Origins and background
The ancient religious site of Gazur Gah is one of the most significant in Afghanistan. It lies near to the city of Herat in western Afghanistan, on an ancient trade route between Central Asia and the West, and marks one of last halting stations before the deserts of Kuhistan. Its recorded history begins around 1000 years ago, with the lives of a local Sufi, Shaikh ‘Amu, and his pupil Khwajah Abdullah Ansari. Following the death of Shaikh ‘Amu, who was buried in the nearby hill of Zangir Gah in 1049 CE, Khwajah Ansari became a prominent Sufi religious personality in the region of Khurasan. He founded a Sufi institution at Gazur Gah, and was buried at the site following his death in 1089 CE.
Gazur Gah was one of a number of medieval settlements in Khurasan that developed around a religious institution and funerary complex of a Sufi holy-man. Other such sites were founded in the mountainous regions to the east of Gazur Gah at Chisht and Jam, and in eastern Iran at Turbat-i Shaikh Jam. Gazur Gah became home to a brotherhood of Ansari’s descendants and disciples, and the site of pilgrimage for Sufi devotees from Herat and beyond.
The complex of buildings at Gazur Gah has been the focus of a recent restoration project undertaken by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.
The site’s structures developed over several historic phases following the death of Khwajah Ansari. The Ghurid rulers added a religious school in the 12th century, whilst the last Ghurid king – Sultan Mahmud – was buried at the site following his death in 1212 CE. The subsequent Kart dynasty also restored and added to the site though few, if any, architectural features remain from this medieval period.
The 15th century Timurid rulers of Khurasan viewed Ansari as the pir or ‘wise man’ of Herat, and drew close association with the saint in establishing their rule. They constructed a more elaborate funerary complex at Gazur Gah, focused on the form, function and meaning of the saint’s grave.
The burial site itself is identified by a low platform, surrounded by a pierced stone screen, and a lone, gnarled tree. Around this, Timurid patrons constructed an impressive courtyard enclosure with high arched portals or iwans, burial chambers and graves of members of the ruling family, together with spaces for prayer, residence and communal meeting, and gardens, pavilions and a water cistern beyond.
The resulting funerary courtyard and Namakdan Pavilion are fine extant examples of Timurid monuments. A royal residence and gardens were built adjacent to the site, confirming Gazur Gah’s religious, political and social significance during this golden Timurid age. The complex also received endowments that have lasted, in some cases, to the present day.
The Safavid ruler Shah Ismail conquered Herat in 1510 CE. Although these new rulers were Shi’ite, they allowed Sufi customs and practices to continue at the site, and ordered further amplification of its buildings. The importance of Gazur Gah was nevertheless reduced through the Safavid focus on the Shi’ite sanctuaries of Mashhad, Ardabil, Qum and Mazar-i Sharif. The ruling Chingizid clan made further embellishments in the 17th century, and undertook restoration of the cistern. Members of the clan were also buried at the site in the early part of the 18th century. Beyond this, little repair had been undertaken in more recent times, leaving many of its buildings in a state of disintegration and collapse.
Recent Restoration Activities
Given its long history and religious and cultural significance, Gazur Gah has been the focus of recent remedial works by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) in Afghanistan, funded by government of Germany. The project forms a part of AKTC’s wider cultural heritage activities across the country (see below).
Following an initial survey of the complex in 2005, the AKTC signed an agreement with the department of Historic Monuments, to commence work.
Initial activities included the removal of modern concrete and earth materials from historic buildings, and roof repairs, alongside stabilization of the south side of the Khanaqah-i Zarnigar in 2006. In 2007, as part of documentation of the complex’s artistic and architectural history, a group of students from the faculty of Fine Arts at Herat University prepared full-scale drawings of the most significant historic graves – recording decorative stone techniques from 15th to 19th centuries. In the same year, focus also moved to stabilizing the main, eastern iwan of the central courtyard, which was showing signs of structural settlement. Surveys of the brick structure revealed a number of historic interventions made over the centuries to prevent its collapse. 2008 saw the construction of a brick buttress that now provides full support for the iwan.
Restoration took place alongside at the Namakdan Pavilion, a 12-sided brick structure that once stood in the midst of formal gardens. As with the other buildings, layers of concrete, earth and rubble were removed. This revealed the central dome’s rib structures for repair. Tensile steel ring-ties replaced original timber reinforcement that had since been consumed by termites. External footings were also repaired, using materials and techniques found in the original structure. With the structure strengthened, a modern intermediate floor could then be removed, to restore the original double-height interior space. During the course of works, the base of an octagonal pool was also discovered in the central space, along with traces of a water channel and a marble waterfall on the western side. Local craftsmen restored decorative traditional plaster and ceramic tiles to the building’s exterior.
Parallel landscaping was undertaken throughout the complex. This included re-laying of marble and brick paving in the courtyard, installation of subtle external lighting, and improvements to drainage systems.
Effective management was emphasized by the AKTC throughout the project, maintained through regular consultations held by AKTC staff with the Historic Monuments department, and the Head of the religious order that oversees the shrine. Local craftsmen, masons and laborers were employed throughout, utilizing traditional skills and knowledge, and providing incomes to families in the area.
The 4-year restoration program was completed by 2009. An opening ceremony, presided over by HE the Governor of Herat, Yusuf Nooristani, and attended by religious and community leaders, was held 8th October 2009.
Widely regarded as one of the most important surviving Timurid architectural complexes in the region, and a significant site of Sufi pilgrimage and prayer to this day, the restoration of the buildings at Gazur Gah is a significant landmark in the on-going safeguard of Afghanistan’s architectural heritage.
With grateful thanks to Jolyon Leslie and Hadi Jahanabadian for providing guidance with sources and information on the site’s restoration.
Thalia Kennedy‘s academic training is in art and architectural history, in which she holds her PhD. Her area of research and teaching has been the Islamic and South Asian spheres. She has held visiting lectureships at the School of Oriental & African Studies, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London. From 2007 to 2010, Thalia was the Director of the Turquoise Mountain Institute for Afghan Arts & Architecture in Kabul, and is now a member of the Institute Board. In 2011, she was a Guest Scholar at the Getty Conservation Institute, and Scholar in Residence at the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. Currently completing consultancy and research, Thalia has recently been selected for a museum position in Qatar, where she will be moving later this year.