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•• History

and economic scene, and the city’s links to neighbouring Iran play an important role. The insecurity along the Herat–Kandahar highway occasionally ripples back to the city, although the presence of an Italian-led PRT has generally been well received.


Herat’s history begins as Aria, an outpost of the Achaemenid empire, overrun in Al- exander the Great’s eastward expansion. In typical fashion he renamed it Alexander Arian in his own honour. The city grew and reaped the benefits of the new Silk Road under the Kushans and Sassanids and into the Islamic era. Herat’s expansion was checked by the

visitations of Genghis Khan in 1221, who characteristically levelled the place, killing all but 40 of the populace after they rebelled against his power. But this just proved to be the preface for the city’s greatest period, as a new power thundered out of the steppe 150 years later. Timur founded his empire at Samarkand, but following his death in 1405, the capital moved southwest to Herat. Under Timur’s son, Shah Rukh, Herat became one of the greatest centres of medieval Islamic culture and learning. A patron of the arts, Shah Rukh packed his court with scholars, poets and painters. Jami composed his greatest poems here and Bihzad’s refined miniature painting would later go on to influence In- dian art. The ruler’s wife, the extraordi- nary Gowhar Shad (see boxed text, p138 ), commissioned many fine buildings from mosques to madrassas. Such glory couldn’t last. After Shah Rukh’s death, there was a debilitating squabble for succession and Timurid power started to wane. Sultan Baiqara provided one last hur- rah at the start of the 16th century, but the rot had set in. The future Mughal emperor Babur visited Herat at this time and left a lively description of the city, joking that you only had to stretch your leg to kick a poet, and complaining of the royal court’s drunkenness. In fact, Baiqara so preferred to drink wine rather than exercise power that Timur’s empire soon fell under the arrows of Uzbek invaders. Herat spent the next centuries being

fought over by the Mughals and Safavids. It finally regained its independence only

to find itself swept up in the superpower rivalry of the Great Game. The Persians were the first to make a

move on the city, laying siege to it in 1837. Russian officers aided the Persian army, while a single British officer, Eldred Pot- tinger, rallied Herat’s defenders. The Af- ghans held the day, but the siege influenced British policy for the remainder of the 19th century. Herat was dubbed the ‘Gateway to India’ and the British were insistent it should stay in their realm of influence – and out of Russian hands. Dost Mohammed incorporated Herat into the Afghan kingdom in 1863, but trou- ble was never far away. Russian expansion towards the border in 1885 nearly brought the imperial powers to war. The British ordered Herat be prepared for an attack and many of Gowhar Shad’s buildings were demolished to allow a clear line of artillery fire for the defenders, although war was ultimately averted. After this, Herat’s population were happy to be left alone for most of the 20th cen- tury, but still resented Kabul’s influence. It declared support for the rebel Bacha Saqao when he seized the throne from Amanul- lah in 1929 and increasingly resented the communist influence from the capital in the 1970s. Events came to a head in March 1979 when the city rose in open revolt. Led by local mullahs and a mutinous army garrison com- manded by Ismail Khan, around 100 Russian advisors were killed with their families. The Russians helped the government quell the rebellion – by carpet-bombing the Old City. Around 20,000 civilians were killed. Following invasion, the mujaheddin har- ried the Russians, in one of the most hidden corners of the war. Iran provided crucial sup- port. After the Russian withdrawal in 1989, the city quickly fell to the mujaheddin, with Ismail Khan installed as Herat’s ruler. Nothing could save the city from the as- cendant Taliban, however. In 1995 the city’s army crumbled in the teeth of a Taliban advance and Herat was captured without a fight. Ismail Khan himself was taken pris- oner, but later escaped to Iran. The educated Heratis chafed under the occupation and Iran closed its borders. Herat’s population swelled with an influx of internally displaced people (IDPs) flee- ing drought.

Ismail Khan returned at the end of 2001 as

the Taliban were swept from power. Increas- ingly conservative with age, he retained his own army and a version of the Taliban’s Vice and Virtue Police, styling himself as the Emir of Herat. The city, however, boomed on cus- toms revenues from trade with Iran, once again becoming a quasi-independent city- state, as it has been for much of its history. Central control over Herat (and its taxes) finally came in late 2004 with Ismail Khan’s replacement as governor, an event accompa- nied with much rioting. Local politics have trodden a sometimes uneasy path since, but the city still remains a beacon of progress compared with much of the country.


Herat sits in a wide plain, watered by the Hari Rud. To the north the ridges of the Safed Koh mark the boundary with the Cen- tral Asian steppe; to the south the road leads to Kandahar and the Indian subcontinent. Only the core of Herat’s Old City remains, around the crossroads of Chahar Su and the Friday Mosque. The Citadel dominates the northern edge of the Old City, looking out to the minarets of the ruined Musalla Complex. West of this is the wasteland created by Soviet carpet-bombing. Much of this area is under- going a boom of new building, with glass- fronted villas sprouting up almost daily. The New Town (Shahr-e Nau) is east and north of the walled city, home to the majority of government and NGO offices. The streets are lined with tall pine trees and decorated with parks, considerably improv- ing the urban environment. Watch out for the working traffic lights – almost unheard of in Afghanistan. Herat’s airport is 8km south of the city. If arriving overland from Iran, Herat’s mina- rets make a ready landmark. Most road transport leaves from the area south of the minarets, near Darb Malik on the edge of the Old City.



Ambulance (x040 223413) ANSO West (x070 405 697/079 9322 192) Fire Brigade (x040 445721) ISAF (x079 9885 181) Police (x040 222200; Jad-e Ghomandani, opposite the Friday Mosque)


Prices are around 50Afg per hour.

Lord Coffeenet (Jad-e Walayat) Microsoft Internet (Jad-e Walayat) Valentin Internet Club (cnr of Park-e Gulha & Jad-e Ghomandi)

Medical Services

The area around the main hospital has plenty of pharmacies.

Herat Hospital (x040 223412; Jad-e Walayat)


Street moneychangers remain the best op- tion in Herat: there are stands between Darb Malik and Chowk-e Gulha.

Kabul Bank (cnr of Park-e Gulha & Jad-e Ghomandi) Has a branch of Western Union inside.

Post & Telephone

Phone stands and PCOs are everywhere in Herat.

FedEx (x040 220301; charahi Haji Ayoub) Post Office (charahi Mostofiat)

Tourist Information

ATO (Afghan Tourist Organisation; x040 223210; Sarakh-e Mukharabat) Can provide drivers and guides for US$40 a day each (US$20 for half a day) and also arrange transport to the Minaret of Jam.


Since Ismail Khan left Herat, security has de- creased slightly. Political problems have oc- casionally spilled onto the streets, usually in the form of quick-to-fire demonstrations. As always, keep an ear very close to the ground. In 2006, violence also flared between Sunni and Shiite groups during Ashura. Crime has reportedly become more of a problem in Herat, with an increase in street robberies. Several female international workers have reported severe harassment, bordering on violence, so particular care should be taken when walking in the city.


Old City

Herat’s Old City, measuring approximately 1200 sq metres, is the most complete tradi- tional medieval city in Afghanistan. Four main streets branch out from the bazaar of Chahar Su (literally ‘four directions’), quartering the city and leading to the old gates that once pierced the city walls (they



Orientation 135


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