Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

A Sufi Lodge, a Leaning Minaret and a Polymath’s Shrine: A look at recent efforts to preserve – and appreciate – historical Herat

S Reza Kazemi 23 min

Herat, the oasis town in the far northwest of Afghanistan, has been a flourishing Sufi and cultural centre at various points along its long, chequered history. Based on observations, conversations and a literature review, and illustrated by photos, AAN researcher Reza Kazemi takes a look at the city’s rich heritage through three memorials: a tenth-century Sufi lodge, a leaning minaret and the shrine of a polymath – the last two dating back to the fifteenth century when Herat was known as ‘the pearl of Khorasan’, rivalling Renaissance-era Florence. Restoration work (not yet started for the minaret) has drawn increased attention to the importance of preserving invaluable cultural heritage for Herat and beyond.

Tilework on a wall of the Great Mosque, Herat city, December 2020

Of the many great and beautiful historic sites in the city of Herat, this report focuses on three. [1]Several other historic sites have either been or are being restored in Herat province. They include: the khanaqah and mausoleum of Muhammad Ghazi in Zenda Jan district (under restoration); … Continue readingThe first is a recently restored Sufi lodge (khanaqah) dating back to the tenth and eleventh centuries when Herat was home to major Sufi leaders such as the famous saint, Khwaja Abdullah Ansari, and his nowadays little-known master, Sheikh Ammu, who had the khanaqah built. Sheikh Ammu deserves better recognition because of his important role serving Islamic mysticism in the broader historical region of Khorasan, of which Herat has been a part. This report hopes to contribute to that better understanding.

The two other memorials – a leaning minaret that is at risk of collapse and the recently restored shrine of the polymath, Mullah Hossein Vaez Kashefi, who is increasingly being rediscovered by scholars – are from the fifteenth century. This was when Herat became the seat of the Timurid empire and drove a unique and unparalleled renaissance in arts, culture and science.

Photo 1: The entrance to the khanaqah of Sheikh Ammu, December 2020.

The khanaqah of Sheikh Ammu, 10th century

The first monument under our discussion is the khanaqah of the currently little-known Sufi master, Sheikh Ammu. Located in Gazargah, a historic village in the north of Herat city, it is a stone’s throw away from the shrine of the widely renowned Sufi saint, Khwaja Abdullah Ansari (see photo 1). In a tribute to Ansari, the Afghan government recently declared that Herat’s airport should be re-named after him.

Inside the khanaqah is a courtyard with space, including rooms for accommodating servants and sections for doing ablutions for prayer or other worship. [2]There are also four graves in the courtyard. The mullah there told the author that they were the graves of people who had served the khanaqah. The important quarters are upstairs: a modern mosque (see photo 2) and the entry to an almost circle-shaped building, the restored khanaqah, with its twelve hujras (small rooms) (see photos 3 and 4). When the author visited the site for a second time in December 2020, there were Quran classes for boys and girls going on in the mosque, while the khanaqah was empty and locked. Nasir Ahmad Yawar, the Afghan engineer who led the restoration of the site that was completed in October 2020, told AAN the khanaqah had been in bad shape mainly because of its age. Key stakeholders, including the local community and the Herat Directorate of Information and Culture, were involved in its restoration. It is still used by some Sufis, mainly from the neighbourhood.

Photo 2: The modern mosque inside the khanaqah of Sheikh Ammu, December 2020.

Photo 3: The almost circle-shaped restored khanaqah of Sheikh Ammu as seen from the courtyard, December 2020.
Photo 4: The entry to the twelve hujras of the khanaqah of Sheikh Ammu, December 2020.

When requested, the mullah who was teaching the children asked one of them to guide the author to the grave of Sheikh Ammu, whom he and some other locals described as ustad-e khwaja saheb – meaning Sheikh Ammu is recognised as the master (ustad) of Khwaja Abdullah Ansari, locally known as khwaja saheb. On the way, the boy said he and his peers were also being taught in Persian literature; he mentioned the work or name of two classic poets, Nezami and Hafez.

The grave of Sheikh Ammu is located in an open cemetery nearby (see photo 5; also see photo 6 for the northern iwan – the vaulted portal opening into the courtyard – of the shrine of Khwaja Abdullah Ansari). [3]Sayed Hossain Mujtabavi of Islamic Azad University Nishapur Unit says that the graves in Gazargah are of a hazira type, meaning they are intended to be in the open air without any covering … Continue reading The pieces of cloth in the tree are an indication of its shrine status; they are tied by people praying for things to happen or not happen.

Photo 5: The grave of Sheikh Ammu, December 2020. A marble tablet beside it reads: “Master of Khwaja Abdullah Ansari.” The Khwaja Abdullah Ansari shrine with its two minarets can be seen in the distance through the middle of the tree.
Photo 6: The northern iwan of the Khwaja Abdullah Ansari shrine, February 2019. Photo: Thomas Ruttig.

In a short statement released on 15 October 2020 to announce the completion of the restoration work funded by the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA), the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture said the khanaqah had had a millennium-long history and served as a place where major Sufis such as Sheikh Ammu and Khwaja Abdullah Ansari performed the Sufi ritual of chella-neshini – forty days of seclusion, asceticism and worship (chella comes from the Persian word for forty, chehel, and neshini, from neshestan, to sit).

