there was never such a mosque before or since
Byron saw what remained of the Gawhar Shad Mosque on the 23rd of November 1933, together with the other monuments part of what is called Musalla Complex. During his visit, anyway, Byron seems not to give much attention to the mosque. He refers to it maybe when he writes: “If the mosaic of the rest of the Musalla surpassed or even equalled what survives today, there was never such a mosque before or since“. ‘Musalla’ means ‘prayer place’, and is used in fact to refer both to the whole complex and to the actual mosque.
But he adds, just after this reflection: “Yet, I don’t know. Gohar Shad built another mosque, inside the shrine at Meshed. This mosque is still intact. I must see it somehow if I come back this way“. At this point, he had not yet visited, or better, penetrated the mosque. His visit would have happened the following year, in May 1934.
When Byron visited this mosque, almost nothing remained of it, as it is the case for the rest of the Musalla complex. The main building of the mosque was completely destroyed in 1885, under the direction of the British troop, and only four minarets were spared. Two of them collapsed in 1931, because of an earthquake. Byron had the chance to see two minarets only. Ironically, he was luckier than us: in 1951 another earthquake caused the collapse of another minaret. Today, only one remains.
The construction of the mosque started, under the patronage of Gawhar Shad, in 1417 and was completed only in 1437-38. The construction work was delayed for external reasons, the most important being an assassination attempt on Sultan Shah Rukh (Gawhar Shad’s husband) in the Masjid-i Jami of Herat in 1426. The building was designed and the construction work directed by Qavam al-Shirazi, who also built Gawhar Shad’s Mosque in Mashhad in 1418-19.
Schroeder managed to reconstruct the plan of the original mosque: it had a rectangular plan with a double sanctuary and two prayer halls. It also appears that the mosque had two additional minarets, that did not survive the 1885 destruction.
The interior of the mosque should have been covered in tile mosaics, with geometric patterns and inscriptions. Also around the bases of the minarets, at least around the four that survived 1885 destruction, there used to be epigraphic bands, carved in marble panels.
Again, almost nothing remains, and just the comparison with the Gawhar Shad Mosque in Mashhad, which was built in the same years and by the same architect, can maybe shed light and make us appreciate what the mosque of the Musalla should have been.
As always, the primary source for images and additional information is archnet.org. As for the Musalla Complex, useful information can be also found on the website of the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage (SPACH).
Other valuable sources are:
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.