8 Things You Might Not Know about Herat

Located in western Afghanistan, Herat is an ancient city sometimes known as “Nagin Aseeya,” or the “Diamond of Asia.” In this article, we look at the history and culture of the city, as well as its reputation as one of Afghanistan’s largest and richest cities today.

1. The city’s origins date back to Achaemenid times (circa 550-330 BC).

The ancient Greeks called the city Artacoana, the capital of Aria. In 330 BC, Alexander the Great and his army invaded the region, destroying Artacoana and rebuilding another city nearby, which he named “Alexandria in Ariana,” which forms the basis of the modern city of Herat.

After him came the Sassanians, who called the city Harēv. In 660 AD, the Arabs took Herat, establishing it as the center of the Muslim world.

In 1221 AD, Mongol invaders seized the city, and it was subsequently destroyed under the orders of Genghis Khan. In 1393 AD, the Turkic conqueror Timur invaded, and Herat enjoyed arguably its greatest era.

As the capital of the Timurid empire, Herat became a celebrated center of science and culture. During this time, the city underwent significant growth, with the construction of many fine buildings, developing a vibrant court life famed for its music and artistry.

2. One of Afghanistan’s oldest mosques, Masjid Jami, lies within the city of Herat.

Masjid Jami
Image courtesy Nico Crisafulli | Flickr

Also known as the Friday Mosque or the Great Mosque of Herat, this ancient building dates back to 1200 AD. It was built under the rule of Sultan Ghiyath al-Din Muhammad Ghori and passed down through generations of Timurids, Safavids, Mughals, and Uzbeks, all of whom carefully maintained this iconic building. It is believed that the Masjid Jami took its present form in the late 1400s.

The Masjid Jami has not always been Herat’s largest mosque. A much bigger mosque and madrassa complex once existed in the northern part of Herat, called Gawhar Shad, but were destroyed by the British Indian Army in the late 1800s.

3. Herat was famous around the world for its distinctive miniature paintings.

During the 15th Century, the Herat school of painting flourished under the patronage of the Timurids. Timur’s son, Shāh Rokh, founded an art school in Herat, with his son Baysunqur Mīrzā subsequently developing it into an important center of painting, attracting artists from across Afghanistan, Persia, and beyond.

The miniature paintings of Herat were sometimes painted on silk. They were often used to illustrate manuscripts and poetry. Popular literature of the time, therefore, governed the subject matter of Herat school paintings, with many scenes originating from the Persian epic, Shāh-nāmeh, or Book of Kings, many examples of which survive to this day.

4. The city owes its existence to the nearby Hari River.

Spanning more than 1,000 kilometers, the Hari River begins in Afghanistan’s central Hindu Kush mountains, running all the way to Turkmenistan, where the river ends in the Tejend Oasis, swallowed up by the Karakum Desert.

The Hari River Valley around Herat has been renowned for centuries for its fertility and cultivation. Today, the region is famous the world over for its plethora of rare bird species, including cranes, waterfowl and various endangered migratory species.

5. Herat is Afghanistan’s second-largest city.

The capital, Kabul, is Afghanistan’s biggest city by far, with a population believed to be around 4 million.

The next biggest city is Herat, with an estimated population of more than 670,000. Persian is the most commonly spoken language in Herat today, and Sunni Islam is the most popular religion.

6. Herat lies on ancient trading routes linking the Middle East with Asia.

Herat
Image by Todd Huffman | Flickr

Today, the city remains an important regional hub, with roads from Herat to Turkmenistan, Iran, and other regions of Afghanistan remain strategically important.

Regarded as the gateway to Iran, Herat boasts its own international airport. The city traditionally linked trade routes from the Mediterranean to China and India. It was once noted for its luxurious textiles, arts, and crafts. Herat was world famous for its bronze goods, often featuring ornate designs often inlaid with precious metals and gems.

7. Herat enjoys a hot, semi-arid climate.

Precipitation is generally low, with most rain falling in the winter months. Despite its lower elevation, Herat has a more temperate summer climate than Kandahar, although the winters in Herat are generally colder. From May to September, a northwesterly wind blows through Herat, sometimes with considerable force. During the wintertime, eastern sections of the Hari River freeze solid, with locals treating it as a road.

8. The Citadel of Herat dates back to 330 BC.

Also known as the Citadel of Alexander, it dates back to the arrival of the Greek conqueror’s army following the Battle of Gaugamela. Many civilizations have used the strategic post over the course of the last 2,000 years, and it has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times. Today, the historical site is managed by the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture and is open to the public.

