As a touristic destination, Afghanistan has a lot to offer. There are ancient sites in Afghanistan, some of which are on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The archeologic sites come from different historical periods and portray Afghanistan as the land of many cultures and traditions. Today, the traditions of various ethnic groups can be seen and experienced through the culture of rug-making.
Besides history and culture, Islamic religious tradition provides for an interesting touristic experience. Number of architecturally delicate mosques can be visited across the country. Lastly, natural beauty in form of mountains, lakes and plains can be discovered through hiking and trekking.
Undoubtedly one of the most interesting historic sites in Afghanistan is Bamiyan, a city of about sixty thousand inhabitants which is lies on the historical Silk Road – a caravan route which connected China and the West in the Middle Ages. Thanks to its strategic location, Bamyian became a prospering centre of Buddhist art and philosophy. Several Buddhist monasteries came to life, with monks living in caves of Bamiyan cliffs. It was reported in the 7th century, that over ten monasteries were occupied with about thousand monks. This prominent Buddhist religious site survived the advent of Islam, and it was active until the conquest of Muslim Safarid dynasty in the 9th century.
In the 6th century, two large statues of Buddha were built in Bamiyan. The larger one was 53 meters tall and somewhat younger. It portrayed Buddha in its Vairocana position. Smaller of the two statues had 35 meters, and was built first. Buddha was portrayed in the position of Sayamuni mudra here. The statues were, until their destruction in 2001, among the largest standing Buddhas in the world.
The statues were in danger ever since the Muslim conquest. They were spared destruction by Genghis Khan in the 13th century and slightly damaged by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb who used heavy artillery to destroy them. They were fired at in the 18th century by Persian king Nader Afshar, and finally the face of the larger statue was destroyed by Afghan king Abdur Rahman Khan in 1847.
Before their final destruction in 2001, Taliban commanders vowed blow them up, and they drilled holes in their heads to put in explosives. When the action was prevented by local governor, tyres were burnt on their heads instead. Mullah Oman, the Talibani leader finally ordered their complete destruction on March 2, 2001. Only the alcoves where the statues were set remained. This act was slammed by international community, including Muslim nations. Commitment to rebuild the statues has been made.
The site of Bamiyan consists also of about fifty caves with wall paintings dating between the 5th and the 9th centuries. They were most likely painted by artists travelling on the Silk Route. Many of them depict Buddha sitting cross-legged in red robes and flanked by mythical features. These are considered the oldest old paintings in the world.
MINARET OF JAM
The Minaret of Jam is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in a remote district called Shahrak, in Ghor Province. The minaret was built in 12th century of baked bricks which carry intricate calligraphic inscriptions in Arabic language. These inscriptions contain Quranic verses, Muslim confession of faith as well as names and titles of local rulers.
The minaret is 62 meters high and is one of about 60 minarets built by the Ghurid dynasty in the Middle Ages. It is the tallest brick minaret in the world with octagonal base and lantern on the top. It was originally attached the Friday Mosque, which was unfortunately washed away during flood already in the 13th century. This was discovered by the evidence of once-existing large courtyard just next to the minaret, as well as river sediments on the paving. The presence of rivers Hari and Jam, with their regular flooding and subsequent erosion as well as frequent earthquakes in the region are the threats for the minaret until these days.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFGHANISTAN
National Museum of Afghanistan was first established in 1919 in the Afghan capital, Kabul where it resided in the Bagh Bala palace. It consisted of manuscripts, art objects and weapons belonging to the former kings of Afghanistan. In 1931, it moved to a former Municipality building about nine kilometres north of the city centre. Thanks to the excavations carried out by Delegation Archeologique Francaise en Afghanistan, the original collection was greatly enriched with ancient artefacts from all the periods of Afghan history.
In the province of Balkh, 20 kilometers from the city of Mazare Sharif, there is a city of Balkh, which was in antiquity known as Bactria, or Tokharistan. Described as noble and great by Marco Polo, it became the last refuge of Zoroaster, who died here, as Persian poet Firdowsi claimed. Balkh was later capital of Greco-Bactrian Kingdom which came to being after Alexander the Great conquered this region. Balkh was also known as a Buddhist centre where famous monks Trapusa and Bahalika lived and were buried. The city went from one dynasty to another after the Islamic conquest, and it was finally sacked by Genghis Khan. Reconstructed again in the 14th century, it finally fell in the hands of Afghans in 1752. With the rise of Mazari Sharif, Balkh finally lost its administrative status in the 19th century, and until these days it remains a rather small town with most of its inhabitants working in cotton industry.
The historic Balkh has the remains of Buddhist shrines as well as Greek settlements, tombs and a mosque. The most remarkable is the Buddhist stupa Takhte-Rostam which was built under the ground, in a trench 8 meters deep.
GREAT MOSQUE OF HERAT
A true jewel among the mosques in Afghanistan, Great Mosque of Heart is the art of work created by the Ghurid dynasty in the 13th century. It has always served as a congregational mosque for Friday prayers even if it was not always the largest in the city.
The mosque has traditional rectangular base with a central courtyard and three beautifully adorned iwans as well as eight minarets and six gates for entrance. Much of today’s mosque is quite new as the original complex suffered numerous damages in the 18th century. Presently, the mosque is awaiting a reconstruction which has been promised by wealthy Afghan merchants in 2012.
BLUE MOSQUE OF MAZARI SHARIF
Shrine of Ali, as the Blue Mosque is Mazari Sharif is often called, is an impressive religious complex built in 15th century, which has for centuries been the landmark of this city. According to legends, the remains of fourth khalifa Ali were brought here on a white camel to be buried. This was done in to protect his remains from desecration by enemies.
The central part of this rectangular shrine is ziaratkhana where the remains of Ali are stored while the antechamber serves for prayers and meditation. The core of the mosque is then flanked by small rooms where important historical figures, such as Afghan rulers and imams, are buried. Polychrome tile mosaic from the 20th century covers all the exterior of the mosque.
BANDE AMIR NATIONAL PARK
Afghanistan is a country of unexpected natural beauty and there are numerous places that tourists can explore to have a taste of it. One of such places is Bande Amir National Park which is situated in the Bamiyan Province. It has been called Grand Canyon of Afghanistan for its beauty. The central part of tourist interest here are six lakes in the elevation of about 3000 metres which are separated from each other by unique travertine dams. Each of the lakes is up to 150 metres deep and is used for swimming in the summer. The lakes freeze in the winter time as the temperature frequently goes down to -15°C in this area.