What You Need to Know about Afghanistan’s Blue Mosque

Of the many incredible historic sites and monuments found all over Afghanistan, the Blue Mosque is perhaps the most breathtaking. Located in the beautiful city of Mazar-i-Sharif, the Blue Mosque was built in its present form more than five centuries ago, and is often described as an “oasis of peace” by visitors and locals alike. Here’s what you need to know about this stunning example of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage.


It’s a huge complex.

Although its name might lead you to imagine a single building, the Blue Mosque is really a large and rather elaborate complex that covers roughly 22,000 square feet in the center of Mazar-i-Sharif. Surrounded by an extensive park, the Blue Mosque encompasses a courtyard, a small museum, and a number of holy tombs in addition to the large prayer hall. Experts often cite the Blue Mosque as one of the most exquisite examples of classical Islamic architecture in the world.



It’s an important shrine.

The Blue Mosque is an important place of pilgrimage because it’s believed to house the remains of Ali bin Abi Talib, a son-in-law and cousin of the prophet Muhammad. According to legend, a local mullah in the 12th century had a dream in which Ali revealed that he had been secretly buried in what is now northwestern Afghanistan, near the ancient city of Balkh. The Sultan of the Seljuq Empire, who was the ruler of the region at that time, was so captivated by this story that he ordered a shrine to be built on the site revealed in the dream; he also created the city of Mazar-i-Sharif around the shrine.

Although this original shrine lasted barely a century (it was unfortunately destroyed by Genghis Khan during the westward movement of his Mongol armies), it was rebuilt in 1481 by Sultan Husayn Mizra in the form of the Blue Mosque. Today, the shrine of Ali is the largest part of the complex.


It has a resident population of doves.

One of the first things that visitors notice upon entering the park surrounding the Blue Mosque are thousands of snow-white doves soaring overhead and pecking at the ground along the park paths lined with rose bushes. The reason why the doves seem so at home here is because they are: these doves are official residents of the complex. Raised by the Blue Mosque’s attendants ever since the original shrine was built, the doves live in the pigeon house located to one side of the mosque: year-round, this large, low, small-windowed concrete structure is where the doves nest, breed, and receive food. Today, they are one of the Blue Mosque’s most famous symbols, with local legend recounting that the doves are pure white because of the mosque’s holiness.


Calls to prayer now take place over a loudspeaker system.

Although the Blue Mosque dates from the 15th century, this doesn’t mean that every part of it is old. Today, when the muezzin chants the traditional call to prayer, he does so over a loudspeaker system that broadcasts the call across the city. This is quite different than the way things worked a generation ago, when four muezzins would stand at the top of the mosque’s minaret, each facing a different direction, and chant the call to prayer in perfect unison. However, the effect is largely the same: then, just as now, worshippers all across the city could hear the call.



Image courtesy Wikipedia


Thousands of intricate tiles cover the mosque’s exterior.

The Blue Mosque gets its name from the thousands upon thousands of stunning tiles that cover virtually every inch of the structure. Each tile is about the size of a hand, and together they form large mosaic patterns that are exquisitely detailed and produce incredible visual effects. For example, the tiles are arranged in such a way that, when looking at the mosque from farther away, it appears to be floating. This is a classic trick of Islamic architecture: the idea is to use the colors and designs of the tiles to distract viewers so that they forget to notice the solidity of the building. Instead, the mosque appears miraculously weightless—a visual representation of its sanctity.


A tile workshop is located just outside the mosque complex.

Not surprisingly, the intricate tilework of the Blue Mosque requires constant upkeep. Exposure to the elements gradually wears away at the tiles. Visiting worshipers also do damage by stealing small pieces of tile to take home as a treasured memento of their pilgrimage. Fortunately, the Blue Mosque maintains its very own staff of resident tile makers, who practice their craft in a small workshop just outside the mosque complex. The workshop and its artisans produce roughly six square meters of tile every month.

