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Frank Harold

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Of the four chief cities of medieval Khorassan (eastern Iran), three are largely gone; the owl and the lizard keep the ruins of ancient Balkh, Marv and Nishapur. Only Herat still presents a substantial and lively city on its original site, with sufficient architectural remains to convey a sense of continuity with a more glorious past ( see images). In 1970, we marvelled at the exquisite tilework of the Friday Mosque and Gowhar Shad’s mausoleum; admired the ruins of the old citadel, which had been the seat of power in Herat for over 800 years; paid our respects to the memory of Khwajah Abdullah Ansari, a celebrated Sufi poet and philosopher (11th century C.E.) who is buried at Gazar Gah; and bargained for textiles in the small shops of the traditional covered bazaar. I have not been able to ascertain how much of this heritage has survived the turmoil of the past quarter-century, but it is clear that damage has been heavy. The mausoleum, it appears, was virtually demolished by Russian shelling, and is now being re-built under U.N. auspices.

Herat owes its existence to the Hari Rud, which flows past the city just a few miles away. The river rises in the mountains of Ghor to the east, turns north along the present border with Iran, and eventually vanishes in the sands of the Karakum desert. Along the way it sustains a narrow but fertile oasis, cultivated continuously since antiquity, and flanked by some of the richest grazing grounds in all of Central Asia. Herat was also a crossroads of commerce: routes ran north along the Hari Rud to Merv and Bukhara, south to Kerman and into Iran, east to Balkh, Samarkand and China, and west to Nishapur and Constantinople. Herat lost its pivotal position in the 1880’s with the construction of the Trans-Caspian Railway, which passes far to the north. But it remains a place where the manifold peoples of Central Asia mingle ---- Tadjik farmers, Turkoman nomads, Uzbeks and Hazara ( in the 19th century there were also Hindu bankers and pawnbrokers, Armenian craftsmen and a sizeable Jewish community). The population, estimated at 40 - 50,000 in the 19th century, is double that today, augmented by refugees and pilgrims to local shrines.


Herat’s eventful history is particularly well documented, thanks chiefly to a succession of local historians. The city (or region) first appears in Achaemenid records under the name Haraiva. Alexander took it and built a fortress. The Sassanians ruled here and fended off nomad incursions. The Arabs first took the city in 651 C.E., but lost and regained it several times before the issue was settled. Herat subsequently became part of the dominions of the Samanid, Ghaznavid, Saljuk and Ghorid dynasties (10th through 12th centuries C.E.). It was clearly a substantial city in those days: both Istakhri and Ibn Hawkal, geographers of the 10th century, describe a prosperous town with ample water and an unusual square plan (still visible today). The city was guarded by strong mud walls with four gates and a central citadel. It held a large Friday Mosque and, in the suburbs, both a fire temple and a Christian church. But here as elsewhere, the Mongol tsunami brought disaster (1221 C.E.). Herat surrendered after a short siege, and the Mongols contented themselves with slaughtering the garrison while sparing the populace. A few months later, however, the city rose in revolt. The Mongols returned in force under the personal command of Ghengis Khan, and this time the entire population was put to the sword; contemporary accounts speak of more than a million and a half corpses. The network of irrigation canals was destroyed, the whole region devastated, and desolation reigned for decades along the Hari Rud.




Later Mongol khans ruled indirectly through local governors, and it was this Kart dynasty (1245 - 1389 C.E.) that laid the groundwork for Herat’s revival. They restored canals and bridges, rebuilt the walls and refurbished the great mosque; the city began to asume its contemporary shape. The Kart ruler of the day did not offer serious resistance to Timur Khan ( Tamerlane, 1381 C.E.), and the city got off with only a massacre and a pyramid of skulls. It will not have been obvious to the citizenry, as they watched Timur’s soldiers tear down their walls and drag off their prized iron gateway as booty, that this was the stormy dawn of a golden age! Herat was destined to become the chief capital of an empire that stretched from China into Iran, and a pinnacle of Muslim civilization.


