Masjid-i Jami — The Great Mosque of Herat


Herat is the largest city in the Western Region of Afghanistan. The city is as old as mankind. It pre-dates Alexander the Great by centuries and has been invaded and conquered by every power to sweep through Asia. Following Alexander were the Ghaznavids, Ghorids, Timurids, the Mongolian Hordes, the Mughals of India and Central Asia. The British tried to take the city through force of arms. The Czars of Russia attempted to steal it away through both armed force and and intrigue. 100 years afer the Czars failed, the communists of Soviet Union invaded and were eventually thrown back across the Amu Darya by the Afghans with a healthy bit of assistance from American Stinger missiles. Lastly, the Taliban took it in the late 90s. As we all know, the Taliban were forced out after the International Community finally came to it’s senses in the post-9/11 era. Presently it is a hesitant member of the Karzai government. It’s chief is held hostage of a sort of the Kabul government so that Karzai can avail the central government of the border taxes from trade with Iran and Turkmenistan.

The heart and soul of Herat is the Masjid-i Jami. The Friday Mosque also known as the Great Mosque and the Blue Mosque. This is the community mosque. On Friday–the Muslim holy day, many of the cities inhabitants gather at theMosque to pray or socialize or just as an excuse to get out on a sunny day and relax among their fellow Heratis. Mosques usually serve as a community center of sorts. They are a place where a city or village residents gather and hear the news or read the Qu’ran. Of course, there is the muezzin calling sura’s from the Qu’ran 5 times a day as well.

Masjid Jami was built bythe Ghurid rulers in 1200 AD making it about 800 years old. By the end of the Century, Ginghis Khan would roll through Herat. Leaving the city and the mosque in ruins. It would suffer through war and natural disaster but ultimately survive. It has been renovated several times over the centures by various rulers who have left their unique cultural mark. As with all Mosques, it faces Mecca. In this case facing South West.

This is a description of the Mosque from 1977. It remains much the same today:

The great mosque of Herat is one of Afghanistan’s more attractive sights. The form in which it stands today was originally laid out on the site of an earlier 10th century mosque in the year 1200 by the Ghrid Sultan Ghiyasuddin. Only tantalizing fragments of Ghorid decoration remain except for a splendid portal situated to the south of the main entrance. (enter from front situated to the south of the main entrance. (Enter from front garden through small door in mosque wall.) A bold Kufic inscription, including the name of the monarch, stands in high Persian-blue relief above a soft buff background intricately designed with floral motifs in cut brick. The combination of the bright, bold straight-lined script contrasts dramatically with the graceful delicacy of the background. It is an exciting example of the artistic sophistication of the ghorids. This stunning decoration was hidden under Timurid decorative tile until the winter of 1964 when experts working with the Kabul Museum removed the later Timurid decoration dating from the 15th century. The upper section of the Timurid arch, lower that the ghorid arch, has been left for interesting comparisons. Ghorid geometric patterns give way to increasingly exuberant floral patterns in the timurid decoration; coloured tile used sparingly only as an accent by the Ghorid is used to cover every inch of the architectural facade by their successors.
The lavish Timurid decorative restoration covered the entire surface of the mosque but it disappeared as the unstable political climate enveloped Herat during the 400 years following Timurid rule. Photographs taken in the courtyard in the early tears of the 20th century show only piles of rubble against bleak, white-washed walls. In 1943 an ambitious restoration program began and continues to today. It is the creation of three noted Herati artists, Fikhri Seljuki Herawi, Mohammad Sa’id Mashal-i Ghori, and the accomplished calligrapher, Mohammad Ali Herawi. A visit to the mosque workshop (to left of corridor leading from the front garden into the courtyard) is highly recommended.
The huge bronze cauldron in the courtyard dates from the reign of the Kart kings of Herat (1332-1381). It was originally used as a receptacle fro sherbet (a sweet drink) which was served to workshipers on feast days. It is now used for donations for the upkeep of the mosque.”
…” Better preserved fragments of Ghorid decoration may be seen on the arches of the short corridors on either side of the main iwan where the mehrab (prayer niche) is let into the west wall. Here the work was executed in cut brick and molded terracotta. In the south corridor, there is a Kufic inscription with a floral background done in a distinctive angular “brambly” style little seen elsewhere. Above this band there are two large panels of brickwork interspersed with x-form plugs and bordered with an undulating chain of molded terracotta arabesques. Simple in concept, the use of plain unadorned brick for design and texture produces a thoroughly handsome effect which is both aesthetically pleasing and strong. Between these brick panels there is a narrower panel filled with a complicated geometric design formed by a series of buds and interconnecting tendrils.
All that is left of the splendid Timurid restoration undertaken by Sultan Husain Baiqara’s prime minister Mir Ali Sher Nawai in 1498 may be found on the inside of the arcade in the southwest corner of the courtyard. The interiors fo these five arches are decorated with narrow strips of blue tile hexagons and octagons sprinkled with tiny golden flowers. Plain pink-beige tile plaques slightly in relief fill the spaces between. The relief and the tiny flowers produce an illusion of depth and mobility which is extremely effective.”

