The city of Nishapur existed as early as the Sassanian dynasty, remaining an important city throughout the ninth and tenth centuries, up until the Seljuk period. In 1153 it was attacked by the Ghuzz and was further damaged by several earthquakes in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In 1221, it was razed by the Mongols. The political and cultural importance of Nishapur is recounted in many medieval writings, such that from 1935-1940, and again in 1947, the Iranian Expedition of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art conducted an archaeological excavation.
Historical references reveal that by the eleventh century, at least thirty-eight madrasas existed in Nishapur. Prior to excavation, the site showed no signs, other than a large mound, that a great madrasa lay buried beneath its agricultural fields. Excavations revealed up to six levels, built on top of each other, whose construction spanned (at least) from the ninth to the thirteenth century. Although the various levels revealed periods of destruction and restoration, alteration, and even complete rebuilding, the overall layout remained relatively consistent. The ruins of the buildings were organized around three sides of a roughly quadrilateral clearing measuring approximately 40 by 60 meters and opening, on the southeast side, onto a cultivated field. From this it may be deduced that the typology of organizing spaces around a courtyard was established early in Iranian architectural history.
The lowest excavated level dates from the ninth century and is believed to have been built by the Tahirid ruler 'Abdallah ibn Tahir (828-845). These spaces are large and well laid out, one leading into another. Most of the spaces in the upper levels, from the Samanid and Seljuk periods, were further subdivided, yet certain elements remain relatively similar in each of the excavated levels. For example, each of the three sides where buildings were excavated contained more than two dozen rooms. The buildings were organized to the northeast, northwest, and southwest of what may have been a rectangular courtyard with large pillars, measuring 2.5 by 3 meters, outlining its perimeter. This organization provided proof that the typology of the courtyard plan was established early in the founding of the madrasa.
The rooms in the southwest portion of the madrasa have a rather labyrinthine organization, and it is difficult to decipher a specific logic within the overall plan. Of particular interest is a circular space, the only one found in the entire complex, embedded within the dense fabric of the madrasa. The various layers of excavation revealed that this space was originally coffered and ornamented with painted and molded plaster.
Most of the rooms excavated in the northwest portion of the site are very large and are organized parallel and perpendicular to what must have been the courtyard. The configuration of the larger chambers in this part of the complex remains almost unchanged throughout all building stages, while some of the smaller rooms have merged or been further subdivided. At various locations, passageways have over time also either been shut or opened. To the north, and accessed directly from the court, is a large space that is very long and leads in to a large square chamber. Both spaces are present at every level of construction with minimal alterations in the plan. The only mihrab found in the entire northwest part of the complex is found in this square room. On the level of the most recent period of construction, only the top portion of the trefoil arch is still extant. At the earliest ninth-century level of construction one finds the entire mihrab as it was originally built, set in a shallow niche in the brick wall. Another prominent space runs parallel to the courtyard. During the latest period of construction it was accessed through small anterooms at the intervals between the large perimeter courtyard piers. A this time a wall also subdivided the space into a rectangle and a square, a configuration not present in earlier construction periods. Earlier construction periods also show different ways of accessing the courtyard.
The two most prominent features of the assemblage of rooms excavated to the northeast of the complex are a rectangular prayer hall and an ab-anbar
, an octagonal subterranean chamber. The large rectangular prayer hall was approximately eleven meters long and nine meters wide, and is believed to have been vaulted. The perimeter walls were very massive, measuring up to four meters in thickness. A mihrab was set in a deep rectangular niche at the center of the back southwestern wall. The main difference among the plans from each building period is the way that this space was entered. During the earliest period, the prayer hall was composed of only three sides, with the northeast side opening onto a courtyard. In subsequent periods, this wall was closed and small entrances were carved on the southeast wall near the east corner and the northwest wall near the west corner. Located approximately fifteen meters northwest of the prayer hall was a large subterranean octagonal space with a sixteen-meter-square exterior perimeter. Believed to have been originally domed, it had deep rectangular alcoves at each of its facets, with the exception of the facet to the northeast, where a staircase began its ascent. A circular pool two meters in diameter occupied the center of the space and is believed to have been fed by a qanat.
Artifacts of various types of ornament were found throughout the complex in the many building layers that were excavated. The most prominent forms of decoration found were carved and painted plaster; slotted brickwork in geometric patterns and carved bricks with inscriptions and vegetal designs were also present. Remnants of carved stone, of a quality similar to alabaster, were also found in the prayer hall.
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