It is currently far less known that Sheikh Ammu played a central role in mentoring and supporting Sufi disciples such as Khwaja Abdullah Ansari in the tenth and eleventh centuries. According to a 2012 book edited by Bilal Orfali and Nada Saab, Sheikh Ammu was the nickname given to Abu Ismail Ahmad by his Sufi master, Nehawandi, who called him ammu (‘uncle’) because he had given him power to supervise his other followers. [4]Bilal Orfali and Nada Saab (eds), Sufism, Black and White: A Critical Edition of Kiitāb al-Bayāḍ wa-l-Sawād by Abū l-Ḥasan al-Sīrjānī (d. ca.470/1077), Leiden, Brill, … Continue reading The co-editors also describe Sheikh Ammu as a “well-traveled master” who was:

… a destination to many aspiring Sufis to whom he transmitted the stories of earlier Sufis. Shaykh ‘Ammū was also known to have lived in the service of the Sufis and that earned him the title khādim Khurāsān [servant of Khorasan].

That service to Sufism is clearly seen in the relations between Sheikh Ammu and Khwaja Abdullah Ansari that went far beyond the above-mentioned master-disciple tie. In an Encyclopaedia Iranica entry, Serge Laugier de Beaureceuil, the late scholar on the life and works of Abdullah Ansari, made three references to Sheikh Ammu that unveiled his role in the development of Sufism in general and of Abdullah Ansari in particular. [5]The Herat-based Baysunghur Research Institute has recently republished the speech Serge Laugier de Beaureceuil made on Khwaja Abdullah Ansari in the halls of the Habibia High School in Kabul city and … Continue reading According to the French scholar, Sheikh Ammu’s service to Sufism included: (1) the funding and construction of “a mosque with an adjoining ḵānaqāh at Gāzorgāh, a few kilometers north of Herat” – the monument under discussion here – and (2) being was one of the two people who took care of Abdullah Ansari in a “crisis” following the death of his father, Abu Mansur, in 1039. Abu Mansur , himself a Sufi who greatly influenced his son Abdullah Ansari, was a shopkeeper who abruptly left his business and family and went back to the city of his youth, Balkh, where he died. The third reference is to how the death of Sheikh Ammu impacted Abdullah Ansari:

…with Shaikh ʿAmmū’s death in 441/1049 he [Abdullah Ansari] lost a discreet and generous protector. Anṣārī came to know extreme poverty, although he made an effort to keep up appearances.

Abdullah Ansari later recovered from the loss of his sponsor as, due to his own fame, he was able to secure a decent livelihood again.

All in all, the restoration of the khanaqah is a tribute to Sheikh Ammu, a great Sufi master who helped Herat become a centre of Sufi blossoming around one thousand years ago. This flourishing is best exemplified by his disciple, Khwaja Abdullah Ansari, who became, in the words of de Beaureceuil, “one of the outstanding figures in Khorasan in the 5th/11th century: commentator of the Koran, traditionist, polemicist, and spiritual master, known for his oratory and poetic talents in Arabic and Persian.” In addition to influential works such as Sad Maydan (Hundred Arenas), Manazel al-Sa’erin (Stations of the Wayfarers) and Tabaqat al-Sufiya (Generations of Sufis), a collection of monajats (intimate prayers) has remained from Khwaja Abdullah Ansari. Written in saj’, rhymed prose, which is more beautiful than poetry, Khwaja Abdullah Ansari’s monajats are very popular. Below is an example: [6]For the Dari version of the cited monajat, see here and, for its English translation, here.

الهی دیگران مست شرابند و من مست ساقی

مستی ایشان فانی است و از من باقی

[الهی] مست تو ام از جرعه و جام آزاد ام

مرغ تو ام از دانه و دام آزاد ام

مقصود من از کعبه و بتخانه تویی تو

ورنه من ازین هر دو مقام آزاد ام

O [God],

Others are intoxicated by wine:

I am intoxicated by the cupbearer.

Their intoxication is ephemeral,

But mine abides forever.

O [God],

I am intoxicated by you.

I am free from the draught and goblet.

I am your bird. I am free of the grain and the snare.

You are what I seek in the Kaaba and the idol-temple

Otherwise, I am free of both these states.

Photo 7: Viewed from the south, the grave of Sheikh Ammu lies on the northern margins of Herat city.

The leaning minaret, 15th century

Here we turn to what is locally called ‘menar-e kaj’ (‘leaning minaret’). The name may strike one as unusual, given that all five of the remaining minarets of the medieval Musalla complex of Herat – a former Islamic complex that began to be constructed by the offspring of the Turko-Mongol empire-builder Amir Timur (Tamerlane) around six centuries ago in 1417 CE – lean. However, this one leans most alarmingly, hence its nickname. Officially, it is simply called the ‘fifth minaret’. On the way to the author’s most recent visit to the Musalla complex in December 2020, rickshaw driver, a 55-year-old long-time local resident, said:

I’ve lived most of my life here in Herat [city]. I was a mason before I bought and started driving this rickshaw several years ago. I once even worked at the Musalla [in the early 1990s], repairing some parts of it. I’ve seen how the war and the heavy traffic of vehicles have damaged it over many years. No one has given it any serious attention.

It is only about five years that the road through the Musalla complex has been completely and permanently closed to vehicle traffic, thanks to the construction of enclosing walls. In addition, the road leading to the perimeter wall from the southern direction has also been shut to such traffic, except for those who live or work there (see photo 8).

Photo 8: View of the Musalla complex from the southern direction. The leaning minaret is the first on the left.