From Dupree, N. H. An historical guide to Afghanistan. Kabul. 1977. p.250

I have not been inside Masjid-i Jami. The military and my employer deem it too dangerous to roam freely or even armed in downtown Herat. These pictures were taken by my Interpretor who lives in the city. I visit the Provincial Police Headquarters (PHQ) about once every two weeks or so. This mosque is directly across the street. Every time that I’ve gone to the PHQ, Masjid-i Jami is full of folks. Children, elderly folks, students. Women in the burqa or chidari as the Tajiks call it. Burqa is a Pushtoon word. I’ve seen blue and black burqas worn here. In Kabul, I’ve seen pink, green and white worn. I imagine the folks at the mosque are out there contemplating, praying. Trying to find their path in life. Seeking God or the Eternal and Sacred.

In many respects, these people are like the rest of us in the world. They seek a better life for themselves and their children. Islam, in my opinion, turns the advantage against them. Islam, from my experience, has widespread problems with poverty and illiteracy. Education of the masses is not a Muslim priority. Rote memorization in a Madrassah is not literacy. Nor is it education. The more “western” a Muslim country. The more likely that it’s people will be educated. This is especially true of women in Muslim countries. There is a reason so many Muslims and especially Arab Muslims are educated outside of the lands of Islam.

The city market and two rather large schools are close by as well. It’s quite odd for me to see segregated schools as is the fashion in Muslim countries. At the end of the school day, the boys run out loud and excited wearing western style clothing. The girls run out just as animated wearing a black and white uniform consisting of a black tunic and white hijab (girls-school.jpg). I had to wonder why the boys weren’t made to wear a uniform as well.

Driving around Herat on the way to the Regional and Provincial Headquarters, is always fascinating. The shops. The people. The vehicles. The city is almost always a sweltering mass of humanity. The streets are never empty. I’m always left wondering. What do these people do in their lives? Where are they headed? Do they hate our presence, love our presence or merely see us as a necessary evil to gain security. Sometimes, I feel like we are wasting our time here. Sometimes, I see hope.


p1013039.jpg Note the 18th Century Cannon on display outside the Mosque.

p1013049.jpg p1013050.jpg p1013052.jpg

Renovation and repair. Tiles being repaired.

p1013054.jpg The inner courtyard area of the Mosque.

p1013079.jpg Ablutions or wudy.gif — A Muslim must wash his face, neck, hands and feet prior to praying or entering a Mosque. The act is a ritual form of purification. Appearing cleansed before God. If no water is available Muslims will use sand or simulate the act as if water were present. The act is carried out as follows:




1. Declare the intention that the act is for the purpose of worship and purity, start by saying Bismillah

2. Wash the hands up to the wrists, three times.

3. Rinse out the mouth with water, three times, preferably with a brush whenever it is possible.

4. Cleanse the nostrils of the nose by sniffing water into them, three times.

5. Wash the whole face three times with both hands, if possible, from the top of the forehead to the bottom of the chin and from ear to ear.

6. Wash the right arm three times up to the far end of the elbow, and then do the same with the left arm.

7. Wipe the whole head or any part of it with a wet hand, once.

8. Wipe the inner sides of the ears with the forefingers and their outer sides with the thumbs. This should be done with wet fingers.

9 Wash the two feet up to the ankles, three times, beginning with the right foot.

p1012898.jpg view-from-phq-roof.jpg view-with-hummers.jpg

View of Masjid-i Jami from the rooftop of PHQ. I had to climb a rickety, wooden, home made ladder to get to the roof. It was shaky but I made it up and back down. All 210 pounds of me plus body armor. I thought the thing was going to snap on me. It was worth the climb for the view of the city.


