Friday, November 30, 2018

At the Mazar

At first glance, Mazar may not seem like much of a city. From the far distance it looks like a a dusty patch of low buildings set in a large desert plain bordering snow-peaked  mountains. It does not have the teeming crowds of Kabul or the towering pines of Herat, or for that matter any tree-cover worth mentioning.

Yet, to me it turned out to be a city of superlatives: it had the largest and neatest airport  had seen in Afghanistan; the widest roads, tastiest breads, the most amazing array of carpets sold by the sharpest traders, and the loveliest Sufi shrine I have ever seen.

Just as the Italian military has a strong presence in Herat, it is the ISAF German forces that dominate this area. A large base sits right next to the airport with its helicopters hovering in and out, but unlike in Kabul the show of force and dominance is not in your face; it is subtle and understated. Once you step out the airport there are long straight roads lined with numerous gas-stations. 

Apparently this part of northern Afghanistan has been a source of oil and natural gas. Until the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, natural gas produced from the Sheberghan gas fields was exported to the Soviet Union, but also supported the operations of a fertilizer plant, a power station and a textile mill in Mazar-e-Sharif. Remnants of a Russian pipeline can still be seen in the outskirts of the city, along with remains of war munitions - rusted, hollow tanks, APCs and MiG aircraft chassis.

The Mazar of today seems like a flat expanse of mud-walled buildings and wide roads that radiate out from the grand mausoleum that gives this city its name - the Tomb of the Prince, the Shrine of Ali or the Blue Mosque.

It is a lovely, sprawling complex that gives you an immense sense of space. You step off the crowded streets into a garden complex that leads you through large gates, into a vast expanse of marble tiled courtyard.  

Looking around the bustling market that surrounds the Mazar it is difficult to imagine how, until just a few years ago, this city had been witness to brutal cycles of violence. Today there is a sense of foreboding that the Taliban may sweep in to fill in the power vacuum, once again.

For now you can walk around the cold marble floors of the Blue Mosque, walk around the sanctum filled with incense, and pray that this bustling city with it cheerful people is not sucked into yet another round of senseless violence.


* Gas Pipeline (2013) -
* A brief history of natural gas in Afghanistan -
* Mazar-e-Sharif International Airport -

Friday, November 09, 2018

Herat - City of Spires and Pines

Ancient cities have a life of their own. We read stories about them and build a certain picture in our imagination. Ground realities however turn out to be something else.

Herat is no different. To a visitor coming from Kabul it gives you a glimpse of what cities in Afghanistan could be. Relaxed, dignified, and aware of its own stature and place in history at the crossroads of civilizations.

This was once a city of fire-worshipping Zoroastrians, an area famous for its great wines until the Arabs took over after 650AD. Here ruled the Macedonians led by Alexander, the Turks, Chinese, Mongols and, of course, the Persians. It was also one of the few cities of the Islamic world to be ruled for an extended period by a woman- Queen Gawhershad - remembered today as the builder of the grand towers of the Musalla Complex.

In present day Herat, the first thing that struck me is the pine trees. Almost all the roads are lined with towering old pines. Having seen these trees only above the "pine-line" in the Himlayas, I always thought they needed steep slopes to grow big and strong, so it was bit surprising to see them all lined up in a city that was as flat as a chappati

Unlike Kabul which is sectioned by 2000m high 'hills', and urban settlements that have grown along a meandering river, Herat has a clear grid-like layout. A straight road brings you from the airport, right into the city centre. The security footprint here is more subtle - fewer warplanes in the airport, hardly any buildings barricaded  with T-walls and barbed wire. There are no military blimps watching you from the skies or  helicopters constantly buzzing overhead, rattling the window-panes.

The streets and markets are bustling with men and women. Fruits seem larger, jucier and more colorful; the saboos naan a lot tastier; streets are less cluttered and far less dustier, the air crisp and clean. Children crowd around street vendors; strange looking, colorful three-wheelers fashioned out of motorcycles trundle on the streets, looking as though they are going to take off any minute into the skies.

And yet you are constantly reminded that this city is not peaceful as it looks. Violence and robbery on the streets is not rare. A colleague was recently coming out of a restaurant, chatting on his mobile when a car stopped in front of him. He thought the driver needed directions, until he saw a pistol aimed at his head. Within seconds, his mobile was snatched, his purse taken out of his pocket and car was gone.

Things may not be what they seem, but I would like to think that the people of Herat hold one of the keys to peace and prosperity in this war-torn country.

Friday, November 02, 2018

The Hindukush

"When we were children we used to play here and drink water straight from the river - it was so clean!"

The best years of Kabul are often described in past-tense. People talk of the glory days of the kings, of a city that was once a hub of trade and commerce across Asia, of dogged resistance to 'foreign invaders' who could never ever conquer Afghanistan..

The elderly in Kabul have happy memories of the city in the 1950s - those wonderful days when water was clean, when the country was peaceful and winters were what they ought to be - freezing cold. It is amazing to think that this country, proud its aversion to foreign invaders, was also the home of invaders who left an indelible mark on the history of Northern India.

Driven by the zeal of a new religion, Mahmud of Gazni was the first plunderer to make a career out of invading infidels in India. He systematically raided and plundered kingdoms in east of the Indus river to west of Yamuna river, no less than seventeen times between CE 997 and 1030. After a brief pause of two centuries, another ruler emerged from Ghor, nested in the Hindukush mountains. The Ghurid empire led by Mu'izz al-Din was influential in creating the Delhi Sultanate.

Then came Timur-the-lame and his army as they crossed the Hindkush range, to launch the 1398 invasion of northern Indian subcontinent, plundering and killing all the way. Such was the number of slaves who were forced to cross the freezing cold of the Afghan mountains that Ibn Battutta refers to them as the "Killer of Hindus", or Hindukush.

Inspired by stories of Timur, one of his descendants, Zahir-ud-din Mohammed - aka Babur ('tiger') - decided to follow suit. As a young man of 21 years, he had taken control of Kabul in 1504. Having failed time and again to regain control over the Ferghana Valley, he turned his attention south-eastwards. In 1526, he made his move into north India, won the Battle of Panipat, ending the last Delhi Sultanate dynasty, and starting the era of the Mughals.

The slave trading operations continued during the Delhi Sultanate and through the Mughal era. It became a standard practicee to send thousands of slaves every year to Central Asia to pay for horses and other goods.

Looking at the condition of Afghanistan today you wonder... after all those centuries of plunder and flogging of slaves across the Hindukush: Where has all the loot gone?