The Madrasa of Baiqara and the Stone of the Seven Pens: unveiling post-editing in the Road to Oxiana


The lyrical and less stately beauty of these minarets reflects the reign that produced it.

The last monument that Byron visited when at the Musalla Complex in Herat, on the 23rd of November 1933, was the Madrasa of Baiqara, or better, its minarets.

The description he provides of the four minarets is beautiful and evocative: “their blue is brighter than that of the Musalla [mosque’s] minarets, so that from close at hand it seems as if one saw the sky through a net of shining hair and as if it had been planted, suddenly, with flowers”.

The minaret of the Husain Baiqara Madrasa. Photo by Cameron Rashti (archnet).

The four shafts pinpoint the four corners of the Madrasa of Sultan Husain Baiqara, that was commissioned by the Timurid ruler and completed in 1492-1493. As Robert Byron correctly points out, “Baikara is more than a name”: we even have a proxy portrait of him. In the Khamsah of Nizami, a Timurid illustrated manuscript that was produced during his reign, the image of Iskandar (Alexander the Great) is, in fact, a portrait of Husain Baiqara.

Iskandar, in the likeness of Husain Baiqara (dressed in green), visiting the wise man in a cave. Ascribed to Bihzad or Qasim ʻAli. Image of the manuscript at The British Library website.

Byron also describes the Timurid ruler, basing on the account made by Babur. Byron notes down that with his slant eyes, white beard and slender waist, he used to dress in red and green, and usually wore a small cap. Towards the end of his life, he was “so crippled with rheumatism that he could not perform the prayers properly”. He then also notes down Baiqara’s habits: he enjoyed flying pigeons and matching fighting cocks and rams. And then adds “[t]o meet he was cheerful and pleasant, but immoderate in temper and loud-spoken. In love, orthodox and unorthodox, he was insatiable”.

Detail of the decoration of the northwest minaret of the Husain Baiqara Madrasa. Photo by Cameron Rashti (archnet).

This brief description of the patron of the madrasa of the Musalla Complex cheers one up, and make us forget for a second that in fact, of his madrasa, quite nothing remains. Only the four minarets.

But going back to the description of the minarets, one notes that Byron adds another piece of information: “His [Baiqara’s] grandfather’s tombstone, of the same type as those in the mausoleum but known as the Stone of the Seven Pens for its more profuse carving, lies close by and is still revered as a popular shrine”.

Here Byron is still describing the Madrasa part of the Musalla Complex, but at the end of his description, he mentions this “Stone of the Seven Pens”, which is, in fact, in the Abdullah Ansari Shrine Complex, which is about 8 km away from the Musalla Complex, around 5 km “as the crow flies”.

Byron did visit the Abdullah Ansari Shrine, as recorded in the entry dated 24th of November 1933. He calls it simply ‘Gazar Gah Shrine’, from the name of the city where it stands. In that entry, there is no mention of the Stone of the Seven Pens. And this fact makes one wonder.

Can it be that when Byron visited the Musalla Complex the Stone of the Seven Pens was there? Yet, he clearly says it is a popular shrine. 

Tomb of Baiqara ibn Umar Sheikh ibn Timur (known as Sang-i Haft Galam, or, Seven Pens’ Stone). Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

If we consider that Byron wrote his travelogue after at least 2 years from his actual journey, then it is also possible that he was confused. Possibly.

Or he simply thought that mentioning the Stone of the Seven Pens when talking about the madrasa of Baiqara better fit his travelogue, even if at the time he visited the Musalla, he could not know that the Stone existed. And if this is the case, in this very entry we have the tangible proof of the post-editing work done by Byron before publishing his book.

For further reading

Archnet, in the case of the Madrasa of Baiqara, provides very scant information, in the paragraph where also the Mausoleum of Mir Ali Shir Navai is briefly discussed. On the other hand, the same website provides lots of resources, information, and images of the various parts of the Abdullah Ansari Shrine Complex.

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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