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Blue Mosque, Afghanistan

Blue Mosque in Mazar-I-Sharif, Afghanistan: A Shrine of Renowned Beauty

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Afghanistan is these days often associated with war and tragedy. However, it has a long history and has been an important cultural center for many centuries. The Asian country has numerous spectacular buildings and one of the most beautiful is the Blue Mosque, often known as the Shrine of Ali in Mazar-i-Sharif. This remarkable place of worship has been fortunate to escape the many wars and conflicts that have ravaged Afghanistan in modern times.

Where is the Blue Mosque and Shrine of Ali located?

The Mosque and shrine are located in Mazar-i-Sharif, which is in the north of Afghanistan, not far from the border with Uzbekistan, and the fourth largest city. Mazar-i-Sharif is named after the tomb in the Mosque (the shrine of the magnificent). The Mosque is in the heart of the city and dominates the skyline of the city. It is not just a shrine and a place of worship, it is also a place of education and one of the most important civic spaces in the city.  There is a monument to the national hero Ahmad Shah Massoud, Mujahadin leader, who fought both the Soviets and the Taliban, before his assassination in 2001. 

Construction of the Mosque

The Mosque is in a large, enclosed public space paved with tiles and slabs that are a bright white. The walls are tiled with polychrome tiles, but the dominant color is bright blue and they are arranged in geometric patterns all around the buildings.

The geometric patterns of the tiles (timsimages.uk/ Adobe Stock)

The geometric patterns of the tiles ( timsimages.uk/ Adobe Stock)

The building is 174 by 124 feet large (53 x 38 meters) and very beautiful. Two magnificent blue cupolas, the largest one being approximately 50 feet (15 meters) in width are to be found as well as a number of minarets and towers and two arches stand at the entrances to the east and the west of the complex. The Blue Mosque is roughly rectangular and at the heart of the place of worship is a spectacular tomb chamber which is located directly under the largest cupola.  The complex has been greatly expanded down the centuries and new tombs have been built in the Mosque.

Hundreds of Years of History

Sultan Ahmed Seljuk, the ruler of the powerful Seljuk Empire built the first known shrine at the site in the 1130s. The shrine and a mosque stood here for almost a century before the coming of Genghis Khan and the Mongols, although the place of worship may have been destroyed by them. In the 15 th century a sultan of the Timurid Dynasty , that is one of the descendants of the fearsome conqueror Timur the Lame, built the present-day mosque. The Timurid ruler Sultan Husayn Mirza Bayqarah (1469-1506) was a noted patron of the arts and he built the Mosque as part of a plan to develop the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. The shrine and Mosque were extensively restored during the 20th century.

Reconstruction of Timur from his skull (CC BY SA 3.0)

Reconstruction of Timur from his skull ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

Thousands of Shia pilgrims visit the Blue Mosque and the shrine of Ali every year, especially during the celebration of New Year (Neuroz) on the 21 st of March as the shrine is sacred to Shia Muslims.

Legends of the Mosque

When the tomb was re-discovered, it prompted the Seljuk Sultan to build the first shrine and mosque. Today it has many legends told about it, especially with regard to who is buried in the shrine. Some believe that Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin of the Prophet Muhammed and the fourth Caliph (600-601 AD), was reportedly transported here by a white camel to be interred in the tomb in the Mosque. This was to prevent the mutilation and desecration of his body after he was slain in battle at Najaf. Ali is very important to those who adhere to Shia Islam. Most Muslims, however, do not believe that Ali is buried in the tomb, believing instead that he is buried in the Imam Ali Mosque, in Najf, southern Iraq.

Night view Imam Ali Mosque, Najf (homocosmicos/ Adobe Stock)

Night view Imam Ali Mosque, Najf ( homocosmicos/ Adobe Stock)

Another legend concerning the Blue Mosque was that the holy site was buried under a mound to save it from the fury of the Mongols.

There is also a legend that the Persian prophet Zoroaster was buried here. He was the founder of one of the world’s first monotheistic religion, Zoroastrianism. This was once widely practiced in Persia and there are still followers of the teaching of Zoroaster in Iran and India. However, this legend has no basis in fact even though the Persian prophet died in the nearby city of Balk, which is now abandoned.

How to get to the Blue Mosque and Shrine of Ali

Mazar-i-Sharif was occupied by the Taliban for several years before it was liberated by US backed forces in 2001. The security situation in Mazar-i-Sharif has improved and the city is now quite safe, but there is always the danger of Taliban or Islamic State terror attacks. The main problem is getting to the city, which is also famous for its markets. 

Top image: Blue Mosque, Afghanistan                    Source:   Markus S. / Adobe Stock

By Ed Whelan

References

Banting, E. 2003. Afghanistan: The Land . Crabtree Publishing Company

Available at: https://books.google.ie/books?hl=en&lr=&id=KRt0HfYFZGsC&oi=fnd&pg=PA4&dq=blue+mosque+afganisatan&ots=dhrlwDjyvc&sig=JmaaRdjHWVqO1v79vKoM5s6Xocg&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=blue%20mosque%20afganisatan&f=false

Don, N. 2014. Understanding Afghanistan Today . Mitchell Lane Publishers, Inc, pp 47-49

Available at: https://books.google.ie/books?hl=en&lr=&id=vvCXBgAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA5&dq=blue+mosque+afghanistan&ots=w2O2fHhhWL&sig=xR6ssW3YjoED1T4dPbGf5fazgAY&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=blue%20mosque%20afghanistan&f=false

Golombek, L., & Koch, E. 2017. The Mughals, Uzbeks, and the Timurid Legacy . A Companion to Islamic Art and Architecture, 811-845

Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/9781119069218.ch32

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