A Journey through 10 of the Most Beautiful Cities in Afghanistan

Standing for millennia at the crossroads of multiple peoples and cultures, Afghanistan has a unique cultural heritage that is as rich and diverse as it is ancient. In an area smaller than the US state of Texas, hundreds upon hundreds of spectacular monuments, remarkable archaeological sites, and stunning architectural creations are testimony to an extraordinary civilization. And there’s no better way to experience this wide array of cultural treasures than by exploring Afghanistan’s most beautiful cities, many of which are so full of history and heritage that they serve as living museums. Here are 10 you’ll want to learn more about.

 

  1. Kabul

Afghanistan’s largest city and its national capital, Kabul has existed for more than 3,500 years. It’s therefore hardly surprising that the city is home to some of the country’s most notable historic sites, including the legendary Babur’s Gardens. But don’t think that Kabul is entirely focused on the past: the city has recently embarked on a number of new architectural projects, like the Abdul Rahman Mosque, which was designed in the traditional Islamic style but was just built in 2012.

  1. Balkh

Often called “the mother of cities,” Balkh is considered by many to be one of the oldest cities in the world. Located in northern Afghanistan at the crossroads between the Middle East and eastern Asia, Balkh has a history of strong Buddhist influence, which is visible in the ruins of many Buddhist fortifications and constructions that still stand in the city today.

 

  1. Kandahar

The second-largest city in Afghanistan, Kandahar rests on the site of another city that Alexander the Great founded nearly 2,500 years ago. Today, Kandahar plays an important role in Afghanistan’s spiritual life: the city’s Friday Mosque, a deeply holy Islamic place of worship, is often called “the heart of Afghanistan.”

 

  1. Mazar-i-Sharif

Mazar-i-Sharif is home to the Blue Mosque, an absolutely stunning structure that was built in its present form more than five centuries ago. Frequently described as “an oasis for peace,” the mosque is so extraordinary that it’s not surprising to learn that it originated in a dream: according to legend, a Middle Eastern scholar dreamed that the bones of a cousin of the prophet Muhammad were resting in northwestern Afghanistan. Fascinated by this story, the sultan at the time built a shrine to honor this cousin, and the city of Mazar-i-Sharif gradually grew up around it.

 

  1. Herat

Located in western Afghanistan, Herat was one of the country’s most impressive ancient cities, and its legacy is all the more exceptional given that it has been destroyed and rebuilt several times during its history. Today, the Old City of Herat is home to a spectacular collection of medieval Islamic buildings, including the Great Mosque complex, which includes a craftsmen’s shop, where visitors can see artisans at work creating the tiles and mosaics used in the restoration and upkeep of the structure.

 

  1. Bamiyan

Another city whose development was strongly impacted by Buddhist expansion, Bamiyan is a rich archaeological mix of Persian, Greek, Turkish, Indian, and Chinese influence. At present, the city is best known as the former home of the famous Buddhas of Bamiyan—giant Buddha statues that were unfortunately destroyed in 2001. Since that time, another giant statue has been discovered, along with cave paintings from the 5th and 9th centuries.

 

  1. Bagram

Located north of Kabul, the town of Bagram may be small, but in ancient times it was an important stop for merchants traveling along the Silk Road from India. The town was originally a Persian settlement, but its development was later influenced by Greek styles of city planning and by Arab rulers; as a result, the art and architecture of the community reflect the typical Central Asian mix of styles that has been dubbed “Greco-Buddhist.”

 

  1. Samangan

This small town in northern Afghanistan was once a medieval caravan stop. Samangan is best known for its weekly market, an ancient tradition that continues to be extremely popular. The market specializes in traditional Afghan musical instruments built by local artisans.

  1. Jalalabad

This eastern city played an important role in the establishment of modern Afghanistan as it was used as a military campaign base by Ahmad Shah Durrani, the 18th-century ruler whom most regard as the founder of the contemporary Afghan state. Somewhat unusually for Afghanistan, Jalalabad boasts large green areas and surrounding water, which are an important element of the city’s unique beauty. There is also a great deal of striking architecture in Jalalabad, including the Mausoleum of King Amanullah Khan and the more modern Nangarhar University.