Despite this, the area around the enclosed complex and Herat city as a whole has developed so much that the ancient Musalla with the intricate, delicate and gorgeous tilework of its minarets (see photos 9 and 10) has lost its befitting and well-deserved dominance of Herat’s skyline after six long centuries. [7]This is the source of photo 10: Nasir Ahmad Yawar, “Madrassa-ye Gawharshad wa Kaj Menare-ye Aan (Gawharshad School and its Leaning Minaret),” Nameh Baysunghur: Annual Journal for … Continue reading It is no longer dominantly visible from the hills to its north and not at all visible from the streets in nearby areas where multi-storied houses and buildings continue to be constructed. This undervaluing of what helps make Herat so distinctive is typical of post-2001 Afghanistan where, like other major urban centres, Herat has seen rapid urbanisation. In turn, that creates enormous challenges for cultural heritage preservation, transforming and, in cases, gradually destroying such heritage sites. [8]For difficulties in preserving historic sites and the gradual transformation and destruction of such sites, see: Jolyon Leslie, “The Challenges of Safeguarding Afghanistan’s Urban Heritage,” in … Continue reading

Photo 9: Remaining tilework on the leaning minaret.
Photo 10: Graphic reconstruction of four tilework patterns on the leaning minaret (for source see footnote 7).

From 1409 when Shahrokh Mirza, Timur’s son, was in power in the historic region of Khorasan, [9]Literally meaning “the land of the rising sun,” Khorasan is a historical region, whose territory, according to Rocco Rante, has had: … two chronologically separated parts: “Khorasan … Continue reading to the 36-year-long rule of Sultan Hossein Bayeqra (1470-1506), Herat was the seat of the empire for about a century. This was when the Musalla complex served as a major centre that drove a literary and cultural renaissance after the destruction caused by the Mongol invasion led by Genghis Khan in the early 13th century. [23]Importantly, the preceding Kart dynasty is generally credited with reconstructing the city after the devastating Mongol invasion. After some initial destruction, however, major urban development … Continue reading Timurid Herat’s role in this renaissance has been compared with that of Florence in then Europe. [10]See, for instance: C P W Gammell, The Pearl of Khorasan: A History of Herat, London, Hurst, 2016. In his review of the book, Radek Sikorski, the author of Dust of the Saints: A Journey … Continue reading It was Shahrokh’s wife (and hence Timur’s daughter-in-law), Gawharshad Begum, who designed the Musalla complex, which was then further developed by Sultan Hossein Bayeqra. The Musalla complex served as a great university bringing together students pursuing various sciences from religion to astronomy, architects, tileworkers, calligraphers, painters and poets. Herat became known as ‘the pearl of Khorasan’ after it was described as such by Iranian traveller Zain ul-Abedin Shirvani, who visited the city in the early 1820s: [24]The quote is from: Christine Noelle-Karimi, The Pearl in its Midst: Herat and the Mapping of Khurasan (15th-19th Centuries), Vienna, Austrian Academy of Sciences Press, 2014, p 1.

اگر کسی پرسد تو را کز شهرها خوشتر کدام

گر جواب راست خواهی گفت او را گو «هری»

همچو بحر است این جهان، در وی خراسان چون صدف

در میان آن صدف شهر هری چون گوهری

To he who seeks to find the most pleasant town,

The only truthful answer is Herat;

Consider this world an ocean, Khurāsān a shell within,

And the city of Herat the pearl in its midst.

Even the remains of the Musalla complex are significant. [11]For an initial assessment of what has remained of the Musalla complex by and since 2001, see: M Santana Quintero and T Stevens, “Metric Survey Tools in Recording: Mussalah Complex Herat and Minaret … Continue reading Here we focus on the leaning minaret near the Gawharshad Mausoleum (see photo 11). One reason for this is that of all five still-standing minarets, the leaning minaret faces the greatest risk of collapsing. Providing a concise review of the surveys of this minaret from 2002 to 2015, Claudio Margottini, an Italian geophysicist who has examined the site, explains, including with some rare photos, how the inclination of the minaret has increased over the last century for a variety of reasons and describes the consensus opinion of the experts who have inspected it for stabilisation purposes: [12]Claudio Margottini, “Scientific Surveys of the Fifth Minaret in Herat,” in Han, FN 1, pp 60-61. For emergency structural stabilisation of this minaret in 2003 and the closing of a missile-caused … Continue reading

The Minaret today [2015] is on the verge of collapse… The monument is out-of-plumb by 2.70 m, and a large horizontal crack is present at a height of 3 m from the base. Structural analysis has shown that the Minaret is cracked in cross section for about one third of the diameter, and the edge of the masonry is subject to very high compression of 1.2 MPa. The data shows that even a very modest earthquake or strong wind could cause the collapse of the Minaret, as has already happened to the other four minarets of the Musalla Complex, which were still standing in 1915… The existing steel cables [seen in photos 11 and 13] provided a reliable solution for the short-term survival of the Minaret. However, in order to secure it for the longer term, consolidation of the masonry will be necessary.

Photo 11: View of the leaning minaret and Gawharshad Mausoleum from the street outside.

Whether and when the leaning minaret will fall down has thus been a longstanding preoccupation in post-2001 Afghanistan, not only for cultural heritage professionals but also, at least intermittently, for the media and the public in general. In 2019, media reporting about the risk of its demise picked up again (see, for instance, here). Advocacy, including efforts by former Herat governor, Abdul Qayum Rahimi, started drawing the attention of the central government from 2019. In a visit to Herat in December 2019, national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, made a financial pledge aimed at restoring the Musalla complex (see this media report). On the leaning minaret in particular, in early November 2020, President Ashraf Ghani called current Herat governor, Sayed Wahid Qatali, instructing him to “immediately assign a technical group to assess the situation of the fifth minaret of Herat’s Musalla and make arrangements aimed at its reconstruction.” On 25 November, the Herat government announced that the Aga Khan Trust for Culture had begun work on the minaret (read this media report).