5 comments on “Masjid-i Jami — The Great Mosque of Herat

  1. What makes you think Islam breeds illiteracy? Islam encourages learning and the pursuit of wisdom. Muslim children start memorizing the Quran as early as age 2. Children often complete reading the Quran from cover to cover by age ten. Most of the Muslims I know are literate, by which I mean they can read and write, in at least two languages.

  2. To the everage Muslim, Islam is what the local Mullah tells him/her that it is. Mullahs encourage the local people to seek knowledge. But the knowledge that they are told to seek is only that which is provided in the Qu’ran. Not exactly what I would call education or literacy.

    My opinion stems from my experiences. I’ve been to many Muslim countries. In most of these countries, people are encouaraged to memorize the Qu’ran. Many places like Afghanistan, the Mullahs know the Qu’ran. But most have no idea what the words actually mean. Rote memorization. Not knowledge or even literacy.

    Perhaps, I should have said that the majority of the Muslim world is uneducated. Especially since Muslims oppress women and only allow them to go so far in their education. I’m not talking about Cosmopolitan areas such as Kuwait City, Dubai,Cairo, etc. I speak of the whole of the Muslim world.

    Knowing how to memorize the Qu’ran is far different from being literate.

    95% of Afghanistan can not read. This is a Muslim nation. Why can they not read? Because of the Taliban and their extreme Islamic beliefs.

    I’ll leave you with this question. Why did the Ottoman Empire crumble? What was the primary cause?

  3. that is an intresting concept you are putting forword, blaming islam for un-educated middle east
    1. it is the duty of every muslim men and women is to educate in everything that is islam, thats why there were people like Avicenna (born c. 980 in Bukhara,Khorasan,died 1037 in Hamedan), also known as Ibn Seena and commonly known in English by his Latinized name Avicenna (Greek Aβιτζιανός) was a Persian polymath and the foremost physician and Islamic philosopher of his time. He was also an astronomer, chemist, geologist, Hafiz, logician, mathematician, physicist, poet, psychologist, scientist, Sheikh, soldier, statesman and Islamic theologian.

    You are right to suggest the local mullah saying only education u need is islam. and the problem with 95% of afghan being undecucated is not taliban (though the made the problem bigger) poverty and WAR is though instead of going to school being a child labour cames first that is if u able to stay alive thats why education takes a sit back, poverty war
    but refering to islamic countries you do not have to go far just go across to iran and you will find 65% of the young are either finished uni or still in uni that is an ”islamic country” being too many uni leavers has become a problem not eough jobs.

    anyway i have alot of freinds in herat who have finished uni there and trying to further thier education in world universties (even it puts alot of pressure on thier families to pay for it)
    i say you need to look at picture better so you can see those small prints thats where you find the diffrence

  4. Ali,

    1037 was a long time ago. What has come out of the Middle East or Central Asia lately. Oil and violence and threats of violence? I don’t see much else. All in the name of…what?

    Yes, I know that many Heratis are attempting to go out into the larger world to attend University. I also know that there exist forces who would kill them for it in the name of religion. Their wish to further their education is to improve their lives and livelihoods. This has absolutely nothing to do with their religion.

    The previous illiteracy was entirely the fault of the wahhabist leaders whom the world now knows as the Taliban. Though that dirty lot of thieves and murderers were created and bred by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, this is not entirely the fault of Islam. [America funded the fiht against the Soviet Union. We did not fund or build the schools which created the Taliban] It is not entirely the fault of the Ulema. This kind of ignorance and violence is a control measure. It is the exact same tool used by Catholicism in the dark ages of Europe. The taliban had at least 5 years of peace in which they could have opened schools. Instead, they closed all schools except for their beloved wahhabi madrassas. Women were forbidden from anything. Education was completely out of the question for them.

    One problem that I have with the world of Islam is that not enough voices are speaking out against the violence and the ignorance. I understand it is dangerous but where is your Martin Luther. Where are the leaders who will insist that religion should be uplifting and not oppressive. When will the death bounty for leaving Islam be left to the savage past to which it belongs. When will women truly be allowed their dignity. The Hijab and the Chidori and the Burqa are nothing more than means to control and oppress women. I know that many of you believe that it is a freer path for them. But from what do you free women by wearing these pieces of cloth. You free them from the danger of violence from men. Men who are barely more than animals. When the leaders of any race, religion or creed compare women to a piece of meat left out and men to a cat who can not help but eat the meat…well, something is wrong with that world. And when a majority of men of any race, religion or creed accept this perverted rationalization, it is a sin against God and Man.

