The Taliban’s reported capture of Herat in western Afghanistan would mark a stunning victory for the hardliners and yet another devastating blow to President Ashraf Ghani and his fast-collapsing military.
The third-largest city in Afghanistan, with a population of about three million, Herat was long considered one of few comparatively safe parts of a country that has been beset by war and violence for four decades.
While never totally spared the types of insurgent attacks that most Afghans must frequently deal with, visitors could nonetheless stroll the clay-brick ramparts of the famous Citadel, dating back to Alexander the Great, whose army founded the fort in about 330 BC in what is now Herat's centre.
Even older is the Great Mosque, whose foundations date back to 500 BC. Over the millennia, it was controlled by several empires that ebbed and flowed across the region, including the mighty Mughals in the 17th century.
Located some 125 kilometres from the Iranian border, Herat is situated in a strategically vital part of Afghanistan that was once a major Silk Road transit point that connected merchants coming from South and Central Asia to the Middle East.
Locals boast that the saffron grown in the city's surrounding terrain is the best in the world. Herat is also renowned for its rugs, standing as it does at the geographical crossroads of several intricate styles of carpet making.
In recent years, thousands of young Afghans had used Herat as a final staging post before attempting to cross into Iran in hopes of finding work. Many were conscripted into Iran-backed militias fighting in Syria.
The Taliban captured Herat in 1995, three years after the collapse of Afghanistan’s communist government. US-backed forces affiliated with the Northern Alliance won the city back in November 2001 and it had been out of Taliban hands ever since.
On September 13, 2013, armed Taliban militants in a minivan loaded with explosives, descended upon the US consulate in Herat, detonated the bombs and killed eight Afghan men guarding the gates.