Located in a desert area on the Khorasan route between Merv (near present-day Mary, Turkmenistan) and Nishapur, also known as the "Shi'a Pilgrim Road," the Ribat-i Sharaf was both a commercial outpost and a palace. It is believed to have been built by Sharaf ad-din Ibn Taher, who was both governor of Khorasan for forty years and minister during the reign of Sultan Sanjar (1118-57). Although it was heavily damaged by Ghuzz nomads in the middle of the twelfth century, it was restored shortly thereafter by Terkan bint al-Kaghan, the wife of Sultun Sanjar, in 1154.
The plan of the Ribat-i Sharaf is composed of two courts set in a rectangular enclosure; a rectangular courtyard measuring 32.4 by 16.5 meters is followed by a larger, approximately square courtyard that measures 31.8 by 31.3 meters. Along the axis beginning at the entry iwan and terminating at the large dome hall of the larger square courtyard, each side is a mirror copy of the other. The rectangular courtyard served as a caravanserai, while the inner courtyard was of a more private nature, used by the sultan and other officials. In it could be found all the amenities considered necessary at the time, addressing the needs both of the general public and of the royal retinue. The spaces surrounding both courtyards included a mosque, accommodation, spaces for meetings and gatherings, stables, a kitchen, and a water reservoir.
Entered from the southeast, the entry pishtaq leads into the long iwan of the public courtyard. Rooms flank it on each side, with a mosque directly adjacent to it to the southwest. Within the four-iwan courtyard, the iwan leading into the private courtyard of the ribat is emphasized, as it is set on a blank wall of brick that extends almost all the way to the exterior wall. This creates a long corridor to each side, making a clear distinction between the public and private zones. The two lateral iwans lead into domed rooms and are each flanked by a pointed arch opening.
Perhaps the only instance in the plan where one side does not mirror the other is the mosque found adjacent to the southwest iwan in the square courtyard, located similarly to the mosque off the public courtyard). This mosque is composed of two spaces, each with its own mihrab, that are linked by openings at each of the sides. A four-iwan courtyard, each iwan is flanked by three pointed-arch openings of equal size. The iwans and pointed arch openings flanking them lead into one another around the courtyard, programmatically working like an arcade. As in the smaller rectangular courtyard, the lateral iwans of the square courtyard also lead to domed rooms. The last two lateral rooms at the northwest corners of the madrasa also have domes, while the principal iwan terminates in a domed square room that protrudes on the exterior, appearing as a rectangular bastion with chamfered corners. To each side of the northwest central iwan, and in line with each of the corner courtyard openings, is a small square courtyard. An opening on each of its sides leads to small rooms surrounding it.
Since the Ribat-i Sharaf was built as an outpost in the desert, it was built to be seen from all sides. There is only one entrance into the complex, found on the southeast elevation. The main entrance elevation is articulated by a large entry iwan flanked by two niches of smaller size. A mihrab is located on the northeast side of the entry iwan, providing for visitors on the exterior to exercise their faith. Semi-octagonal bastions mark the two front corners; three semi-circular bastions, creating a trefoil shape, occupy the corners of the rear elevation. The transition from the public zone of the narrower rectangular court and the square court is articulated on the exterior wall with a broad bastion on each side that is composed of a semicircle split apart with a triangular protrusion. Each of the niches to the side of the entry pishtaq are composed of a trefoil arch set within a pointed arch, which is itself set within a frame of brickwork. The tripartite composition of the entrance extends above the perimeter walls of the ribat, with the entry pishtaq raised above the rest, and a band of Kufic inscription in stucco tying the three components together. The entry pishtaq is composed of a relatively squat pointed arch set within a frame with spandrels covered with a geometric pattern of brick.
The northwest iwan of the rectangular courtyard that leads into the square courtyard is composed of a pointed arch set within a frame of brickwork with a panel of a diamond pattern on each side, and flanked on each side by quarter cylinders that contain circular staircases behind them. The iwan parallel to this one on the northwest side of the square courtyard is composed similarly to that of the entry pishtaq, with a pointed arch set within a frame with spandrels covered in a brick geometric pattern surrounded by a wide band of Kufic inscription in stucco. Each opening flanking the iwans of the square courtyard is articulated similarly, with a squat pointed-arch opening set in another pointed arch that is filled with a geometric pattern of brick: those at the edges with a triangle pattern made of vertical and horizontal brick, and those in the middle with a geometric pattern of intersecting horizontal and vertical bricks. Each opening is separated by three vertical bands of brickwork, and the center has a trefoil arch niche.
Rather than tile work, the entire complex is ornamented with various geometric patterns of brickwork and stucco patterns that are both vegetal and geometric.
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