In a conversation with AAN in January 2021, Homayun Ahmadi, a cultural heritage professional at the Herat Directorate of Information and Culture, said the government and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture were still studying how best to stabilise the leaning minaret and that they expected to begin practical restoration work around March 2021. It is therefore hoped that this renewed attention will help save the minaret, for Herat, Afghanistan and the larger world.

The shrine of Kamaluddin Hossein Vaez Kashefi, 15th century

Lastly, we turn to the shrine of Kamaluddin Hossein Vaez Kashefi (born in Sabzavar, 840/1436-1437, died in Herat, 910/1504-1505), which lies further up the street north of the Musalla complex (see photos 12 and 13). He is also known as Mawlana Vaez Kashefi or Mullah Hossein with kashefi (‘unveiler’) being his nom de plume (takhallus), especially in his poetry, and vaez(‘preacher’) his profession. [13]There is a long-standing controversy about whether Vaez Kashefi was a Shia or Sunni Muslim. Robert D McChesney seems to have aptly described Kashefi’s multifaceted personality: In the view of … Continue reading

When this author visited the shrine in December 2020, Ustad Daud, a tileworker who has a workshop there and was engaged in tileworking for the shrine, said the site had been completely dilapidated before its reconstruction (see some photos of the shrine pre-reconstruction on the social media post of the former Herat governor referred to above). The Herat government held an event to mark the completion of the reconstruction work of the shrine on 29 November 2020, saying the project funded by the US embassy and implemented by the Afghan Cultural Heritage Consulting Organisation, an Afghan NGO, involved “strengthening the tomb, greening and paving the courtyard, brickworking the roof, lighting, irrigation and reconstructing the perimeter wall” (see photos of the reconstructed shrine on the social media post of the implementing agency).

Photo 12: The entrance to the shrine of Vaez Kashefi, December 2020.
Photo 13: The tilework to be put up on the entrance reads “The Garden and Shrine of Mawlana Kamaluddin Hossein Vaez Kashefi, deceased 910 [1504-1505 CE],” December 2020.

If the leaning minaret stood for the height of Herat’s political and social prosperity in the Timurid era, Kashefi symbolised the intellectual spirit of the age. Originally from Sabzavar in present-day Razavi Khorasan province of Iran, a region neighbouring Afghanistan’s contemporary Herat province (see photo 14), the 20-year-old Kashefi ‘saw’ Saduddin Kashghari, a major Naqshbandi Sufi master who had just died in a dream, inviting him to Herat (more details in this entry by Maria E Subtelny for Encyclopaedia Iranica). In Herat, he was influenced by Abdul Rahman Jami, a disciple of Kashghari’s and another literary and spiritual giant of the age, who initiated him into Sufism and introduced him to Timurid rulers up to the sultan, Hossein Bayeqra, and his famed vizier, Alisher Navai, himself an important writer and poet. In an Encyclopeadia Iranica sub-entry on Jami (find the main entry here), Paul Losensky describes the place and importance of Jami in then Herat: “[H]e [Jami], Sultan Ḥosayn, and ʿAlišir constituted a religious, military, and administrative ‘triumvirate’ governing Khorasan”, although “Jāmi lived simply and unostentatiously.” [14]For the influence of Jami on literature and culture in Herat over time, see: Khalilullah Afzali, “Sada-ye Jami dar Herat (The Voice of Jami in Herat),” Nameh Baysunghur: Annual Journal for … Continue reading

Photo 14: The memorial of Kamaluddin Hossein Vaez Kashefi in his hometown, Sabzavar, in present-day Iran. Source: Wikipedia, used under CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

Suffice it to say that patronised by Sultan Hossein and Alisher Navai, to whom he dedicated some of his works, Kashefi, who had already served as a chief judge in Sabzavar for the previous Timurid sultan, became a busy bureaucrat and prolific polymath in Herat. He served as the sheikh (leader) of a key khanaqah in the central market of Herat and regularly gave sermons in various prominent religious and social sites, attracting, as Subtelny writes, “large, enthusiastic crowds on account of his beautiful voice, rhetorical skills, and ability to explain Qorʾānic verses and prophetic Traditions to his audience in a clear and accessible manner.” Subtelny goes on to write:

Kāšefi was a polymath and was recognized as such (ḏu fonun) by his contemporaries… He composed roughly forty works, almost all in Persian, on subjects covering the entire spectrum of learning in medieval Iran in the second half of the 15th century. Often viewed as a mere compiler or popularizer, Kāšefi was in fact instrumental in codifying and transmitting the state of the art of knowledge in a wide variety of fields ranging from the Islamic religious sciences to magic and the occult.  He was a Renaissance-type figure in a culture that had no direct experience of the Renaissance…

Below is a brief look at some of Kashefi’s well-known works, as referred to in a new marble stone placed near his grave (see photo 15):

Tafsir-e Hosseini (also known as Mavaheb-e Aliyya or Tafsir-e Mullah). This is Vaez Kashefi’s Persian commentary on the Quran that became so renowned that, according to Kristin Zahra Sands, hundreds of its manuscripts spread “throughout Iran, Central Asia, Pakistan and India” for “its unique accessibility and literary quality.” [15]Kristin Zahra Sands, “On the popularity of Husayn Vaciz-i Kashifi’s Mavāhib-i caliyya: a Persian commentary on the Qur’an,” Iranian Studies 36:4, 2003, pp 469-483. … Continue reading That was because, again in the words of Sands, Kashefi “combined an explanatory translation of Qur’anic verses in simple, concise Persian with highly selective citations from other works of tafsır and Sufi poetry and prose, to create a remarkably short work for a commentary addressing the entire Qur’an.”

