Gawhar Shad Mausoleum and its missing tombstones

Few architectural devices can equal a ribbed dome for blind, monumental ostentation.

During his visit to the Musalla Complex in Herat, on the 23rd of November 1933, Robert Byron carefully recorded what remained of the monuments that once were part of the magnificent project, commissioned by Gawhar Shad.

Exterior view of the mausoleum. The remaining minaret of Gawhar Shad’s Madrasa is seen in the background. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

The construction of her mausoleum was completed in 1432, and it used to be located at the westernmost corner of the madrasa of Gawhar Shad, that has been destroyed in 1885. According to Byron’s account, the decoration of the external surface of the mausoleum “is inferior to that of the two minarets”, even if he recognizes the beauty of the building as a whole:

“The drum of the dome is encircled with tall panels filled with hexagons of lilac mosaic combined with triangles of raised stucco. The dome itself is turquoise, and the ribs […] are scattered with black and white diamonds. […] The walls below are bare, but for a few glazed bricks and a peculiar three-windowed bay that reminds one of a villa in Clapham. But the quality of these separate elements, if sometimes coarse, is transcended by the goodness of their proportions and the solidity of the whole idea.”

From his photographs, we know that Byron also visited the interior of the mausoleum.

Interior view of the mausoleum, looking up at the dome and its zone of transition. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

The chamber of the mausoleum is cruciform in plan and the vault is richly decorated: floral motives and inscriptions highlighted in gold embellish the surfaces.

But who was buried here? As with the Musalla Complex as a whole, also the burials underwent severe damages.

Gawhar Shad’s son, Baysunghur, was buried here the year after the completion of the mausoleum. Most certainly, also Gawhar Shad was buried here after she was murdered in 1457. But also other tombstones were to be found. Byron records that Nicholas de Khanikoff, a Russian Orientalist and explorer that visited the Musalla sometime before 1860, counted 9 tombstones, among which the one remembering Gawhar Shad. Things could have been already different 25 years later when Yate visited the mausoleum: he noted the tombstone of Gawhar Shad and other five, all belonging to Timurid princes. If Yate accounted for all the tombstones that he saw, then 3 were already missing.

Exterior detail of the dome. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

At the time of Byron’s visit, he recalls, there are only three, of a matt black stone, shaped like oblong boxes and carved with flower designs. One is smaller than the others. Among the missing tombstones, also the one of Gawhar Shad was nowhere to be found. I could not find any details about how many tombstones are still in the mausoleum.

Hard to say what happened to the six tombstones we know for sure that disappeared: were they lost in 1885, when the complex underwent a dramatic destruction? Were they destroyed in the earthquake of 1931? Were they looted and smuggled? Were they simply taken by some Orientalist to add to his or her personal collection?

The only monument that survived the tragedies of the Musalla Complex, did not survive intact. This is for sure.

For further reading

As always, provides images and additional information on the architecture of the building. Additional photos can also be found on 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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