travel and tourism
Afghanistan showcases a wealth of natural and architectural wonders which attract visitors both locally and internationally. Some famous sights include Bamiyan, Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat and Kabul. Other popular sites are Afghanistan’s two designated national parks; Band-e-Amir National Park and Wakhan National Park.
Historically, Afghanistan has been a favorite tourist destination, and the industry reached its peak in the 1970s with over 90,000 tourists visiting Afghanistan annually from different parts of the world. Today, according to Ministry of Information and Culture, around 20,000 foreign tourists visit Afghanistan annually.
Despite decades of war, places such as Kabul still remain as fascinating locations. The Government is working to rebuild the country’s war-torn infrastructure, by implementing major projects such as transport links and a nationwide telecommunication link between Kabul and the other provinces.
Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan since 1776, is a very fast - growing city. It has many colorful bazaars which attract a large numbers of visitors for shopping and sightseeing. Kocha-e-Murgha (Chicken Street) in Shahr-e-Now is the most famous for antiques and handcrafts. Other popular sites in Kabul include the Babur Gardens, which is a historical park and also the resting place of the first Mughal emperor Babur. Kabul is also home to Afghanistan’s National Museum, which hosts many artifacts on the country’s rich and vast history. Travelers have written glowingly of Kabul for centuries, and modern visitors continue to be captivated by its charm. Particularly with the strong presence of the international community and ongoing redevelopment projects, Kabul has a touch of modern architecture that gives the city hope for a peaceful and prosperous future.
Ghazni, an important market town, particularly famous for embroidered sheepskin coats, was the dazzling capital of the Ghaznavid Empire from 994-1160 - encompassing much of northern India, Persia and Central Asia. Many campaigns into India were launched from here, resulting in the spread of Islam to the East. This glorious city was razed to the ground by Arab invaders in 869, by the Ghorid Sultan Alauddin in 1151 and by Genghis Khan in 1221.The city did not recover its former grandeur, however, it is still a place for many famous Shrines.
Kandahar, the birthplace and first capital of modern Afghanistan, was founded by Ahmad Shah Durrani in 1747. It is located on the Asia Highway, halfway between Kabul and Herat, and is today home to half a million people. The area is rich with ancient history. Here, Alexander the Great founded Alexandria of Arachosia, and the region was repeatedly fought over for by the Saffavids and Moghuls. Under the leadership of mayor Mirwais Hotaki and then of Ahmad Shah Durrani, the decline of both empires was hastened and much of the territory was annexed to the young Afghan Kingdom in the 18th Century. The city is home to the Kherqa Sharif shire, which containing the cloak of the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon Him, is the most sacred one in Afghanistan. This relic was brought to Kandahar by Ahmad Shah Durrani.
This history of Herat has been one of repeated destruction and reconstruction. Conqueror after conqueror, from the time of Alexander the Great, has taken it, destroyed it and then rebuilt it. In the 4th Century B.C. Alexander the Great built the fort which is still standing in the centre of the City. From 1040 to 1175 the city was ruled by the Seljuks, who defeated the Ghaznavids and destroyed the fortress. Herat was then captured by the Ghorids until the city fell under the control of the Khwarazm Empire. In 1221, Herat was taken by the Mongols and Tuli, the son of Genghis Khan, who ruled for a time, but the citizens revolted and killed the Mongol garrison chief. Extremely angered, Genghis Khan rode upon the city with 80, 000 troops and besieged it for six months, leaving only forty people living. In 1245, Herat was given to the Kart Maliks. Tamerlane destroyed Herat in 1381. However, his son, ShahRukh, rebuilt it and started the cultural renaissance which made it the center of learning and culture. During Timurid rule, the famous poet Jami and the miniaturist Behzad were born, Queen GawharShad's Musalla was built and the city’s Gazergah restored. For the second time in its history, the city flourished. In 1718 the Afghan clan Chief Hotaki, struggled for Herat's independence which continued until 1880, when finally the city became an integral part of Afghanistan.
