This shrine 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 hundred of pilgrims from across Afghanistan daily; Gazar Gah's name means 'the Bleaching Ground', a Sufi allusion to 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 beneath 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 Mohammed, 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 surrounded 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, or 'Seven Pens' 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.
Look southwest for another shrine, the Zarnegar Khana. Built during Sultan 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 building, the Namakdan pavilion, and a cistern containing water from the holy Zam Zam spring at Mecca.
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 (around Afg5, 15 minutes). A taxi costs around Afg50.