Anvar-e Sohaili. This is Kashefi’s Persian rendering of the animal fables known as Kalila wa Demna, itself based on the famous Sanskrit text, Panchatantra. According to Christine van Ruymbeke, “[b]y using fables that had animals as the main characters, the [Sanskrit] text aimed at informing youths, who were destined for government posts, about the laws governing political life.” [25]Christine van Ruymbeke, “Kashifi’s forgotten masterpiece: why rediscover the Anvār-i Suhaylı?,” Iranian Studies 36:4, 2003, pp 571-588. See also: Christine van … Continue reading Van Ruymbeke has even called Anvar-e Sohaili as Kashefi’s “forgotten masterpiece.”

Akhlaq-e Mohseni. This is Kashefi’s famous treatise on ethics and governance. Organised in forty chapters on the virtues that make a ruler fit to “[aspire] to the coveted title of ‘the Just,’” this work, according to Subtelny, “represents a late medieval summa, or codification, of the Persian genre of ethical and advice literature. Designated variously as andarzpandnaṡıḥatsiyarand akhlāq, the genre of political advice literature is an ancient one in Persian culture, going back to Late Antiquity and exhibiting concordance with Greek and Indian sources.” [16]Maria E Subtelny, “A late medieval Persian Summa on Ethics: Kashifi’s Akhlāq-i Muḥsinı,” Iranian Studies 36:4, 2003, pp 601-614.

Rawzat ul-Shuhada. This is Kashefi’s work mainly focused on Shia Imam Hossein ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, and the events in Karbala, present-day Iraq, in 680 CE that led to the martyrdom of the imam (spiritual leader) and his followers. According to Subtelny, this book “‘achieved near-canonical status under the Safavids, serving as the basis for the taciziya commemorations.” [17]Maria E Subtelny, “Husayn Vaciz-i Kashifi: polymath, popularizer, and preserver,” Iranian Studies 36:4, 2003, pp 463-467. These are special religious ceremonies inspired by the events in Karbala to mark the death of the imam and his followers.

Makhzan ul-Ensha. This is Kashefi’s treatise on how to ‘properly’ write to and address people of different social ranks in Timurd Herat. Colin Paul Mitchel writes that the work “reflects the worldview of an urban Persian scholar-bureaucrat and … the tensions of a multilingual and multiethnic society which was governed according to a combination of Turko-Mongol tribal principles, Islamic law and tradition, as well as ancient Iranian social and political conventions.” [18]Colin Paul Mitchell, “To preserve and protect: Husayn Vaciz-i Kashifi and Perso-Islamic chancellery culture,” Iranian Studies 36:4, 2003, pp 485-508.

Photo 15: A new marble stone placed near the tomb of Vaez Kashefi mentions the above-listed five works, December 2020.

Vaez Kashefi also wrote on various other topics, such as poetry [19]Marta Simidchieva, “Imitation and innovation in Timurid poetics: Kashifi’s Badāyi al-afkār and its predecessors, al-Muʿjam and Ḥadāʾiq al-siḥr,” Iranian Studies 36:4, … Continue reading, magic (called ulum-e khafiya, or occult sciences) [20]Pierre Lory, “Kashifı’s Asrār-i Qāsimı and Timurid magic,” Iranian Studies 36:4, pp 531-541. and astrology/astronomy [21]Sergei Tourkin and Ziva Vesel, “The contribution of Husayn Vaciz-i Kashifi to the transmission of astrological texts,” Iranian Studies 36:4, 2003, pp 589-599. (for a comprehensive list of his oeuvre in Dari/Farsi, see here and in English, see Subtelny’s encyclopaedic entry referred to above). It might be fit to conclude this discussion on the Timurid zeitgeist by reproducing the poem written on a somewhat weathered marble stone near his tomb (see photo 16) (author’s English translation):

هو الغفور الرحیم

ناصح و فیاض مولانا حسین کاشفی

آنکه گنج معرفت در مخزن دلها نهاد

دیدمش در واقعه بر منبر عرش از شرف

گفتمش تاریخ فوتت چیست ای صاحب رشاد

گفت چو شد بعد ازین بر منبر عرشم مقام

از پی تاریخ می‌گو «منبر ما عرش باد»

Indeed, [God] is the all-forgiving, the all-compassionate

The admonisher and the gracious Mawlana Hossein Kashefi

He who placed the treasure of knowledge in the repository of hearts

I saw him in the afterlife appearing with dignity in the pulpit of the highest heaven

I said to him, “What is the date of your demise, you the achiever of redemption?”

He said, “After the pulpit of the highest heaven became my position,”

Tell history [in answer] that “my pulpit be the highest heaven.” [22]According to the Abjad letters as numbers ‘alphabet’, the phrase («منبر ما عرش باد») (author’s translation: “my pulpit be the highest heaven”) numerically … Continue reading

Photo 16: The tomb of Vaez Kashefi in Herat, December 2020.

Conclusion

This report took a brief look at three memorials of Herat – a recently restored tenth-century Sufi lodge (khanaqah), a leaning minaret at risk of collapse and a recently restored shrine of the prolific polymath, Vaez Kashefi – the last two date back to the fifteenth century. The recent restoration – and, in the case of the at-risk minaret, increased attention – gave an opportunity to glance at Herat’s chequered history. The memorials hark back to two points of religious and cultural flowering. In the tenth century, Herat was home to great Islamic mystics such as the nowadays lesser-known Sheikh Ammu who went beyond of mentoring in his role to develop the currently far more famous saint, Khwaja Abdullah Ansari. Five centuries later, spectacularly, Herat became the ‘pearl’ of the historical region of Khorasan in all then existing domains of human endeavour and learning from religion to arts, science and statecraft. This is exemplified by the Musalla complex, of which the delicately and gorgeously adorned minaret was a part, and the recently increasingly rediscovered polymath, Vaez Kashefi.

