Driving east from Zanjan to Tehran, we see the turquoise dome from far away, standing out in the brownish landscape of western Iran. It marks the mausoleum of the Mongol leader Oljeitu, and it draws us closer like a magnet. When we finally walk through the iron gate, the mausoleum rises high above us, with the sun shining fiercely on the tiled dome which seems to emanate a blue-green light. We are looking at the third largest dome in the world, after the Florence cathedral and the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Unfortunately, scaffolding at the base of the dome disturbs our views a little. Some of the arches higher up also have turquoise tiles, but most of the exterior walls are bare now. We understand that this mausoleum must have been much more impressive just after its completion.
In the early 14th century, Oljeitu, also called Muhammed Khodabandeh, ruled the Ilkhanate, a division of the Mongol Empire. Baptized a Christian, he converted to Buddhism, then became a Sunni Muslim before changing into a Shi'a. In order to underline his faithfulness, he planned to move the body of Ali, the son in law of the prophet Muhammed, from Najaf, Iraq to Soltaniyeh, and had the mausoleum built as a new final resting pace. But the authority in Najaf did not release the remains of Ali, and eventually Oljeitu was buried in the mausoleum himself. The surrounding area was razed: the mausoleum stands on a barren plain where excavations are exposing the foundations of the Mongol-era city that lied at the feet of the mausoleum. After walking around the octagonal structure, it is time to go in.
The first thing to notice when we step into the enormous main hall, is the scaffolding: this World Heritage Site is in need of repairs. The metal bars and wooden planks obscure the views of the massive dome. On the walls, we notice that most parts are bare: only some parts are covered by decorative tiles. We visit an exhibition in an adjacent hall, before taking the stairs to walk up to the terraces. There, we understand the beauty of this Ilkhanate-era building. Intricate carvings decorate the vaulted ceilings, intricate geometric designs of various colours dazzle the visitor. Every terrace is different. There are cracks here and there, but unlike the inside, the artwork is mostly intact. It makes you wonder about the beauty of the inside of the mausoleum, once the reconstruction works will be finished.
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