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.
Only one minaret and the founder's mausoleum remain of the Madrasa of Gawhar Shad in the Musalla Complex, which was constructed between 1417-1438 (820-841 A.H.), according to its foundation plaque, now housed in the mausoleum.
Madrasa of Gawhar Shad
According to eyewitness accounts, the madrasa was a rectangular building centered on a courtyard, with minarets rising at its outer corners. A grand iwan at the west end of the courtyard was used as a classroom. Two tiers of student rooms enclosed the courtyard to the north and south, with small iwans at the center.
The remaining minaret, located at the southeastern corner, is known today as "Minaret #5" of the Musalla Complex. It is believed to be one of a pair that flanked the portal screen of the madrasas. It has a brick shaft covered with a diamond pattern in blue tiles, interlaced with bands of floral motifs and kufic inscriptions. There are two balconies, whose muqarnas supports remain. For several years the minaret leaned precariously and was in danger of collapse. In 2003, it was supported with cables with funds from UNESCO's "Emergency consolidation and Restoration of Monuments in Herat and Jam, Phase I and II" Project.
Mausoleum of Gawhar Shad
Completed in 1432 (835 A.H.), the Mausoleum Gawhar Shad was located in the westernmost corner of the Madrasa Gawhar Shad and now stands alone. The chamber has a cruciform plan (nine and a half meters on each side) with a five-sided qibla bay projecting southwest. Four arched niches occupy the recesses and are inscribed in four grand arches that intersect at the corners of the dome chamber. Squinches provide the transition from the four corners to an eight-pointed star, followed by an octagon and a sixteen-pointed star that circle in towards the thirty-two sided star at the vault's apex. This intricate squinch-net vault is richly decorated with painted floral motifs and inscriptions highlighted with gold.
Gawhar Shad's son Baysunghur was buried in this mausoleum a year after its completion. Seven additional Timurid princes, as well as Gawhar Shad, are believed to have been buried here; Russian agent Nicholas de Khanikoff reported seeing Gawhar Shad's tombstone when he visited the site sometime before 1860; her tombstone is currently missing.
Allen, Terry. A Catalogue of the Toponyms and Monuments of Timurid Herat, 92-3, 113-15, 122-29. Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture: Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1981.
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.