Shrine of Hazrat Ali

Islamic Shrine in Mazar-e Sharif

Image by Jane Sweeney Getty Images

The twin blue domes of the Shrine of Hazrat Ali are one of Afghanistan’s most iconic sights, and pilgrims come from across the country to pay their respects at the tomb contained inside. Although non-Muslims are forbidden entry to the shrine building itself, views of the building are to be much enjoyed from the pleasant park that surrounds the complex. Popular Muslim tradition contends that the Ali is buried in Najaf in Iraq, near the site where he was murdered in 661AD. Afghans typically tell another story. Instead, Ali’s followers reputedly took his body to be secretly buried near Balkh. The burial was carried out in secret for fear of reprisals from Ali’s enemies, and its location was lost until the 12th century when Ali appeared simultaneously in the dreams of 400 nobles from Balkh to reveal the tomb’s exact position. A nearby hill was excavated, to discover a tomb chamber behind a steel door. Ali’s body lay behind it, his mortal wounds as fresh as they day he received them. The Seljuk Sultan Sanjar immediately built a large shrine above the tomb, but it was razed a century later by Genghis Khan. With Balkh’s population decimated and scattered, memories of Ali’s tomb faded until revived by the Timurids in the 15th century. Sultan Baiqara rebuilt the shrine that still stands today. The rich blue tiling that covers every surface of the shrine is modern. The Timurid decoration fell into disrepair and the building was covered with a simple whitewash until the 1860s when it was restored by Sher Ali Khan, the amir swept away by the start of the Second Anglo-Afghan War. Sher Ali Khan’s tomb is to the west of the main shrine door. A larger tomb next door is that of the other great scourge of the British, Wazir Akbar Khan, who died three years after driving the British Army out of the country in their disastrous retreat from Kabul in 1842. On the east side of the shrine is a tall minaret-like pigeon tower. The doves in the shrine complex are famous across Afghanistan. Every seventh pigeon is said to contain a spirit, and the site is so holy that if a grey pigeon flies here it turns white within 40 days. There is no entrance fee to the shrine complex, although guards on the southern gate sometimes ask for a spurious ‘camera fee’. Beggars and mendicants flock to the site, equally demanding of your attention.