Latest Tweets
Meet the Editor
Administration
« امید و سپاسگذاری | Main | The Nuances of Afghan Office Etiquette »
Friday
Oct262007

Trip to Mazar-e Sharif

This week for work I got the opportunity of going to Mazar-e Sharif. The best part, however, was that I got to go by road. For those of you who don’t know or haven’t heard of the place, let me explain a little bit about the city. Firstly, Mazar has a lot of historical significance. Its name means “noble shrine (mazar = “place of pilgrimage” and sharif = “noble”). Furthermore it is situated near and is the modern successor of the ancient city of Balkh. Balkh was a key strategic goal in conquests dating back to the Achaemenids and Alexander. It was also the city in which Zoroaster came to reside and propagate his new religion with the blessings of the local ruler of the time and the birthplace of the sufi poet Rumi, who eventually came to reside in Konya in Anatolia. The focal point of Mazar is of course the shrine at its centre reputed to be the final resting place of the Caliph Ali. The association with Ali suggests that Ali was in fact pretty awesome in that he managed to get around not just in life but in death as well. There are at least three other places contending to be Ali’s final resting place, and the most important of these is Najaf in Iraq (which is acknowledged by most Shi’is and is coincidentally local near where Ali establish his government in Kufa and where he was assassinated). In accordance with the old archaeological proverb “once a sacred place, always a sacred place”, the holiness of the shrine almost certainly goes back to far before Islam. It is very likely that the site originally marked the resting place of Zoroaster or an important site in the development of his faith, and for any one of the preceding reasons it is still regarded as holy by Zoroastrians.

More recently Mazar was made famous by the Taliban who took the city despite fierce resistance in 1998. Prior to the Taliban Mazar and its surroundings had been ruled by Rashid Dostum, a local Uzbek (speaking a Turkish dialect) warlord who had been in control since during the Soviet occupation when he was allied with the Soviets and their puppet regime under Najîbollâh in Kabul. Even though the Soviets withdrew in 1989, Dostum’s support helped prop up Najîbollâh until 1992. When Dostum withdrew from the government the regime quickly collapsed precipitating the mujahidin takeover and Afghanistan decent into total anarchy.

Mazar lies in the northern (şomâlî) plains near the border with Uzbekistan and the Amu River, about 400 km north of Kabul. It is separated both culturally and geographically from Kabul by the Hindu Kush mountain range. These mountain have traditionally formed a strong barrier in that they average between 4,000 and 5,000 meters in height. While Kabul faces the Indian subcontinent (the Kabul River drains into the Indus system), Mazar has always had closer ties to Samarqand and Bukhara and it very much a Persian city and part of the Persian heartland. Its climate is also much milder than Kabul’s given its elevation of 380m as opposed to Kabul’s 1,800.

For us the journey took about nine hours on the almost fully reconstructed Salang road. Leaving from Kabul the road ascends quite quickly from the plains above Çârîkâr to its highest point at the Salang tunnel which is at 3,800 m (that’s over 12,000 ft. for you Americans). After that you emerge very far above the tree line and follow and never-ending course of switchbacks until the road comfortably establishes itself in a lush river valley.

I can only imagine that this road and the people unfortunate enough to live along it saw a lot of action during the Soviet occupation, given that this was the main transport road between the USSR and Kabul. The terrain also provides numerous hideouts for potential attackers, who could easily attack Soviet equipment which must have been a sitting duck on the narrow path upon which it could travel. This is witnessed by innumerable shells of tanks, APCs, and parts thereof which litter the entirety of the road. It speaks to the Soviets’ helplessness, demoralisation, or both, that they did not or could not collect their damaged military hardware after attacks. It’s quite amusing see many former APC shells stacked atop and alongside one another to form embankments and tank turrets being used as flower planters.

The architecture and agriculture in view along the way was also quite fascinating. At lower elevations the rivers are surrounded by rice paddies, which are well watered when fed by the rising waters in spring during the melt. In mid summer and fall these field seem to by used for grass and forage for livestock. At higher elevations and in more rocky terrain, the grains are replaced by orchards of fruit and nut trees. These were really beautiful being that we travelled the road in October and their leave were all coloured in bright yellow and red (and this set against the barren mountains in the background). Everywhere a tremendous amount of effort had gone into terracing and irrigation. The terraces reached their greatest complexity for the orchards, many of which were cut out of slopes of up to about seventy degrees. Even on flatter ground every tree had its own little channel that supplies it and runs into a little well immediately around the tree’s base. Furthermore, the each tree is also based on a small rise to provide adequate drainage. In many cases individual trees were supported by complex masonry which exceeds that of any human dwelling. The efficacy of these techniques is apparent when one compares maintained trees to ones which have been abandoned or gone feral. These individuals appeared to be in a much sorrier straight, plus it’s interesting to note how quickly the terraces degrade when not maintain, with tree quickly breaking free and falling below to the river. Some points relating to harvesting: The tractors on hand were all Soviet or FSU in origin, with Belarus’ eponymous tractor making quite a strong showing. Given that the fields were all too small for tractors or used for crops not suitable for mechanical harvesting, the tractors seemed to be used entirely for hauling things such as blocks. Hay is threshed with a scythe (I didn’t see this in action but it was apparent from the patterns in the harvest fields) and left to dry in piles on individuals’ rooftops. This is depending giving that the weather is predictably rain-free until November.

