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Historic Herat

Print edition : Nov 17, 2006 T+T-
Ravaged by time, the sole minar in the Musallah complex is held up by wires. The complex houses a mosque, a college and Begum Gohar Shad's mausoleum.-

Ravaged by time, the sole minar in the Musallah complex is held up by wires. The complex houses a mosque, a college and Begum Gohar Shad's mausoleum.-

Exploring the Afghan city's decaying glories.

"THE whole habitable world had not such a town as Herat," wrote Babur, the first Great Mughal. During the reign of the Timurids in the 15th century, Herat was the capital of a far-flung empire stretching from the Tigris in the west to Sinkiang in the east. Herat is the only surviving city of four that formed the pillars of the medieval Persian kingdom of Khorasan (eastern Iran). The others, Balkh in northern Afghanistan, Mary in Turkmenistan and Nishapur (where Omar Khayyam is buried) in Iran, are largely in ruins.

The hour-and-a-half-long flight from Kabul, which took us between stark mountains and over the tributaries of the Hari Rud (river), landed at a sand-spattered and windblown Herat airport.

Herat is an oasis on the northern edge of the Naomid desert. At 1,050 metres above sea level, it sits at the foot of the barren Zanjeer Koh, a minor outcrop of the larger and longer Band-e-Baba Koh mountain range, otherwise known as the Paropamisus. It is fertile because of the Hari Rud, which flows west for about 60 km before becoming the border between Iran and Afghanistan, and then between Iran and Turkmenistan, after which it disappears into the Karakum (black) desert. The Herat oasis was a centre of learning and religion, the heart of trade routes, and the seat of rulers. Seers, artists, architects, traders and invaders made their way to Herat seeking inspiration and profit.

Herat's invaders include Alexander the Great, who established a fortress in Herat in 330 B.C.; the Arabs in A.D.651; the hordes of Genghis Khan, who destroyed the city and massacred its hapless inhabitants in A.D.1221; Taimur Lang, who did not destroy as many buildings but indulged in the casual barbarity of his time, in A.D.1381; and finally the Uzbegs in the 16th century. It is from Herat that Taimur led the invasion of India, and for many centuries after that Herat was on the preferred land route between Europe and India and China. In 1880, Herat became a part of Afghanistan.

Taimur's son Shah Rukh Khan and his visionary Mongol wife Gohar Shad were responsible for turning Herat into a magnificent city characterised by the brilliant use of glazed tiles set on plain brick. Shah Rukh Khan ruled from A.D. 1405 to A.D. 1447. For the next 10 years, the incomparable Gohar Shad was the power behind many a throne. In A.D. 1457, she was murdered by Taimur's great-grandson, Abu Said, who was in turn executed by Gohar Shad's grand-nephew, Yadgar Mohammad, in A.D. 1469. In A.D. 1469, Hussain Baikhara brought stability to the city and catapulted it to spectacular architectural excellence and beauty. Babur lingered here for three weeks in the autumn of 1506. He has commented on it rapturously in Baburnama.

From Babur to the creators of scrappy Internet pages, many a writer has praised the remaining glories of Herat or grieved over those lost. Since the late 19th century, several Europeans, including Major Durand of the 1885 Boundary Commission (who is much disliked in Afghanistan), have written on or sketched the wonders of Herat. However, nothing available in English has matched Robert Byron's threnody over Herat's decay, or his poetic description and technical analysis of each of its buildings in The Road to Oxiana, written after his visit in 1933. In 1958, another well-known English traveller, Eric Newby, visited Herat but he was in such a hurry to get past it that he spent barely a day in the lovely city. The hurry bug of the later 20th century had begun to infect travellers.

