After Kabul, the next city I visited in Afghanistan was the city of Herat. Located on the border of Iran and Uzbekistan, Herat is much calmer than Kabul but not immune to violence. Only a week before I arrived, dozens had been killed after a NATO fire fight with militants. To be honest, I didn’t know much about Herat until I showed up, but after I left I believe it to be one of Afghanistan’s best cities. I had imaged Herat to be an old city with little modern infrastructure. As it turned out, that wasn’t the case and Herat had a mix of both old and new. On the left is a photo with an ancient city wall with dozens of modern satellite dishes in the foreground. The buildings on the right were being built in honor of the world trade center that was destroyed in 9/11. These bran new buildings are also called the twin towers and are the most prominent in Herat.
Herat is considered by many to be the cultural capital of Afghanistan. One of Herat’s marvels is the Masjid-i Jami’ of Herat, or the Friday Mosque in English. Many consider it to be the most beautiful mosque not only in Herat, but some go as far to say the most beautiful in all central and southern Asia. The Friday Mosque in Herat was first built in 1200 A.D by Ghorid Sultan Ghiyasuddin. Over the past 800 years the mosque has been severely damaged due to war and earthquakes. At the time that the mosque was originally built, buildings weren’t very artistic back then, so the original Friday mosque wasn’t as impressive or colorful as the one today. It’s believed that colorful mosaic tiles were added in the 1400s and then faded over the next few centuries. When I visited, workers at the mosque were hard at work doing restoration. The tile shop was one of the few internal parts of the mosque I was allowed to enter. Here is where they were creating new tiles for decorations and restorations. The rest of the mosque I was not allowed to enter since I was not Muslim. I did try to enter the main areas of the mosque anyway, but I was stopped by one of the mullahs who politely called me an infidel. Below are details of the Friday mosque; one of the minarets on the left and some of the new colorful tiles on the mosque’s entrance on the right. In the bottom center is a photograph of the founder of the mosque’s tomb. Like the photo on the left? It’s for sale here!
The photos above show people in the Friday Mosque’s gardens. The girl on the left was at the mosque entrance, while the three women on the right where seen elsewhere in Herat. I saw several women with blue burqas in Kabul which is supposed to be the current fashion, but they were much more popular in Herat than other parts of Afghanistan. I hear only black is used in Kandahar, the most conservative area of Afghanistan. I took the picture of the three women as I was passing by in a car, and a local police man saw me and gave me a crazy look. Nothing else happened, but my driver warned me that I could have been arrested!
Herat is another ancient Afghan city that has dozens of cemeteries dating back hundreds, if not thousands of years. Many Afghan kings and other famous citizens are buried in Herat. I’ll be honest when I say I have no idea who is buried in these surrounded tombs. I was under the assumption they were former Afghan kings, but because there is so little information on Afghanistan it’s been difficult for me to confirm!
The Musalla complex in Herat was another favorite of mine in Afghanistan. The complex has five minarets that are still standing, one of which has to be supported by cables. On the left is a shot of four of the minarets, with the lone fifth one on the right. I had wanted to visit the Minaret of Jam which is a 15 hour drive east of this city, but didn’t have the time and more importantly the road is controlled by the Taliban! The Minaret of Jam is twice the height of these and was built in a scenic area along a river. While it was a big disappointment to miss it, seeing these in Herat definitely made up for that.
The Mussalla complex was founded in the 15th century by Goharshad who was wife of the Timurid ruler Shah Rukh. Shah Rukh was known for his successful conquests in the region. After he captured Herat from the Kart Maliks, he made the city the capital of the Timur empire. Both Shah Rukh and his wife Goharshad were known for their cultural renaissance that they led during their life time. After Shah Rukh died in 1447, his wife continued to be an important figure in the Timur empire before it fell apart. On the left you can see another photo of one of the most impressive minarets in the complex. Directly above is the complex that holds the remains of Goharshad. The inside of the building is pretty impressive and is photographed below. Even the ceiling was beautifully designed, but I suppose Goharshad would have expected nothing less! The lower right is her sarcophagus as well as others from her immediate family. Like the photo of the minaret? It’s for sale here!
Over a thousand years before Shah Rukh and Goharshad ruled Herat, the famous Alexander the Great’s conquest led him to the city in 330 B.C. It was here that he built one of his most famous citadels. Over the next few centuries, Mongols, Shah Rukh, and other leaders continued to reinforce the citadel and it still stands proudly over Herat today. The 18th century Afghan kingdom even used it as a royal palace where they also had public baths, a treasury, and a prison.
