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The Mausoleum of Gowhar Shad (Bagh-e Gowhar

Shad; admission free; h8am-sunset) sits in a small park, currently undergoing extensive re- planting. It’s a textbook example of Timurid architecture, with its square box topped with a high drum and ribbed melon dome, albeit one largely denuded of its turquoise tiling. The door to Gowhar Shad’s tombstone is normally locked, but the chowkidar (care- taker) can unlock it for you. The inside dome is beautifully painted in blue and rust-red. Shah Rukh was also originally buried here, until Ulughbek removed his body to Samar- kand. Also inside are the broken remains of the mosaic that covered the exterior, mostly knocked off by Soviet shelling. The building next door holds the tomb of Mir Ali Shir Nawai, Sultan Baiqara’s prime minister. The mausoleum is at the heart of the old complex. By the park entrance is the sole standing minaret of her madrassa, tilting at a worrying angle and braced with steel cables. The tiling, a series of blue lozenges filled with flowers, only survives on its one side, where it is protected against Herat’s abrasive wind. There are two balconies – just below the lower storey, mortar has taken a horrible bite out of the minaret. On the southern edge of the park, the stump of another minaret is the only sign of Gowhar Shad’s mosque. It was destroyed by Soviet artillery. Tantalising fragments re- main of the beautiful mosaic and its white marble facings. Noting that minarets are usually the simplest parts of a building, Robert Byron was so moved by its fine decoration to write ‘if the mosaic on the rest of the Musalla surpassed or even equalled what survives today, there was never such a mosque before or since.’


The wife of Shah Rukh, Gowhar Shad, was one of the most remarkable women in Afghanistan’s history. Although her name meant ‘joyful jewel’, she was anything but the trophy wife her name suggests. She was a great patron of the arts and commissioned some of Islam’s finest buildings, including Herat’s Musalla Complex and the Great Mosque in Mashhad (Iran). She also paid an active part in politics. Her son, Ulughbek, was made the viceroy of Samarkand and following her husband’s death, she was heavily involved in the manoeuvrings over his succession. Her other son, Baisanghor, drank himself to death, so Gowhar Shad planned to make Ulughbek the ruler of Herat. Years of disputes followed, with her various sons and grandsons fighting for power, ultimately sowing the seeds of the empire’s downfall. She finally met her end at the ripe age of 80, murdered by a rival after plotting to install her great-grandson on Herat’s throne. Her gravestone reads she was ‘the Bilqis [Queen of Sheba] of the time’.

The loss of the complex rivals the destruc-

tion of the Bamiyan Buddhas for deliberate cultural vandalism. In 1885, when the Brit- ish feared a Russian invasion of Afghani- stan, they persuaded Abdur Rahman Khan to prepare Herat for defence. In a matter of days, British engineers dynamited almost the entire complex, to give a free line of fire for artillery. The invasion never came, but the damage was done. Two further minarets fell to earthquakes in the early 20th century, while the Soviets turned the whole area into a free-fire zone in the 1980s. Opposite the park, four huge minarets mark the corners of Baiqara’s long-gone madrassa. The minarets were covered in a delicate blue mosaic framed in white and set with flowers. Some tiling remains – war and abrasive wind has wiped out the rest. The towers now lean like drunken factory chim- neys and exert a particularly mournful air at sunset. A road between the minarets still allows traffic to trundle past, the vibrations damaging the fragile foundations. Several tombstones lie abandoned in the area, in- cluding an exquisite yet eroded black mar- ble tombstone, carved in the intricate Haft Qalam (Seven Pens) style. Long abandoned to the elements, a better-cared-for example can be seen at Gazar Gah ( below ).

Gazar Gah

This shrine, 5km northwest of Herat, is one of Afghanistan’s holiest sites, dedicated to the 11th-century saint and poet Khoja Abdullah Ansari. Run by Sufis from the Qadirriyah order, it receives hundreds of pilgrims from across Afghanistan daily; Gazar Gah’s name means ‘the Bleaching Ground’, a Sufi allusion to the cleansing of one’s soul before Allah.