While the khanaqah and the shrine of the polymath have ultimately deservingly been restored after years of abject neglect, the precarious minaret faces a growing risk of collapse that calls for major urgent preservation measures. In general, the state in which the minaret finds itself today raises the question of cultural heritage preservation in a context of continued security and economic deterioration in present-day Herat and Afghanistan that have seen rapid and unregulated urbanisation in the post-2001 period. In addition, there is a widespread lack of historical literacy and most Afghans who are currently powerful and wealthy have too many preoccupations, but rarely cultural heritage. It might be impossible to settle this question, but if the minaret falls down in any way and the less dramatic and gradual transformation of Herat’s cultural heritage continues, there will be immeasurable losses.

These three memorials help redraw our attention to the need to safeguard Afghanistan’s cultural heritage even at a time when security is worsening and many are suffering economic desperation. Afghans’ heritage is rich, kaleidoscopic and shared. Recognising that might contribute to a sense of unity in our deeply divided society even as it continues to reel from the long and merciless war.


Edited by Christian Bleuer, Thomas Ruttig and Kate Clark

Unless otherwise specified, the photos are by the author.

The author would like to thank Khalilullah Afzali, director of Baysunghur Research Institute and researcher of Persian literature in Herat city, for responding to questions and for reading and commenting on an earlier draft of this report. Needless to say, any errors and/or inadequacies are the author’s sole responsibility.

References

1 Several other historic sites have either been or are being restored in Herat province. They include: the khanaqah and mausoleum of Muhammad Ghazi in Zenda Jan district (under restoration); the mosque and mausoleum of Abul Walid in Enjil district (restored); the khanaqah of Khwaja Wahiduddin in Barnabad village of Ghoryan district (emergency restoration  in 1397/2019); the exterior courtyard, perimeter wall and roof of the Great Mosque in the city (under restoration); the mosque of Alisher Navai in the Gazargah complex (restored); the tomb of Fakhruddin Razi in the city (under restoration); and the Gudam (Warehouse) complex in the city (under restoration). Previously, the Ikhtiyaruddin Citadel, which hosts the Herat Museum, and some other sites, mainly in the old city and the Gazargah complex, had been restored. See, for example: Abdul Wasay Najimi, “The Restored Mausoleum of Abu’l-Walid in Herat: Challenges in Heritage Preservation in Afghanistan,” Afghanistan 1:2, 2018, pp 302-336; Basir Ahmad Sediqi, “Maremmat-e Ezterari-ye Khanaqah-ye Khwaja Wahiduddin (Emergency Restoration of the Khanaqah of Khwaja Wahiduddin),”Nameh Baysunghur: Annual Journal for Studies in Literature, History and Culture of Herat, issue 1, Herat, Baysunghur Research Institute, 2019, pp 323-329; Aga Khan Trust for Culture, “Urban Conservation in the City of Herat,” in Junhi Han (ed), Safeguarding the Cultural Heritage of Afghanistan: Jam and Herat, Paris, UNESCO, 2015, pp 69-70; Ute Franke (ed), “National Museum Herat – Areia Antiqua through Time,” Berlin, Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, 2008; Museum für Islamische Kunst, “Areia Antiqua – Ancient Herat / 3 projects [2004-2012].”
2 There are also four graves in the courtyard. The mullah there told the author that they were the graves of people who had served the khanaqah.
3 Sayed Hossain Mujtabavi of Islamic Azad University Nishapur Unit says that the graves in Gazargah are of a hazira type, meaning they are intended to be in the open air without any covering structures due to a religious belief, which he does not explain. See: Sayed Hossain Mujtabavi, Herat dar ’Ahd-e Timuriyan (Herat in the Age of the Timurids), Marandiz Publishing and Islamic Azad University Nishapur Unit, Mashhad and Tehran, 1389 (2010/2011), pp 200-201. For the definitive monograph in English on the hazira of Khwaja Abdullah Ansari, see: Lisa Golombek, The Timurid Shrine at Gazur Gah, Toronto, Royal Ontario Museum of Art and Archaeology Occasional Paper 15, 1969.
4 Bilal Orfali and Nada Saab (eds), Sufism, Black and White: A Critical Edition of Kiitāb al-Bayāḍ wa-l-Sawād by Abū l-Ḥasan al-Sīrjānī (d. ca.470/1077), Leiden, Brill, 2012, p 3.
5 The Herat-based Baysunghur Research Institute has recently republished the speech Serge Laugier de Beaureceuil made on Khwaja Abdullah Ansari in the halls of the Habibia High School in Kabul city and of the Directorate of Education in Herat city in 1334 (1955/1956). For the speech and details on its extensive reception then in Afghanistan, see: Khalilullah Afzali (ed), Goftari dar Sargozasht, Asar wa Afkar-e Khwaja Abdullah Ansari: Serge Laugier de Beaureceuil (A Speech on the Life, Works and Thoughts of Khwaja Abdullah Ansari: Serge Laugier de Beaureceuil), Herat, Baysunghur Research Institute, 1398 (2019/2020).
6 For the Dari version of the cited monajat, see here and, for its English translation, here.
7 This is the source of photo 10: Nasir Ahmad Yawar, “Madrassa-ye Gawharshad wa Kaj Menare-ye Aan (Gawharshad School and its Leaning Minaret),” Nameh Baysunghur: Annual Journal for Studies in Literature, History and Culture of Herat, issue 1, Herat, Baysunghur Research Institute, 2019, p 298.
8 For difficulties in preserving historic sites and the gradual transformation and destruction of such sites, see: Jolyon Leslie, “The Challenges of Safeguarding Afghanistan’s Urban Heritage,” in Brendan Cassar and Sara Noshadi (eds), Keeping History Alive: Safeguarding Cultural Heritage in Post-Conflict Afghanistan, Paris and Kabul, UNESCO, 2015, pp 170-175; Tarcis Stevens, “Safeguarding the Gawhar Shad Mausoleum – The Conservation of a Timurid Monument in Herat,” in Brendan Cassar and Sara Noshadi (eds), Keeping History Alive: Safeguarding Cultural Heritage in Post-Conflict Afghanistan, Paris and Kabul, UNESCO, 2015, pp 184-193; Gwendolyn Kristy, “The Impact of Urban Sprawl on Cultural Heritage in Herat, Afghanistan: A GIS Study,” Digital Applications in Archaeology and Cultural Heritage 10, 2018, pp 1-8; Sayed Abdul Basir Samimi, Tetsuya Ando and Khojesta Kawish, “A Study on the Transformation of Herat Old City: In Case of Momandha Quarter,” Journal of Architecture and Planning, Architecture Institute of Japan 82:735, 2017, pp 1367-1375; Najimi, FN 1; Aga Khan Trust for Culture, FN 1.

