Herat’s Most Resilient War Survivors, its Historical Monuments, Shaken by Nature

Already vulnerable and neglected, many of the extant monuments and heritage in Herat have withstood the test of time, bearing silent witness to decades of war, conflict, and disasters. But the recent deadly earthquake might have stressed them beyond tolerable.

For many in the historic city of Herat, the powerful magnitude-6.3 quake on early Wednesday was a horrific reminder of the unease that continues to distress the city after the initial quake last week. Another tremor also shook Herat earlier on October 15, bringing the total of quakes to seven, according to the UN.

Photos on social media show Qala-i-Ikhtiaruddin suffered considerable cracks and parts of its fortified walls, constructed almost entirely of fired brick, crumbled. Located in the Old City of Herat’s northern edge, the Citadel, as the building is commonly known, is one of the most ancient surviving structures established in the Alexander period in around 330 BC. Some segments of the top of the citadel’s several glazed tiled towers were also toppled. The full extent of the damage remains to be seen as access to the area has been restricted by the Taliban forces.

Photos sent to KabulNow

The Herat Citadel served as the nerve center for many empires, including the Timurid rulers during the 15th and 16th centuries AD, and was transformed through stellar architectural works under Shahrukh Mirza, son of Tamerlane who founded that dynasty. Saved from destruction in the 1950s, the citadel was undergoing excavation and restoration in the 1970s under the auspices of UNESCO. However, the restoration was interrupted by the Soviet invasion in 1979.

In 2008, Aga Khan Foundation began the restoration of the Herat Citadel. Photo: AKDN/Simon Norfolk

The quakes’ seismic waves also damaged parts of the dynamic Masjid Jami Herat, or the Great Mosque of Herat, considered a masterpiece of Islamic art and culture. Dated to the 10th century AD, the mosque historically enjoyed various constructions, but the extant architecture is most noticeable in the Timurid and Ghorid fragments, displaying a unique portal with calligraphic and geometric patterns. The extricable ornamentation could be measured south of the existing main entrance of the mosque, which follows a four-iwan decoration, with a colossal central courtyard. Images show that parts of the blue mosque’s walls sustained partial damage, and one of the two huge minarets (Gul Dasta) was crushed.

Faisal Karimi, a former lecturer at Herat University, has called on UNESCO to pay attention to the damage these historical sites have suffered recently.

Photos sent to KabulNow

In 2017, the congregational mosque was struck by suicide bombers affiliated with Islamic State (ISIS), killing dozens of worshippers during evening prayers. Last year, Taliban authorities vowed to restore its affected areas to preserve the integrity and beauty of this historical site. The Taliban’s support for the mosque’s restoration may stem from the site’s religious significance, but it does not translate to the preservation of other cultural and archeological heritage, which the group views as “un-Islamic.” This was clear when the Taliban blew up the centuries-old giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan in early 2001 when they first ruled Afghanistan. Now that the group is back in power, it has symbolically turned the site into a tourist attraction.

A view of the Great Mosque of Herat. Photo: Didier Tais

Even for the historical sites that the Taliban prefer, it is hard to anticipate restoration anytime soon because of the high costs and expertise preservation demand. International organizations, such as UNESCO, have not been able to pace the damages for years despite promises of reconstruction and rehabilitation, and the Taliban are ill-prepared and ill-equipped for rebuilding. The Taliban’s capability and management were tested in their response to the recent quakes, which showed the group is facing significant challenges in carrying out effective search and rescue operations and delivering emergency aid if it were not for the intervention of foreign aid agencies.

The Herat quakes have inflicted unimaginable death and destruction. The first magnitude-6.3 quake struck in the mid-morning of Saturday, October 7, flattening at least a dozen villages and destroying thousands of mud-brick homes, leaving families without shelter, food, water, and other necessities. Videos show entire homes, especially in the epicenter of Zinda Jan district, turned into ruins, which now look like a forbidden desert. When the dust settled, thousands were killed or injured, and hundreds missing, mostly women and children. At least 12 aftershocks followed. The true scope of the quakes is hard to estimate as figures keep changing.

Amid fears of constant aftershocks, bereaved families have spent nights outside on streets, parks, and makeshift camps made of blankets and tarps while rescue teams continued digging to look for those trapped under rubble. Over the week, thousands of others evacuated their homes for safety. Local and international aid groups have been working to respond to the urgent needs of the affected communities, providing shelter, food, cash vouchers, and household items. Moreover, hospitals at capacity have extended makeshift camps to treat patients.

The Wednesday quake came five days after the initial shock. It hit 17 miles from Herat City, killing at least two people and injuring more than a hundred others. The tremors sent more people running out of their homes, adding to thousands already displaced and dependent on humanitarian assistance to survive. It also partially damaged the peak of one of the five 55-meter-tall minarets, survivors of 22 previous minarets, at the Mosalla Complex, which was already undergoing a slow restoration process.

Minarets at the Mosalla Complex remain in poor shape. Right photo sent to Kabul, left photo via Pinterest.

Built in the early 15th century by Gawhar Shad,  Shahrukh Mirza’s queen, the complex and the minarets were once described by a British architectural historian as “the most beautiful example in color and in architecture ever devised by man to the glory of his God and himself.” UNESCO described these historical sites as expressions of Timurid architecture and decoration whose “enormous scale the world has never again seen the like.”

However, the recent quakes have exposed many of Herat’s historical landmarks as more vulnerable and even at risk of destruction. Any physical loss of these ancient structures will plague the cultural identity and collective memory of not only Herat and its people but also the once wider, pluralist, and burgeoning region that Herat was a pillar of.