Balasar Madrasa is embedded within the Imam Riza Shrine Complex, to the northwest of the main shrine. It is aligned with the old bazaar street to its northwest, at a slight angle off the northeast-southwest axis of the larger complex. It is bordered by the Parizad Madrasa to the southwest, the Sahn-i Kuhna (old Court) to the northeast, and the Bala-Sar Masjid to its southeast. Its name, literally translated as 'above the head' refers to the head of Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid's tomb, the first structure built on the site in the early ninth century.
Although there are no inscriptions or historical records that ascertain the construction date and the patron of the Bala-Sar Madrasa, historians have inferred that it was built by Timurid ruler Shah Rukh Mirza (1405-1447), sometime between 1420 and 1440. It was restored multiple times, including a recorded restoration commissioned by Safavid Shah Sulaiman (1660-1681).
Similar in organization to the adjoining Parizad Madrasa, the Bala Sar Madrasa is centered on a square four iwan courtyard with beveled corners. Each iwan is flanked by a vaulted room on either side, accessed through smaller vaulted iwans. Larger rooms, also entered through arched recesses, occupy the madrasa corners. An identical plan is repeated on the second floor, where an arcade with arched balconies gives access to the rooms. The four central iwans are covered by semi-domes, of which the northwest and the southeast iwans are elaborated with plaster muqarnas of the safavid period.
The madrasa is entered from the adjacent bazaar to the northeast, first through a pishtaq opening onto the bazaar, followed by a narrower vestibule preceding the courtyard entrance iwan. This iwan is vaulted with a semi dome covered with plaster muqarnas inset with floral mosaics and a six pointed star at each of the corners. At the level of the entrance door, the wall is decorated with a beveled stone dado topped by a diamond pattern of plain and glazed brickwork. Above it and the door, is a wide tile inscription frieze while the intrados of the iwan arch are covered with mosaic tiles set in a pattern of large six-pointed stars.
Opposite the entrance iwan, at the center of the back wall of the southeast iwan, is a wooden door carved with a pattern of leaves. Although a wall behind it blocks its passageway, it implies that the madrasa was at some point connected to the shrine complex via an annex of the Dar al-Siyada. The northeast and the southwest iwans are also vaulted with semi-domes, with the latter having a small mihrab niche at the center of its back wall.
Within the courtyard, the iwan spandrels are decorated with floral tile work while the remaining wall surface is covered with a diamond pattern of plain and glazed brick set within vertical and horizontal bands outlining the frames of the arched openings.
Farhat, May. "Islamic Piety and Dynastic Legitimacy: The Case of the Shrine of Ali B. Musa al-Rida in Mashhad (10th-17th century)." Ph.D. Diss., Harvard University, 2002.
Golombek, Lisa and Donald Wilber. The Timurid Architecture of Iran and Turan Vol. I, 332. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.
O'Kane, Bernard. Timurid Architecture in Khurasan, 158-161. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers in association with Undena Publications, 1987.
Pope, Arthur Upham, ed., Phyllis Ackerman, assist. ed. A Survey of Persian Art from Prehistoric Times to the Present. Vol. 3, Architecture, Its Ornament, City Plans, Gardens, 3rd ed., 1204. Tehran: Soroush Press, 1977.
Saadat, Bijan. 1976. The Holy Shrine of Imam Reza, Mashhad (Astan-i Quds). Shiraz, Iran: Asia Institute, Pahlavi University, volume II.
Published by the Asia Institute in Shiraz in 1976, "The Holy Shrine of Imam Reza, Mashhad" summarizes the findings of an architectural survey headed by architect Bijan Saadat with associate architect Riccardo Sardarelli and assistant architect Piero Degl'Innocenti. It consist of four volumes:
Volume I: Nine folding plates and legends (ArchNet files FLS1272 and FLS1273, containing the plan and eight cross-sections respectively). Volume II: 79 photographic plates with captions Volume III: Historic and architectural description in English, bibliography and glossary, 57 pages Volume IV: Historic and architectural description in Persian, 76 pages