Ancient citadel in Herat, Afghanistan, restored

After decades of war and neglect, the medieval citadel of Qala Ikhtyaruddin in Herat, western Afghanistan, has been restored. Funded by a donation from the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and support from the U.S. and German governments, Afghan craftsmen have been working since 2008 to make extensive repairs to the masonry and structure of the walls and ramparts which were in such bad shape they were visibly crumbling. Buildings within the citadel’s lower enclosure were also repaired or replaced with period-appropriate replicas.

The citadel has been destroyed or come close to it many times in its checkered history. In 1950 plans to demolish the citadel were thankfully derailed, and UNESCO oversaw extensive conservation of the site between 1976 and 1979. Unregulated development in Herat’s city center, battles and the presence of a military garrison put unbearable pressure on the citadel and its ancient materials, many of which was reused for new construction. The enormous size and complexity of the site makes conservation a major logistical challenge. It is more than 250 meters (800 feet) long and 70 meters (230 feet) wide in places. Its two main enclosures contained deteriorating buildings, courtyards and 18 brick masonry towers.

Herat was an important crossroads on the Silk Road, the trade route that moved luxury goods between the Levant and India and China. Excavations have discovered evidence of habitation on the site dating back to the sixth century B.C. Alexander the Great himself occupied the area in 330 B.C. and is thought to have built the first fortress on the site. Not the last, though, as Herat’s prime location made it attractive to every occupation force in the area. The citadel was destroyed by the Mongolian army 1221, rebuilt by the Persian Kartid dynasty, then destroyed again by Timur’s (Tamerlane’s) army in 1380. It was Timur’s son, Shah Rukh, and his wife Queen Gowhar Shād who implement extensive construction programs in the 15th century, creating the walled citadel of brick, stone and glazed tiles that we see today.

It’s not just the crumbling masonry that’s been repaired. The project focused also on adapting ancient buildings to modern uses while preserving their historical architecture. Several buildings have been converted into a public cultural center that has been used to much acclaim for concerts and art shows. There is also a provincial archeological museum.

Housed at the citadel is the National Museum of Herat, one of four provincial museums in Afghanistan to reopen to the public. The Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin worked with the German Archaeological Institute to document and restore artifacts and prepare them for display. There are about 1,100 items from the Herat region in the museum; about 250 are on display.

Most of them are from the 10th to 13th centuries when Herat was a center of politics and culture. There is pottery, metal work, a tombstone of major Persian painter Behzad, 260 manuscripts and books and a cenotaph adorned with tiles that date from 1378.

Tourism seems like a distant prospect, what with the war and all, but preserving Afghanistan’s immense cultural heritage is the first step in making it possible at all.

16 thoughts on “Ancient citadel in Herat, Afghanistan, restored

  1. Just spent most of the day yesterday in the Citadel. It really is an amazing structure. Spent most the time in the Eastern side which looks like it is still being excavated. You can climb up in the towers that provide amazing views of the city. An cool piece of history and a must see if you get the chance. If you’re a Westerner, you should be able to visit in a few years assuming things get better here.

  2. All westerners welcome to Afghanistan
    Come with love you will be loved

    – Afghanistan Proverb


  3. salam man arash hastam az hamburg germany man dar umid ware bastanye shahare herat hastam imshahla ke shahare herat piruz mihevad

  4. First off I would like to say superb blog!
    I had a quick question which I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your head before writing. I’ve had trouble clearing my thoughts in getting my thoughts out there.
    I do enjoy writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally lost simply just trying to figure out how to begin.
    Any ideas or tips? Cheers!

    1. I also start off scattered, but it’s not a cluster of random thoughts. It’s all the different pieces of the story that jostle around in my brain. I don’t fight it. I write down the pieces as they come to me, taking notes from various sources and pulling quotes I may or may not want to use. I dump all of this into the new post field and then spend some time arranging them so there’s some sense of fluidity. I am a huge fan of outlines. They’re a great way to get all the competing points you blurted out before in order. Then I take those notes and write full sentences and paragraphs following the structure I established in the outline.

      Thank you for the kind words and best of luck to you in your own writing endeavors. 🙂

  5. The citadel is breathtaking. I usually do not like fortresses. But this feels like a labyrinth stairway to the sky. Their is a quite unique feeling to the place, the interplay between round and square shapes, the half circles of the towers, the circled stairs hight up. The interplay of the old stone floor and the accurately laid bricks. The meandering and free flow of the high walk around the first level. This fort feels like a strong place, impenetrable and relaxed. It feels almost mysterious , like a masterpiece of a very talented architect who felt this was the chance of his lifetime-or hers, since the Afghan guide I met claimed the outlay was designed by some very well educated and clever woman-architect. The restaurateurs have done a great job too. Do climb to the top levels, every step is worth it. A must specially if you would come with kids. The 500 AFN entrance to foreigners should not repel anybody who dared to come to this unfortunately still not supersede corner of Afghanistan.

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