Mazar-e Sharif was the nondescript village of Khairan in the shadow of Balkh until the miraculous dream that revealed the location of Ali’s tomb. A town quickly grew around the shrine, attracting many pilgrims until the Mongol’s Year Zero levelled the area, pushing it to the margins of Afghan history for several hundred years. Mazar-e Sharif only regained its status when Ali’s shrine was rebuilt in the last years of the Timurid empire. Since then, the town grew steadily until it eventually eclipsed Balkh, and was declared the capital of Afghan Turkestan in 1866.
Although Mazar-e Sharif was one of the birthplaces for the political parties that would eventually form the Northern Alliance, it was a Soviet stronghold during the 1980s. The flat plains surrounding the city made it easily defensible, and the shops and garrisons were well stocked with goods from across the Soviet border, only 60km away.
After the Russians pulled out, the defence of Mazar-e Sharif was entrusted to the semi-autonomous Uzbek militias led by General Abdul Rashid Dostum. When Dostum mutinied against the government in 1992, setting up shop as the local power broker, he quickly gained control over most of north Afghanistan and prompted the fall of Kabul into the bargain.
Mazar-e Sharif was the capital of Dostum’s private kingdom, bankrolled by the north’s gas reserves and with a line of credit from newly independent Uzbekistan. He only left to play kingmaker in Kabul, and then shelled it when his plans came to naught. Mazar-e Sharif remained an oasis of peace in the anarchy of the 1990s. By mid-decade its population had swelled to nearly two million by refugees from other parts of the country, as well as those fleeing the civil war in nearby Tajikistan. Balkh University opened, soon the only university offering higher education to women.
The Taliban were soon knocking on the door. They cut a secret deal with one of Dostum’s generals and swept into the city in May 1997. This event triggered the Taliban’s international recognition as the legitimate government of Afghanistan by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. But just a day later the population (led largely by Hazara militia) rose in revolt and drove them out. Having sat out nearly 20 years of war, Mazar-e Sharif started to slide into chaos. The Taliban were back within the year with revenge on their minds. Hazaras were rounded up and summarily executed; their bodies were left lying in the street for five days to be eaten by dogs. Around 5000 people were killed.
Mazar-e Sharif was the first city to be abandoned by the Taliban in the US-led attacks of November 2001. Dostum returned again, this time on the US payroll. His old fort on the outskirts of the city, Qala-e Jangi, was the site of a notorious Taliban prisoner revolt. In response, his troops packed subsequent Taliban prisoners into shipping containers, asphyxiating as many as 3000 men.
But years in exile had returned a diminished figure in Dostum. Mazar-e Sharif was parcelled up by the resurgent Northern Alliance, and it soon became clear that the Tajiks had the upper hand. Dostum has now ceded control of the city and province to the Tajik governor, Atta Mohammed.