Afghan spirit burns strong amid ashes of despair
The ancient city of Herat is both gifted and scarred by its rich but brutal history
Women wearing traditional burghas walk past the ancient Citadel fortress in Herat. Photographs: John D McHugh
Afghans watch a motorcycle rider perform in a park in Herat.
Drug addicts smoking heroin in the shadows of Herat’s famous 15th century minarets.
The five remaining 15th century minarets of the Musalla Complex in Herat.
Distorted and discordant music clashed with the torturous squeals of the rickety Ferris wheel as Abdul Zahid helped a rare customer into a gondola. “Our business is bad since the suicide bombing,” said Zahid, who operates his ride in the amusement park in the western Afghan city of Herat.
“The attack was on the American consulate, not the gardens,” he said. “This park is secure, but the people are terrified.”
Since the Taliban government was toppled in 2001, Herat has largely been peaceful. But in September 2013 the Taliban launched an attack” on the city’s US facility. A truck bomb detonated by the main entrance initiated the assault, then multiple gunmen and suicide bombers ran through the destroyed front gate and engaged in a shoot-out with the stunned defenders.
All the Taliban were killed before they could enter the actual consulate building, but not before images and footage of a key US installation under fire were beamed around the world, just a day after the first anniversary of the attack on the American diplomatic mission in Bengazi that left US ambassador Chris Stevens dead.
As Zahid pushed the start button again, his dilapidated big wheel carried the infrequent passengers up into the sky, from where they could look down on the half empty park and picnic areas below. Not far away was the US consulate, still looking impregnable despite the Taliban’s efforts. Beside it was the Jihad Museum, built to preserve the history of the mujahideen’s fight against the Soviet invasion 30 years earlier. The museum had not been so lucky, with windows, doors and exhibits destroyed by the attack.
Located in the west of Afghanistan, Herat is an ancient city. Once the capital of an empire that stretched from Iran to China, it takes great pride in its cultural legacy. The five remaining minarets of the Musalla Complex are the most famous attraction, and a major part of Herat’s bid to be named a Unesco World Heritage Centre.
Standing on the edge of a wasteland, looking at five crumbling minarets that seem one good push away from collapsing, it is hard to believe this was once one of the finest examples of Islamic architecture in the world. Built in the 15th century, the Musalla Complex was a wonder of its age. But in 1885, the British were meddling in Afghanistan and, fearing a Russian attack, blew it up, leaving only a few minarets. It was an act of cultural vandalism that rivals the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddha statues of Bamiyan over a century later.
Drugs and despair
Gazing at the minarets in the golden light of the evening sun, any melancholy I felt for a lost architectural beauty was quickly eclipsed by the unfolding human tragedy beneath the towers. Hundreds of men and boys were dotted around the complex, walking sluggishly or sitting staring into nothingness, like an army of zombies.