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.

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