Mosques of the 8th Century in Khorasan


Abdul Hai Habibi


With the coming of Arabs in the 8th century, mosques were built in most of the major cities of Khorasan. Although many were destroyed by Genghis Khan, the ruins of some still exist. Some were built on sites where temples had previously existed. One such example is noted by Narshaki, the author of the History of Bukhara. After taking Bukhara, the Arab conqueror Moslem ba-Hali built a large mosque in the heart of the city where a temple had been before. Every Friday the following public cry was made at this mosque: “Anyone who will come to Friday prayers will be awarded two dirhams.” Moslem ba-Hali also erected an Eidgah mosque where solemn feasts and festivasl were held near Registan.

The Bukhara mosque lasted until the reign of Fazl bin Yahya who ruled about 794 A.D. He built new mosques in Hasar and Sharistan and converted the old mosque into a tribunal of justice and revenue collection. Three mosques were built in Merv about the same time. They included the mosque of the city, the Eteeq mosque and the Fajan Merv.

When Arab conquerors reached the eastern parts of Afghanistan near the banks of the Indus in 768 A.D. they seized the capital of the Sani dynasty, Gandahara, destroyed its temple and replaced it with a mosque. This event is recorded by the ruler Belazari in his book about the conquest of this region.

The Arab historian Maqdasi writes: When the cornerstone of the city of Mansura, in Sind, was laid in 831 a mosque of stone and brick was erected in the center of the city and was supported by wooden pillars.

The Jami mosque in Heart is believed to have been built at about this time too. According to the writer of Hudod-ul-Alam, it was more beautiful than any other mosque in Khorasan. It had wooden foundations and was situated in the heart of the city near the bazaars and the prison. Another Arab historian, Esfrzari, says that on the 8th of Jamadi-ul-Awal 495 A.H. (May 1101 A.D.) the mosque was destroyed by a meteorite. It was rebuilt, but Menhaj Seraj records its devastation by fire during the Ghorid rule. In 1200 Sultan Ghiasuddin rebuilt the whole mosque using bricks and it may still be visited today.

A mosque was built in the 8th century in Balkh by Fazl bin Yahya, the governor of Khorasan. He visited the mother of cities and found that parts of the temple of Now Bahar still remained. Fazl wanted to destroy this symbol of the period of ignorance and replace it with a mosque, buts its foundations were so strong that they could not be completely razed, reports the Arab historian Ibne Kheljan. 

Thus part of the temple remained and a mosque was built on top of the ruins. It was reputed to be one of the most beautiful and was praised by many poets, who particularly mentioned its steps. This mosque was still in existence during the reign of Ibne Batuta around 1334. He wrote that “Genghis Khan in greed destroyed parts of the mosque because he hoped to find a treasure under one of its pillars.” Batuta also claims that this mosque was more beautiful than Rabat-ul-Fath, a mosque in the neighboring land to the west. According to other historians of Balkh, the wife of Daud bin Ali, a ruler in the Al-Abas dynasty, donated precious stones to be used in this mosque.

Another famous mosque is mentioned by the anonymous writer of the History of Seistan. Abdullah bin Ali Barda, the governor of Seistan about 729 built a mosque near the gateway to Pars. This place of prayers was unique in that it had two minarets. Yaqub Layse Safari, a later ruler, built a third minaret for the mosque which was located near the prison in Zaranj. According to Maqsadi this mosque lasted until the 11th century.

The oldest mosque in Ghazni was built where the temple of Loyak once stood just northwest of the city near the Bamian pass. When Sultan Sakhi Sarwar bin Sayed Zeinulabedin, who died in 1181, came to Ghazni, he found the idol of the first ruler of the Loyak dynasty in the courtyard of the mosque encrusted with silver.

Abu Hamid Alzawali quotes Imam Hasan Segani, the renowned scholar of the 13th century as saying: “Near the city of Ghazni, close to the Bamian pass lies a magnificent mosque which was known by the name of Temple of Alfa Loyak. The structure was a glorious temple built by Wejweir Loyak for Ratbeel, the Kabul Shah ruler. Although Wejweir’s son, Khakan embraced Islam, he did not dare to destroy his grandfather’s idol so he covered it with silver and buried it in the temple. When Sultan Sakhi came to the temple he suspected the presence of an idol and after an exhaustive search found it and destroyed it, donating the silver for the construction of the new mosque.” Alzawali’s report in the Keramat of Sakhi Sarwar (Miracles of Sakhi Sarwar) shows that the Ghazni mosque was still in existence until at least 1174 A.D. It was probably razed by Genghis Khan.

Al-Basri mentions another mosque built in the 8th century in his book Absan al-Taqaseem. He says that the tribe of Bin Moslem Bahali in Sheyan, a city inhabited by the Eshkemish tribe, built a mosque near a spring. It is thought to be one of the oldest in Afghanistan. The Bin Moslem tribe belonged to the armies of the Bani Umiya dynasty which ruled the northern regions of Afghanistan razed by Genghis Khan.

The typical design of mosques of Islamic era is revealed in those found in eastern Khorasan. A typical example is the Bambood mosque, 20 miles southeast of Karachi, where several tablets have been found, one in Kufi writing. The inscription reads that the mosque was built in 725 during the rule of Ali Marwan bin Mohammad by Ali Mousa. Another tablet gives the name of the Amir of Sind, Mohammad bin Abdul Rahim, with the date 907.

The mosque was 75 by 58 feet. The hall where prayers were recited had 33 pillars in three rows. This mosque did not have a concave alter facing Mecca like most of the ancient mosques. The first one with such an alter was built in 704 during the reign of Walid Omari in Egypt. The design of the Karachi mosque resembles those in Basra and Kufa which were built between 600 and 669 and the Jami mosque of Wasit. None of these mosques had altars.

Another mosque in this area was built in 710 by the Arab conqueror, Mohammd bin Qasim, near Auror, the capital of Rajeh near Sind, now called Rohari. Two walls of this mosque contain mosaics from that time.

Archeologists have found that in the mosques of Khorsasan, local design is combined with that from the lands to the west. The walls, divisions, and mosaics are purely Khorasani while the flower designs are similar to mosques of Khorasan’s western neighbors.

Another mosque with a well-known plan is the one built in Sharistan of Neshapur. The Arab historian, Maqsadi, write that it was built out of wood by Abu Moslem in 746 A.D. Later bricks were added by Omar Layse Safari. The mosque had three porches. Its hall had 11 doors and elaborately decorated walls and ceilings.

Yaqub al-Hakim says in his History of Neshapur that the mosque covered 15 acres and that it had 1000 pillars. A thousand men could pray under its ceiling. More than 100 men were employed to take care of this large structure. Its altar and pillars were covered with 100,000 misqals[1] of silver and gold. Historians believe that few other mosques in Khorasan matched it.

Archeologists find the mosque built in Shiraz by Omar Layse Safari in 893 especially interesting. It had an alter in its southern corner coated with gypsum and adorned with a flower design, another example of the intermingling of Khorasani and western art.

The French orientalist, Gustav LeBon, writes in the Civilization of Islam and the West that the main features of these mosques were the vestibules lined with columns fronted by large courtyards with pools of water for ablutions. The muzzins called the people to prayer from the towers at the edge of the courtyards. The northern and southern ends of the mosques were used as inns for travelers and on the eastern side were stables and bathrooms.

Modern mosques follow similar designs to those common throughout the Islamic world between the 8th and 13th centuries which varied from one another only slightly depending on local traditional art and the needs of society.



[1] One misqal=70 grams.