Under Massive Renovation 🙂
Herat is a special city not just in Afghanistan but the entire world. Years later it still has left a lasting impression with its rich history and culture. It’s a place that’s considered by many to be the cultural capital of Afghanistan and a destination that you’ll never feel that you have enough time for. One of Herat’s marvels is the Masjid-i Jami’ of Herat, or the Friday Mosque in English. Some say not only is it the most beautiful mosque in Herat, but possibly all of central and southern Asia. The Friday Mosque in Herat was first built in 1200 CE 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, so the original Friday mosque wasn’t nearly as impressive or colorful as the one today.
It’s believed that colorful mosaic tiles were added in the 1400’s and then faded over the next few centuries. When I visited, Afghans at the mosque were hard at work doing restoration. The tile shop was one of the few parts of the mosque I was allowed to enter, and they demonstrated how they were creating new tiles for the inside of the mosque. After trying to go inside the mosque I was stopped by one of the mullahs who politely called me an infidel. Above and below are some details of the Friday mosque. The colorful minaret above and the incredible details below show how much work has been done here.
These are some photos from people in the Friday Mosque. Herat is considered more liberal than other parts of Afghanistan such as Kandahar. Most men and women in those regions wear black, while in Herat you can see the men have white robes and headdresses on.
The girl above was at the mosque entrance, while the three women below 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. Like I mentioned earlier about Kandahar and the southern regions of Afghanistan, black is worn by everyone there and you’ll never see blue, white, or gold. 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!
To be honest, I didn’t know much about Herat until I arrived, but my expectations were low. I had imaged Herat to be an old city with little modern infrastructure. As it turned out, that wasn’t the case. In the photo above you can see parts of an ancient city wall next dozens of modern satellite dishes. I couldn’t confirm this, but I was told by locals that the buildings below were being built in honor of the World Trade Center that was destroyed on 9/11. These bran new buildings are also called the twin towers and are the most prominent structures in Herat.
Although Herat has some new infrastructure coming its way, it’s most known for its ancient history. I visited some cemeteries that date back to hundreds, if not thousands of years. Many Afghan kings and other famous citizens are buried in Herat. Within this mausoleum are several elegant tombs, such as the one photographed below. A bit of an issue was the languages barrier and reliable information. I have no idea who is buried in these tombs, but was under the assumption they were former Afghan kings.
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. Above is a shot of four of the minarets, with the lone fifth photographed below.
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 alongside a scenic 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. The tomb above is their final resting place
The inside of Goharshad’s tomb is pretty impressive. The sarcophagi above contain Goharshad as well as immediate family members. The photo below shows the beautifully designed interior, but I suppose Goharshad would have expected nothing less.
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 BCE. 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. Above and below are photos of the fortress, definitely one of the most impressive ancient castles I’ve ever seen!
The bath you see above was once used by one of the important family members living in the citadel, perhaps a prince or princess. Below you can see a much larger public bath which would have had been used by dozens of people. It seems like those living in Herat in ancient times didn’t have such a bad life back then.
You can tell from all these surrounding photos that the citadel seemed to be completely constructed of bricks instead of solid stone. This ancient hallway has obviously been restored, but I found it incredible to think such a place survived so long. Below you can see some of the creative arches they created that were used inside their long hallways.
There’s no such thing as a guide in the citadel, at least when I visited! So I assume that this paintwork above was restored recently. Afghanistan has not really had the chance to fully explore the citadel themselves. When I visited it many parts were still being excavated. The photo below shows Afghans uncovering a part of the citadel that was completely buried for centuries. I wonder what kind of discoveries they might find as they continue exploring.
Just when you think you’ve scratched the surface with exploring Herat you find you’re only getting started. 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.
You wouldn’t believe the different stories I got of the people who are buried here. For example, I was told that the sarcophagus above contains the builder of the Taj Mahal who was actually an Afghan King, and that the sarcophagus below 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.
In another cemetery I got some nature shots. 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 pill bugs, or 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. What makes this place pretty unnerving is that these bugs were dominating a cemetery, with hundreds of them going in and out of 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.
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. 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 a tuk tuk and was dropped off at Herat’s main market. This photo was from a carpet shop where the prices ranged from $50 to $400. This is actually reasonably cheap considering they can be several thousand dollars in the west or even in neighboring Iran!
Shopping is a pretty interesting experience in Heart. Some of the shops were antique stores, but to me they seemed more like museums with everything for sale. One of them I visited sold everything from British muskets, ancient swords, and even 1,000 year old coins. Nothing was ridiculously priced, likely because of the lack of tourists forming a line out the door. There were a lot of local window shoppers though.
When I was in one of the stores I got the attention of this young girl outside. She came up to the window and either was playing hide and seek or was camera shy.
All the shopkeepers were incredibly friendly, almost to a point of being overwhelming. And I don’t mean overwhelming by being pushy, they were quite the opposite. Most insisted I sit down and came out with a basket of fruits. Others allowed me to try on local Afghan hats and clothing and encouraged me to take photos. One of the stores here even had a glassblowing shop on site!
This old man unfortunately did not speak any English, but I could tell by his energy and the way he tried to communicate he had a lot of things to tell me. I also couldn’t help but think he looked like Gandolf from Lord of the Rings, especially with all his wizard like trinkets he kept around. In the photo below, a local Afghan shows me a traditional guitar that is popular in this region.
Despite all the ancient sites and antiques in Herat, the city has one of the most impressive and modern museums in the country. Dedicated to the Afghan-Soviet war that took place in the 1980’s, it is known as the Jihad Museum. Most of the museum displays real weapons used in the war, such as the soviet helicopter above. They’ve put a lot of work into the museum for sure, which underscores their pride in the Soviet victory. One area takes you up a spiraling staircase where you step onto a platform for a 360 degree view. All around you are sculptures of battle, such as this one below where mujahideen forces take over a soviet tank.
I found a lot of the artifacts on site to be interesting. You often hear about things like mines and other weapons in war but rarely see them. I’ve traveled places that have been marked as dangerous because of land mines, but I’ve never actually seen one laid out before me. The curator was a professional but not so nice looking man who had fought in the war himself. I asked him if they had any stinger missiles on display. His answer was no, but said someone had called in and said, “they would bring one next week”.