Given the scarcity of arable land in mountain valleys, the towns usually don’t try to compete. They are all clustered on the sides of mountains and stacked on top of one another like the pueblo style in the US. It would have been really interesting to walk around one of these villages and check it out at closer range. All the houses are interconnected by interwoven networks of staircases and paths and interspersed at irregular intervals by individual gardens and fruit trees (which means that there must be an interesting water supply and drainage system at hand to keep all of the watered and then to keep your [rooftop] garden from collapsing into your neighbour’s living room). I was paying special attention to building materials given my current project at Altai, and two things were apparent to me; local materials are amply used to good effect and the local architecture is both practical and dignified. It really makes me disgusted with the compound-style houses favoured by the Afghan middle classes, which are designed at fortresses to protect familial honour from threats which either never have or will exist or actually originate from within such compounds. The traditional architecture consist of baked mud-bricks or fitted and cut stone (more stone at higher elevation since erosion is happening at a faster rate). On top of this they usually have a covering a dried mud-plaster mix. Nothing looked sloppy, with fixtures such as windows carefully fitted at neat angles and carved out of local wood.

We stopped in a town called Douşî for lunch, which was awesome. The menu at this restaurant consisted of lamb kabab, yahni, and dâşi, which we in the West recognise at digi. The digi consists of meat and gravy, with the meat being whatever they have (we ate at this place on the way back too; the first time they had veal, the next they had lamb) and the gravy also consisting of whatever they have. It’s all served in something like Kashmiri style with bread, lots of raw onions, and some masalas which you can add, one being based on dried red chillies and the other of dried green chillies.

The city of Mazar itself is not overly impressive. It’s not that large and not exciting. It is laid out on a rectangular grid with broad avenues, all perfectly centred on the shrine. This sobriety is reflected in the people, who by their own admission are much more focused on religion than having a good time. The city shuts down at sunset and restaurants are not open past eight. Although apparently young people compensate by going buck-wild in Uzbekistan on the weekends. The city of Termez right on the Uzbek side of the border has a disproportionate amount of clubs all disproportionately stocked with hooched out Afghan youth.

We got to eat in a few family homes too. One night we went to the house of Najib, who runs Altai’s Mazar office and the next to the house of Rafi’s family (Rafi being are consultant on this project who comes from Mazar). Our hosts were gracious and the few great, but I was deeply troubled by the intense immorality of a place where you get to meet the male family members but none of the women. Even though they were both very progressive families (one of the families made a great show of serving us beer), my overall impression was one of sadness, incompleteness, and un-Islamic-ness.

Of course no trip would be complete without its dramatic bits. Amongst our group we had the company of one extremely arrogant young man from Jalalabad who managed to embarrass the rest of us at almost every conceivable opportunity. This guy was pretty much a bad caricature of the embarrassment to humanity that is fundamentalism. First off he made a big show of refusing to go to the local franchise of Delhi Darbar because it was Hindu-owned, an action which is forbidden by almost any interpretation of Islam for a huge number of reasons. He also confronted our hosts for dinner on one occasion to inform them of how un-Islamic they were. Out of curiosity on one occasion I engaged him in a discussion of classical Sunni jurisprudence and found that, not surprisingly, he knew nothing (not even heard of classics such at Tabari’s History, Shafi’i’s Risala, or Bukhari’s collection of Hadiths) and gleaned most of his opinions from one Indian Deobandi leader and an intense obsession with originality (which itself fits into the psychology of the Deobandi movement). Anyway it was sad to see someone struggling with the ideas that the rest of humanity has confronted over fifty years ago—basically it reminded me of talking to an American Christian!

The trip back was a bit more intense in that the change in altitude comes as a much greater shock, as does the change in temperature. At one point we also stopped to take a piss and, as we were getting out of the vehicle, realised we didn’t know if the area had been demined. This was solved easily enough by finding a group of sheep. The logic here was that the sheep would have set off the mines had there been any. And it seems to have been right, judging by the lack of explosions. We also stopped at a few point to pick up fruit from the roadside—chiefly pomegranates.

References (12)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.
  • Response
    Thanks for having the time to discuss this issue. I really appreciate it. I'll stick a link of this post in my site.
  • Response
    Hey, for some reason when I put your RSS feed into google reader, it doesnt work. Can you give me the RSS URL just to make sure Im using the right one?
  • Response
    Response: wHADaylq
    Trip to Mazar-e Sharif - The Global Californian - Scott Bohlinger
  • Response
    Response: Windows 7 Key
    Hello, I was researching the net and I ran into your blog. Keep up the great work. Accredited Online Learning Programs
  • Response
    Trip to Mazar-e Sharif - The Global Californian - Scott Bohlinger
  • Response
    Trip to Mazar-e Sharif - The Global Californian - Scott Bohlinger
  • Response
    Trip to Mazar-e Sharif - The Global Californian - Scott Bohlinger
  • Response
    Response: youtu.be
    Trip to Mazar-e Sharif - The Global Californian - Scott Bohlinger
  • Response
    Response: youtu.be
    Trip to Mazar-e Sharif - The Global Californian - Scott Bohlinger
  • Response
    Trip to Mazar-e Sharif - The Global Californian - Scott Bohlinger
  • Response
    вконтакте
  • Response
    ... slimming - It is also used for how to do the slimming world diet for free or grain, soya and as a powerful detox and retain weight overtime. It gives me confidence and provides adorable sh... Trip to Mazar-e Sharif - The Global Californian - Scott Bohlinger ...

Reader Comments (2)

Hi there,
just curious have you been through this pass more recently? This was written over a year ago.

January 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterZee

Yes, I still do travel the route quite frequently. It's quite beautiful and relatively safe!

February 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterScott Bohlinger

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Post:
 
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>