Spotlight on the National Parks of Afghanistan

National parks protect some of the world’s most important wildlife habitats and rare species that dwell in them. In this article, we look at a selection of protected areas in Afghanistan and endemic wildlife such as snow leopards, jackals, wolves, and bears.

Wakhan National Park

Encompassing alpine grasslands, soaring mountains, and a unique selection of wildlife, Wakhan National Park is located in northeastern Afghanistan. The region is inhabited by several tribes who seek to preserve its culture and traditional way of life.

Wakhan National Park
Image courtesy USAID | Flickr

Recognized as one of the last truly wild regions in the world by Prince Mostapha Zaher, the director general of Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency, Wakhan National Park lies in a narrow corner of Afghanistan and is bordered by Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south, and China to the east.

The Amu Darya River, which begins in Wakhan National Park, is also the point where the Pamir and Hindu Kush Mountains converge.

The wildlife in Wakhan National Park are incredibly diverse and encompass an array of snow leopards, lynx, wolves, brown bears, ibex, and red foxes, as well as the elusive Pallas’s cat. Wakhan National Park is also home to the famous Marco Polo sheep, which are characterized by their distinctive long horns that stretch almost 2 meters from tip to tip.

Ab-i Istada National Waterfowl and Flamingo Sanctuary

Ab-i Istada, which translates as “standing water,” is located in the Nawa District, Ghazni Province, Afghanistan. This endorheic salt lake lies within a large depression in the southern foothills of the Hindu Kush that was formed by the Chaman Fault System.

With a surface area of around 130 square kilometers, Ab-i Istada is relatively shallow, at around 3.7 meters deep. The lake encompasses two small islands near its southeastern shore: Kuchney ghundai and Loya ghundai.

The Nahara and Sardeh Rivers also drain into Ab-i Istada from the northeast. When the lake reaches a high level, the overflow drains into the Lora River, a tributary of the Arghistan River.

Outside of visits from nomads from Kandahar who pass through the region each summer, the area has remained unpopulated until relatively recently. At the start of the 21st century, the Tarakai tribe began settling near the lake, establishing eight villages within a 10-kilometer region housing a total population of approximately 5,000. Today, local communities engage in a variety of activities such as agriculture; timber collection; and the trapping of peregrine and saker, which are both highly prized falcon species.

The Ab-i Istada National Waterfowl and Flamingo Sanctuary is visited by more than 120 migratory species, including vast flocks of greater flamingos and Siberian cranes.

Bamyan Plateau Protected Area

The government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan created this 4,200-square-kilometer national park in November 2019. Located in the Hindu Kush Mountain Range, the Bamyan Plateau Protected Area represents Afghanistan’s second largest protected area after Wakhan National Park.

Image by Hadi Zaher | Flickr

Bamyan Plateau is geographically diverse and features high-altitude grasslands, jagged rock formations, and deep gorges. Its pristine rangeland and gigantic, deep canyons are home to a plethora of flora and fauna, including the rare Persian leopard, Himalayan ibex, lynx, foxes, pikas, and marmots.

The Bamyan Plateau is the only known area of Afghanistan to be inhabited by boreal owls and Asian badgers.

Nuristan Nature Reserve               

Starting to the west of Kabul and ending at Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, the Nuristan Forest encompasses multiple communities, including Nilaw, Arandu, Sao, Kunar, Pasenta, Nangalam, Kamdesh, and Naray, as well as the region’s capital city, Parun. Cities, towns, and villages in the Nuristan region are home to approximately 140,000 people, with settlers first populating the area about two centuries ago.

The Nuristan Forest is world famous for its outstanding natural beauty. The region is believed to be Afghanistan’s most biologically diverse due to the regional humidity created by Indian Ocean monsoons.

Recent biological surveys carried out in Nuristan Nature Reserve reveal that several species, including gray wolves, leopards, and Asiatic black bears continue to thrive throughout the region. Species commonly observed in the area include Indian crested porcupines, red foxes, rhesus macaques, yellow-throated martens, and golden jackals.

Band-e Amir National Park

Translating as the “Commander’s Dam,” which is believed to be a reference to the Muslim Caliph Ali, Band-e Amir National Park is home to the Hazaras people, who constitute approximately 10% of the total population of Afghanistan.

Recognized as a World Heritage site in 2004, Band-e Amir became a national park in 2009. By 2013, 6,000 tourists were visiting the region annually. Protected by park rangers, Band-e Amir features six separate lakes, the largest of which is Band-e Haibat, or the “Lake of Grandiose.”

Wildlife spotted in the region include urial sheep, wolves, lynx, red foxes, Pallas’s cats, and ibex wild goats. Visitors are drawn to the region by the purported healing properties of the local lakes. In addition, pilgrims frequent the area to visit Prophet Ali’s holy shrine.

