Masjid-i-Tarikh at Balkh
|Figure 1. Plan of Masjid-i-Tarikh showing the three aisles comprising nine equal bays.|
With its unusual enclosed square plan and nine domes, Masjid-i-Tarikh was the first of its kind in the Muslim world thus setting up a new development in both local and Muslim mosque design traditions. A few mosques were modelled after its establishment but this new arrangement was eventually abandoned, probably due to its limited functionality compared to the mosque of traditional plan. Masjid-i-Tarikh displays another important feature related to the extensive imitation of Samarra stucco carving decoration which adorned much of its surfaces.
Balkh is a town in the north of present-day Afghanistan about 20 km from Mazar-i-Sharif. Once a prominent Buddhist centre, it was Islamised along with the rest of Afghanistan in the eighth century. Balkh soon emerged as an important city, nicknamed the "mother of cities", in the Abbasid Khorasan province. It later became a royal town and a learning centre under the Seljuk and the Samanid rules. It produced a number of renowned Muslim figures, including the Barmakids who served as viziers to the Abbassids and the famous Sufi Jalal-ud-din al-Balkhi (al-Rumi) (1207-1273). In the thirteenth century, the town faced the same fate as Herat, Ghazni, Banyam and other Afghani towns which were sacked by Ghengis Khan's army. In modern times, Balkh was overshadowed by Mazar-i-Sharif which emerged as the political capital of the northern region of Afghanistan.
|Figure 2. Curtain wall showing here one of the arches being blocked up leaving a semi circular window.|
Among the many mosques this town had was Masjid-i-Tarikh, also known by other names such as Nuh Gunbad, Hajji Piyada and more famously as the Nine Dome Mosque. Built between the late eighth and early ninth century, the mosque, as the name Masjid-i-Tarikh or 'mosque of history' indicates, is not only one of the earliest mosques of Afghanistan but the first of its kind in Islam. It lies in an open plain some 12 km south of the present town of Balkh. Like many historic monuments of this poor and war-torn country, the mosque is now derelict in ruins, illustrating a story of appalling neglect and left to the mercy of the effect of weathering and other natural causes. The nine cupolas which originally formed its roof as well as a large proportion of its arcade have fallen burying its floor with more than a metre of rubble. The remains consist merely of four, out of the six, large pillars which still stand in the centre, a few of the arches springing from them as well as a handful of coupled columns flanking the walls. The mosque was discovered by French archaeologists who carried out a number of studies which has become the main source relevant publications. Recently in 2002, UNESCO became involved in the restoration of the mosque as part of its wider programme to rehabilitate Afghanistan's most important monuments.
|Figure 3. Detailed diagram showing a reconstructed Masjid-i-Tarikh.|
The Architecture of the Mosque
A surprisingly small mosque not exceeding 20 metres on each side, the Masjid was ordered in a square plan into three aisles with nine bays . A peculiar feature is observed here consisting of the absence of an external wall for the north eastern side opposite the Qibla which was replaced by an arcade serving as a façade and an entrance. The remaining sides had curtain walls and connected with double columns which provided the side support for the arcade . Whilst the square plan appears to be a local tradition seen in the Chahar Sutun at Termez, the open sides, according to Hellenbrend, originates from the pre-Islamic kushk theme. This type of building was common in Persia and later was adopted by Abu Muslim Al-Kharassani in his Dar Al-Imarah which he built at Merv (747). Under the Seljuks and Ottomans the Kushk became very popular used widely for private dwellings and villas.
