Beginning with the 4th century BC, Afghanistan survived many invasions. It was occupied by Alexander the Great, Batrichian Greek, Persia and other countries (Fletcher and Cruickshank 649). So, it is no wonder that the country absorbed the elements of culture of its invaders and transformed them in its architectural buildings.
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The Islamic architecture is famous for its mosques that are considered to be the brightest representatives of the art and architecture of the Islamic world. “The mosque is a central point of Afghanistan architecture.
Afghan Islamic Architecture really began to take off in the 10th and 11th centuries, with the rule of Ghaznavids” (Clammer 55). However, there were ancient cities as Balkh, for example, that preserved the earliest unique monuments that were built in 8th and 9th centuries. Some of these monuments still exist and considered to be the masterpieces of the world architectural heritage. One of such mosques is the Masjid – i – Nuh Gunbad at Balkh.
It probably was the first mosque of its kind that put a beginning to new traditions in Islamic architecture and design. It has an unusual plan, unique design and great history. This mosque is one of the most important monuments and that is why, UNESCO included it in its mosques restoration program.
“Afghanistan buildings have harnessed the vitality of the Central Asian steppe to the refinement of Persian culture to produce in its mosques and minarets” (Clammer 55). Balkh is one of the cities that preserve these historical monuments that date back to the ancient times. It is a town situated in the North of Afghanistan. Warwick writes that it was known to the early Arab geographers as the “mother of all cities” (10). It used to be a Buddhist center and in the eighth century, it became Islamic. A bit later, it became a cultural and learning center. Many renowned people got their education in this town.
In the thirteenth century, like many other towns of Afghanistan, Balkh was destroyed by the army of Ghengis Khan. However, the majority of monuments remained untouched. Among them are the Mosque Anah and Masjid – i – Nuh Gunbad. Today, apart from those mosques, the city can be proud of its famous sight, such as the madrasa of Sayed Subhan Quli Khan, Tap-e Rustam and Takht-e Rustam, mosque of Khwaja Nasr Parsa and others.
Mosques are numerous in Afghanistan. These are religious buildings. They may be of two kinds, big ones for Friday ceremonies and small ones for daily prayers. During centuries, the design and style of mosques were changing. The first mosques were hypostyle mosques with flat roofs, square plans, rather big and with flat roofs in order to cover a great amount of people during the Friday prayers. As it has already been mentioned, the design of mosques was various.
They could be of T-type, rectangular and central-dome. “Islamic mosques, with four tall minarets in the corners flanking a central edifice is most likely derived from Pakistan” (Phuoc 4).
The material used had enough strength and were flexible at the same time in order to create buildings of a great size and preserve boldness in construction. Kuban in his book wrote that “mosques built in the 11th century had simple geometric relief to intricate patterns of glazed and colored brick. Thus, the decorations of those buildings were extraordinary rich in color and texture” (9).
After the 15th century, the design was changed and other types of mosques, known as Iwan mosques, were introduced. They were notable for domed chambers. There were also mosques in a shape of pyramid.
The first mosque that introduced general tendencies in mosque architecture was Masjid – i – Nuh Gunbad at Balkh. It was build between 8th and 9th centuries. It is also called the Masjid-i-Tarikh with indicates “mosque of history”. It got such a name because it was “not only the first mosque that introduced the Islamic style, but it was the first mosque in Afghanistan” (Hoag 48).
Today, this mosque is situated not far from the city and it was almost ruined. That is why, in 2002, UNESCO included in it its program aimed at reconstruction of mosques. It is one of the most important monuments that serve as a perfect example of an ancient Islamic architecture. All scientists agree that:
“the building is regarded as one of the earliest examples of a nine-domed mosque. The roof is collapsed. The extant remains include massive round pierce and smaller engaged columns typical of Abbasid architecture” (Peterson 32).
The architecture of the mosque is original. It has an original square plan and nine domes. The square plan was a local tradition of those times. It is very small (its extension is no more than 20 meters in each side). The peculiarity is that it has no external wall on the North-Eastern side. “Instead of it, there is an arcade that serves as an entrance and façade at the same time.
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This style was adopted from Persian architects by Abu Muslim Al-Kharassani in his Dar Al-Imarah which was built at Merv in 747” (Michell 349). The interior of the building consisted of two arcades supported by wall and a combination of columns.
Croswell explains the origin of such construction saying that “it was also adopted from Persia and meant “pil-payah”, which was used for pillar, literally meaning “elephant-feet”” (348). The whole scheme is based on several layers of bricks that also were the local tradition. Though, the local elements and Persian building traditions prevail, the influence of Egyptian, North African and Mesopotamian cultures are also noticeable.
The decoration of the mosque is of an absolutely typical and well-known style. It is done in Samarra’s stucco style. The peculiarity of this style is that it imitates an Antique style. It rends towards the abstraction of scrolls and stems. The pictures are mostly of a geometrical shape in forms of squares, stars and circles. These forms are filled with leaves, cones and other figures.
The carving technique is very original. It is characterized by deep shadow technique that united wide spread of different styles. These styles were borrowed from various regions of the country. These features were later founded in other mosques.
Thus, the Masjid – i – Nuh Gunbad at Balkh is the oldest mosque of the Islamic origin that was built between the 8th and 9th centuries. It has an original architecture and design. It unites the features of many countries and architectural techniques. This mosque was a “starting point” for other Islamic mosques. Today, the building is considered to be a cultural heritage of the world architecture and UNESCO included it in its program for reconstruction of ancient mosques.
Ballkh, Warwick. The Monuments of Afghanistan. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2008.
Creswell, K. A. C. A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture. Rev. ed. Allan, James W. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1989.
Clammer, Paul. Afghanistan. New York: Lonely Planet, 2007.
Fletcher, Sir Banister and Dan Cruicksh. Sir Banister Fletcher’s a History of Architecture. London: The Royal Institute of British Architecture and the University of London, 2001.
Hoag, J. D. Islamic Architecture. New York, 1977.
Kuban, Doğan. Iconography of Religions: Islam. Muslim religious architecture. The Netherlands: J. Brill, 1958.
Michell, George (ed), Architecture of the Islamic World: Its History and Social Meaning. London: Thames and Hudson, 1980.
Petersen, Andrew. Dictionary of Islamic Architecture. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Phuoc, Le Huu. Buddhist Architecture. The United States of America: Le Huu Phuoc, 2010.