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091. Herat: Gawharshad Musalla Complex

Herat Province. 1,053 kilometers by road west of Kabul.

Dates: (?)Achaemenid, 6th-4th century BC (epigraphic evidence);
           (?)Sassanian, 3rd-7th century AD (numismatic, stylistic);
           Seljuk, Ghurid, Kart and Timurid, 11th-16th century
           (architectural, documentary, stylistic).

Herat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site candidate (Sept. 2004), is thought to have been established before 500 BC as the ancient Persian town of Artacoana or Aria. The city's older section is partially surrounded by the remains of massive mud walls, where several monuments still stand, such as: the Qal'a-i Ikhtiyar al-Din (a 15th-century citadel) and the Great Mosque, which contains examples of 12th-century Ghurid brick-work and 15th-16th century Timurid tilework. The city's other important monuments are outside the walls. To the north, atop a large artificial mound called Kuhandazh (the likely site of pre-13th century Herat), we find the 15th-century Mausoleum of Shahzada 'Abul Qasim and the 15th-century Abdullah bin Muawiyah Shrine on the opposite side of the road. Farther to the north is the Gawharshad Musalla Complex. Two hundred meters southwest of the Herat city walls is a dated 1487 mausoleum, the Shrine of Abdullah al-Valid.

Gawharshad Musalla Complex

Variant name(s): Mosque or Musalla of Gawhar Shad
                (Gawharshad, Gauhar Shad, Gowhar Shad),
                Madrasa of Sultan Husain Baiqara (Husayn b.
                Mansur b. Bayqara, Hussein Baiqara, Hussain
                Baykara), Mausoleum of Mir Ali Sher Navai
                ('Ali Shir Nava'i, Alishir Nawai, Alisher Navoi)
Date(s):    Timurid period: 1417-1438
Architect:  Qavam al-Din Shirazi
Patron:     Queen Gawharshad


The largest historic architectural complex that survives in western Afghanistan, the Gawharshad Musalla Complex was completed in 1417 under the direction of Queen Gawharshad, wife of the Timurid ruler Shah Rukh (reign: 1405-1447), who had moved the Timurid capital from Samarkand to Herat in 1405. After the sultan's death, the Queen became de facto ruler over an empire that stretched from the Tigris River to the Chinese border.

Described by Byron as “the most beautiful example of colour in architecture ever devised by man to the glory of his God and himself,” the Musalla Complex was originally very large, all that remains today are a mosque, the mausoleum of Gawharshad, five minarets and the remains of the madrasa of Hussein Baiqara. Renowned for the forest of minarets that occupied the original site, the tops of the minarets were destroyed by British artillery fire in 1963, and most of the buildings were purposely demolished in 1885 under the direction of British troops who feared a Russian attack on Herat that never actually occurred. Only the minarets and the Mausoleum of Gawhar Shad were allowed to remain. Incomparable works of art were sacrificed in the process. The carnage in 1885 left only nine minarets standing in the entire complex, three of which were felled by earthquakes in 1931 and 1951. Those which remain are in precarious despite recent restoration.

Gawhar Shad Mosque, Madrasa and Mausoleum


The Archnet Digital Library describes the Mausoleum of Gawharshad in the following manner:
"with its ribbed cupola [the Mausoleum], 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 that once flanked the portal of Gawharshad's Madrasa. To the south of the mausoleum was a congregational mosque (masjid-i jami or musalla) built by Gawharshad, 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 Gawharshad's Mausoleum, near the canal. In the plain north of the canal, four minarets are clustered together that once marked the four corners of a madrasa built by Husain Baiqara between 1469/1470 and 1506." Although damaged during fighting in the early 1990s, the mausoleum of Gawharshad retains its ribbed tiled dome, which is set above a high drum covered in tiled decoration, both with Koranic inscriptions and abstract patterns. The interior of the structure, where the tombstones of the Queen, her son Baisunghur and other members of the family survive, has important painted and stucco ornamentation.

The Mosque or Musalla of Gawharshad, sometimes identified as a congregational mosque (masjid-i jami) or as a musalla, "is located in the southernmost area of the complex", according to Archnet. Originally, 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 did not survive the 1885 destruction. According to Archnet, "only the stump of a single minaret  remains of the original structure today ... integrated into a modern madrasa at the edge of the musalla site. The original musalla, begun in 1417, was delayed by several years due to an assassination attempt on the Sultan in Herat in 1426." According to Archnet, an "inscription on a minaret identified the architect as Qavam al-Shirazi, who built Gawhar Shad's Mosque in Mashad in 1418-19."

According to Archnet, The Madrasa of Gawhar Shad was probably built first in 1417. "According to eye-witness accounts, the madrasa was a rectangular building centered on a courtyard, with minarets inteh four corners that represented the zenith of Timurid architectural achievement. 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."

Only one minaret, located at the southeastern corner, remains standing, is badly damaged and has been recently stabilized. Known 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, two balconies on top, and is covered with a diamond pattern in blue tiles, interlaced with bands of floral motifs and kufic inscriptions. For several years the minaret leaned precariously and was in danger of collapse. In 2003, it was supported with cables in a project funded by UNESCO.

Mausoleum of Gawharshad, according to Archnet, "completed in 1432 (835 A.H.), was located in the westernmost corner of the Madrasa Gawharshad 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. Gawharshad'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 Gawharshad's tombstone when he visited the site sometime before 1860; her tombstone is currently missing.

Madrasa of Sultan Husain Baiqara and Mausoleum of Mir Ali Shir Navai, north of the Complex, has disappeared but for the four minarets that defined the madrasa precinct's four corners. The madrasa was built in 1492-1493 (898 A.H.) in a style similar to the Madrasa of Gawharshad, 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.

Source: Archnet

See also: Warwick Ball, Archaeological Gazetteer of Afghanistan, 1982, n. 425

See: "Musalla Complex". Website of Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage (SPACH).

See: Jawed, Sayed. 2001. "The Rehabilitation of the Musallah Complex in Herat Begins." SPACH Newsletter 7, 13-16.

  34°21'32.4000"' N
  34.359º N
  62°11'09.6000" E

62.186º E

  425145 E
  3802262 N

Herat is found at the above
coordinates on JOG map

Click here to view the Google East satellite image of teh Sawhardshad Musalla Complex, north of Herat











Gawhar Shad Mosque,
Madrasa and Mausoleum

  34° 21′ 23″ N
  34.356389º N
  62° 11′ 9″ E

62.185833º E

  425128 E
  3801973 N