‘No equal in all the world’

Current remains of the Musalla complex in Herat

The very large Musalla complex in Herat (click here for the original plan) was built in 1417 – by the same architect who built the lovely Khargird Madrasa. It gradually crumbled away until 1885, when a Russian attack on Herat was feared (it never materialised) – most of the building was then destroyed under the direction of British troops. Colonel Yate, an officer with the Afghan Boundary Commission at the time, was a witness:

“Away on the other side of the valley the walls of Herat stood out, backed by the tall minarets of the Musalla the latter, alas! destined soon to be demolished. The Amir’s orders for the demolition of both the Musalla and the still older Madrasah close by are being rapidly carried into effect, and a few days, or at most weeks, will see the last of this famous relic of bygone grandeur . . . the massive arches, some 80 feet in height, the still higher minarets, and the large dome, all of which bear traces of the beautiful tile-work with which they were covered, attest its former magnificence.”

Gawhar Shah mausoleum, and some remaining minarets

Just a little later, Yate wrote of seeing the results of the purposeful destruction:

“As we marched out of Herat our road led us through the Musalla, the tall minarets of which are now alone standing; the rest is simply a mass of debris, which a perfect army of donkeys is engaged in clearing away.”

Two more minarets were felled in an earthquake in 1931, but when Robert Byron visited in 1933 (click here to see his photograph of seven extant minarets), he wrote of how:

Fragments of the Musalla tiles collected by Yate, now in the BM

No photograph, nor any description, can convey [the minarets’] colour of grape-blue with an azure bloom, or the intricate convolutions that make it so deep and luminous. .  Each of [the shafts] is bordered with white faience in relief, so that the upper part of each minaret seems to be wrapped in a glittering net. There was never such a mosque before or since.”

Since then, an earthquake in 1951 destroyed another minaret. In 1979, the Soviet army shot down another (its stump remains), and hit a second a glancing blow in the midriff. UNESCO have temporarily stabilised the most insecure of the remaining minarets – with the help of an expert from Pisa (of leaning tower fame) – but all the remains are at risk from the traffic (including military traffic) in the town.

1 thought on “‘No equal in all the world’”

  1. Hi Caroline
    Would love to go with you to the exhibition at the BM and catch up generally.
    Azar is off to Tehran next Sunday.
    Best wishes


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