A World Heritage site, the Qutub Minar and its surrounding monuments are among Delhi’s top historic sights. Although the tapering axial tower of the Qutub Minar is the most famous monument, there’s more to see. Begin at the forlorn rubble of the Alai Minar, a victory tower ambitiously begun by Alauddin Khalji in an effort to rival the Qutub Minar.
After that, move on to the imposing Quwwat-ul-Islam (`Might of Islam’) Mosque, one of the earliest examples of Islamic architecture in India - work began in 1192 AD under Sultan Qutubuddin Aibak. The mosque was built on the ruins of 27 Hindu and Jain temples, and signs of the original carving can still be seen in places.
Walk to beyond the exquisitely carved screens of the mosque, and you’ll reach the ornate Tomb of Sultan Shamsuddin Iltutmish, consolidator of the Delhi Sultanate. The tomb’s interior is heavily carved and was once topped by a dome (it’s open to the elements now). The white marble grave that you see in the tomb is a dummy; the actual grave is in a crypt below. From the tomb, walk on towards the main attraction of the site, the Qutub Minar.
The red and buff sandstone tower known as the Qutub Minar is the largest standing stone minaret in the world and dates back to 1199 A.D. The bottom three stories of the tower were built by Qutubuddin Aibak, and the 4th and 5th were built by Sultan Alauddin Khalji. Later rulers repaired it and added features such as railings (courtesy Sikandar Lodhi) and a hideous "mock Mughal" cupola (added by a Britisher called Major Smith; it was later removed at the orders of the more aesthetically astute Lord Hardinge). The cupola today stands on the lawn nearby and is called Smith’s Folly - in more ways than one! But what’s worth admiring is the soaring Qutub Minar, with its 24 flutings- alternating semi-circular and angular "ribs" decorated with wide bands of beautifully carved Quranic verses. It’s awesome.
Next to the minaret is the square chamber of red sandstone and white marble, known as the Alai Darwaza. The Alai Darwaza was built in 1311 by Alauddin Khalji as the southern entrance to the Qutub Minar, and has an unusual feature - the exterior has been carved in such a way that it looks like a two-storied structure. It’s profusely carved, and although it’s all stone, parts of it resemble carved timber.
Next to the Alai Darwaza is the Tomb of Imam Zamin (d.1536), the head ulema of the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque. Not spectacular, but peek in while you’re exploring the area. The Qutub Archaeological Site is open from sunrise to sunset. Entry is US$5.