Musalla Complex & Minarets

Architecture in Herat

The wife of Shah Rukh, Gowhar Shad, was one of the most remarkable women in Afghanistan's history. She was a great patron of the arts and commissioned some of Islam's finest buildings, including Herat's Musalla Complex and the Great Mosque in Mashhad (Iran). She also played an active part in politics. Herat's Musalla Complex & Minarets was her masterpiece, comprising a mosque, madrassa, mausoleum and over twenty minarets. At its height, it rivalled any of the great showpieces of Islamic architecture from Samarkand to Esfahan. Today, only five minarets and Gowhar Shad's mausoleum remain. The loss of the rest is a testament to the sorrier type of imperial meddling in Afghan politics.

By the park entrance is the sole standing minaret of her madrassa, tilting at a worrying angle and braced with steel cables. The tiling, a series of blue lozenges filled with flowers, only survives on its one side, where it is protected against Herat's abrasive wind. There are two balconies - just below the lower storey, mortar has taken a horrible bite out of the minaret.

On the southern edge of the park, the stump of another minaret is the only sign of Gowhar Shad's mosque. It was destroyed by Soviet artillery. Tantalising fragments remain of the beautiful mosaic and its white marble facings. Noting that minarets are usually the simplest parts of a building, Robert Byron was so moved by its fine decoration to write '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.'

The loss of the complex rivals the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas for deliberate cultural vandalism. In 1885, when the British feared a Russian invasion of Afghanistan, they persuaded Abdur Rahman Khan to prepare Herat for defence. In a matter of days, British engineers dynamited almost the entire complex, to give a free line of fire for artillery. The invasion never came, but the damage was done. Two further minarets fell to earthquakes in the early 20th century, while the Soviets turned the whole area into a free-fire zone in the 1980s.

Opposite the park, four huge minarets mark the corners of Baiqara's long-gone madrassa. The minarets were covered in a delicate blue mosaic framed in white and set with flowers. Some tiling remains - war and abrasive wind has wiped out the rest. The towers now lean like drunken factory chimneys and exert a particularly mournful air at sunset. A road between the minarets still allows traffic to trundle past, the vibrations damaging the fragile foundations. Several tombstones lie abandoned in the area, including an exquisite yet eroded black marble tombstone, carved in the intricate Haft Qalam style. Long abandoned to the elements, a better cared for example can be seen at Gazar Gah.