Mazar-e Sharif is north Afghanistan’s sprawling urban centre, a relatively modern city standing on the wide steppes near the border with Uzbekistan. Compared to some of the neighbouring towns it’s a relative youngster, and was long overshadowed by the power and prestige of its neighbour Balkh. It took the dreams of a group of 12th century noblemen to change that, when they claimed to have found the hidden tomb of Ali, the Prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law, buried in a local village. Balkh declined and Mazar-e Sharif grew as a place of pilgrimage. Its shrine today is the focus of the national Nauroz celebrations. For travellers, it has plenty of amenities, and is a good base for the sights of Balkh and Samangan.
Mazar-e Sharif is a mixed city, with large populations of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras (many Pashtuns fled after reprisals following the collapse of the Taliban). This cultural mix is represented in the city’s culture, in everything from the Central Asian flavours on the menu in restaurants, to the comparatively liberal attitudes to women’s education. Mazar-e Sharif is even the centre for a women’s musical college – something unthinkable elsewhere in the country.
The city’s location also means that it is a great centre for that true Afghan sport of the plains, buzkashi. Games can be seen most weekends throughout the winter until the Afghan New Year. Mazar-e Sharif becomes flooded with visitors at this time, for the annual Nauroz celebrations. Nauroz coincides with the Gul-e Surkh festival, named for the red tulips that flower on the steppe, which are associated with prosperity and fertility.
Mazar-e Sharif mostly sat out the recent wars that afflicted Afghanistan, but its outward prosperity masks deeper political problems. In the post-Taliban environment, the city became a case study of Afghanistan’s warlord problem, with rival Uzbek and Tajik strongmen jostling for power and control of revenues from natural gas reserves and the cross-border trade with Uzbekistan. At the time of writing, the situation was stable, but political competition still occasionally sparks into violence. The presence of a NATO Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT; led by the UK and now Sweden) has helped calm tensions.