For rapid urbanisation in Herat and Afghanistan as a whole since 2001, see: Jolyon Leslie, “Political and Economic Dynamics of Herat,” Washington, DC, United States Institute of Peace, 2015, pp 7-12; Detlef Kammeier and Zabihullah Issa, “Urban Governance in Afghanistan: Assessing the New Urban Development Programme and Its Implementation,” Kabul, Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, 2017, pp 4-6; Fabrizio Foschini, “Kabul Unpacked: A Geographical Guide to a Metropolis in the Making,” Kabul, Afghanistan Analysts Network, 2019; Mathew French, Parul Agarwala, Humayoun Faiz, Ahmad Shoaib Azizi, Masood Hamza, Srinivas Popuri and Jan Turkstra, “Developing a National Urban Policy in Afghanistan: Experiences and Lessons Learned,” in Debolina Kundu, Remy Sietchiping and Michael Kinyanjui (eds), Developing National Urban Policies: Ways Forward to Green and Smart Cities, Singapore, Springer, 2020, pp 147-167.

9 Literally meaning “the land of the rising sun,” Khorasan is a historical region, whose territory, according to Rocco Rante, has had:

… two chronologically separated parts: “Khorasan Proper” and “Greater Khorasan”. The former corresponds to the original nucleus of Khorasan, the latter to its political and cultural standing… “Khorasan Proper” would date to the 6th century AD and be included in an area corresponding to the Merv oasis, Herat, Zuzan, following the eastern border of the Iranian Deserts to the south-eastern corner of the Caspian Sea, a part of Qumis (probably east of Damghan), but including the province of Gurgan following the shape of the Great Wall… Beginning from the 9th century, this ancient nucleus expanded politically and culturally under the Tahirid government… It rapidly spread eastwards to include the regions of Balkh and Badakhshan, north-eastwards until the areas of the Oxus, southwards to the Quhistan, until the boundaries of Seistan and the Iranian deserts, west and north-westwards to include a part of Qumis, and the province of Gurgan.

See: Rocco Rante “‘Khorasan Proper’ and ‘Greater Khorasan’ within a Politico-Cultural Framework,” in Rocco Rante (ed), Greater Khorasan: History, Geography, Archaeology and Material Culture, Berlin/Munich/Boston, De Gruyter, 2015, pp 21-22 (for photos, see pp 181-184).

10 See, for instance: C P W Gammell, The Pearl of Khorasan: A History of Herat, London, Hurst, 2016. In his review of the book, Radek Sikorski, the author of Dust of the Saints: A Journey to Herat in Time of War, a Polish journalist who travelled to Afghanistan during the war with the Soviets, later became minister of defence and of foreign affairs of his country and is currently a senior fellow at Harvard, writes:

… Instead of massacring people, they [Amir Timur’s/Tamerlane’s offspring] decided to abandon their nomadism for a civilized life: For over a century from 1381 till 1510, Herat became Rome and Florence rolled into one, an administrative, artistic and religious capital of an empire that initially stretched from Egypt to the borders of China. In a world in which America had not yet been discovered and the Timurid empire captured much of the profit of Europe’s trade with China and India, vast resources, and prodigious talent, poured into Herat. Whether in tile-making or miniature painting, architecture, poetry, even astronomy, the city became a mecca for the brightest and best. The names of Shah Rukh, his remarkable wife Gawhar Shad and their grandson Husayn Bayeqra – who really should be called The Magnificent – deserve to be remembered as patrons of art as much as the Medicis or the original Gaius Maecenas.

See: Radek Sikorski, “The Pearl of Khorasan: A History of Herat by C P W Gammell,” Asian Affairs 49:1, 2018, pp 118-124.

Also, for parallels between then Herat’s Behzad and Florence’s Raphael, see: Iván Szántó, “Bihzād in Italy, Raphael in Afghanistan: 20th-Century Encounters via Berlin,” in Iván Szántó and Yuka Kadoi (eds), The Reshaping of Persian Art: Art Histories of Islamic Iran and Beyond, Piliscsaba, Avicenna Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, 2019, pp 215-232.