The shrine is the most complete Timurid building in Herat and is dominated by its 30m-high entrance portal, decorated with restraint with blue tiles on plain brick. More tiling fills the inside, much of it showing a distinctly Chinese influence – possibly a by- product of the embassies that Shah Rukh (who commissioned the shrine in 1425) exchanged with the emperor of China. The courtyard is filled with the gravestones of the many of Herat’s old ruling families. The saint’s tomb is at the far end be-

neath a large ilex tree. An intricately carved 5m-high white marble pillar also stands guardian, contained behind a glass case. It’s fascinating to sit and watch men and women offering prayers to the tomb before turning around to perform the full prayer ritual facing Mecca. Prayers are also tied in rags to the ilex tree, usually by women having problems conceiving. There are several other graves worth noting in the shrine. Amir Dost Mo- hammed, that great survivor of the First Anglo-Afghan War, is buried to the left of Ansari’s tomb, having died soon after capturing Herat in 1863. His grave is sur- rounded by a white balustrade and marked with another marble pillar. One of Sultan Baiqara’s sons also lies here. His tombstone is an incredible example of the Haft Qalam style of carving – interlaced flowers and arabesques painstakingly carved into seven layers of relief. The tombstone is kept in a locked side room, so you’ll have to ask to be shown it. There are more graves outside the portal entrance. Look for the much worn statue of a dog immediately outside. Local tradition ascribes this to the grave of Gazar Gah’s architect, who wished to sit humbly before the Sufi master into the next life. Slightly to the southwest of the main shrine is the Zarnegar Khana (‘Golden Pa- vilion’). Built during Baiqara’s time, it is a retreat for the shrine’s Sufi adherents, who hold their zikr rituals inside. The interior has a fine domed ceiling, painted in blue and red, and picked out in gold leaf. The Zarnegar Khana was closed for restoration at the time of research. The grounds of the shrine also contain a second domed build- ing, the Namakdan pavilion, and a cistern containing water from the holy Zam Zam spring at Mecca.



Sights 139

There’s no entrance fee at Gazar Gah, but the Sufis who tend the shrine will welcome a small donation. Don’t forget to remove your shoes on entering. Buses run regularly to Gazar Gah from Chowk-e Cinema (5Afg, 15 minutes). A taxi costs around 50Afg.

Jami’s Tomb

Mawlana Abdur Rahman Jami was Her- at’s greatest poet and one of the greatest Sufi poets who wrote in Persian. He was a regular at the court of Sultan Baiqara, where he composed many treatises on the soul’s meditation of the divine. He died in 1492 and is still revered by modern Hera- tis, who can often quote from his greatest work, Haft Awrang (Seven Thrones), and regularly visit his grave (Sarakh-e Tanki Mawlawi;

donation welcome, hsunrise-sunset).

The tomb is a quiet and contemplative place, inside a modest enclosure under a pistachio tree, with a finely carved head- stone. A large pole is hung with green ban- ners and has had many nails hammered into it as prayer offerings. The tomb is visited by both men and women, who sit either side of the grave, in prayer or medi- tation. It’s commonplace to walk around the grave and to take a pinch of earth as a blessing. There is also a small donation box here. A larger mosque stands adjacent to the

grave. Both are modern, rebuilt after being severely damaged by Soviet shelling in 1984. A taxi ride from the centre of Herat costs 80Afg.

Shahzada Abdullah

Two shrines sit on the main road just south of the Musalla Complex. Built in the late 15th century, they contain the tombs of two princes, Abdullah and Qasim, who died in the 8th century. Abdullah’s tomb is the one nearer the road. The exteriors are plain fired brick with ogee portal arches, while the interiors are richly decorated with tiling – probably the best surviving tilework from medieval Herat. Even a couple of years ago, the tombs

were clearly visible from the road, but they have now been largely obscured by Herat’s construction boom. The tombs’ guardians, who also tend the many pigeons outside, appreciate a small donation from visitors.


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