Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Herat, our first big Afghan town

Herat was the first big Afghan town we came to in the late afternoon and it was dusty and noisy and bustling with people but no one paid us much attention. Unlike Iran, no one tried to direct us to their cousins campgound or their brothers carpet shop.
Overloaded but highly decorated Toyota minibuses rushed around and, as we walked through the dusty streets, where people were openly selling hashish, and old clothes stalls seemed to be everywhere, still no one paid us much attention. It felt open and free and relaxing.
Janet strolling down a cold, dusty Herat street
Useful signs in a peaceful street scene in Herat
We camped in the grounds of the Salang Hotel and next morning we went to the bank to change some money, which took an hour. Unhurried, unworried but genuinely good neighbourly. The door of the bank was conveniently marked "Exter", while the doors of all the other shops were helpfully marked "Door".

Women shoppers and Tonga taxis queued on a Herat street
The Citadel
Herat's citadel in the north of the town was originally built by Alexander the Great in the 4th century and has been extended and rebuilt many times since.
Reflecting Herat's strategic importance, battlements and towers were added in the 1400's after the town was destroyed by Mongol invasion, amongst several others.
The crumbling walls and towers were substantially rebuilt in the late 1970's as part of an archeological program funded by German aid.
Small shops under the walls of Herat's citadel, built in the time of Alexander the Great
The Friday Mosque
In a town whose buildings were made predominately from grey/brown mud, their magnificent Friday Mosque in the centre of the town stood out as a beacon. And what a beautiful structure it was, covered in blue and gold tiles with 4 gleaming minarets pointing skywards.
Construction was started in 1200 AD and it has been rebuilt several times after a visit by Ghengis Khan in the 13th century and a major earthquake in 1364. Further upgrades and extensions were carried out in the 1940's to repair centuries of neglect.

The Friday Mosque at the end of a dusty street but no one bothered us
In Iran we were jostled and harassed if we went near a mosque, especially when in use, but in Herat we were welcomed in, after removing our shoes. There was a small entry fee to help with the expensive upkeep of the the mosque but there were plenty of locals willing to show us around. We were suspicious of their motives at first, but it quickly became evident that they just wanted to be friendly and show off their mosque. They looked hurt if we offered them money and brushed it aside.

We didn't stay long in the mosque, not because we'd seen enough or felt unwelcome, but because in winter, Afghanistan is a very cold place, and without shoes on, our feet quickly began to freeze.
The Minarets of Mosallah

The leaning minarets near Herat where Janet "chats" with a young Afghan girl

We visited the 5 leaning minarets just out of town, the sole remains of a dozen or so from a former mosque, the Musallah Complex, built in the 15th century under the rule of Queen Gawharshad, daughter-in-law of the Mogul Emperor Timur.

They truly looked like they would tumble down at any moment and passing traffic is further weakening the structures (where we were parked is now a 4 lane highway going right through the middle of the site). The minarets are currently being stabilised to preserve the few that remain.
[Historical Note: It was the British Army who destroyed much of the Musallah Complex in 1885 to improve visibility for their artillery against a Russian invasion (which never happened, not then anyway).
With supreme irony, when Russian troops did arrive (a century later, after their 1980 invasion), they caused further damaged to the complex when they turned Herat into a free-fire zone. See this excellent reference on the history of Herat].
While walking around the minarets, a young girl of around 10 befriended Janet and gave her a piece of blue tile from a minaret. The two of them walked around and chatted for hours, but I don't know how. Apparently she knew some "Inglistan from tourist".

The Streets of Herat

A transport "hub" in Herat
Camel train in Herat
Herat Summary

Despite the cold, the dust and commotion, Herat was a nice place and in our diary of the time I noted that "Herat was the most pleasant town of the entire journey". But I also noted that we were unprepared for the intense cold and that 3 pairs of socks were not enough.

Next we had to negotiate the Herat to Kabul Highway. Click here.


1 comment:

  1. Interesting post and i really enjoyed this article. Thanks for sharing these beautiful pictures and i learn a lot from this post.
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