|Figure 4. Robust piers described as elephant feet supported the arcade and roof of the mosque. The temporary metal roof was installed by UNESCO.|
The whole interior of the mosque consisted of two intersecting arcades dividing it into nine equal bays covered with domes . The arcades and domes were supported by six robust brick pillars covered with stucco decoration while at side walls a series of coupled columns provided the remaining support for the arcade . The whole construction scheme was based on layers of baked brick which the effect of weathering has turned into loosely bonded pieces. Although the brick was a local tradition, many of the remaining architectural elements reveal the extent of the influence of Muslim Mesopotamia, Egypt and North Africa. The combination of columns and heavy piers to carry the arcades was employed in these regions before. The Muslim historian Al- Maqrizi, for example, referred to what he called 'Jami' al-fiyalah', a reference to the prominent feature of large robust piers. Creswell provided some origins of this feature going back to Persian term pil-payah, which was used for pillar, literally meaning 'elephant-feet'. This was later rendered into Arabic as "fiyalah" meaning 'elephants', which is the derivation of 'jami' al-fiyalah', or Mosque of the Pillars.
Figure 5. Details of Samarra inspired stucco decoration.
In terms of the plan, the above features are strikingly unusual to the familiar design of mosques discussed in previous occasions. It appears that Masjid-iTarikh was used as an experimental workshop for the new design, probably aiming to find an alternative to the traditional hypostyle courtyard plan, or perhaps an attempt to introduce new ideas to meet local environmental and financial shortages. However, the established fact is that the scheme was experimented on a relatively modest scale whether in terms of geographical distribution or in terms of edifice size. Indeed only a handful of mosques including Abu Fatata ((Sussa, 838-41); Muhammad Ibn Khairun (Quairawan, 866); Shrine of Nabi Jirjis (Mosul, 9th century); Sharif Tabataba (Cairo, 950); Bab Mardum (Toledo, 999); Sab'a wa Sab'in Wali (Aswan, 1000) and Las Tornerias (Toledo, 1159), adopted the nine bayed design with domes and no courtyard. In Bab Mardum and Casa de las Tornerias the nine chambers were covered with domes exactly as in Balkh. In Bab Mardum the technique introduced in these domes is very revealing, with the insertion of supporting ribs intersecting each other in similar fashion to that of Cordoba. The ribs of the central dome were arranged in a star form crowning the structure and externally the dome was raised slightly above the rest of the roof. The whole structure was supported by only four centred columns which also defined its nine bays and above them horseshoe arches were placed.
|Figure 6. Elephant piers and Samarra style decoration in Nayin mosque (10th century)|
It is not known exactly why and what was the purpose of this parting from the traditional plan. Marcais suggested that they were private mosques built by influential individuals for the use of family and close relatives. Regardless of why these small mosques were built, they represented an ambitious endeavour to develop new forms and architectural themes. This is particularly seen in the well developed vaulting system these mosques used. Although it was difficult to reconstruct how the vaults (domes) of Masjid-i-Tarikh were built, but from the examples cited above, especially in Bab Mardum Mosque, it appears that these buildings inaugurated the use of a complex vaulting system, extending from barrel and groin vaults to the complex intersecting rib vaulting of domes. Such solutions clearly exceeded the vaulting techniques used by the Persian and Roman or Byzantine traditions which some Western academics claim to be their source of inspiration.
After these examples, no other building of similar design was known to have been built, thus indicating that the scheme halted, most likely abandoned due to unpopularity or uncertainty in its proper functionality.
In contrast to its unusual plan and main architectural features (piers and domes), Masjid-i-Tarikh re-employs the well-known Samarra's stucco decoration. Skilfully carved stucco themes such as vine scrolls twisting around leaves in high relief were largely employed to fill the spandrels of the arches. Meanwhile, the intrados were adorned with geometrical shapes in the form of circles, squares and star grid systems filled with vegetal forms such as palmettes, leaves, cones and buds . The capitals were adorned with a scheme combining between palmettes, trefoil lotus blossoms and plump pomegranates. These characteristics and the deep shadow carving technique which they were produced in clearly resembles the Samarra's prototype suggesting the wide spread of styles and forms from various regions of what was once, one Muslim Caliphate. Indeed, we find many of these elements reproduced in other Abbasid mosques including the mosque at Nayin, (Iran - mid 10th century) which even uses the same type of 'elephant' piers .
by: FSTC Ltd, Wed 11 May, 2005