Afghanistan – The Ancient City of Herat


Further down the silk road sits the ancient city of Herat, known as the Pearl of Khorasan. The city served as a pivotal center of artistic and intellectual life in the islamic world for hundreds of years. Once an ancient oasis city on the Silk Road between West, Central and South Asia, Heart was traditionally known for its wine! As a sommelier – I found that particularly interesting. But alas, it’s Afghanistan in 2023 and there is no wine to be found 🙂

Herat during the Timurid Empire was a focal point of cultural rebirth in the Islamic world on a scale often compared to Italian Renaissance – Florence. Arts flourished, and the booming study of sciences, math and philosophy attracted thousands who flocked to study at the city’s madrasahs, or ancient Islamic universities. The city’s location has strategic importance sitting on the crossroads between Iran, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. For thousands of years this region has bore witness to shifting tides of power and influence. Kingdoms that came and went. Most recently the city was shortlisted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However in 2021 the city was seized by Taliban fighters as part of the Taliban’s summer offensive and the city currently sits waiting, anxiously stuck in a seemingly transitory phase.

The journey from Bamiyan to Heart overland is a tortuous, and long multi-day journey via the Minaret of Jam if you are lucky. We returned from Bamiyan to Kabul and flew the next morning. I took a taxi from Kabul to the Airport for what turned out to be a rather chaotic experience. The airport area is huge, with multiple checkpoints, x ray baggage scans, etc. The distance between checkpoints is large and most people have a car to drive them the whole way. Thankfully a kind local Afghani family saw me walking with my bags and gave me a ride. Inside the airport I was ushered into the VIP lounge despite having no particular VIP lounge access, where I met the CEO of Ariana Afghan Airlines. He must have sensed my disbelief and whipped out no less than 8 id badges of various sorts which indeed listed him as the airline’s CEO.

Overall the flight from Kabul to Herat was uneventful – though boarding my plane I couldn’t help but recall harrowing images of the same airport being desperately evacuated a short time ago. On arrival in Herat I was met by another guide and we immediately went to drop my bags at our hotel and register our permit at the local Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Herat Ministry Of Culture

Coffee, Citadel, ancient markets

Our first stop was a local coffee shop. The coffee shop was relaxing and a conversation arose discussing the current situation of Afghanistan and how things will be in 10 years? They were worried that education was missing from the Taliban plan. The Internet allows people to see the world. Previous generations didn’t have this and there are concerns that the new generation knows of the different lifestyles and freedoms outside Afghanistan. Freedoms which exist in other Islamic countries. After this sobering conversation we hopped into a tuk – tuk which pushed us to the center of the city and the site of the majestic Citadel of Herat which dates back to the 330 BC arrival of Alexander the Great and his army following the Battle of Gaugamela. In the last 2000 years it’s housed the headquarters of dozens of empires, languished through even more battles, and in recent years a handful of NGOs decided to rebuild the fortress. Thankfully their efforts were no in vain and in its current state sits a majestic structure which leaves little to the imagination for what this building once represented.

Leaving the Citadel we spent hours exploring the local markets, and this was a highlight of my time in Herat. As a city on the crossroads of empires, cultures and continents this market had seen silk road trade caravans for over two millennia. The market was gloriously chaotic, filled with the smells of spices and the sounds of people clambering to sell their goods. Since Herat gets very very few, if any tourists, there is a completely wonderful absence of any “tourist shops” selling gimmick souvenirs. Instead the market is full of local businesses and people buying essential supplies.

Each corner of the market is separated by what it sells: there is a section selling bread, a spice corner, many streets for clothing, and we even walked through a whole wing selling and repairing ancient sewing machines. The market is crumbling, yet clean, and the evening sunlight glistened through the holes in the ancient buildings as we explored the countless alleyways. Having been to dozens of markets in this part of the world, this one will forever be one of my favorites.

Emerging suddenly from the chaotic old market alleyways we found ourselves in the tranquil courtyards of the Great Mosque of Isfahan, aka the “Friday Mosque” where daily life and religion have melded for over a thousand years since its founding in 771 AD. The mosque is a perfect expression of Islamic architecture and design, inspiring countless others throughout the muslim world. We were able to enjoy the evening call to prayer, and walking through the mosque was an oasis of calm amidst the sounds of the ancient city.

Following our visit to the mosque we were starving. My choices were Kebab or Curry. I had eaten so much kebab I worried I might turn into a lamb, so I opted for curry. Turns out – I was served a delicious dish of lamb curry. It is marvelous, and complimented by an ice cold Alokozay Magic (local orange fizzy soda). Did I mention that Afghanistan is (not yet) infamous for its dozens of in-country soft drink and energy drink brands? Ostracized from the outside world, imports are expensive. It’s a goldmine if you like trying different locally produced sodas. Everyone eats on the floor of this restaurant, and the food was incredible.

Afterwards we went across town for some local Afghanistan homemade ice cream, the perfect ending to a magical day in Herat.

Madrasa, Mausoleums, Minarets, and a life or death fight for your right to listen to music

Early the next morning I awoke to explore the Gawhar Shad Madrasa and Mausoleum, and nearby Musalla Minarets of Herat. On the way we passed a small shop playing music. The Mausoleum and Minarets were interesting and have a unique history. There are 4 minarets…used to be 20 but they were destroyed by wars. Nearby is a beautiful Mausoleum and we had an interesting conversation with a guard who opened the building for us to enjoy.

As we walked back into the city the small shop playing music was filled with hundreds of angry men who spilled out into the streets yelling and waving automatic weapons. A horde of Taliban and locals clashed, everyone had guns and it was impossible to tell who was who. Suddenly a few men jumped onto a speeding motorcycle and fled the crowd, Taliban chased him while their automatic machine guns bounced in their slings as they ran. We had to quickly leave the scene as the risk of getting arrested in such a scene as a foreigner was very real. What was all the commotion about? The shop’s crime – it was playing music – was forbidden under the Taliban regime, and they had shown up to shut it down. Locals supported their neighborhood shop and

enjoyed the music they played. They resisted the Taliban who were forcing their strict, sometimes fanciful interpretation of Islam, upon them. Chaos ensued. This scene sat heavily on my mind as I left Herat. Futile clashes with the Taliban as locals futility resist elimination of life’s daily pleasures, things we take for granted, which are quickly slipping away in a dwindling list of newly forbidden delights.

At the airport while I waited for my flight from Herat – Kabul a man approached me to chat. He said he lived currently in the city of Birmingham, in the United Kingdom. He worked at GoGo pizza. Nothing special, just a pizza guy earning a daily living. He said he was a refugee. Though he is now back in Afghanistan. So I am not sure if he really understands how the refugee concept works. Or perhaps I don’t? During our conversation I learned that he was coming to Afghanistan to get a passport for his wife. It was unclear whether he had met his wife, or if it was arranged, but I believe she lived in Afghanistan. How was this Afghani passport going to get her to the UK? He had traveled via Iran and was prepared for a long wait, as passports are difficult to obtain. The more I learned during this conversation the more confused I seemed to feel.

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