The upturn began with the appointment of Timur’s youngest son, Shah Rukh, as governor of Herat (1397 C.E.). A pious and scholarly man who preferred the rewards of peace to wider conquests, he must have been a sore disappointment to his ferocious father. But Shah Rukh seeems to have been a capable ruler, and he benefited from his marriage to an extraordinary woman. Gowhar Shad Begum (“Happy Pearl”), a Mongol princess and a strong personality in her own right, is one of just a handful of women to leave an impress on Islamic history; the chroniclers called her the Bilkis ( Queen of Sheba) of her age. Shah Rukh became supreme ruler upon Timur’s death (1405 C.E.), and held the vast empire together for the next fifty years with Herat (rather than Timur’s Samarkand) as its capital. Herat reached its apogee under Husayn Baikara (1470 - 1506 C.E.), when the splendor of the city and the court were celebrated across the Muslim East. Babur, who went on to conquer India and to found the Mughal dynasty, was a nephew of Sultan Husayn and visited Herat just before the latter’s death. Years later he paid tribute in his autobiography: “ The whole habitable world had not such a town as Herat had become under Sultan Husayn Mirza... Khorasan, and Herat above all, was filled with learned and matchless men. Whatever work a man took up, he aimed to and aspired to bring it to perfection” (Cited in Byron, 1937).

All the Timurids were patrons of the arts and prodigious builders; Herat’s surviving monuments, and many others, were constructed or renovated during the 15th century. Gowhar Shad stands out as the sponsor of the grand mosque in Mashad, Iran, that bears her name; of her own magnificent mausoleum in Herat; and of the adjoining Musalla, a complex of mosque and seminary of which only a few minarets remain. All her buildings are famed for the brilliance and perfection of their glazed-tile decoration. Husayn Baikara presided over a court filled with noted poets, scholars, musicians and painters . Behzad, still considered Iran’s most accomplished painter of miniatures, was a native of Herat and did much of his finest work there. The traditions laid down in 15th-century Herat continued to inspire the painters and architects of Iran and Mughal India for generations to come. But beneath the glittering surface, the worm was at work ( as Babur was quick to notice). Murderous intrigues, reckless spending on luxuries and rampant drunkenness ( most of the Timurid princes, including Sultan Husayn, drank themselves to death) went with blithe neglect of the empire’s defences. North of the Oxus, the Uzbeks were on the move; already Samarkand had fallen to them, and a year after Sultan Husayn’s death they took Herat also. The Timurid Renascence was over, and Central Asia slid back into turmoil.



The Uzbeks did not hold Herat for long. It fell to the rising power of Safavid Iran, which imposed Shi’ism on a predominantly Sunni population. No longer the center of an empire, Herat remained an important regional capital, and the place where the crown princes were sent in their youth to learn how to govern. Despite incessant conflict with the Uzbeks, Iranian rule lasted until 1746 when, under pressure from the British, it was incorporated into the new state of Afghanistan. Iran did not finally relinquish its claim to the city until 1857, and even today Herat retains a markedly Iranian character and a Shia majority. The Afghans, with British support held the city against the Russian empire; the Musalla, on the city’s outskirts, fell victims to those maneuverings in 1885, demolished in order to clear the field of fire for the artillery. A century later the Russians came again, followed by civil war. Herat is not presently on the front lines and some of the damage is being repaired; but it will take the will and commitment of the international community to ensure that Afghanistan’s long agony is over.


During our visit to Herat in 1970 we relied on Herat - A Pictorial Guide, by Nancy Hatch Wolfe (Afghan Tourist Organizatio, Kabul, 1966). An excellent survey of Herat’s history and geography will be found in articles by Arash Khazeni and Maria Szuppe in the Encyclopaedia Iranica. Robert Byron described his adventures in The Road To Oxiana (Jonathan Cape, London, 1937), and quotes Babur from his autobiography, the Baburname’.

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© 2006 Frank Harold.
Silk Road Seattle is a project of the Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington. Additional funding has been provided by the Silkroad Foundation (Saratoga, California).