If any one ask thee which is the pleasantest of cities,
Thou mayest answer him aright that it is Herāt.
For the world is like the sea,
and the province of Khurāsān like a pearl-oyster therein,
The city of Herāt being as the pearl in the middle of the oyster.
The famous poet Rumi himself was carried away by the beauty of the city Herat – it is not for nothing that he described her as „Pearl of Chorasan“. Nowadays there are only a few buildings left to tell us about the glorious past of Herat. Prosperity and beauty turned out to be a blessing and a curse for the city at the Silk Road provoking fierce battles and a scramble over her territory.
Despite centuries of conjunctures of prosperity and destruction the city located in the West of Afghanistan has maintained her special charm. When we visited Herat this unique cultural atmosphere fascinated us. Now, we want to share our unforgettable experiences with you and take you on a discovery tour through Herat including a journey through time.
Conversions of glory
During the 11th century the kings of Ghor ruled the city. Being prosperous art patrons they supported Persian literature and architecture and transformed the city in a glorious metropolis – over 12000 shops packed with goods from all over the world, 6000 bathhouses, caravanserais and mills, half a million of homes and 359 schools adorned the city. This amazing time of prosperity was shattered by the arrival of the Mongoles and Ghengis Khan who razed the city to the ground.
Some time later in the 15th century the city was revived when the powerful rulers of the dynasty of the Timurids decided to move their residence from Samarqand to Herat. Under their rule the city became the capital of Chorasan – until it was conquered by the Uzbeks and Safawids.
History was repeating itself – exactly after this pattern kingdoms emerged and disappeared in Herat. The recent conflicts caused severe damages in the city. Today, the ruins are impressive reminders of the British and Russian invasions and the brutality of the War on Terror against the Taliban.
The last decades of war left deep marks in the city. The once vivid cultural traffic and tourism is not existent anymore. Most of the time within our discovery tour we were the only foreign people interested in the cultural treasures of the city.
Though the UNESCO highlighted the markable cultural potential of Herat in 1974 adding the city to the world heritage list. In any other peaceful part of the world buildings and places with such a historic value would be real tourist attractions.
The Friday Mosque
The Friday Mosque is over 800 years old. It is one of the most beautiful islamic buildings of Afghanistan and one of the biggest in all over Central Asia.
The mosque is build in a classic way, it’s foundation lies on four iwans – a special arabic way of architecture including a huge barrel vault covering an open hall. Beautiful arcades enclose a 100-meter-long inner courtyard. Two minarettes flank the huge main iwan. For us, these minarettes decorated with stylised flowers, arabesque and geometric patterns were simply dizzying.
Almost like a chameleon the islamic building changed its appearance over the centuries as consecutive dynasties adapted the architecture to their cultural preferences. Originally, the mosque was build by Sultan Ghiyasuddin of the Ghurids. Therefore traditional Ghurid tiles and pattern were used. Only lateron the building was decorated with bright mosaics of the Timurids. Those mosaics that you can find there today, are the product of the mosque’s internal workshop and a restauration project that is running since the 1940s. That is how Timurid mosaics have been combined with contemporary designs, colours and calligraphy.
This mixture of traditional and modern elements makes the mosque to a very particular jewel of contemporary islamic abstract expressionism. We are dealing with the realm of stunning mosaics, surrounded by blue ligaments with Quran verses. On the one hand, these bright colours and the detailled ornaments are a praise in honor of Allah. On the other hand, the simple white Iwans add a touch of modesty.
The Citadel of Herat
With its own 2000 year-old brachial history, the citadel of Herat became a symbol of the city. It is assumed that the citadel – the oldest building of Herat – is standing on the foundations of a fortress build by Alexander The Great approximately 330 BC. Since it’s construction the building was used as imperial residence, military garrison and prison.
In 2005 the Afghan army handed the building over to the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism. Since then they opened the doors for visitors. Nevertheless, we were basically alone inside the complex.
The citadel was built on an artificial hill. 18 towers with 2 meter thick walls overtop the street level with 30 meters. Shah Rukh already built almost the exact same structure in 1415. At that time the outer walls have been decorated with monumental poetic verses written in Kufic letters. They declared the sublimity of the castle that „was never affected by the upheavals of any times.“
Unfortunately, this motto couldn’t be kept up. In 1953 the former king Zahir Shah managed to prevent the demolition of the building. Still, the following times of turbulences and decades of neglect caused irrevocable damages. Over and over again, victorious powers pillaged the citadel and disposed valuable roof beams and tiles.
However, with some German and US-American financial support over a hundred Afghan craftsmen were able to restore the building recently. Thus, the beautifully restored building again became a symbol of hope.
From the top of the so-called „Timurid Tower“ – one of the few places that is still decorated with antique mosaics – we had an awesome view over the colourful urban life, the crooked streets and exciting bazaars.
The Musalla complex and the mausoleum of Gawhar Shad
The complex of Gawhar Shad Musalla has been build by queen Gawharshad. The wife of the Timurid King Shah Rukh who deceased in 1447 reigned over his empire from the river Tigris until China. Today the complex includes a mausoleum in her honour.
We found five minarets and further ruins – the whole complex is only shadow of it’s former self. The British invaders destroyed the once magnificent building in 1885. Several earthquakes did the rest.
Today the place is a homely setup hosting opium addicts. It is claimed that they finance their addiction through selling artefacts. Usually such antique pieces would belong to a museum – but here people have to worry about other things.
Finally, to attend the Friday prayer we were setting off to one of the most beautiful spiritual places in Herat – the shrine Gazar Gah. Located around five kilometres away from the city centre the shrine is by far not as big and crowded than the Friday Mosque.
Right here, the grave of the famous Sufi poet the holy Khwaja Abdullah Ansari – who lived in Herat – is located. Every day hundreds of pilgrims from all over the country come to pray and get purified. Signifying as much as ‚the bleaching ground’ which is a mystical Sufi reference to cleanse one’s soul before facing Allah.
Currently, the grave complex is being renovated so that it can shine in its former glory soon.
The world is like the sea – it has to nourish the oyster…
Even though some parts of the old town still tell the stories on the former glory of Herat increasingly modern structures are becoming more important – historic monuments are decaying and the shine of the pearl almost lost it’s lustre. Never minding the lack of funds and years of conflict the Heratis are renovating over and over again – this proves their tireless commitment.
‚The province Chorasan is like a pearl oyster’ having the potential to produce wonderful pearls. Your purchase of our saffron is supporting the province and the people economically – so that the pearl Herat some day will be shine again in all its glory.