Herat's Old City, measuring approximately 1200 metres square, is the most complete traditional medieval city in Afghanistan. Four main streets branch out from the bazaar of Chahar Su (literally 'four directions'), quartering the city and leading to the old gates that once pierced the city walls (they were pulled down in the 1950s). Characteristic of medieval urban design, the Old City has three foci - the commercial centre (Chahar Su), the Royal Centre (the Citadel) and the Religious Centre (The Friday Mosque).
The four main roads leading from Chahar Su are lined with booths and shops. Until the 1930s, these roads were covered, with Chahar Su itself crowned with a large dome. Only small portions of the old vaulting survive, in the southeast corner of the city. Behind the shops there are plenty of serais - enclosures for caravans that served as warehouses and inns for traders and craftsmen.
Away from the main thoroughfares, the streets turn into a labyrinth of unpaved lanes, hiding the city's houses behind high mud walls. Wandering the streets and serais is one of the best ways to get a taste of traditional Herati - and Afghan - urban life.
That the Old City survived the Soviet carpet-bombing of Herat is a miracle, but its fabric is now under threat from the city's construction boom. Unlike Kabul, where an official ban on new construction in the Old City prevails, Herat's historic quarter undergoing 'redevelopment' on an unprecedented scale. In the absence of building controls, owners are demolishing historic properties to rebuild in the popular modern glass and concrete style, with little thought for the city's character.
The Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) is currently working with Herat's government to rescue buildings and create a sustainable development plan for the Old City. Using a mix of satellite imagery and door-to-door surveys, they produced the first detailed map of the Old City, showing over 15,000 buildings with 62,000 residents, but with old buildings being lost on a weekly basis. AKTC has launched a conservation programme for several historic houses that promotes traditional building techniques, encourages self-built repairs and shows the potential for improving living conditions within traditional city homes.
AKTC has also helped restore Herat's traditional cisterns. The Chahar Su Cistern, at the centre of the Old City, and the Malik Cistern, opposite the western gate of the Citadel, are what remains of Herat's medieval water-supply system. Filled by aqueducts, they provided year-round clean water for the city's residents, even during the Persian siege of 1837-8. They only ran dry during the 1980s. Both have gorgeous brick vaulted ceilings, with the octagonal Chahar Su Cistern having a span of over 20m. Surrounded by bazaars and mosques, the cistern's restoration should hopefully provide a focus for further economic regeneration in the Old City, although at the time of writing their exact future use was under discussion with community leaders.