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.
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No one knows Herat’s exact age, but it was most likely founded as an outpost of the Achaemenid Empire (550-330BC). At that time it was called Aria. Alexander the Great’s army overran the Persians, and changed the name to Alexandria-of-the-Arians. On a strategic hill in the center of town sits the restored ruins of Qala Iktyaruddin (Persian: قلعه اختیارالدین) – the Citadel of Herat (Persian: ارگ هرات, Pashto: سکندرۍ کلا). In 330 BC it was also known as the Citadel of Alexander, and it houses the ruins of the oldest structure in the city. The original fort was destroyed by Genghis Khan’s Mongol Army in 1221 AD, and then rebuilt in its present form by the Kart Governor Malik Fakhruddin in 1305 AD, only to be destroyed again by Tamerlane in 1380AD. Tamerlane’s son, Shah Rukh, used 7,000 men to embellish the walls and repair the damage wrought by his father. It then became the heart of the Timurid Empire (1405-1506). In more recent times it has served as a military garrison and prison for various dynasties and regimes and was thus closed to visitors from the outside world until 2005 when the Afghan Army presented it to the Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism.
Between 2006 and 2011 the Aga Khan Trust, with grants from the USA and Germany, completely restored the structure. The National Museum of Herat is housed in the lower Citadel. The Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin worked with the German Archaeological Institute to document and restore artifacts and prepare them for display. The museum was opened to the public in October of 2011. There are about 1,100 items from the Herat region in the museum, of which there are about 250 on display. Most are from the 10th to 13th centuries when Herat was at the height of its political and cultural significance. There is pottery, metal work, the tombstone of Behzad, the famous painter of Persian miniatures, old manuscripts and books and a cenotaph adorned with tiles that date from 1378. The collection includes old muskets and cannon, and very curious three-dimensional replicas of some of Behzad’s most famous miniatures. The museum has long, well-lit, archways and arcades of brown brick. Though smaller than the Kabul Museum, the setting feels more architecturally unique, and it is in keeping with the restoration of the Citadel as a whole.
Even though Herat is one of the safest cities in Afghanistan, it is still probably not advisable for the average Central Asian tourist to include it on their itinerary. Only those already well experienced with the delicate intricacies of Afghan travel should attempt a visit until the tourism infrastructure has been fully restored. For myself, though, it was a perfect outing to walk from the Great Friday Mosque through the back streets of the old city and over to the Citadel. From the Citadel it is but a short stroll down to the tomb of Gohar Shad in a quiet area on the outskirts of town.