The National Museum of Herat
An abridged version of this a post first appeared on Atlas Obscura
I first visited Herat in the summer of 1972, after taking four locals buses from Mashhad, Iran to the Afghan border at Islam Qala, and one more minibus into the city. I had just spent nearly two weeks traveling overland from Europe through the intense desert heat. The dry, earthy smell I always associated with Afghanistan – dried human fecal matter – became apparent once we passed the border.
There were three works of architectural genius that impressed themselves on my youthful psyche. First, the Juma Masjid – The Great Friday Mosque – was an Arabian Nights vision of blue arabesques. The second was the Musalla Complex of Gohar Shad with it’s cockeyed leaning Minarets. And the third was the melted sand castle on the hill rising above the old city – the Qala Iktyaruddin, or Citadel of Herat! At that time the ruins were occupied by an army base so no one was allowed to approach it.
I visited Herat many times over the next forty years, including four times since 2002, during the post Taliban era. Each time I gazed on the Citadel I had an intense desire to explore the ruins. In 2006 I finally had my chance. I was accompanying the author/adventurer Paul Clammer as we researched the Lonely Planet Guidebook to Afghanistan. We hadn’t heard the news that the army had turned the place over to an Afghan ministry, so it came as a pleasant surprise when we found the gateway open to all. We talked to some NGO workers and German Archaeologists and spent a day clambering around on the walls. This was before the extensive restoration work. When I next returned, in the summer of 2012, I discovered that a hidden gem of a museum now occupied one of the main buildings.