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. The 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.
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. 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.
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). 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.
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. 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. 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:
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
Others are intoxicated by wine:
I am intoxicated by the cupbearer.
Their intoxication is ephemeral,
But mine abides forever.
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.
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).
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. 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.
From 1409 when Shahrokh Mirza, Timur’s son, was in power in the historic region of Khorasan, 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. Timurid Herat’s role in this renaissance has been compared with that of Florence in then Europe. 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:
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. 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:
The Minaret today  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.
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.
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).
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.”
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.” 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.” 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 andarz, pand, naṡıḥat, siyarand 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.”
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.” 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.”
Vaez Kashefi also wrote on various other topics, such as poetry , magic (called ulum-e khafiya, or occult sciences) and astrology/astronomy (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.”
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.
This article was last updated on 1 Feb 2021