    It was once a danger to speak out against these same dangers in Europe and America. Many died so that Europe and America could become truly free. These are the choices that Muslims must make. Remain silent and cowed. Flee to other worlds. Or fight to make your lands free from violence and corruption and intimidation. It matters not for whom the criminals and thugs claim to fight. They lie. They fight for ignorance and oppression.

    When will the people of these regions stand up and throw off the shackles of ignorance. When will the true Jihad begin. The Jihad of enlightenment and brotherhood and understanding. Muslims demand that others accept their religion. Yet, many of these same voices refuse to accept any other religion. I give you Saudi Arabia as the proof positive of this heinous double standard. Saudi Arabia demands that the West accept Islam and be tolerant of Muslims and their beliefs. Yet, it is against the law to build a single Church or to preach any other belief in Saudi Arabia.

    The Wahhabis and despots the Middle East and Central Asia will fight to the last man to keep Muslims intimidated and in darkness. This I know. History shows that these people will not stop until exterminated.

    I must say that you make a point. I have been thinking on this and my opinion has been evolving slowly. I am come to the belief that it is not Islam or Christianity that is the problem. They are merely beliefs. Words in books. Some of which are noble and loving, indeed.

    The problem is the people. Not all people, of course. But those who would use religions as a means to justify their own prejudices and hates. Those who would twist the words of the Prophets such as Mohammad and Jesus.

    The Mullahs are the problem. It’s not Islam. It’s the mullahs who hold women down. Not the Qu’ran. It’s the Catholic priests who abuse small boys. Not the Bible.

    I agree with your last statement as well. Those small prints, though. At times, it is difficult for them to overcome the larger prints. The large footprints create our worlds. The small ones tread softly within. Especially when any criticism and dissent is met with a fatwa, persecution or a bomb.

    We shall see.

    Peace to you.


  5. Dear David

    Let me Start by saying a great responce from you!

    Thats more the point you are right the voice of moderation the voice of Luther king is what we need and one day that voice shell come i hope sooner then later, and i can assure you those voices how ever small are calling and some in small circules being heard.

    But we need to tackle illiteracy as it is in the way, these illitrate people will listen to the mullahs and they are easy to be minuplated by mullahs, litrate people will think, discuss and debate the point (as we do) and will try to gather some more information to undrestend the point and then accepting it so we need to litrate those people,
    and that is what the ISAF forces in Afghanistan must make part of thier effort i know they are doing that but we need more on the education front. and i tell you when education comes in those voice would be strong and their shell be a freedom but no education and that freedom seems to far.

    In some better educated part of middle east as you put it Ignorance is the problem people do know the problem but will not do anything for this i do not have a good answer some say iti s not thier problem some are raciest to thier neibourghs, but i hope one they they will wake up

    your point of the Whhabis is true they are the biggest problem we have in middle east at the moment thier way of thinking and thier translation of Islam is one of war rather than peace to be honest i do not call them muslim in any way to me they are of a diffrent breed there to inslave the people of middle east, i have come across them as my student years in herat and as i moved to london they have hate for all fullstop muslim or non muslim.

    I agree with this last posting of yours at whole as you say religons are marely tools and open to be used as some see it thats where the problem lies.

    One last point i want to make is i do not know if you have come across it or not its what i call Pre-Cultural Islam, what I mean by it is that some people brought thier culture in to islam. let me give you couple of examples

    1. Arabs in Saudi pre-islam used to bury thier daughters alive if they had more then one ir if it was the first born now you know why they hate women.

    2. There is a Pashtun Saying very old pre-dates islam by mile it says A GOOD WOMAN IS AT HOME OR IN THE GRAVE so that put Taliban hate of the women into prospect i have been looking in that issue and there are more of this

    As ALI said (not me by the way) ”you must educate and bring up your children according to the time they live in”. my believe is education the way Forward we have very bright kids at schools who crave for knowladge but cant get to it, I hope one day they will.

    Peace to you as well

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