Some 400 kilometers northwest of Kabul is the second largest city and the sprawling urban centre of Afghanistan. They call it Mazar e Sharif. The province is tremendously popular with foreign tourists thanks to its breathtaking landscape, and more importantly, peace and serenity. In all the years of civil war and political unrest, this part of the war-torn country remained unaffected since it existed as an autonomous region until the late 1990s. It borders Uzbekistan and is populated with large number of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. This diversity is reflected in the city’s rich culture, from exquisite food to enchanting music, from quirky markets to fine arts and crafts.
The noise of traffic on the road drowns in the quietude and calm of the park, the chirping and warbling of birds, the cooing of the white doves waddling all around
Unlike many other restive provinces of Afghanistan, which are still trapped in ultra-conservative, old-fashioned, orthodox traditions; women in Mazar e Sharif enjoy complete freedom and access to higher education. There is zero tolerance for discrimination. People come across as warm and unpretentious. Quite interestingly, the local provincial government has done a fine job. There is a Women’s Music College too, something unthinkable elsewhere.
Mazar e Sharif remained unaffected in the years of civil war; however, it faced its own problems in the post-Taliban era, after 2001. The warlords and strongmen from Uzbek and Tajik tribes got embroiled in a power struggle and control of natural gas reserves. The situation has limped back to normalcy now but the tensions spark occasionally.
Worse, post 2001, this province made news for war crimes by US led allied forces. After the Taliban were ousted in 2001, fierce military operations swept the country including Mazar e Sharif. A documentary film ‘Massacre at Mazar’ made by an Irish filmmaker Jamie Doran shows the extent of involvement of US soldiers in torture and murder of captured rebels and disappearance of around 3,000 men in Mazar e Sharif province barely a year after Taliban regime was shunted out.
On Navroz, which marks the first day of spring and the beginning of Afghan New year, all the routes lead to this beautiful shrine; the festivities kick off days before and continue for more than two weeks
Mazar e Sharif is home to the national sport of Afghanistan, Buzkashi. The aggressive sport, in which players riding the horseback seek control of a goat’s carcass, is being played here since the 13th century. It is played in open fields on weekends, especially in the winter season until the Afghan New Year (Navroz) that falls on March 21. On Navroz, Mazar e Sharif turns into a virgin bride and is flooded with massive number of visitors. The auspicious occasion coincides with Gul e Surkh festival, named after red tulip flowers, invoking prosperity and productiveness.
However, the main attraction of city, which draws tourists and pilgrims from across the world, especially on the New Year, is Blue Mosque. The mosque is surrounded by the picturesque, lush-green park filled with the intoxicating smell of flowers. The noise of traffic on the road drowns in the quietude and calm of the park, the chirping and warbling of birds, the cooing of the white doves waddling all around. The doves, which are an integral part of the Blue Mosque compound, are looked after by the attendants of the mosque. According to caretakers and gardeners here, the doves are pure white in color because of the sanctity of the mosque, and even the doves with speck of color turn white here.
The Blue Mosque, enveloped in thousands of colorful and intricately designed tiles in various exquisite patterns, houses the revered shrine of Hazrat Ali, the cousin of Prophet Mohammad. The shrine was built in the reign of Husain Baiqara. The open hall to the southeast of shrine dates back to Timurid period. The marble gravestone is from the Ghazanavid period. Legend has it that the body of Hazrat Ali was shifted here from its original burial place in Najaf, Iraq. The deeply revered shrine was demolished by the marauding ruler Genghis Khan and his Mongol army in the 13th century, but it was later rebuilt as a pilgrimage site and a tourist destination.
Today, the shrine has become cynosure of all eyes, and people cutting across sects and tribes in Afghanistan hold it in deep reverence. On Navroz, which marks the first day of spring and the beginning of Afghan New year, all the routes lead to this beautiful shrine. The festivities kick off days before and continue for more than two weeks. Every year, on the day of Navroz, the guards of shrine (pehelwan e roza) hoist a massive flag called ‘Jahanda’ in the compound of the shrine. Thousands of people from across the country witness the ceremony, which has become a part of tradition now. Mela-e Gul-e Surkh, a popular festival of blooming tulips in Mazar e Sharif, starts a week before the New Year.
Well, little wonder why a trip to Afghanistan is incomplete without visiting Mazar e Sharif and Blue Mosque. The beautiful meets bustling here.
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26th Oct 2017
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