 

  1. Faizabad

The northeastern city of Faizabad has historically been cut off from the rest of Afghanistan due to poor road connections. As a result, the local culture is remarkably well preserved. Today, there are still two functioning bazaars in Faizabad, where residents trade diverse items from cloth and cutlery to tea and sugar.

DAI in Afghanistan – Spotlight on 5 Important Projects

A global company wholly owned by its employees, Development Alternatives, Inc. has been working to bring fresh ideas and alternatives to the field of international development since its incorporation in 1970. Known today simply as DAI, the company partners with development agencies, private corporations, national governments, and philanthropies to create and implement innovative solutions to social and economic development challenges in some of the world’s most vulnerable nations.

At present, DAI has more than 3,300 employees worldwide, and it has active projects in more than 80 countries. In Afghanistan, DAI works with international funders on a broad range of development projects, from agricultural initiatives to programs that support small businesses. Projects currently in progress include:

  1. The Regional Agricultural Development Program (RADP-East)

This initiative is focused on the agricultural sector in eastern Afghanistan. Farmers and agribusinesses in this part of the country could stand to benefit significantly from Afghanistan’s growing economy and expanded opportunities for international trade. However, many of them still face considerable challenges like unreliable irrigation, inadequate cultivation techniques, and a lack of knowledge about how to connect with new markets. All of these have a negative impact on productivity and profitability.

The RADP-East program aims to address these issues with a value chain facilitation strategy that uses value chain analysis and training initiatives to help improve crop yields and identify new markets where rural Afghan farmers can sell their harvests.

Sample activities conducted under RADP-East include conducting a rigorous evaluation of regional agricultural value chains; leveraging strategies like SMS marketing, radio publicity, and “farmer field day” initiatives to increase awareness of regional agribusiness and connect farmers to new buyers; and providing financial support to organizations that work with farmers to improve business management and operations practices, like farm service centers, agricultural depots, and grower associations.

Afghanistan farm

 

  1. The Agricultural Credit Enhancement Program (ACE)

For over 25 years, farmers in Afghanistan could not access agricultural credit, and this severely restricted the expansion of the farming sector. Under the auspices of the ACE program, DAI helps to manage a major international grant awarded to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock. It makes credit available to farmers during the farming season, with repayment due after the harvest.

A wide range of farming participants are eligible for these loans, including small commercial farmers, high-value crop producers, agricultural product processors and exporters, and agriculture-related businesses. The ACE program also offers technical assistance and support, as well as learning and advocacy initiatives around agricultural finance, to ensure that farmers who receive loans have the best possible chance of success.

  1. The Strong Hubs for Afghan Hope and Resilience Program (SHAHAR)

Afghanistan’s municipal governments will play a critical role in building civil society and providing a better future for Afghanistan in the years ahead. However, although many municipalities have improved over the last decade, few are currently performing at the level necessary to support their citizens during a time of ongoing change.

The SHAHAR program aims to change this by providing targeted financial assistance to municipal governments, municipal advisory boards, and Afghanistan’s General Directorate of Municipal Affairs (GDMA). This assistance specifically supports improvements to municipal financial management, citizen consultation, and service delivery in urban areas.

Additional activities include organizing national, regional, and district conferences where municipalities can share best practices and lessons learned as well as working with municipal officials to prepare and implement capacity building plans. SHAHAR’s central goal is to create well-governed, fiscally sustainable municipalities that are capable of meeting the needs of Afghanistan’s growing urban populations.

  1. The Assistance to Legislative Bodies of Afghanistan Program (ALBA)

Designed to help both of Afghanistan’s houses of Parliament increase their self-reliance, the ALBA program provides issue-based assistance, training, and capacity-building support to members of Parliament (MPs) and staff as they address current bills and policies.

This support aims to boost outreach work done by Parliament and increase dialogue between MPs, citizens, civil society, and media; enable parliamentary staff to enhance their work in the areas of budget analysis and legislative research; and improve Parliament’s capacity to serve as an effective and independent oversight body for the executive branch.

  1. The Assistance in Building Afghanistan by Development Enterprise Program (ABADE)

The ABADE program is focused on economic growth in Afghanistan. Specifically, its focus is on increasing domestic and foreign investment, stimulating employment, and increasing sales of Afghan products. There are three main components to ABADE.