The bath you see on the left was once used by one of the important family members living in the citadel, perhaps a prince or princess. On the right is the public bath which would have had been used by dozens of people. You can tell from all these surrounding photos that the citadel seemed to be completely constructed of bricks instead of solid stone. The photos below show some of the creative arches they made using bricks inside their long hallways. Of course some reconstruction has been done, but it’s still amazing how the citadel lasted this long.
Afghanistan has not really had the chance to fully explore the citadel, and when I visited it many parts were still being excavated. The photo on the left side shows Afghans uncovering a part of the citadel that was completely buried underground over the past centuries. Other parts like in the photo on the right have been preserved or restored. I wonder what kind of discoveries they might find as they continue exploring!
It seemed like there were so many places in Herat I had already visited that I thought I already checked off the most important sites. Gazar Gah is one of Afghanistan’s most holiest shrines and is dedicated to the poet Khoja Abdullah Ansari who lived around 1,000 A.D. The mosque and tombs together are considered the most important site in Herat by some. The area has a large cemetery that is the final resting place of some of the most famous people in the world. One sarcophagus contained the remains of another former King of Afghanistan, another the builder of the Taj Mahal in India, and yet another supposedly has the remains of Alexander the Great’s son who died at a young age in the region. Many other important tombs are in Gazar Gah from fighters of the Afghan-Anglo war to other sultans throughout Afghanistan’s history. The tomb of the poet Khoja Abdullah Ansari is at the front of the mosque near the tree and inside the blue tomb. No doubt about it Herat is one of Afghanistan’s most beautiful and interesting cities.
You wouldn’t believe the different stories I got of the people who are buried here. For example, I was told that the left sarcophagus contains the builder of the Taj Mahal who was actually an Afghan King, and that the sarcophagus on the right is the resting place of Alexander the Great’s son! I couldn’t find anything to back this up, and actually almost all sources believe he is buried in Greece, so this doesn’t even seem to be remotely true. What’s known for sure is the famous Khwaja Abdullah Ansari was buried here in 1098. He was a famous Persian who was known for his talks on the Koran, philosophy and for his poetry. He remains a very famous person to this day, not just in Iran or Afghanistan, but even in parts of central Asia.
I would have liked to visit some of the lush mountains that Afghanistan has along its eastern borders for the purposes of camping and viewing wildlife. Unfortunately I can only share these potato like bugs, rolly pollys as we call them back home. This is the only unique bug or animal I saw in Afghanistan that I hadn’t already seen before. In the right photo one of the bugs is eating one of his dead companions, suggesting that they eat anything. What makes this place pretty nasty is that these bugs were in a cemetery and there were tons of them walking around and coming out of the tunnels they built. The graves in this cemetery were built by poor people and are nothing more than a pile of dirt on top of the bodies. Its pretty obvious what the colony of bugs living here are using as food and must be a gruesome site underground.
For more modern times, Herat has one of the best museums in the country called the jihad museum. It is dedicated to the Afghan-Soviet war that took place in the 1980s. Most of the museum displays real weapons used in the war, such as the soviet helicopter above, ammunition below, and the mine that was common during the war on the lower right. Inside the museum is a spiraling staircase that takes you on a second floor with a 360 view of sculptures and paintings acting out famous parts of the battle. One example is the sculpture on the right that shows mujahideen forces taking over a soviet tank. I asked the curator if they had any stinger missiles. His answer was no, but he said someone had called in and said they would bring one next week.
Like Kabul, Herat has some very interesting markets and shopping to do. Something that I didn’t see in Kabul that I saw in Herat were tuk tuks like on the left. These are popular in southeast Asia, but I hadn’t seen one in Afghanistan until I came to Herat. Unlike the ones in Thailand, the tuk tuks here are each decorated differently by the drivers. I took one of them to drop me off at Herat’s main market. On the right is a carpet shop where some of them ranged from $50 to $400, great prices considering they can be several thousand in the west or even in neighboring Iran!
On the left is a photo of some Afghans looking into the window of an antique store. The photo on the right is the inside of an antique store where you could buy British muskets, ancient swords, and even 1,000 year old coins. Think of this store as a museum with ancient artifacts from the past two thousand years, just that everything is for sale!
When I was in one of the stores I got the attention of this young shy girl outside. She came up to the window and either was playing hide and seek or was playfully hiding her face for the camera.
This guy on the right was blowing glass and making things like vases and other items. I am not a big shopper and I almost never by souvenirs, but if I had the means to bring them home I would have definitely have bought a lot of interesting items from Herat. I did buy an Afghan hat from the store keeper on the left. He insisted I try it on while in the store and smiled with approval when I wore it. Lastly below, are two photos of a local trying out a traditional guitar and yet another Herat shopkeeper. I should mention that all the shop owners insisted I drink tea and brought out a large plate of fruits for me!