Today, the city is Afghanistan’s third largest, and home to over 400,000 people. It is acts as a transit route to Iran, and operates a university, a stadium, museums and various mosques. The most famous of these is the Masjid-e-Jami, or the Friday Mosque. This great mosque is located in the centre of the city and has been a place of worship since the time of Zoroaster. Despite being rebuilt several times, the mosque now stands in perfect splendour.
Mazar-e Sharif, the capital of Balkh province, is a major trading centre. It is famous for Karakul, a variety of traditional Turkmen carpets and high-quality, long-staple cotton. The city is named for the magnificent shrine of Hazrat-e-Ali, cousin and son-in law of Prophet Mohammed, and the Fourth Caliph of Islam. Mazar-e-Sharif is visited by countless pilgrims throughout the year and particularly on Nawroz (21 March) when the great Janda (religious banner) is raised to announce the beginning of spring and the coming of the New Year. The Persian New Year is the most elaborately celebrated festival in Afghanistan.
Balkh district shares its name with its home province, and has attracted fame for its glorious past. Zoroaster preached here sometime in 6th Century B.C., and the shrine to Anahita, Goddess of the Oxus, attracted thousands during the 5th Century. Alexander the Great chose it for his base in the 4th Century B.C., and under the Kushans, when Buddhism was practiced throughout Afghanistan, many temples flourished in Balkh. The Arabs called Balkh Umm-ul Bilad, the 'mother of cities'. By the 9th Century, during the rule of the Samanid Dynasty, about 40 Friday Mosques stood within the city.
Bamiyan, with its archaeological remains, is the most conspicuous tourist site of Afghanistan. It is also one of the safest places to visit compared to other locations within the country. The city lies about 2500m above sea level, 240km west of Kabul and attracts thousands of visitors annually. The exquisite beauty of this valley is embraced by the snowcapped range of the Koh-e-Baba mountains in the south, and in the north by the steep cliffs, in which massive images of Buddha were carved. The Buddha Statues were unfortunately destroyed in March 2001, by the Taliban during their regime.
The area of Bamiyan developed under Kanishka the Great, to become a major commercial and religious centre and the smaller statue of Buddha (38m high) was built during his reign. Two centuries later the colossal Buddha statue (55m high) was carved. Thousands of ornamented caves, inhabited by yellow robed monks, extended into the Folladi and Kakrak valleys where a smaller statue of Buddha (6.5m) stands. Pilgrims from the entire Buddhist world pour into Bamiyan to admire its spectacular and sacred sites. Bamiyan fell to the Islamic conquerors in the 9th Century.
Band-e Amir National Park
Visitors to Afghanistan have long marvelled at the country's natural beauty. The formidable Hindu Kush, the vast Turkestan plains, and the seclusion of the southern deserts have impressed travellers from Alexander the Great to Marco Polo. It is the unspoilt natural beauty that forms the visitor's first and most enduring impression of the country. But of all the natural wonders of Afghanistan, the lakes of Band-e Amir are perhaps the most out-standing. Situated in the mountainous Hazarajat at an altitude of approximately 3000m, 75km from Bamiyan, these majestic blue lakes are of legendary beauty.
It is the country’s first national park, officially designated as such in 2009, and is home to six lakes that are most famous for their striking deep blue shade, a result of mineral deposits. The lakes are separated by natural travertine deposits, making it one of the world’s only travertine systems. It is framed by the Hindu Kush mountains, and acts as one of the centres of Afghan tourism. While the region provides a wealth of natural and agricultural resources, the opportunities for ecotourism mean that there has been a decrease in economic dependency on these resources.