The first is the provision of grants to small- and medium-sized businesses and business alliances. This financial support allows businesses to plan more effectively and to take calculated risks on innovative ideas. The second component is the provision of technical support and business advice to growing companies. The third aims to incite broader improvements to the business environment.

DAI’s involvement with ABADE falls under this third component. DAI works with partner businesses and alliances to identify specific regulatory and procedural barriers, then collaborates with relevant ministries to remove or ease those barriers.

What You Need to Know about This Group’s Work in Afghanistan

Relief InternationalSince Relief International (RI) began working in Afghanistan in 2001, the organization has placed a major emphasis on building strong partnerships with local communities and on earning respect and acceptance in order to ensure the safety and sustainability of its work. Over the years, the scope of RI’s activities has grown considerably, but even though the organization now works in a wide range of areas—from health and education to governance and civil society—the goal of mobilizing, empowering, and supporting individual communities remains at the heart of its mission. To learn more about how RI is helping Afghan communities with both short-term relief efforts and long-term development projects, read on for an overview of four RI programs from the organization’s past and present.

Improving animal health

Roughly 23 million Afghans live in rural areas, and at least three-quarters of these rely on their livestock to provide them with food and income. But after years of conflict, essentials like adequate animal feed and veterinary services are no longer readily available, thus putting not only the health of the animals at risk, but also the livelihoods of the families that depend upon them.

Together with the international rural development organization Mission d’Aide au Développement des Economies Rurales (MADERA) and supported by funding from the EU, Relief International is working in some of Afghanistan’s most vulnerable and volatile rural districts to re-establish reliable veterinary care and to educate and train farmers and livestock owners in animal husbandry best practices. By helping communities to improve shelter conditions and nutrition for their livestock, boosting the quality and availability of animal health services, and strengthening ties between public and private animal health sectors, RI is aiming to expand livestock production and increase animal productivity, which in turn have the potential to significantly improve the livelihoods of rural farmers.

Preventing zoonotic diseases

AfghanistanAnimal health in Afghanistan does not only affect the livelihoods of many rural families in Afghanistan, it also impacts these families’ own health. Afghanistan has a small but robust population—about 2.4 million people—of nomadic families and communities who travel with their livestock; these unique living conditions make these individuals particularly susceptible to zoonoses, which are diseases that animals and humans can transmit to each other. Zoonotic diseases pose a significant health risk, which is exacerbated by a general lack of knowledge about animal health, as well as a dearth of government support services in this area.

Under the umbrella of its One Health Asia Program, Relief International works with Afghanistan’s ministries of health, livestock, education, and environment to develop community education and support programs for animal vaccination and zoonotic disease awareness. Educating susceptible populations enables them to better recognize early signs of infection and seek the necessary treatment, while supporting animal health care and vaccinations minimizes the threat of zoonotic disease at the source. According to officials in the Afghan government, RI is the only organization directly involved in fighting the spread of zoonotic disease.

Alleviating cold and hunger in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces

Residents of eastern Afghanistan are all too familiar with the effects of the region’s long, harsh winters: fewer jobs, higher prices for household essentials like wheat and fuel, and more precarious conditions for families who are already struggling to make ends meet.

Drawing on its strong relationships created over the years with some of Afghanistan’s most remote communities, Relief International helped support thousands of families in Kunar province through the winter of 2017 by connecting them with a cash program funded by the World Bank and Afghanistan’s Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Martyrs & Disabled. With RI helping direct the assistance to cases of the greatest need—typically families with children under the age of 5—the program provided financial support to nearly 2,600 families in 76 of Kunar province’s communities. As a result, more families were able to stave off childhood malnutrition and could afford to send their children to school rather than requiring them to work in order to help out the family.

School construction

afghanistan educationOf the many barriers to education that children and youth in Afghanistan experience, a severe shortage of proper education infrastructure is one of the biggest. With so many schools destroyed by conflict, many remaining education buildings in Afghanistan had to operate in shifts in order to be able to accommodate more students. In other cases, students had to attend classes in dilapidated or dangerous buildings, in tents, or simply in the open air: environments that are hardly conducive to learning.

One of Relief International’s earliest projects in Afghanistan was the construction of three new schools in the Nijrab district of Kapisa province in the country’s northeast. Featuring 60 classrooms, the new facilities offer approximately 2,500 schoolchildren a safe and secure place to learn.