Afghanistan's Silk Road jewel: experts fear for heritage in Herat

Under the Taliban regime between 1996 and 2001, militants destroyed prominent heritage sites

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With Herat now in the hands of the Taliban as the militant group consolidates power over the last outposts of government-held territory, protecting Afghanistan's heritage has become a grave concern for many.

Last month Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, accepted a request by the Afghan government to include the city in a list of world cultural heritage sites – a move welcomed by residents.

It is late afternoon when Basir Joya, director of Herat citadel, leads a tour around the restored fort. The golden light illuminates its many cylindrical structures, the top of its towers offering a superb view of the city as the sun sinks towards the end of another day.

We will never allow any regime or enemy of Afghanistan to destroy ancient places, like the mosque, the citadel or the minarets
Basir Joya, director of Herat citadel

“The history of Herat is shown by this citadel. If anyone visits Herat [including international visitors], if they don’t see the citadel it means they didn’t [really] see Herat,” says Mr Joya says.

Mr Joya has been in the role since 2011 and it is one he carries out with great pride.

Dating back to 330BC, during Alexander the Great’s reign in the city, the citadel has been destroyed and rebuilt on more than one occasion – it is the city’s oldest building.

Sunset viewed from the top of one of Herat citadel's towers. Charlie Faulkner for The National

Most recently, between 2006 and 2011, it was completely restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture through its own funding and about $2.4 million from the United States and Germany.

Close to the Iranian border, the ancient Silk Road city is Afghanistan’s third largest and is known as the cultural capital of the country. Home to about 830 historical sites, Herat province is rich in history and culture.

Amid a deteriorating security situation as fighting rages across the country, there are fears some of these ancient sites could fall victim to the conflict or, worse still, face the same fate as Bamiyan’s sixth-century Buddhas that were blown up by the Taliban in 2001.

Fighting broke out in Herat a little more than two weeks ago, the first time the city has faced a threat from the Taliban since the US invasion two decades ago. The city finally fell on Thursday.

“We will never allow any regime or enemy of Afghanistan to ... destroy ancient places, like the mosque, the citadel or the minarets,” Mr Joya tells The National just days before the Taliban breached the city’s defensive lines.

“We have a collection of people in Herat – Tajiki, Uzbek, Hazara. During the civil war that in Herat, we had a good unity together.”

Although Mr Joya speaks with conviction, he is concerned about the fate of his home city.

“It’s really hard to talk about the security situation in Herat. The Taliban have changed these days, who knows what they will do now,” he says.

By securing World Heritage Status these sites, deemed to have cultural, historical or scientific significance, are then legally protected internationally.

Had it not collapsed on August 15 after the Taliban’s advance into Kabul, the Afghan government would have been responsible for preparing a World Heritage dossier detailing the sites considered significant.

The chance for a transitional political process that could allow this to happen now seems remote.

Unesco selection

“It is up to the government to decide how long this may take, usually one to two years. Then they submit to the World Heritage Centre – Secretariat of the World heritage Committee, which is formed of 21 chosen member states – before the first of February, which will make a first appraisal,” says Philip Delange, Unesco cultural programme officer.

“Once the file is submitted it will go to the International Council for Monuments and Sites, the international NGO assisting the World Heritage Committee with the dossier’s evaluation. Upon their advice, the site can be accepted, referred or deferred in July by the World Heritage Committee.”

It is time for midday prayer and the male worshippers who spill out of the two rooms at the front of the ornately decorated Great Mosque of Herat – also known as Jama Masjid – take shelter in the thin sliver of shade at the side of the huge central courtyard.

More than 800 years old, the mosque was originally laid out by the Ghorid Sultan Ghiyasuddin in 1200 and covers an area of 46,760 square metres. Its huge arches and tall towers, colourfully decorated with stylised flowers, arabesques and geometric patterns, are a dizzying sight, but it has not always looked like this.

The Ghorids preferred plain brick – it was the Timurid restoration in the 15th century after the building fell into ruin that introduced the colourful tiles, but by the 20th century these lavish designs had dulled so a restoration project was set up in the 1940s and is still ongoing today.

In one of the mosque’s back rooms is a tile workshop. Abdul Jalil, 50, has been working as a tile maker as part of the ancient building’s maintenance for 20 years. He forms the intricately detailed patterns on the tiles that decorate the huge structure, receiving just $50 a month for his work.

“My job is very important to me because we are Muslim and this is an important Islamic site to be protecting. This is a skill I inherited from my father,” Mr Jalil says.

The Taliban's shocking advance

At the time he spoke to The National, the Taliban were moving in on Herat with territory gains out in the districts – a great concern for Mr Jalil.

“When they were last in power, the work was able to be continued here, so I hope that is the case again if they do gain control of the city.”

Also based in the Great Mosque of Herat is the office of preservation and restoration of historical works. General manager Zalmay Safa says receiving Unesco world heritage status is important for protecting a city with a history that belongs to the entire world.

The sites are so vital that Mr Safa says he and his team are prepared to continue their work no matter who is in power.

“On behalf of this organisation, with our team of 25 people, I can say we will be ready to continue working under any ruling party in any place, and not just inside the city,” he says.

