Perhaps more than any other city in Afghanistan, Herat speaks of the country’s position at the heart of the Silk Road. At the crossroads of trade routes leading to the Middle East, Central Asia and India, Herat has often been coveted by neighbouring powers as a valuable prize. It has flourished throughout history as a rich city-state, a centre of learning and commerce and even one-time capital of the Timurid empire. Such history has given the city a cultured air of independence that can sometimes make Kabul seem a long way away. In the 1970s, Herat was a popular stop on the Hippy Trail for its relaxed air, and rightly so.
Herat’s place in history has often been overlooked in favour of Samarkand and Bukhara, but its inhabitants are proud of their past and the city’s reputation as a place of culture. Although many of the monuments to Herat’s glorious past are in a sorry state, ruined by British and Russian invaders, the city is still the most rewarding sightseeing location in Afghanistan. With its Friday Mosque the city still possesses one of the greatest buildings in the Islamic world, while the Old City is one of the few in Afghanistan to retain its medieval street plan.
Herat’s post-Taliban recovery has been less rocky than other parts of the country, due in no small part to the customs revenues from trade with nearby Iran. Visitors coming from Kabul will instantly notice the difference: a reliable power supply, streetlights and public parks. Although street crime can occasionally be a problem, it suddenly seems remarkable to see families out on the streets at 10pm going to ice-cream parlours.
Things haven’t been a bed of roses, however. Despite his removal by Hamid Karzai, Herat’s longtime ‘amir’ Ismail Khan continues to dominate the city’s political and economic scene, and the city’s links to neighbouring Iran play an important role. The insecurity along the Herat–Kandahar highway occasionally ripples back to the city, although the presence of an Italian-led PRT has generally been well received.