Delhi, India & Lahore, Pakistan
The last great Turkic empire to arise in Central Asia was that of the Mughals, which at its height in the late Middle Ages dominated much of Afghanistan, Persia, Pakistan and India. Nominally descended from the empire of Timur, the Mughal Empire reached its peak during the reign of Shah Jahan in the 17th century. Shah Jahan, who was largely responsible for expanding the Mughal Empire into India, made his mark on many of his conquered cities and lands by constructing a series of magnificent forts and mosques that stretched across the Subcontinent. Virtually every major mosque in India and Pakistan is attributable to Shah Jahan who, with the possible exception of Mimar Sinan, was the greatest contributor to Islamic architecture in history.
Central Asia, and most of the rest of Asia for that matter, spent the better part of five centuries enduring wave after wave of nomadic invasions from various Turkic and Mongol tribes. Until the 16th century, however, the peoples of India and the Subcontinent were largely spared the ravages that plagued their neighbors. However, India’s luck ran out in the early-mid 1500s, when Babur, a descendent and heir to Tamerlane, swept down from the Central Asian Steppe with his horde into the Hindu Kush in what is considered to be the last great Mongol onslaught. By the time of Babur’s death, the Mughals had conquered all of Afghanistan, Pakistan and much of northern India.
As the Mughals expanded their power, they put great effort in promoting the welfare of their Islamic subjects and endeavored to make many new additional Muslim converts. The most successful Muslim ruler in this respect was Shah Jahan, who ruled the Mughal Empire throughout much of the 17th century. When Shah Jahan was born in Lahore in 1592 AD, he inherited an enormous empire, but an empire with many difficulties. By the time he ascended the throne in his thirties, the Mughal Empire was facing encroachments by rival Muslim realms, European adventurers from Portugal and scattered insurgencies throughout his own realm.
Most of the early years of his reign were spent reforming the government and economy in order to support large-scale military operations. The better part of the next thirty years he spent expanding his realm and crushing all opposition. By the time he was done the Mughals had defeated the various insurgent movements, driven the Portugese out of Bengal and expanded across vast swaths of Northern India. In his day he created the greatest empire that the Asian subcontinent had yet seen, and the largest Muslim realm ever to arise outside of the Middle East.
But for all of his conquests, Shah Jahan was best known as one of Asia’s greatest builders. Despite the economic strains of his wars, the emperor managed to pour vast sums into civic improvements and monuments. Virtually every major city in Pakistan and Northern India boasts at least one magnificent mosque constructed during Shah Jahan’s reign. His greatest achievements other than the Taj Mahal, and religiously his most important, are the Jama Masjid of Delhi in India and the Masjid Wazir Khan of Lahore in Pakistan. These mosques, and others, would help to define the religious architecture of Central Asia in much the same way tha Sinan’s work would come to define architecture in Turkey.
The Jama Masjid in Old Delhi is the most famous and the most stunning mosque in India. It is also one of the largest mosques in the Subcontinent. Built of red brick with extensive marble and white stone accents, it features a spectacular colonnaded façade typical of Shah Jahan’s works, as well as minarets at the four corners and three domes. One of the most striking differences of the Jama Masjid from Shah Jahan’s other mosques is that it stands at the top of a hill and must be accessed by one of three immense staircases. In 2006 a bomb was detonated inside, but the mosque sustained only very minor damage. As of this writing it is assumed that any necessary repairs have been completed.
The Masjid Wazir Khan in Lahore is the best known of the mosques built by Shah Jahan in Pakistan, though interestingly it is not that city’s largest or most sacred mosque. Constructed in the mid-17th century by one of Shah Jahan’s favorite ministers, it is architecturally one of the world’s most unique mosques. Though the Masjid Wazir Khan has been criticized for its strange color schemes and industrial-looking brickwork, the mosque’s façade, which features an impressive Persian-style gate flanked by artistically octoganal minarets, is breathtaking. Inside the mosque is the tomb of Miran Badshah, a Persian scholar, which dates from before the construction of the mosque.
The Jama Masjid is located close to the Red Fort in Old Delhi on the north side of the city. It is open from shortly after sunrise to just before sunset, closed to non-Muslims during prayer times. There is no cost of admission, however there is a camera fee. The Masjid Wazir Khan is part of a cluster of Shah Jahan sites located in the old city of Lahore, approximately 250 miles northwest of Delhi and 620 miles northeast of Karachi. As of this writing no other visitor information was available for this site. Web: www.delhitourism.gov.in (official website); www.tourism.gov.pk (official website)
Shah Jahan began his great construction campaign even before ascending his father’s throne, leaving literally dozens of monuments to posterity. In Delhi-Agra, he constructed the Delhi Fort, the Agra Fort and the Jama Masjid of Agra, as well as the Taj Mahal. Lahore boasts Shah Jahan’s greatest buildings in Pakistan, including the Lahore Fort, the Moti (Pearl) Mosque and the Jahangir Mausoleum where his father is buried. Also in Lahore is the breathtaking Masjid Badshahi. The small town of Thatta near Karachi is home to another of his most famous mosques, the Masjid Shah Jahan of Thatta.