Wakhan National Park
Officially recognised as a national park in 2014, the Wakhan National Park is only the second of its kind in Afghanistan. About a million hectares in area, it is 25% larger than Yellowstone National Park in the US, and protects hundreds of diverse wildlife species. Most famously it is the habitat of the snow leopard, as well as other wild-cats, wild sheep, foxes and mountain goats. It is also home to numerous indigenous communities, such as nomadic Kyrgyz herders and ethnic Wakhi. The establishment of the national park protects their way of life, as well as providing economic opportunities. The park is located in the Wakhan corridor, a geographic ‘panhandle’ which connects Afghanistan to China, and borders Tajikistan and Pakistan. It is the meeting point of several of the world’s main mountain ranges, and has been referred to as the ‘roof of the world’.
Minaret of Jam
The 62-metre high minaret was built entirely of baked bricks and is famous for its intricate stucco and glazed tile decoration, which consists of alternating bands of calligraphy, geometric patterns, and verses from the Qur’an. Archaeologists believe that the minaret was once attached to the Friday Mosque of Firozkoh, which may have been washed away in a flash-flood in the early 13th century. Locals say that a third of the decorative brick had fallen off and the minaret is now leaning. Erosion of the nearby river bank and illegal excavations are threatening its stability. The minaret is on the UN list of world heritage sites in danger and officials have warned that there is not enough money to protect it and more flooding could bring it down. No extensive restoration work has taken place since it was originally built.
Afghanistan’s largest province by area is located in the south of the country, and home to close to 900,000 people. It has been inhabited since ancient times, with civilisations dating back to the Bronze Age. In 330 BC, it was invaded by Alexander’s forces and became part of the Seleucid Empire, then followed by the Indian emperor Ashoka. It is populated by ethnic Pashtuns, Baloch, Tajiks and Hazaras – amongst others, and the main provincial languages are Pashto and Balochi. Though it is mainly desert, key agricultural exports include cotton, wheat, maize and various fruits. Its main geographical features include the Helmand River and the Kajaki Damn, which is a major reservoir.
The capital city of Helmand, Lashkargah, was historically known as Bost. It passed through the leadership of the Ghaznavids, the Mongolds, Timurids and Babur – before finally falling to Ahmad Shah Durrani in the 18th century, after which it has remained in its present form within the modern Afghan state. It is home to the ancient Qala-e-Bost fortress, which is a well-known emblem of the region, even appearing on Afghan currency notes. The archaeological sites in ancient Bost also contain many remains of Iranian, Greek, Roman and Indian – reflecting the long and rich history of the area.
Sources: http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/bost-archeological-site-and-town; http://www.akshardhool.com
Jawzjan is one of Afghanistan’s far northern provinces, bordering neighbouring Turkmenistan. Its population of 550,000 is multi-ethnic, with Turkmen, Pashto, Uzbek and Dari-speaking groups. A largely agricultural province, other portions of the terrain are mountainous. It is an industrial province which hosts mines of gas and oil and precious stones, and agriculture is also responsible for contributing to its economy. The archaeological site of Tela Teppe is located just north of the capital. The region is also famous for its Aqcha carpets, which are handmade and feature beautiful colours and designs in high quality. There are some of the most popular Afghan carpets, and have been historically produced in Jawzjan province.
Jalalabad is the capital of Nangarhar province, located in the east of Afghanistan, along the border with Pakistan. Historically it was known as Adinapur, and records indicate its importance since as far back as the 7th century. It passed through Ghaznavid rule, followed by the Ghorids as they expanded their empire eastward, followed by the Timurids. However, it was under the rule of Mughal leader Babur that the city gained prominence.
Today, It is one of Afghanistan’s major cities and has a population of approximately 830,000. The majority of the population speak Pashto and Dari. There are small communities of Hindus, and the city contains one of Afghanistan’s only Hindu temples. Livestock, agriculture, trade, services and small handicraft industry are the main source of livelihood for the residents of Jalalabad. Its rich history can be viewed in a number of popular attractions, including Nimla Bagh. This is one of Afghanistan’s few surviving Mughal gardens.