Tourism in Herat seems like an unlikely venture these days, but not so long ago, the city was a favorite stop for hordes of travellers on the Hippie Trail to India.
There is a cultured atmosphere here that sets it apart from other Afghan cities. Herat is one of those places on the Silk Road that was too rich and beautiful for its own good, and it stirred up the envy of conquerors. Called the Pearl of Khorasan in the Rumi, it allegedly contained 359 colleges and 6000 bath houses in the 12th century. Not much later, it contained 0, as the city was wiped off the map by Genghis Khan.
The city blossomed again, though, when the dynasty of Timur moved their capital from Samarkand to Herat and sponsored the rejuvenation of the city. As later empires waxed and waned, most of Herat was eventually destroyed again by British and Russian invasions, and only a few buildings now remain as a reminder of it’s former greatness.
The old town is the most complete remaining example of a medieval Afghan city, but modern developments are deleting much of the character in a fast pace. For now though, wandering through the alleyways of the old town remains one of the most interesting and revealing things to do in Herat.
The Friday Mosque is the architectural highlight of the city. Built in the 13th century, it got a make-over in the days of the Timurids, and its bright-coloured mosaic tilework brilliantly shows off Herat’s past links to Samarkand.
The tiles are no longer the original ones, and the restoration process is ongoing by a tile manufacture next to the mosque that has opened its doors for tourism.
Citadel of Herat
The citadel of Herat dates back more than 2000 years to the time when Alexander the Great first rocked up to the scene. It has seen many masters, and has become a symbol of the city and its (often violent) past.
After decades of neglect, the citadel has been beautifully restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and Tourism with funding from German and US governments. Inside, the National Museum of Herat has an exhibition on the city’s history and culture.
Situated on an artificial mound to the west of the old city, it offers great views over the bustle below.
Musalla complex and mausoleum of Gowhar Shad
Destroyed by the British for a Russian invasion that never happened, the Musalla complex was one of the foremost examples of Islamic architecture anywhere in the world when it was still standing. At once a mosque, a medressa and the mausoleum of Gowhar Shad, who commissioned the building, the Musalla complex now only has fragments of its beauty left.
One minaret remains from the mausoleum, while another 4 stand mournfully on the medressa of Baiqara, the last Timurid ruler of Herat.
Near here you can find 2 more shrines, called Shahzada Abdullah, featuring beautiful interior tiling some 600 years old.
One of the most beautiful buildings in Herat from the city’s Golden Age, Gazar Gah holds the tomb of the Sufi poet and saint Khoja Abdullah Ansari. It is always busy here with pilgrims from all over Afghanistan, offering prayers.
It has seen a lot of wear and tear, but is currently being restored to its former glory.
Jami was another Sufi poet, revered and remembered for his insight and meditative poetry. His tomb is an understated, contemplative place, where men and women come to pray.
Pol-e Malan is an ancient arched bridge outside of the city, amidst picturesque scenery. Takht-e Safar is the nicest city park with the best view over Herat. Finally, the Jihad museum offers a no-holds barred treatment of the war against the Soviets.