue style but the pole table style. Pole table style muqarnas are not constructed by putting together geometric elements, but by overlaying a jig with panel components and hanging those together.

I decided to choose a plan first, and search the building in my own photos and use that instead. The Shah i Zinda - a necropolis in Samarkand - houses the mausoleum of Shodi Mulk Oko, with it’s plan also available on Shiro Tkahashis site.

There is one main drawback to choosing this art piece as my starting project. Most square style muqarnas don’t have elements where the piece itself is not arched, but this combination of elements does. You can see that there are several places like the areas highlighted in blue and green that are essentially filler pieces. The triangle always occurs below a 90 degree arched piece, so I can combine those as a new piece. The diamond shape is a real filler piece however. To avoid it - and also to not make this a project of multiple weeks - I will only recreate the area highlighted in red.

An excellent paper discussing the geometry of elements used is “A methodology for studying muqarnas: the extant examples in palermo” by Vincenza Carofalo. It details all the specifications necessary to draw them and print them in 3d. As the elements are a variation on the western style described in the paper, I drew those in 3d. They are available on thingiverse for downloading and printing them yourself.

After recreating the 4 different pieces - with one variation not described in the paper to account for the extra filling triangle - these 31 pieces are needed to recreate the section:

Constructed they look like this:

One problem you can notice in the printed parts and less so in the original, is that one tiny misalignment causes the entire assembly to have a deviation. I don’t know yet how to prevent this, please let me know if you do. Over the next couple of weeks/months I will add more pieces and recreate more intricate designs, I will keep you guys updated!

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