11 For an initial assessment of what has remained of the Musalla complex by and since 2001, see: M Santana Quintero and T Stevens, “Metric Survey Tools in Recording: Mussalah Complex Herat and Minaret Jam, Afghanistan,” UNESCO, 2002, pp 5-7.
12 Claudio Margottini, “Scientific Surveys of the Fifth Minaret in Herat,” in Han, FN 1, pp 60-61. For emergency structural stabilisation of this minaret in 2003 and the closing of a missile-caused hole in the minaret’s wall in 2010, see: World Heritage Centre, Culture Sector, “UNESCO/Italy Funds-In-Trust Project,” in Han, FN 1, pp 54-59.
13 There is a long-standing controversy about whether Vaez Kashefi was a Shia or Sunni Muslim. Robert D McChesney seems to have aptly described Kashefi’s multifaceted personality:

In the view of his admirers, Kashifi took on many forms—at once Sunni, Shici, and Sufi; a Qur’anic exegete and esotericist; a bureaucrat and ethicist—in sum, a polymath for whom the Persian language served as the vehicle for the articulation and dissemination of the learned culture, ideals, and values of his time. He and his works also exemplify […] that Persianate culture has always been, and will undoubtedly remain, ecumenical, multi-ethnic and multinational.

See: R D McChesney, “Editor’s preface,” Iranian Studies 36:4, 2003, pp 461-462.

14 For the influence of Jami on literature and culture in Herat over time, see: Khalilullah Afzali, “Sada-ye Jami dar Herat (The Voice of Jami in Herat),” Nameh Baysunghur: Annual Journal for Studies in Literature, History and Culture of Herat, issue 1, Herat, Baysunghur Research Institute, 2019, pp 49-90.
15 Kristin Zahra Sands, “On the popularity of Husayn Vaciz-i Kashifi’s Mavāhib-i caliyya: a Persian commentary on the Qur’an,” Iranian Studies 36:4, 2003, pp 469-483. McChesney relates the following incident to bring out the fame and importance in Afghanistan of Kashefi’s tafsir:

In mid-1842, the exiled ruler of Afghanistan, Dust Muhammad Khan, was summering in the Indian hill station of Mussoorie. Word reached him there that the British wanted to restore him to the throne, and that he should go to Calcutta and meet with Lord Ellenborough, the governor-general of India. After a discussion of the terms on which the British would support Dust Muhammad’s return to Kabul, the two men parted. Writing some sixty years later, the Hazarah Afghan historian, Fayz Muhammad “Katib,” recorded their farewell as follows:

Then the two men rose, bade each other farewell, turned and walked a few steps away from each other but had not yet parted when a two-volume set of the Tafsır-i Ḥusaynı enclosed in a silk cover was brought out and presented. Taking this as a good omen, the amir gladly received it, kissed it, placed it against his eyes, and then handed it to one of his attendants to care for it with reverence. (Sirāj al-tawārikh [Kabul 1331/1913] 1: 191.)

Such was the fame of Husayn b. Ali Kashifi’s Mavāhib-i caliyya (also known as Tafsır-i Ḥusaynı, or simply Tafsır-i Mullā) among Muslims of South and Central Asia a full three and a half centuries after it was written…

See: McChesney, FN 16.

16 Maria E Subtelny, “A late medieval Persian Summa on Ethics: Kashifi’s Akhlāq-i Muḥsinı,” Iranian Studies 36:4, 2003, pp 601-614.
17 Maria E Subtelny, “Husayn Vaciz-i Kashifi: polymath, popularizer, and preserver,” Iranian Studies 36:4, 2003, pp 463-467.
18 Colin Paul Mitchell, “To preserve and protect: Husayn Vaciz-i Kashifi and Perso-Islamic chancellery culture,” Iranian Studies 36:4, 2003, pp 485-508.
19 Marta Simidchieva, “Imitation and innovation in Timurid poetics: Kashifi’s Badāyi al-afkār and its predecessors, al-Muʿjam and Ḥadāʾiq al-siḥr,” Iranian Studies 36:4, 2003, pp 509-530.
20 Pierre Lory, “Kashifı’s Asrār-i Qāsimı and Timurid magic,” Iranian Studies 36:4, pp 531-541.
21 Sergei Tourkin and Ziva Vesel, “The contribution of Husayn Vaciz-i Kashifi to the transmission of astrological texts,” Iranian Studies 36:4, 2003, pp 589-599.
22 According to the Abjad letters as numbers ‘alphabet’, the phrase («منبر ما عرش باد») (author’s translation: “my pulpit be the highest heaven”) numerically translates into the year in the Arabic lunar calendar in which Vaez Kashefi died (ie 910, equivalent to 1504-1505 CE). The author would like to thank Massud Amini, a literature schoolteacher in Herat city, for bringing this point to his notice.
23 Importantly, the preceding Kart dynasty is generally credited with reconstructing the city after the devastating Mongol invasion. After some initial destruction, however, major urban development followed under the succeeding Timurid dynasty. See: Ute Franke, “Ancient Herat Revisited: New Data from Recent Archaeological Fieldwork,” in Rante, FN 9, pp 69, 75 (for photos, see pp 216-241).
24 The quote is from: Christine Noelle-Karimi, The Pearl in its Midst: Herat and the Mapping of Khurasan (15th-19th Centuries), Vienna, Austrian Academy of Sciences Press, 2014, p 1.
25 Christine van Ruymbeke, “Kashifi’s forgotten masterpiece: why rediscover the Anvār-i Suhaylı?,” Iranian Studies 36:4, 2003, pp 571-588. See also: Christine van Ruymbeke, Kashefi’s Anvar-e Sohayli: Rewriting Kalila wa-Dimna in Timurid Herat, Leiden, Brill, 2016.

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