The sad story of the Musalla Complex: art crime and destruction

It is a miserable story

It is difficult to define the Musalla Complex in Herat. The name ‘Musalla’ can refer both to the whole complex and to the Mosque of Gawhar Shad that is part of it. Even Robert Byron is apparently confused, and use the word to describe first one and then the other. Musalla indicates a place to stop to and pray.

But let’s proceed step-by-step.

Byron records the Musalla Complex in two entries, dated 22nd and 23rd November 1933, but it is in the second one that he explains in detail the story of the complex, and, as he writes ‘it is a miserable story’.

First of all, the Musalla Complex is not a proper complex. It is more an area that comprises the remains of a bunch of monuments and minarets, the majority of which were commissioned by Gawhar Shad (yes, the same illuminated queen of the mosque inside the Imam Reza Shrine) and that were all built between the 15th and the beginning of the 16th century. The Musalla included, at the apex of its splendor: the Mausoleum of Gawhar Shad, the Madrasa of Gawhar Shad, the Mosque of Gawhar Shad (which is sometimes called ‘Musalla’ itself), the smaller domed mausoleum of Mir Ali Shir Navai (1441-1501), and the madrasa built by Husain Baiqara between 1469/1470 and 1506. It represented then a cluster of Timurid architecture and art. Of all this, only 6 minarets and two domes remain nowadays.

When Byron visited the place, things weren’t any better: he could see seven minarets and two domes (even if he counts only one mausoleum: most probably he dismissed the one of Mir Ali Shir Navai).

General view of the complex with seven minarets. The domed Mausoleum of Gawhar Shad appears at center. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

Robert Byron, anyway, notes something strange while checking the minarets: “This array of blue towers rising haphazard from a patchwork of brown fields and yellow orchards has a most unnatural look. […] it can be seen from the insides of these minarets, where the tilework stops short some forty feet from the ground, that they were originally joined by walls or arches and must have formed part of a series of mosques or colleges. What has happened to these buildings? Things on this scale may fall down, but they leave some ruin. They don’t vanish of their own accord without trace or clue, as these have done.
It is a miserable story.”

Nowadays we would define what happened to the Musalla Complex an art crime, or a war crime. It is true that also nature and earthquakes did not spare the complex, but the bigger part was done by humans.

Mosque minaret, with three minarets of Husain Baiqara Madrasa seen in the background. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

In 1885, most of the major buildings of the complex were deliberately destroyed under the direction of the British troops: in the conflict against Russia for the control of the borders, British government feared an attack of St. Petersburg’s troops from the North. The monuments of the Musalla complex would have served as a perfect cover and base to the Russians. Then, it was simply decided to get rid of the monuments. The ruins were razed by Amir ‘Abd ar-Rahman (1880-1901), the British-supported Amir of Afghanistan. Nine minarets and two mausoleums (Gawhar Shad’s and Mir Ali Shir Navai’s) were spared.
In 1931 an earthquake destroyed two other minarets, and again another one collapsed for the same reason in 1951.

Husain Baiqara Madrasa, southwest minaret, with the domed mausoleum of Gawhar Shad in background. Photo by Stephen Shucart (archnet).

What remains now of the monument is just a shadow of what the complex was. The Mausoleum of Gawhar Shad stands with its ribbed dome, while only one single minaret remains of the Madrasa of Gawhar Shad: it used to flank the portal of the madrasa. In the same way, only the stump of a minaret remains of the Mosque of Gawhar Shad. Four minarets clustered together mark the place where the Madrasa of Baiqara once was: each minaret used to mark one corner of the building. Of the Mausoleum of Mir Ali Shir Navai, the dome remains.

Mosque minaret, detail of stone epigraphic panels at its base. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

If one wants to base on what remains to try and figure out how the complex should have been, quite surely, will come to a stunning result. As Byron himself recognizes: In point of decoration minarets are generally the least elaborate parts of a building. 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.

Sources and bibliography covers the monuments of the Musalla Complex in two entries: Masjid-i Jami’-i Gawhar Shad and Madrasa-i Gawhar Shad. There, further information and photos of the various parts of the complex are to be found.

A valuable source of information focused on the story of the complex and its condition, is the website of the SPACH (Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage).

S. S. Blair and J. M. Bloom, The Art and Architecture of Islam 1250-1800, Yale University Press, New Haven 1994.
R. Byron, “Timurid Architecture”, in A. U. Pope, A Survey of Persian Art, Oxford University Press, London and New York 1939, vol. II, pp. 1103-1118.
L. Golombek and D. Wilber, The Timurid Architecture of Iran and Turan, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1988.


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