Across the city, Herat’s famed four minarets are the last remaining sign of Husain Baiqara’s madrasa, built by Sultan Baiqara in the 15th century. Decades of conflict have led to the ruin of what was once a huge complex built by Empress Gawhar Shad in the 14th century.

The site was targeted by mujahideen fighters who were attacking the Soviet soldiers using it as a base during the Soviet-Afghan war. In an attempt to protect themselves, anti-personnel mines were laid around the base of the minarets by the Soviet soldiers.

Once beautifully decorated in intricate and colourful mosaic tiles, the crumbling, 30-metre towers lean somewhat precariously, some looking as though they could topple at any moment.

Next to the site is the Mausoleum of Gawhar Shad. A great example of Timurid architecture with its fascinating ribbed dome, it was once the resting site of Shah Rukh – ruler of the Timurid Empire between 1405 and 1447 – until his body was moved to Samarkand.

Mohammad, 52, who provides only one name, has worked as a guard at the site for eight years.

“It is important to protect these sites but it’s very hard when we get paid so little,” he says. He is paid 5,000 Afghanis ($62.50) a month.

Mohammad is also worried about the deteriorating security situation.

“The Taliban this time are not the same as the Taliban in the 1990s, they are more brutal. Maybe they will kill me because I am employed by the government,” he says. Mohammad say he may go to Iran with his family.

Taliban stand guard at a checkpoint as they took control of Herat, Afghanistan, 15 August 2021.  EPA

For many residents of the city, peace is what they long for so that Herat can once again become a thriving tourist destination – something that would be economically beneficial for everyone.

“I am very worried about the situation and that we could lose these ancient places,” says Khalid Hamidi, owner of a blue glass shop – a famed product of the city – in front of the Great Mosque of Herat.

Mr Hamidi runs the 74-year-old business he took over from his father.

“Every morning I awake to the news of more destruction, more death,” says the father of three.

“My dad said during the time of [former prime minister and president] Mohammed Daoud Khan, hundreds of tourists used to flock here from all over the world on a weekly basis – we want to return to that era.”

Sufi heritage at Gazur Gah

It is 4.30am and still relatively dark outside, but the sun has begun its slow climb up behind the Khwaja Abd Abdullah Ansari shrine. The early morning worshippers are already there, enjoying the tranquillity and the cool breeze as they pray.

The shrine, often referred to as Gazur Gah, is one of the country’s holiest. It is the resting site of 11th century Sufi saint and poet Khwaja Abdullah Ansari and receives hundreds of pilgrims from across the country on a weekly basis.

Beneath a large ilex tree on the far side of the complex is the saint’s tomb, marked out by a five-metre-tall pillar, a beautiful design carved into its white marble, which is encased in glass for protection.

“[My family] have had the responsibility of protecting the historical heritage of Guzur Gah generation after generation for 400 years,” Mirnavid Nozhat says.

“On a Friday night we conduct a Zikr ceremony after the Friday prayer and it attracts a lot of people to the site,” he says.

Zikr is a spiritual practice treasured by Sufis and is the remembrance of Allah through the repeated utterances of Allah’s names in unison by the group, often swaying as they do so and, in some cases, rotating their whole body while extending their arms and pivoting on one foot.

“This is part of our culture, that's why protecting this place is highly important and valuable for us,” Mr Nozhat says..

“Since Unesco is responsible for recording and protecting the historical and cultural heritage around the world, we want Guzar Gah, which is one of the historical places in Herat, to be recorded as a historical heritage and to tell the world of the antiquity and value of this place.”

He believes that securing Unesco status would lead to a better-informed community on how to protect these cherished sites.

“Hopefully it will mean a plan will be put in to place to train people how to take care of places like Guzar Gah. The country is known for its history and culture and we have to protect its heritage.”

Protecting historical heritage means protecting the identity of humanity, says Mohammad Rafiq Shahir, head of a civil society organisation in Herat.

"It's not just for the people of Herat or Afghanistan, because during the centuries that [these buildings] have existed, [they] might be part of the culture of people who are now in different parts of the world who are interested in these places, [so, they] should be protected,” Mr Shahir says.

He says that securing Unesco World Heritage status is important because the significance of the city’s historical heritage will be recognised and valued more highly.

“Support from Unesco can lead to more attention [which] is important in protecting [these sites].”

Mr Shahir says the conflict and bad governance is detrimental to the future of ancient sites.

“Unfortunately, the ongoing conflict, bad governance and corruption have all been reasons for us not to focus on our historical heritage correctly,” he says.

“Most policies have been temporary ones and there hasn't been much attention ... there has been no action. It's a pain that we, the people of Afghanistan and Herat, are enduring.”

In an ice cream shop in the centre of Herat, Morsal Porsa, 21, a student of the Sharia and Islamic sciences faculty at Herat University, says the citadel is her favourite site.

“It has many stories to tell and is very beautiful. A lot of work has gone into protecting it,” she says.

“I am worried that with the deterioration in the security situation, these ancient places are at risk of being damaged or the same thing happens to these sites like it did to the Buddhas.”

Updated: August 18, 2021, 7:32 AM