Everywhere in Herat one hears of Gohar Shad, the daughter of a Chugtai noble. (The Chugtais were one of Genghis Khan's hordes.) The most impressive buildings in Herat were built, renovated or reconstructed by Begum Gohar Shad, one of the very few powerful and successful women in Asian history. This "most incomparable woman" was, in fact, simply being true to her ancestry; Mongol women used to ride with men, suffer the same hardships, and were responsible for Mongol victories like any soldier. On her grave is a simple epitaph: "The Bilkis of All Time". Bilkis is the name of the Queen of Sheba in the Islamic tradition. Gohar Shad's mausoleum has an unusual ribbed dome shaped like the watermelons that abound here. The only other dome similar to it is on Taimur's tomb at Samarkhand in Uzbekistan. The complex that houses her mausoleum, a college and a mosque is known as the Musallah. It was once surrounded by a 10-metre-high wall, punctuated by twenty-four 30-metre minarets built between A.D.1417 and A.D.1437. Both the minarets and the mausoleum were decorated brightly with azure, green, white and yellow tiles. Now, the Musallah has had its glory chipped and elegance stripped. The few remaining decorations hint at the creative zenith of the time.

A mere five of the minars, the most splendid emblems of Islamic architecture, which escaped damage through 400 years of barbaric attacks, remain. The British, concerned that the impressive minars of the Musallah could be used by the Russians to further their military objectives during the `Great Game' of the 1880s, knocked most of them down in 1885. Two collapsed in the earthquake of 1931. One minar now stands inside the Musallah, its flowered tiles hiding in its niches. It is, however, tilting dangerously, its remaining beauty defaced by a few rusty cables, donated by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), that have succeeded in keeping it upright for the time being. The stump of another minaret hides behind Gohar Shad's mausoleum.

There are four minars outside the Musallah, built by Hussain Baikhara who ruled Herat from A.D.1469 to A.D.1506. The sides of the minarets are now eroded and bulging at places under the weight of years and neglect. Just one minaret has its shaft intact. The vibrations of traffic are slowly damaging these towers.

The most popular and venerated monument in the region is Gazar Gah, on the northern outskirts of Herat at the foot of Zanjeer Koh. This is where Herat's most famous saint, Khwaja Abdullah Ansari, was buried in A.D.1088. It is perpetually filled with the noiseless barefoot steps of thousands of his followers. Khwaja Abdullah Ansari, known as Herat-e-Peer, has followers in India too, especially in Kashmir. Gazar Gah has two enclosures. The first has a white marble pool and is entered through a rather innocuous and low gate, the more impressive western one being closed. The inner one has a massive arched south-facing gate, which leads to a square containing several tombs, including those of humbler Timurids who could not have afforded mausoleums. Emir Dost Mohammad Khan (1863) of the Barakzai dynasty, which ruled almost continuously from 1818 until 1973, is also buried here. Overcrowding in the central burial area has meant that now the outer enclosure also has tombs. The original enclosure of the tomb of the saint was a humble one, but it was rebuilt in typical grand Timurid style by Shah Rukh Khan in 1428 - it stands exalted, imposing, and emblazoned with colourful mosaic. Its arched enclosure near the small-domed pavilion has mosaic patterns in Chinese style. During Timurid rule there were many cultural and diplomatic exchanges with the Chinese, who maintained an embassy in Herat.

The Timurids were skilled artisans. They learnt about painting and mosaic designs from the Chinese, poetry from the Persians, and architecture from all over. They wrote in Turki, the language Babur used a century later for his memoirs. Those who created these remarkable works of art seem to be exulting in their capabilities and displaying with flourish and confidence what they were capable of.

Near Gazar Gah are the spacious 400-year-old terraced gardens of Takht-e-Safar, or `traveller's rest'. Though takht literally means throne, colloquially it means home too. The manicured gardens, trees, canals and fountains are more prominent because of the complete aridity of the hills behind. The fountains are working again after a gap of 20 years.

There is an inscription in the Qutab Minar in Delhi that refers to the architectural wonders performed by Ghiyasuddin Ghori, who built the first mosque in Herat in about A.D.1200. Ghiyasuddin's square mausoleum abuts the opulent mosque known as Jami (Juma) Masjid. This mosque is the only ancient building in Herat that is intact. It was first built of wood and lay in ruins by the time the Timurids appeared. The renovation began under Shah Rukh Khan and was completed during the reign of his successor, Hussain Baikhara. The prolific artist, architect, musician, poet and Turki scholar, Ali Sher Nevai, who impressed Babur immensely, supervised the grand architecture and mosaic work. One does not enter Ghiyasuddin's mausoleum through the huge, richly decorated mosaic portal, but by a long and gloomy passageway to the side. It opens onto a shining courtyard of marble floors and even more ornate mosaic work that resembles fine embroidery. On the arched vaulted side-halls are inscriptions in Kufic script - the angular, elaborate style perfected around the seventh century and used in imposing Muslim architecture, tombs and coins. As in the Taj Mahal, the letters higher up are larger than those at the base so that they all appear to be of a uniform size. The vast marble quadrangle where prayers are said is gaily decorated with mosaic embellishments on the sides. Each exquisite mosaic is followed by another of even greater beauty, but the huge halogen lamps suspended from a towering pole mar their magnificence.

