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were pulled down in the 1950s). Charac- teristic of medieval urban design, the Old City has three focuses – the commercial centre (Chahar Su), the Royal Centre (the Citadel, opposite ) and the Religious Centre (the Friday Mosque, right ).

har Su are lined with booths and shops. Until the 1930s, these roads were covered, with Chahar Su itself crowned with a large dome. Only small portions of the old vault- ing survive, in the southeast corner of the city. Behind the shops there are plenty of serais – enclosures for caravans that served as warehouses and inns for traders and craftsmen.

The four main roads leading from Cha- Away from the main thoroughfares, the

streets turn into a labyrinth of unpaved lanes, hiding the city’s houses behind high mud walls. Wandering the streets and serais is one of the best ways to get a taste of tradi- tional Herati – and Afghan – urban life. That the Old City survived the Soviet

carpet-bombing of Herat is a miracle, but its fabric is now under threat from the city’s construction boom. Unlike Kabul, where an official ban on new construction in the Old City prevails, Herat’s historic quarter is undergoing ‘redevelopment’ on an unprec- edented scale. In the absence of building controls, owners are demolishing historic properties to rebuild in the popular modern glass-and-concrete style, with little thought for the city’s character. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC)

is currently working with Herat’s govern- ment to rescue buildings and create a sus- tainable development plan for the Old City. Using a mix of satellite imagery and door- to-door surveys, they produced the first detailed map of the Old City, showing over 15,000 buildings with 62,000 residents, but with old buildings being lost on a weekly basis. AKTC has launched a conservation programme for several historic houses that promotes traditional building techniques, encourages self-built repairs and shows the potential for improving living conditions within traditional city homes. AKTC has also helped restore Herat’s traditional cisterns. The Chahar Su Cistern, at the centre of the Old City, and the Malik Cis- tern, opposite the western gate of the Cita- del, are what remain of Herat’s medieval water-supply system. Filled by aqueducts,

they provided year-round clean water for the city’s residents, even during the Persian siege of 1837–8. They only ran dry during the 1980s. Both have gorgeous brick vaulted ceilings, with the octagonal Chahar Su Cis- tern having a span of over 20m. Surrounded by bazaars and mosques, the cistern’s resto- ration should hopefully provide a focus for further economic regeneration in the Old City, although at the time of writing their exact future use was under discussion with community leaders.

Friday Mosque

Over 800 hundred years old, Herat’s Friday

Mosque (Masjid-e Jami; hclosed to non-Muslims dur-

ing Fri prayers) is Afghanistan’s finest Islamic building, and one of the greatest in Central Asia. A master class in the art of tile mosaic, its bright colours and intricate detailing are an exuberant hymn in praise of Allah. Most visitors enter the mosque via the park on its eastern side, which leads up to a huge and richly tiled façade. The en- trance corridors are to either side of this, but they are frequently locked outside the main prayer hours, forcing visitors to gain access to the mosque proper via the small street entrance on its northern wall. This is actually a more atmospheric choice, as the cool dark of the entrance corridor suddenly gives way to a bright sunburst of colour as you enter the main courtyard. Don’t forget to remove your shoes at this point. The mosque is laid out in a classical plan

of four iwans (barrel-vaulted halls) with arcaded walls around a central courtyard nearly 100m long. Two huge minarets flank the main iwan. Almost every square centre is covered in breathtaking mosaic, surrounded by blue bands of Quranic script. Only the simple whitewash of the iwans adds a note of modesty. The minarets, with their repeated bands of stylised flowers, arabesques and geometric patterns are simply dizzying. The mosque was originally laid out by the Ghorid Sultan Ghiyasuddin in 1200. Originally it would have had quite a differ- ent appearance, as the Ghorids preferred plain brick and stucco decoration. The Timurids restored the mosque in the 15th century and introduced the bright mosaic, but by the early 20th century so much of this had been lost that visitors remarked on the mosque’s dullness.

The lavish tiling that now covers the mosque is the product of the mosque’s tile workshop, an ongoing restoration project since the 1940s. While many of the mosaics are based on Timurid originals, the work- shop has also introduced its own designs, colours and calligraphy. This traditional- meets-modern approach has led to the creation one of the gems of contemporary Islamic abstract expressionism. The workshop is in a courtyard to the left

of the main portal entrance in the garden – ask to visit it at the small office of the Min- istry of Information, Culture and Tourism, just inside. The courtyard also contains one of the few remnants of the original Ghorid decoration, overlaid with Timurid tiling – a demonstration of the continuum of artistic styles that the mosque has witnessed. The craftsmen are normally happy to show off their work, from glazing the raw tiles to laying out the intricate mosaics. It’s normally not a problem to take photos in the mosque, but this should be avoided during prayer times. Early morn- ing is the best time to catch the light on the tiles. Donations for the mosque’s upkeep can be placed in the ceremonial bronze cauldron in the eastern arcade. Cast in the 13th century, it would have originally been filled with sweet drinks for worshippers on religious holidays.

Herat Citadel

Towering over the Old City, the Herat Citadel

(Qala-ye Ikhtiyaruddin; admission 250Afg;h8am-5pm)

has watched over Herat’s successes and set- backs with its imposing gaze for centuries. The oldest building in Herat, it is believed to stand on the foundations of a fort built by Alexander the Great. It has served as a seat of power, military garrison and prison since its construction until 2005, when the Afghan army presented it to the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism, open- ing its doors to outsiders for the first time. The Citadel is built on an artificial mound

and stretches 250m east to west. Its 18 tow- ers rise over 30m above street level, with walls 2m thick. A moat once completed the defences, although this was drained in 2003 to lay out a public park in the grounds. The present structure was largely built by Shah Rukh in 1415, after Timur trashed what little Genghis Khan had left standing. At



Sights 137

this time, the exterior was covered with the monumental Kufic script of a poem pro- claiming the castle’s grandeur, ‘never to be altered by the tremors of encircling time’. Sadly, most of this tiling has been lost bar a small section on the northwest wall, the so-called ‘Timurid Tower’. Time’s tremors inevitably did great dam-

age to the Citadel. Repeated conquerors pil- laged the Citadel, with locals prizing the valuable roof-beams and baked bricks. The greatest indignity came in 1953 when Her- at’s army commander ordered its complete demolition in order to move his military base on the outskirts of the city. Only the di- rect intervention of King Zahir Shah halted the destruction. Subsequent neglect caused several sections to collapse. An extensive renovation programme was launched in the 1970s, completed just two months before the Soviet invasion. Visitors enter through the modern west- ern entrance to the Citadel’s lower en- closure. Most of this section is currently closed, so you are instead led through an imposing wooden gate and atrium to the upper enclosure. This is the most heavily fortified part of the Citadel and has its own wells, which were used to allow defenders to withstand sieges. Archaeological excava- tions are still ongoing in the main court- yard. To the left, there is a small hammam with beautifully painted but damaged walls, showing flowers and peacocks. The biggest attraction is the Citadel’s

huge curtain wall topped with battlements. These offer tremendous views over Herat, looking south towards Chahar Su, and north to the minarets of the Musalla Com- plex. It’s also possible to make out the last remains of the Old City walls. Leaving by the western gate there is a small museum, which is planned to open in 2007.

Musalla Complex & Minarets

Herat’s Musalla was Gowhar Shad’s master- piece, comprising a mosque, madrassa, mau- soleum and over 20 minarets. At its height, it rivalled any of the great showpieces of Is- lamic architecture from Samarkand to Esfa- han. Today, only five minarets and Gowhar Shad’s mausoleum remain. The loss of the rest is a testament to the sorrier type of im- perial meddling in Afghan politics.


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