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The city of Herat, which is currently the regional capital of western Afghanistan, has long been of strategic, commercial and cultural significance to the wider region. Although the city has developed extensively in modern times, and has suffered the ravages of conflict, the site is unique in that it has largely retained its historical footprint, and many significant Islamic monuments have survived.
The contemporary city of Herat is thought to have been established in around 500 BC as the ancient Persian town of Artacoana or Aria, in the fertile plain beside the Hari Rud river. Captured by Alexander the Great in 330 BC during his war against the Achaemenids, the town was developed and a citadel built. The site retained its strategic importance, and was an important asset for the Seleucids, Parthians and Hephthalites, before becoming the western bastion of the Abbasid caliphate at the end of the 8th century AD. By the time of its capture by the Ghorids in 1175 AD, Herat had become renowned for the production of metalwork, especially decorated or inlaid bronze. After destruction at the hands of both the Mongols and Genghis Khan, Herat saw something of a renaissance in the late 14th century AD, under the rule of the son of Timur, Shah Rukh, who began an extensive programme of building. This was followed by extensive development ordered by Queen Gawharshad during the 15th century AD, which resulted in a remarkable and unique ensemble of monuments in the Timurid style.
One of the oldest extant structures in the historic core of Herat is Qala e Ikhtyaruddin, built on the site of an ancient citadel thought to have been established by Alexander in around 330BC. The layout of battlements and towers that survive is thought to date from the early 14th century AD, when the Karts re-built a fortress that had been destroyed by the Mongols. Situated at the northern edge of the square-plan old city, the citadel was during the 15th and 16th centuries AD the seat of the Timurid rulers, and was part of the architectural works undertaken by Shah Rukh, who commissioned the tilework that can still be seen on several towers. The citadel underwent conservation in the 1970’s.
Perhaps the largest historic architectural ensemble that survives in the region today is the Musalla complex, built in the early 15th century under the direction of Queen Gawharshad. The complex, which has been described as “the most beautiful example in colour in architecture ever devised by man to the glory of his God and himself” today comprises a mosque, the mausoleum of Gawharshad, five minarets and the remains of the madrasa of Hussein Baiqara. Although damaged during fighting in the early 1990s, the mausoleum of Gawharshad retains its ribbed tiled dome, which is set above a high drum covered in tiled decoration, both with Koranic inscriptions and abstract patterns. The interior of the structure, where the tombstones of the Queen, her son Baisunghur and other members of the family survive, has important painted and stucco ornamentation. Only one minaret, which is badly damaged and is being stabilized, remains of the entrance to a madrasa complex that was associated with the musalla, which had a total of four minarets, and represents the zenith of Timurid architectural achievement.
The Masjid-e Jami in Herat dates from an original 10th century AD Ghorid mosque, which has been extended and renovated through the ages. A unique Ghorid portal with tiled calligraphic and geometric decoration survives south of the existing main entrance of the mosque, which follows a typical four-iwan pattern, with a huge central courtyard. Fragments of both Timurid and Ghorid decorative work survive in the main iwan of the complex, but these are now under threat from ill-conceived “improvements”, as it the traditional earth-plastered roof, that has been recently replaced with a cement finish.
Another important part of the surviving architectural heritage in Herat is the mausoleum complex of Khwaja Abdulla Ansari in Gozargah, which dates from the Timurid period. The complex today comprises the enclosure of Ansari’s grave, a 16th century structure that retains some fine Timurid tilework, and is where the unique black marble Haft Qalam sarcophagus, dating from the reign of Sultan Husain Baiqara (1468-1506) is situated. Other surviving parts of the complex are the late 15th century AD Zarnegar pavilion, whose interior has fine painted decoration on plaster, and a 17th century AD Namakdan, a decagonal building with vaulted balconies, overlooking the Timurid garden.
In addition to the construction of significant monuments in and around the city through the ages, the residential quarters of Herat were developed in a manner that responds to the specific climatic and social needs of the inhabitants. A complex network of alleys leads to fine houses built around open courtyards, or small gardens, or to the many mosques, synagogues, schools, public baths, or reservoirs that dot the urban fabric. While such a fabric is characteristic of the large urban centres in the region, it has been lost in most other cases. There is a risk that the pace of inappropriate “development” will result in the destruction of the surviving residential quarters of the old city, unless controls are introduced.
Apart from its architectural heritage, Herat has long been an important centre for the arts and sciences, with a rich tradition of music, calligraphy and painting, astronomy, mathematics and philosophy. Among others whose names are associated with the city are Bezhad, Jami and Ansari.