Any travel guide to Central Asia should include some Afghan destinations and of course a word of warning to check what the safety situation is like before you go there. In a country such as this there will be places you can and cannot visit but even those places deemed ‘safe’ will almost certainly require pre-organised travel plans, especially for first timers.
So on to Herat then, the third largest city in Afghanistan and the capital of Herat province. It has escaped much of the destruction suffered by the rest of the country in the recent 15 years or so and if you can get here, it’s worthwhile.
Herat is certainly old but of slightly indeterminate age; the region is first referred to around 2500 years ago and possibly named after the Hari River which now runs a few miles south of modern Herat. Another argument suggest it was named after the founder of the city.
Herat, also referred to as Aria in early documents, has been part of several Central Asian empires over the centuries including the Achaemenid, the Selucid and the Parthian. It even came within Alexander the Great’s sphere of influence in the 4th century BC.
The Sasanid Empire took control of the area from the Parthians between the 3rd and the 7th centuries AD and it was the last non-Islamic empire. Herat probably submitted to Islamic rule without a fight in 652 AD. The subsequent couple of centuries saw a succession of repelled Arab invasions and by the 10th century hostilities had largely ceased, enabling Herat to establish itself as a major trading town on the Silk Road, the enormous trading network running between China, India and the Mediterranean.
In 1175 it was captured by the Ghurids of the Khawarazm Empire and entered a period in which it flourished both economically and culturally. The population rose to at least half a million people, mainly Sunni Muslim.
Pearl of Khorasan
That all joined in 1221 as Genghis Khan began to maraud across the continent, conquering everything in his path. Herat was destroyed and not rebuilt until 1236 and in such a way as to become known as the Pearl of Khorasan. The next significant period was the rule of the Timurid Princes from 1380 until the beginning of the 16th century.
From 1507 until 1716 the ownership of Herat swapped between the Uzbeks and the Safavids until it finally come under the Afghan rule of Nader Shah several years later. Following Shah’s death, Ahmed Shah Durrani took control on behalf of the Durrani Empire. The Ghilzais then took over until 1824 when Herat became independent for a brief period as the Durrani’s and the Barakzais split Afghanistan between themselves.
The Great Game
By this time though, the Great Game was under way – the unreported war between the Russian and British Empires for control of the vast area between Russia and British India. In 1852 and 1856 though, it was the Persians who attempted to take Herat from the British-supported rulers. On both occasions a desperate defensive effort was fought resulting in the invaders being repelled.
By the beginning of the 20th century the Great Game was over, ended by the Anglo-Russian Convention in 1907 and the subsequent decades have been marked largely by Russian intervention and eventual retreat in the 1980s. The militant Islamic Taliban took control in 1995, followed by an international military effort to defeat them which is still underway now.
Part Two follows….