From its origins as an outpost of the Achaemenid Empire, the repeated strengthening of the Citadel of Qala Ikhtyaruddin, and the setting out of a walled settlement by the Ghaznavids, the city of Herat has had a turbulent history. Situated at the crossroads of regional trade, in the midst of rich irrigated agriculture, the area has been a prize for successive invaders. The city became a centre for Islamic culture and learning during the reign of Timur, whose successors commissioned several monumental buildings, but it then fell into decline under the Mughals. Considered part of Persia during the Safavid era in the eighteenth century, it was not until 1863 that Herat was incorporated into the emerging Afghan state.
The distinctive rectilinear layout of the city of Herat was delineated by massive earth walls that protected the bazaars and residential quarters that lay within. This was the extent of the city until the middle of the twentieth century, when administrative buildings were constructed outside of the walls to the northeast.
The site of the musalla complex -- as it currently exists -- contains six minarets and two domed chambers that are visible from afar. The Mausoleum of Gawhar Shad, with its ribbed cupola, stands in a garden to the south of an irrigation canal that bisects the site. To its east is a single minaret with two balconies; it once flanked the portal of Gawhar Shad's Madrasa. To the south of the mausoleum was a place of worship, a congregational mosque (masjid-i jami or musalla) built by Gawhar Shad, of which only the stump of a minaret remains. The smaller domed mausoleum of Mir Ali Shir Navai (1441-1501) a prominent poet and companion of Timurid Sultan Husain Baiqara (1469-1506) is located to the north of Gawhar Shad's Mausoleum, before the canal. In the plain north of the canal, four minarets are clustered together; these once marked the four corners of a madrasa built by Husain Baiqara between 1469/1470 and 1506.
The foundations of the complex were laid by Gawhar Shad, wife of Timurid ruler Shah Rukh (1405-1447) in 1417 outside Herat, establishing the city as the capital of the Timurid Empire and its future northward expansion. It is probable that the madrasa was built first in 1417 and the mosque followed in 1426. Sultan Husain's Madrasa was most likely built around 1493 (898 A.H.). In 1863, the tops of the minarets were destroyed by artillery fire. In 1885, the ruins were razed by Amir 'Abd ar-Rahman (1880-1901), the British supported Amir of Afghanistan, in an attempt to prevent its use as a base by the Russian army. Only the minarets and the Mausoleum of Gawhar Shad were allowed to remain. Two of the mosque's four minarets were destroyed in an earthquake in 1932, and only one survives today. The Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage (SPACH) completed emergency conservation works on the site in 2001, including building protective walls around the Gawhar Shad Mausoleum and Sultan Husain Madrasa, repairing the remaining minaret of Gawhar Shad's Madrasa, and replanting the mausoleum garden.
Mosque, or, Musalla of Gawhar Shad
The ruins of the prayer space built by Gawhar Shad -- identified alternatively as a congregational mosque (masjid-i jami) or a musalla -- are located in the southernmost area of the complex. Only the stump of a single minaret remains today, integrated into a modern madrasa at the edge of the musalla site. Its construction may have begun in 1417 at the same time with the madrasa, but its completion was delayed by several years due to an assassination attempt on Sultan Shah Rukh in the Masjid-i Jami of Herat in 1426.
According to a marble inscription on one of the minarets, construction of the mosque stopped in 1437/8 (841 A.H.), leaving an unfinished portal, which remained so until the entire building was destroyed in 1885. Another inscription on a minaret identified the architect as Qavam al-Shirazi, who built Gawhar Shad's Mosque in Mashad in 1418-19. Of the four minarets that were allowed to remain, two collapsed in a 1932 earthquake.
According to Schroeder's reconstruction, the mosque was rectangular in plan with a double sanctuary and two prayer halls occupying the west side of its almost square courtyard. Entered from a monumental portal facing east, the courtyard had double-story arcades along its north and south side, and an iwan centered on each façade. The main, west-facing iwan was flanked by smaller iwans giving access to the prayer halls. Outside, the mosque measured about one hundred and six by sixty-three meters, with a minaret buttressing each corner. Two more minarets reportedly flanked the main iwan, which have not survived the 1885 destruction.
The interior of the portal iwan was faced with glazed lapis tiles and contained an inscription praising its patron, Gawhar Shad. Photographs taken by Oskar Ritter von Niedermayer and Alfred Foucher before the devastating 1932 earthquake show that each of the remaining four minarets had Arabic inscriptions carved in marble panels around their bases, in tile mosaic on two major bands, and on smaller tile panels decorating the lower shaft.
Madrasa of Sultan Husain Baiqara and Mausoleum of Mir Ali Shir Navai
All that remains of the Madrasa of Sultan Husain Baiqara are four minarets north of the Musalla Complex. This madrasa was built in 1492-1493 (898 A.H.) and was reportedly designed in a style similar to the Madrasa of Gawhar Shad, but on a larger scale. The mausoleum of Mir Ali Shir Navai is a small, domed, three-by-three bay cube located near the entrance to the Mausoleum of Gawhar Shad. Its construction date is unknown.
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Blair, Sheila S., and Jonathan M. Bloom. The Art and Architecture of Islam: 1250-1800, 45-6. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995
Byron, Robert. "Timurid Architecture: General Trends." In A Survey of Persian Art: from Prehistoric Times to the Present, III edited by Arthur Upham Pope and Phyllis Ackerman, 1125-1126. Tehran: Soroush Press, 1939.
Golombek, Lisa, and Donald Wilber. The Timurid Architecture of Iran and Turan, 305-307. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.