HERAT, Afghanistan — Dominating the skyline of this sprawling city in far western Afghanistan are the imposing brick turrets of the Qala e Ikhtiareddin, a beautifully restored 14th-century citadel perched atop a man-made hill in the center of town. It’s a fitting signature landmark for a place nicknamed simply “The Historic City.”
Established around 500 B.C. and alternately occupied and overrun by the likes of Alexander the Great, the Ghorids and Genghis Khan, the former Silk Road way station is awash in ancient buildings and under consideration for UNESCO World Heritage status.
Despite being a central battleground during the Soviet War in the 1980s and experiencing violence during the subsequent civil war and ouster of the Taliban by U.S. forces, Herat and its ancient structures — the citadel, five ancient minarets that tower more than 150 feet over the skyline and the elaborately tiled Jami Mosque, with soaring, bright blue minarets — have largely been spared from the past 34 years of conflict.
Ringed by brown mountains in the high desert of western Afghanistan, Herat is a city of contrasts, rich with history but more modern than much of the country; educated and prosperous but with a devastating drug problem. Intimately connected linguistically, culturally and economically to nearby Iran, Heratis are also deeply suspicious of their neighbor, who they accuse of meddling in their affairs and killing impoverished Afghans who cross the border illegally looking for work.
The city has been largely insulated from violence that has wracked much of Afghanistan since the U.S. invaded in 2001. The biggest danger most Heratis face each day is from the tens of thousands of half-mad motorcyclists who careen through the city streets. Stylishly dressed university students and bearded clerics alike haggle at bustling markets, colorfully adorned auto-rickshaws, called seh charkh (three wheels), ply the streets, and neon-lit cafes stay open late into the night.
While sitting on the deck of a hilltop restaurant on a moonlit night, overlooking the bright lights of an amusement park Ferris wheel with the laughs and shrieks of children emanating from the rides, I found it easy to forget Herat is part of a country still gripped by a war with no end in sight.