Third largest city in Afghanistan and important crossroad on the legendary Silk Road, when I asked Hamed to tell me something about it, he kicked off rather unflatteringly: “Living in Herat is pretty boring since you can’t go out of town and see places due to insurgents’ presence.” Definitely not your typical hometown introduction.
Under a historical point of view, Herat, and all of Afghanistan, boast fascinating traditions and a proud past, but sadly the last decades have been a never-ending succession of war, invasions and violence (and earthquakes, let’s not forget Mother Nature, the most recent shake dating back only to last October), leaving the people with the only hope to leave their beautiful country.
While I’m aware that visiting now Afghanistan is not recommended, I’m dying to visit the country, and this is why I find it all the more precious to get local insights and pictures from what’s today one of the most offbeat destinations.
Looking at the Afghanistan map, Herat is located in the western side of the country in it namesake province bordering with Iran. Ancient capital of the Timurid empire, it has a glorious past of cultural hub, and while its main historic attractions have been suffering from the effects of war and overall neglect, they are still worth visiting and exploring with Afghan culture in mind rather than only focusing on the most recent tragic Afghanistan news.
Submitted in UNESCO tentative list in 2004 by the local Ministry of Information and Culture, the city of Herat is described as being
of strategic, commercial and cultural significance to the wider region. Although the city has developed extensively in modern times, and has suffered the ravages of conflict, the site is unique in that it has largely retained its historical footprint, and many significant Islamic monuments have survived.
Even though strongly discouraging from traveling to Afghanistan now or, in case you didn’t listen and you went anyway, suggesting you get yourself a local trained security guard (tour guide is not enough!), these are the main sights Hamed likes in Herat:
The Qala Ikhtyaruddin Citadel
Recently restored, the Qala Ikhtyaruddin Citadel has been defined in many ways, from symbol of hope in Afghanistan to epitome of the country’s past glory, looks spectacularly huge. Located in the heart of modern Herat, this magnificent sandcastle dates back to the days of Alexander the Great nonetheless, around 330BC, making it one of the very first attractions I will visit when I’ll go there. Because one day I will, eventually.
Here is a photo of Herat from 1879 and the citadel is visible:
Masjid Jame of Herat, or Great Mosque
Considered one of the most important Islamic buildings of the region, Herat’s Great Mosque was built around 1200 AD by Ghurids, the Sultan Ghayas-ud-Din Ghori. Herat’s largest mosque, it’s mainly frequented by Sunnis rather than the Shia population.
Gazar Gah Shrine
Mausoleum of Sufi mystic Khwajah Abdullah Ansari who died in 1098 and whose tomb was commissioned by the Timurid ruler Shah Rukh bin Timur. Considered the wise man of Herat, Khwajah Abdullah Ansari he was well-known for his oratory and poetry, alongside his knowledge of the Koran, Islamic mysticism and philosophy.
The whole city of Herat, being very ancient and with a truly stormy past, is a jewel to visit, even though the last decades of war have been detrimental for both tourism and residents’ morale. “For ordinary people the town is safe,” says Hamed, “but for the rich people it is not, and they pretty much all either have bodyguard or carry registered weapons. The kidnapping and threatening of rich people happen everyday.”
“Infastructure is not good but it’s okay if we compare it to what we find in other provinces,” he adds. “Private sector is running the public transport and it’s not bad, even though people are forced to sit in four on a seat for two.”
After security, lack of proper electricity and stove gas are the biggest problems,” he carries on. “The power cut is a huge issue especially in summer and winter because it’s either with extreme heat or cold that we need more electricity.”
Although Hamed is pretty negative, he admits it’s not all bad: “We produce the world’s highest quality of saffron and Herat grape is also very well known. I love the fact that everything we eat is fresh and not kept in fridges for weeks or months.”
We all hope one day soon we will be able to eat those fresh fruits and veggies and walk along the Afghan stops of the ancient Silk Road.