Herat’s history begins as Aria, an outpost of the Achaemenid empire, overrun in Alexander the Great’s eastward expansion. In typical fashion he renamed it Alexander Arian in his own honour. The city grew and reaped the benefits of the new Silk Road under the Kushans and Sassanids and into the Islamic era.
Herat’s expansion was checked by the visitations of Genghis Khan in 1221, who characteristically levelled the place, killing all but 40 of the populace after they rebelled against his power. But this just proved to be the preface for the city’s greatest period, as a new power thundered out of the steppe 150 years later.
Timur founded his empire at Samarkand, but following his death in 1405, the capital moved southwest to Herat. Under Timur’s son, Shah Rukh, Herat became one of the greatest centres of medieval Islamic culture and learning. A patron of the arts, Shah Rukh packed his court with scholars, poets and painters. Jami composed his greatest poems here and Bihzad’s refined miniature painting would later go on to influence Indian art. The ruler’s wife, the extraordinary Gowhar Shad, commissioned many fine buildings from mosques to madrassas.
Such glory couldn’t last. After Shah Rukh’s death, there was a debilitating squabble for succession and Timurid power started to wane. Sultan Baiqara provided one last hurrah at the start of the 16th century, but the rot had set in. The future Mughal emperor Babur visited Herat at this time and left a lively description of the city, joking that you only had to stretch your leg to kick a poet, and complaining of the royal court’s drunkenness. In fact, Baiqara so preferred to drink wine rather than exercise power that Timur’s empire soon fell under the arrows of Uzbek invaders.
Herat spent the next centuries being fought over by the Mughals and Safavids. It finally regained its independence only to find itself swept up in the superpower rivalry of the Great Game.
The Persians were the first to make a move on the city, laying siege to it in 1837. Russian officers aided the Persian army, while a single British officer, Eldred Pottinger, rallied Herat’s defenders. The Afghans held the day, but the siege influenced British policy for the remainder of the 19th century. Herat was dubbed the ‘Gateway to India’ and the British were insistent it should stay in their realm of influence – and out of Russian hands.
Dost Mohammed incorporated Herat into the Afghan kingdom in 1863, but trouble was never far away. Russian expansion towards the border in 1885 nearly brought the imperial powers to war. The British ordered Herat be prepared for an attack and many of Gowhar Shad’s buildings were demolished to allow a clear line of artillery fire for the defenders, although war was ultimately averted.
After this, Herat’s population were happy to be left alone for most of the 20th century, but still resented Kabul’s influence. It declared support for the rebel Bacha Saqao when he seized the throne from Amanullah in 1929 and increasingly resented the communist influence from the capital in the 1970s. Events came to a head in March 1979 when the city rose in open revolt. Led by local mullahs and a mutinous army garrison commanded by Ismail Khan, around 100 Russian advisors were killed with their families. The Russians helped the government quell the rebellion – by carpet-bombing the Old City. Around 20, 000 civilians were killed.
Following invasion, the mujaheddin harried the Russians, in one of the most hidden corners of the war. Iran provided crucial support. After the Russian withdrawal in 1989, the city quickly fell to the mujaheddin, with Ismail Khan installed as Herat’s ruler.
Nothing could save the city from the ascendant Taliban, however. In 1995 the city’s army crumbled in the teeth of a Taliban advance and Herat was captured without a fight. Ismail Khan himself was taken prisoner, but later escaped to Iran.
The educated Heratis chafed under the occupation and Iran closed its borders. Herat’s population swelled with an influx of internally displaced people (IDPs) fleeing drought.
Ismail Khan returned at the end of 2001 as the Taliban were swept from power. Increasingly conservative with age, he retained his own army and a version of the Taliban’s Vice and Virtue Police, styling himself as the Emir of Herat. The city, however, boomed on customs revenues from trade with Iran, once again becoming a quasi-independent city-state, as it has been for much of its history.
Central control over Herat (and its taxes) finally came in late 2004 with Ismail Khan’s replacement as governor, an event accompanied with much rioting. Local politics have trodden a sometimes uneasy path since, but the city still remains a beacon of progress compared with much of the country.