The Mihrab Room preserves a number of masterpieces in the DDFIA collection, particularly architectural tilework produced during the Ilkhanid period (1226–1353), during which time Greater Iran was ruled by an “Il khan” (lesser khan) subservient to the Great Khan of the formidable Mongol empire (in China: the Yuan dynasty, 1279–1368). The room’s entrance is framed by a stucco spandrel and soaring wood doors custom-made in Morocco in 1937. Behind this arched space is the wall that marks the eastern terminus of the main house’s publicly accessible rooms. Early on in Shangri La’s history, this important space was home to a sculpture of Guanyin, a Buddhist bodhisattva. Shortly thereafter, the sculpture was replaced by the masterpiece of the DDFIA collection: a luster mihrab (architectural niche) dated 663/1265 and signed by its maker ‘Ali ibn Muhammad ibn Abi Tahir (48.327). This mihrab was originally located in the shrine of Imamzada Yahya at Veramin, Iran, and was acquired from Hagop Kevorkian (1872–1962) in 1940. It is a masterpiece of the luster ceramic technique, a dual-firing process in which metallic oxides are applied over an already fired glazed surface. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, luster production flourished in Kashan, Iran, and four generations of potters from the Abi Tahir family were renowned masters of the technique.
Visitors first encounter the mihrab from the far (west) end of the living room, where they see its glittering surfaces beautifully framed by custom-made Moroccan elements. They walk from the bright and open space of the living room towards the dimly lit and far smaller Mihrab Room. In some ways, this experience echoes the transition from an Ilkhanid tomb’s sunlit courtyard to the dark, intimate spaces of its sanctuary, where a mihrab would orient prayer towards Mecca. Looking at the mihrab up close, one can appreciate a hallmark of Islamic art: calligraphy, or beautiful writing. The mihrab’s entire surface is covered in Qur’anic verses rendered in a variety of scripts, from large, angular ones to small, cursive ones. One of these verses is the Throne Verse (2:256):
Allah! There is no God but He,
The Living, the Self-Subsisting, the Eternal
No Slumber can seize Him, nor sleep
All things in heaven and earth are His…
Once in the Mihrab Room, visitors encounter additional ceramic arts of Iran’s pre-Mongol (c. 1180–1220) and Mongol (c. 1220–1310) periods. To the left of the mihrab is a set of 10 luster tiles (48.347) inscribed with Qur’anic verses that would have originally formed an inscription frieze in an Ilkhanid tomb or mosque. The final tile (lower left) is signed by Yusuf, the son of the potter (‘Ali ibn Muhammad) who made the adjacent mihrab (48.327). In the middle of the wall preserving the set of 10 tiles is a three-part luster tomb cover (48.348), which would have originally formed the upper surface of a large cenotaph marking the burial place of the deceased. Like the mihrab, it too is covered in Qur’anic verses, and its inscription further reveals that it was made for the tomb of a daughter of Imam Ja‘far (d. 765), the sixth Shi‘ite imam (the branch of Shi‘ism practiced in Iran is Twelver Shi‘ism, in which twelve imams are venerated). In Iran, the buildings that entomb descendants of imams are known as imamzadehs. Between the tomb cover and Veramin mihrab, the Mihrab Room preserves two examples of tile ensembles from known Ilkhanid imamzadehs. Further, between the Veramin mihrab and set of 10 tiles, it represents two of four generations of production by the Abi Tahir family.
Additional Ilkhanid tilework in the Mihrab Room includes a pair of square luster tiles with verses from Iran’s national epic, the Shahnama (48.346.1-2). These tiles were originally part of an ensemble numbering approximately 30 tiles and are of the type associated with Takht-i Suleyman, a summer palace in northwestern Iran built for the Mongol ruler Abaka (r. 1265–82). The reverse of the arch leading into the Mihrab Room, as well as its jambs, are covered in alternating star and cross tiles. This combination of tile shapes was ubiquitous in Ilkhanid buildings, and such tilework often covered the dado (lower portion) of walls. The star tiles are all luster and many are painted with figures and animals, among them phoenixes and dragons, which demonstrate the influence of Chinese art on Ilkhanid Persian art. Virtually all of the star tiles have inscription borders—typically verses from the Qur’an (Arabic) or Shahnama (Persian).
Portable furnishings in the Mihrab Room are not limited to religious objects. While the lighting devices—hanging enameled glass lamps and brass candlesticks—are of the type common to religious buildings like mosques and shrines, the ceramics on view in the wall vitrines are products of a secularly courtly culture. One of the vitrines displays Doris Duke’s (1912–93) collection of mina’i wares, which were made in Iran just prior to the Mongol invasions of the 1220s. The polychromatic surfaces of these twice-fired pots include courtly scenes such as hunting, feasting, musical entertainment, and rulers enthroned. These vessels confirm the prevalence of figural imagery in Islamic art, particularly in palatial contexts.