8 of the Most Significant Holidays in Afghanistan

Steeped in culture and tradition, Afghanistan is famous for its celebrations to mark their national holidays, with people throughout the country coming together for the joyous festivities. In this article, we look at a selection of Afghan national holidays and how they are observed across the country.

Ramadan

Ramadan is a holy month in the Islamic culture. During Ramadan, Muslims all over the world fast throughout the daylight hours in order to feel closer to God. During this month of spiritual rejuvenation, Muslims try to avoid personal vices and negative acts and instead concentrate on practicing self-control, showing compassion for individuals who are less fortunate, and undertaking positive acts. Ramadan centers around religious devotion, encouraging Muslims to devote more time to performing special prayers and studying the Qur’an.

Eid al-Fitr

An Islamic festival, Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, when Muslims attend communal prayers, listen to sermons, and give charity in the form of food. Eid al-Fitr is a public holiday throughout Afghanistan, when businesses and schools are closed, and the general population takes a day off as part of the celebration.

In 2020, Eid al-Fitr falls on May 24 in Afghanistan. People around the country will celebrate this “Festival of Fast-Breaking,” pledging money to people in need and enjoying feasts with friends and family.

Mawlid al-Nabi

Mawlid al-Nabi celebrates the birth of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Afghans celebrate the festival in the third month of the Islamic calendar.

The history of Mawlid al-Nabi dates back to Islam’s early days, when followers would hold festivals, with large crowds gathering to hear songs and poetry composed in honor of the Prophet Muhammad.

Ashura

Ashura takes place in the first month of the Islamic calendar. It marks the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who died during the Battle of Karbala.

In Shia Islam, Ashura is celebrated as a major holiday, while in Sunni Islam it is marked as a recommended day of fasting.

Labor Day

Held on May 1 every year in Afghanistan, Labor Day commemorates the achievements of the country’s labor movement.

Also known as May Day or International Worker’s Day, Labor Day is a public holiday across Afghanistan. It is celebrated in numerous other countries worldwide, including the United States. The holiday is also celebrated in the United Kingdom, where it is not fixed and instead falls on the first Monday of May.

Eid al-Qurban or Eid al-Adha

The Islamic festival Eid al-Qurban or Eid al-Adha, which is a public holiday throughout Afghanistan, commemorates the willingness of Ibrahim to follow God’s command to sacrifice his son.

Schools and most businesses close for Eid al-Qurban, which is a day off for most Afghan nationals. Celebrations are traditionally marked by the slaughter of an animal—usually a cow, sheep, or goat—which Afghans cook and share among family members during an evening feast, as well as distributing food among the poor within their local community, earning the festival an international reputation as the “Feast of Sacrifice.”

Religious leaders encourage wealthy Muslims across Afghanistan to sacrifice an animal for the sake of God on this day, feeding people in need in a nationwide celebration of peace and solidarity.

Jeshyn-Afghan Day

Also known as Independence Day, Jeshyn-Afghan Day is a celebration of pride in Afghanistan’s glorious past. A national holiday throughout the country, this day commemorating freedom from colonial powers is celebrated each year on August 19 to commemorate the signing of the Treaty of Rawalpindi by Britain and Afghanistan in 1919, which marked the restoration of complete sovereignty to Afghanistan.

Today, Jeshyn-Afghan Day is celebrated across Afghanistan with displays of traditional costumes, street parties, and military parades.

Nowruz

Nowruz is a traditional Afghan springtime celebration that falls on the vernal equinox. The name “Nowruz” means “new day.” The phrase comes from the ancient Avestan language. The festival of Nowruz symbolizes new life, beginnings, and the rebirth of nature.

The festival of Nowruz dates back more than 3,000 years in Afghanistan, to the country’s Zoroastrian era. Approximately 300 million people celebrate Nowruz worldwide, including most of the population of Afghanistan.

In villages, towns, and cities across Afghanistan, Nowruz is marked by two weeks of celebrations, including displays of livestock and agricultural products, as well as ceremonies and exhibitions throughout the country.

In 2019, the Nawruz festival coincided with the 100-year anniversary of Afghanistan gaining independence from British colonial forces. Huge crowds gathered on the streets across the country for special festivities to celebrate the spring equinox and to commemorate a centenary of Afghan independence.

Women in colorful dresses and carrying plastic trumpets and national flags congregated in Mazar-e-Sharif, gathering outside the city’s famous Blue mosque. People from across Afghanistan and neighboring countries joined together to mark the celebration, with Pashto dancers in traditional dress filling the streets, dancing to flutes and drums in this special celebration of Afghan hope, pride, and independence.