The Mausoleum of Imam Ali

ARound: Najaf – The Mausoleum of Imam Ali

In the second installment of our ARound: Najaf series, Paris-based Iraqi architect Turath Jamil offers insight on the architectural design and history of Najaf’s most significant structure: the Mausoleum of Imam Ali.

Like many cities that served as centres for religious history, Najaf, located in southern Iraq, maintains a number of Islamically significant sites. Cloaked in regional design and architectural expression, these sites reflect centuries of construction and development, which speak to the eras of different rulers that reigned here. Perhaps one consistent thread of the architecture of Najaf, and its different typologies, is that it is regional, with form always following function. The city’s architecture serves the needs of its population and it has been adapted, throughout history, to create a liveable environment in a very hot, arid and dry zone.

Aerial view of Najaf in 1918

The city produced a suitable micro-climate for its inhabitants by following a compact plan that placed the buildings in close proximity to one another, narrowing the streets to maintain air flow and shading from strong daylight. The city’s greatest example of this is the Mausoleum of Imam Ali, which was built with green design principles to protect the users from the harsh environment while also providing the space needed. In general, the mausoleum’s complex applied passive design by using local materials (mainly brick), while the walls were built thick to reduce the thermal exchange between the outside and inside spaces. Here, we take an in-depth look at the mausoleum’s construction, and review the site as the core of Najaf.

Read more: ARound: Najaf a city between al-Kufa and al-Hira

Image copyright Turath Jamil, Alwarrak/UNESCO

The Mausoleum

Since its construction, the mausoleum of Najaf has dominated the city’s skyline. Its built on the tomb of Imam Ali, the fourth caliph who ruled from 655 to 661. His reign came to an end when he was assassinated during his prayer in al-Kufa; he was then buried by his two sons in a secret place to protect his tomb from enemy threats. Today, the mausoleum is the core of the city – and the reason for its existence. All of the streets in Najaf are directed towards it.  

Immediately following his burial, the tomb’s location was hidden from the public; however, upon the arrival of the caliph Harun al-Rashid in 786, he allowed Imam Ali’s followers to visit his tomb, making it an attraction for religious tourism. Ever since, the tomb’s location has been public knowledge and many construction projects have flooded its vicinity. Starting with the first true project in 895 by Muhammad b. Zayd al-Da’i, king of the Tabaristan region, who ordered the construction of a sanctuary on the tomb covered by a dome and encircled by a wall. This wall comprised 70 arched spaces to receive the visitors of the Imam. This was followed by another project in 980 by ‘Adud al-Dawla, who expanded the sanctuary with a cenotaph over the burial site and built a new dome. At the time, the tomb was well integrated with the rest of the city and operated as its central zone.

Today, the mausoleum’s form can be traced back to Shah Safi I in 1632; however, in the centuries since, several modifications have been made, but without affecting the structure’s main lines. Sadly, in the 1950s and 60s, the urban development projects, which consisted of creating modern straight streets and an open space around the mausoleum, led to the separation of this complex from the city.

The complex consists of a thick outer boundary that follows the form of a square around the tomb with about 120 metres on each side except the south side, which measures at about 100 metres. The height of the surrounding wall is 12 metres, and five main gates (one on each side with the exception of the east side, which has two gates) penetrate it. All of the gates lead to the inner courtyard, and are built higher from the outside wall. They are heavily decorated with colourful faience locally named al-Karbal’i. Behind the gates, corridors of different lengths continue the dense ornamentation. The rest of the wall, though, is built with bricks and is poorly decorated.

The courtyard separates the main building, which houses the sanctuary, and the outer wall. The shape of the courtyard is also nearly a square with 77-metre-long sides on the north and south ends and 83-metre-long sides on the east and west. The court spans about 420 square metres and is paved with white marble stone, although usually, its flooring is fully covered with luxurious Persian carpets. Around the courtyard, visitors can witness a number of iwans, or vaulted semi outdoor areas prevalent in mosque architecture, along the two levels – this includes the big iwans of the main gates.

The iwans are typically used as rest areas, but they once marked the entrances to the student dormitories which housed those who lived here while completing their studies. Some of these entrances are actually used for different buildings, as well, which are hidden within the wall of the complex. These include the three mosques, the school, library, reception hall and other facilities, such as offices and service areas, which are scattered within the thickness of the wall. The elevations of these iwans are heavily decorated with the same style of faience as the entrances, while at the top of the four elevations, there is a calligraphy strip made with blue and white tile work displaying a surah from the Quran.

The sanctuary, defined by a square shape, sits in the middle of the courtyard and is equidistant from the surrounding boundary’s three sides while attached to the west wall. The main entrance is from the east elevation through the main iwan. This elevation, along with the iwan and two minarets positioned on both sides of the sanctuary, are fully covered in gold. The ornate decoration and gold were installed during the construction phase of Nader Shah in 1745. During this development, the dome was also covered with gold, while the rest of the sanctuary and the complex were covered with the al-Karbal’i faience. There are secondary entrances to the sanctuary, as well, and they are used to control the flow of the visitors, which can reach several million during certain times of the year.

All of the entrances provide access to the four corridors that surround the burial room. These corridors are about five to six metres wide and twelve metres high. They are fully dressed in mosaics made of mirror cut in geometric and vegetal shapes. Through the corridors, visitors can access the burial room via three entrances: the east entrance is the main one, while the north and south entrances make up the other two.

The mausoleum’s burial room is square shaped with 13 metres on each side. It is covered by a dome that maintains a diameter of 12 metres and an elevation of 23 metres. The dome is supported by eight iwans, which form the four sides of the burial room.

The burial room is the most detailed and decorated section of the whole complex. The decoration mainly comprises mirror mosaics with blue and white faience, while the dome is covered with al-Karbal’i faience and decorated with vegetal and geometrical shapes on its inner surface.

In the middle of the room, there is a nearly cubic form known locally as al-Shubak. This cube dates back to 1942 and mainly consists of silver and gold, and measures at six by five by four metres. The cube is divided horizontally into two parts: the lower part consists of 18 windows aligned around the tomb and made of silver, and the upper part is the crown that holds these windows. Inside the shubak, there is a wooden box placed above the tomb of Imam Ali.

The mausoleum complex is a reflection of its city. Starting from the outside wall through to the gates of the sanctuary and burial room, the plan follows a typical hierarchy of spaces, where the core represents the most important building.

During the latest rehabilitation endeavour in 2006, ventilation tunnels were discovered within the walls and roofs, which were installed to create passive air circulation, cooling down the temperature of the inside spaces and the courtyard.

Originally, the complex was attached to the city and acted within it, offering a suitable environment for Najaf’s inhabitants. The projects of urban development carried later on by the city’s governments led to the separation of the complex from the surrounding urban environment, creating a disconnection and destroying the ecosystem of the city. 

The complex now is part of bigger development that has been under construction since 2012. The new complex will be three times bigger than the existing one, serving as the city’s realisation of the new image of Shia Islam in the world.

Read more: ARound Najaf

The mausoleum’s decoration at night

This article was written by Turath Jamil, a Paris-based architect originally from Baghdad, Iraq, and is originally part of his ongoing PhD thesis research. He works with Fevre et Gaucher / 5-cinq, and is a PhD candidate in art history at Sorbonne University. He is also a coordinator for Tamayouz Excellence Award and oversees the Iraqi Graduation Projects Award.