A Look at the New Afghan Fashion Label Putting Style in the Spotlight

LamanLogoAfghanistan might not be the first place that comes to mind when thinking of global fashion hotspots, but that’s going to change if the new clothing label Laman has anything to say about it. The label was launched by a group of young Kabul-based entrepreneurs in 2015. Ever since, it’s been making headlines at home and abroad for its bold interpretations of Afghan fashion. Here’s what you need to know about this stylish startup.


It taps into Kabul’s history as a fashion capital.

From the 1920s to the 1970s, Kabul enjoyed an international reputation as a hub of fashion and style. The era was reflected in the chic outfits and hairstyles of its citizens, and the world took notice of unique examples of Afghan fashion like the goat-skin coat.

In December 1969, Vogue even ran a cover story titled “Afghan Adventure” that featured some of the country’s young style icons. And although decades of conflict have all but erased the vibrancy of Afghanistan’s fashion traditions, it’s precisely this spirit of style – a throwback to the country’s golden age of fashion – that Laman hopes to revive.


It’s headed by a sibling duo.

Laman is currently helmed by the brother-sister team of Haseeb and Rahiba Rahimi. As president, the self-taught Rahiba is the company’s lead designer. Ever since she was a child seeing her mother wearing dresses and scarves with traditional Afghan embroidery, she has wanted to have her own design company that would claim and celebrate her country’s cultural heritage.

Her brother Haseeb serves as the label’s CEO, supporting the company through his experience in business, economics, and finance. The two siblings launched the label with fellow co-founder Khalid Wardak, a designer and graduate of a fashion school in London, but he has since left the company to pursue other projects.

Together, the team has done pioneering work in advancing the business of fashion in Afghanistan. Because there was no pre-existing business model, the founders had to start completely from scratch: getting proper government authorizations, researching suppliers, establishing a production line, and taking care of the all-important marketing aspect of launching a new brand.


It blends traditional and contemporary styles.

Laman has become known for its innovative approach to fashion, which presents traditional Afghan designs and styles with a modern twist. The label has focused especially on reviving Afghanistan’s rich tradition of embroidery. These elaborate and detailed designs vary depending on the region and community. Bright colors and patterns are beautifully showcased in Laman’s dresses and suits, which are made of lighter fabrics that are more suitable for modern lifestyles.

Laman has also taken care to ensure that its women’s clothing is acceptable for everyday wear in Afghan society. To this end, the label produces two women’s collections. One features garments that are long and loose enough to be appropriate for public wear. The other features somewhat more fashion-forward designs that are meant to be worn privately in the home.



It has a diverse clientele.

When Laman first launched, its target market was middle- and upper-class Afghans, both men looking for professional clothes for work and women seeking dressier options for weddings and other formal events. Its clothing ranges in cost from $29, or 2000 Afghanis, for a simple dress, up to $200 for more intricately-embroidered pieces. Today, the label enjoys a diverse clientele, including foreign customers (both within and beyond Afghanistan), government officials, and young girls and boys.


Its designs have been seen on television.

An important early breakthrough for Laman came shortly after the label’s launch. The team was asked to design clothing for some of the judges and participants on “Afghan Star,” a hugely-popular reality television show structured like “American Idol.” This early exposure was critical in helping build brand recognition and demand for the label’s unique and trendy designs.


It promotes economic empowerment.

Small businesses like Laman play an incredibly important role in Afghanistan’s economic development. From its original three co-founders, Laman has grown to employ more than 30 people. Many of its employees work from home, sewing and embroidering the pieces. This allows people who might not otherwise have economic opportunities to earn an income and help support their families.

In big-picture terms, Afghanistan’s textiles sector is still very under-developed despite high consumer demand. In 2015, for example, Afghanistan spent more than $200 million importing textiles and clothes from countries like China and the United Arab Emirates. If even some of those items could be produced domestically, by companies like Laman, that could be a major contribution to Afghanistan’s economy.

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.