To the north of Herat's medieval city wall hover the towering turrets, walls and battlements of Qila Ikhtiaruddin. Alexander first used the hillock on which it stands for a fort in 330 B.C. In the 13th century, the Kart Maliks built a larger fort on it, but by A.D.1381 they had lost it to Taimur. In A.D.1415, Shah Rukh Khan built his castle on the mound. Its north face has a long rampart about 400 metres long, dotted with six semicircular towers. From the remains of blue tiles on the western wall, it would seem that the other walls were similarly embellished. In its heyday it must have been an intimidating and yet exquisite edifice. The main entrance leads to a compound housing a museum and the ruins of buttresses. The museum, Pai Hesar, was established in the 1970s. It has remained closed for 15 years. In one corner are the ruins of hamams, or baths, on the walls of which can still be seen the faded remains of beautiful paintings. The fort, also known as Bala Hesar, was the seat of governance until the 1940s.

Despite the dominating presence of Minister of Power Ismail Khan in the city and his fame as the man who routed the Soviets from Afghanistan, everyone, young and old, that this writer spoke to in Herat said that the days of Najibullah's government were the best in living memory. It is ironic, but it seems they miss the Soviets. Social services worked, schools functioned, roads were well maintained, there was much less crime, and living was cheap and comfortable. There was no opium problem either. Irritated by the arrogance and aloofness of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) troops, the Afghans fondly remember the friendliness of the Soviet soldiers.

India is popular in Herat for its films and songs. India has a consulate in the city and is helping with many civil construction projects such as roads and the dam across the Hari Rud. Even without these material gestures, there is so much good will towards India that it is sufficient to say "Hindustani" to be welcomed spontaneously. Indians, too, feel at home with the clutter and noise of Herat's streets and the shops that abut the streets, reminiscent of parts of Old Delhi, Amritsar or Meerut.

Herat's soil nurtures many kinds of melons and grapes apart from the usual vegetables and fruit. On every street, grapes, melons and pistachios are stacked like sand. The people of Herat are lyrical about their grapes. There are 35 varieties, but there are rumoured to be 70 kinds. Elongated, short and round, large and round, red, black, yellow or green, pick any bunch and it will be sweet. Some have exotic names such as Tokhm-e-Kabak, Fakhri Ghalamak and Poshangi. My 92-year-old father remembers how grapes from Herat used to come to India in the 1930s and 1940s, nestled in cotton wool and packed in slatted crates.

Present-day Herat is a thriving, vibrant city. New buildings and apartment blocks are everywhere. In front of its municipality building, I saw the bright green of artificial turf substituting for a lawn. It has numerous bazaars. It has an industrial estate producing an indigenous cola drink; textiles; and motorcycles that have been adapted for all kinds of peculiar transport needs. Huge trailers and motorcycle-pulled carts pass by every minute on the busy road to the Iran border. At the border post of Islam Qala, about 700 Afghans cross the border every day in search of better prospects elsewhere. Herat is still on the trade route to Iran and Europe, but its border villages have to eke out an existence from a desert. That is difficult. Smuggling people, arms and drugs is easier.

Herat still has an old quarter with mud homes in the old dome styles. Until recently, the modern concrete structures that have plastered the rest of the city were banned. Frenetic demolition has begun after the ban was lifted. Soon, only the 10th century wall will keep Qila Ikhtiaruddin company.

Though some of Herat's famed buildings may be in danger, Herat is not. For more than 2,000 years it has been familiar with adversity and has always recovered.