Italian-Funded Conservation of Gawhar Shad Mausoleum in Herat Underway by Afghan Government and UNESCO

From 17 to 31 October 2014 a team of three international experts on Timurid architecture, ceramics and tile-making, under the auspices of UNESCO’s work on the Gawhar Shad Mausoleum in Herat, made a mission to Afghanistan to begin conserving remaining pieces of Timurid tile-work on the Gawhar Shad Mausoleum and to start identifying how to produce these intricate tiles. Tarcis Stevens, a renowned Belgian architect and conservation expert with many years’ experience working on Timurid structures throughout Central Asia and Afghanistan, Elena Agnini, an experienced and respected conservator whose expertise was utilized on the re-tiling of the Del Kushah palace in Kabul and Saura Vignoli, a famous and talented ceramicist from Italy, all took part in this mission, adding their considerable experience and expertise to this project.

The importance of Herat city to the region and Afghanistan’s cultural heritage cannot be overstated. The city was, under the Timurid dynasty, the very epicenter of a cultural renaissance which some say even outstripped the Italian Renaissance for grandeur, beauty and complexity. The quality of the miniature paintings, under the incomparable Behzad of Herat, and the scale of the architecture all point towards a highly sophisticated and advanced society and imperial culture, at the center of which stood Herat. The Mausoleum of Gawhar Shad, Empress Consort of the Timurid Empire, patron of the arts, is one such example both of the monumental scale of Timurid designs but also of the extraordinary complexity and precision of the tile-works which adorn these magnificent structures. As such, the Gawhar Shad Mausoleum, and the minarets to its north-east, which would have formed the four corners of the vast and imposing Hussein Bayqara Madressa in which Islamic and scientific instruction and scholarship existed side by side, are unique and historical examples of this period of architectural greatness, but also of cultural flourishing and the genius of the human spirit.


Prior to the team’s visit to Herat, the experts held discussions with national officials of Ministry of Information and Culture and relevant NGOs in Kabul and visited local pottery workshops in Kabul, with a view to observing the techniques and capacities of Afghan pottery makers and to understanding the significance of this industry for the people of Afghanistan. The group then travelled to Herat, where the majority of the tile-production work will take place. Visits to MOIC Office in Herat and a traditional Afghan tile-making factory at the Herat Friday Mosque were conducted to enable the experts to discuss the UNESCO project with relevant governmental stakeholders. The group selected a number of complex pieces of original tiles of Gawhar Shad Mausoleum, currently being stored in the Ekhtiar al-Din Citadel of Herat, to be taken to Italy for scientific analysis so as to better understand the tile-making of Herat and to be able to better produce such pieces for the mausoleum. The vibrancy of colour, still undimmed after so many years, and their almost total precision were a wonder to see.


Tile-making in Khorasan and Central Asia flourished in the Timurid period, building on the high standards and quality of Ghurid tiles in Herat and Khorasan of an earlier period. Examples of the extraordinary precision and beauty of Timurid tiles can also be seen in Central Asia, Samarkand and Bukhara, as well as Mashhad and Herat. The expertise of the Timurids reached Europe during the Italian Renaissance where men such as Andrea della Robbia in cities such as Lucca and Faenza heralded Europe’s great cultural and tile-making flourishing. That this project is continuing this tradition of an east-west cultural and technical discourse on the production of ceramics and tiles is of no little significance.


Fruitful discussions were had between UNESCO and MOIC on how to produce the more intricate muqarnas and kufic pieces with suggestions for sending Afghan craftsmen to Europe to learn the art of producing these exceptionally beautiful and complex tiles. The team also made a start in better organising and cataloguing the pieces of Timurid tiles which had fallen from the Minarets and the Gawhar Shad Mausoleum. Once the scaffolding had been assembled on the site, and the necessary conservation materials had been delivered from Europe to Herat, work could begin in conserving the existing tiles and tracing the patterns of the muqarnas and kufic tiles so as to be able to work towards reproduction of these complicated and beautiful tiles within Afghanistan. Progress was also made on the building of a surrounding wall and the archeological cleaning of the site as a whole. A selected local company will begin work from early November 2014 on the cleaning of the site and building a wall to protect the archeological and historical value of the Timurid remains and so as to show UNESCO’s commitment to safeguarding these unique and globally significant monuments.