Madrasa al-Yazdi

ARound: Najaf’s schools and madrasas

In part five of Round City’s ARound: Najaf series, Iraqi architect and PhD candidate Turath Jamil examines the city’s educational spaces.

One of the main characteristics of Najaf, besides the Mausoleum of Imam Ali, is its religious schools (madrasas). The importance of the city resides within its religious relation to Shia Islam, and its educational spaces further reinforce this link by teaching the Shia doctrine. They also reflect the city’s long architectural heritage established over the centuries. In this article, we are going to explore the architecture of these schools and their importance within the city in parallel with economic, social and religious aspects. 

Mausoleum of Imam Ali

Teaching in Najaf gained notability when the renowned Persian scholar Nasir al-Din al-Tusi emigrated from Baghdad in the middle of the 11th century. While historians believe there to be a continuity of teaching Islamic studies from Imam Ali’s time in Kufa (and a subsequent transference of this to Najaf), in reality, there is no evidence of schools in a modern sense in Najaf before al-Tusi’s arrival. In addition, at the time, Basra and Baghdad were bigger scholastic hubs that attracted students and both cities shared regional dominance in the field. After the arrival of al-Tusi in Najaf though, he worked to establish his own school, and he structured a study methodology that would later be followed by his students. This school was known by the name al-Hawza, and it bears similarities to al-Azhar in Eygpt. Al-Hawza was started by al-Tusi along with his students, which at the time numbered around 300, but today, only 30 are known by name.

Since al-Tusi’s establishment of his school, Najaf remained a center of study, even while al-Hawza moved to other cities, and this is evident in the gradual rise of students and growing number of schools since the first registered permission was given to teach in the 11th century. In 1908, there were more than 22 religious schools that taught 5,000 to 6,000 students, whose studies were sponsored, along with their accommodation and life cost. Now, there are about 15,000 students and 15 historical schools throughout Najaf, not counting the modern schools recently built.

The above map highlights the locations of Najaf’s schools

These schools are all integrated within the city’s urban tissue. In some, we can distinguish the entrance by its decoration or form of its iwans, which typically draw inspiration from the gates of the mausoleum in the heart of the city. The importance of the school is relative to its distance from the mausoleum and the similarity in its decoration. Most of the schools were founded and financed by either a religious sheikh or donor (after whom the school is also named). Each sheikh teaches in his school and usually after his death, one of his students continues in his steps.

The existing schools are of relatively modern construction dating from the mid-19th century, despite their existence in Najaf dating back to the 11th or 12th century. In general, these schools are composed of different levels, with at least one floor above ground and one underground (quite similar to the houses of Najaf). Some schools have three or four levels underground, which are used by the students especially during the summer as informal study spaces for religious circles are formed. Each school features common functions starting with a library, teaching rooms, shared spaces and dormitories.

Schools of Najaf have their own stories and architectural characteristics, but nearly all share the same architectural elements. The most important school, historically speaking, is al-Madrasa al-Gharawiyya, which is located within the complex of the mausoleum. Its actual form dates back to the construction of the mausoleum in the 17th century, and its entrance can be reached via the mausoleum’s courtyard. Al-Madrasa al-Gharawiyya consists of three floors that were completely rebuilt during the rehabilitation project of the complex between 2006 and 2010.

A bit further from the mausoleum is Madrasa al-Hindi, which as of late goes by Madrasa al-Imam Baqir. It was founded in 1910 by Ali Khan al-Lahuri and comprises one floor in the shape of a square. At its centre, there is a courtyard surrounded by 22 rooms, 19 of which are bedrooms for the students. At the four corners, staircases lead to the three underground floors, which are now in poor condition and are not useable. The design of the school is very simple; there is nearly nothing to mention except for the muqarnas that decorate the four corners.

One of the schools that stand out the most in Najaf is Madrasa al-Yazdi. This school was destined to be demolished during the mid-20th century to make space for a new road, but Sheikh Kashif al-Ghita’ protected the building and influenced the changing of the road passage. It was founded in 1904 by Muhammad Kathim al-Yazdi and financed by the minister Astaqali al-Bukhari. Its architecture reflects local aspects and can be considered the only example today that has not had many modifications to its architecture or decoration. The school, like others, is built across two floors around a square courtyard. This courtyard is surrounded by iwans from all sides, and behind each iwan there is a bedroom for two students. Some of the iwans feature closed wooden decorated façades, while others on the upper floor boast muqarnas. The rest of the iwan walls are fully adorned with colorful faience locally named al-Qashani, which greatly echoes the faience of the mausoleum. Elsewhere in the school, near the entrance, there is another small courtyard decorated with bricks and wooden shanashil in modern style. The school has four basements on one underground level, which are being rehabilitated as libraries and classrooms.

The modern schools in Najaf tend to be built with concrete rather than brick, but in all cases, their decoration with colourful faience is maintained as tradition, showing their religious disposition along with their relation to the mausoleum. Since 2003, Najaf set out to be a centre for the teaching of the Shia doctrine, coinciding with its defining role as a destination for religious tourism for Muslims all around the world.

Read more: ARound: Najaf

This article was written by Turath Jamil, a Paris-based architect originally from Baghdad, Iraq, and is originally part of his ongoing PhD thesis research. He works with Fevre et Gaucher / 5-cinq, and is a PhD candidate in art history at Sorbonne University. He is also a coordinator for Tamayouz Excellence Award and oversees the Iraqi Graduation Projects Award.