Carpets in Herat, Fit Club in the Fort

22 08 2009
Taking a break from Herat's architectural sights in the serene environment of the Gazurgah salthouse.

Taking a break from Herat's architectural sights in the serene environment of the Gazurgah salthouse.

Vaulted defences in Herat's Citadel

Vaulted defences in Herat's Citadel

Ten of us, National and European architects, travelled to Herat to experience many of Afghanistan’s most impressive structures. The city open and flat and in dust, security, traffic and overcrowding is a better alternative to Kabul. Along with the old buildings survive stories of  religious fortitude and poetic sadness. One open square beside a cistern (water store) and underground mosque is called the Place of the covered face. The story is that a highly religious Herati Muslim passed a Jewish woman in the street and stops her, saying “you are too beautiful please cover your face” after a pause this woman replies “you are too handsome, please cover yours” and he does so, for the rest of his life and in the process acquires himself a smart gravestone and a place in posterity. Many of these building are similar to TM’s restoration projects in Kabul but carried out by the Aga Khan Foundation, a world wide institution. Their unsentimental approach to restoration frees up time and budget, adding value elsewhere in a project.  http://www.akdn.org/afghanistan

Leaving the Friday mosque. Spots the infidels in disguise.

Leaving the Friday mosque in the town centre. Spot the infidels in disguise.

All mosques in Afghanistan are used daily and full every Friday so they continue to ‘work’ despite being historic monuments. In contrast British churches are often well kept but they are badly patronised. A good example of this is the Grand Mosque, or Friday Mosque started in 13th century and now capable of holding 30,000 prayers at once. The building has been extended and tilework is extensive. The tile workshop Towards the city’s edge lies the Masalla complex. A huge site of originally 12 towering minarets in 1885 the British destroyed much of the site to defend against a Russian army that never turned up. The Soviets went some way to completing the job in the 1979-89 invasion. Now only five of the 30-40 metre high minarets survive on this Unesco world heritage site. One is held up with cables, so likely is it to fall due to the passing traffic. For an idea of the space have a look at: http://www.world-heritage-tour.org/asia/central-asia/afghanistan/herat/musalla-complex-s-minarets/sphere-flash.html

Roof of the vaulted defences with the main arsenal in the middle distance. Note the domed lantrn style rooflights.

Roof of the vaulted defences with the main arsenal in the middle distance. Note the domed lantern style rooflights.

The Qala Ikhtyaruddin is probably Herat’s greatest landmark. Earliest defences on the site of the current citadel were started by Alexander the Great in 300BC, the most recent major additions were completed in 1300 BC. Apart from the fact that my inner child loves castles it really is an impressive intrusion into the city’s landscape. This is one of my favourites, competing with Carcassonne and it’s witches hats in France and Eilean Donan (the one in the film ‘Highlander’).

Admiring the goods in Herat's carpet bazaar. I'm not sure the local dress impressed the shopkeeper though.

Admiring the goods in Herat's carpet bazaar. I'm not sure the local dress impressed the shopkeeper though.

I followed my friends to the carpet shop as I knew I would enjoy this speciality of the region, perhaps the world as well not to mention the hospitality and haggling. However I surprised even myself by walking away with almost more carpet than I could carry, borrowing money from those colleagues who would oblige. Nonetheless I didn’t buy the one I really fell in love with and have earmarked it for future negotiations once my bank balance has recovered.

Herat’s icecream and juice bars are worth the trip alone. We sat and gorged ourselves on all possible sweets and as if that wasn’t enough we probably carried more weight of Iranian sweets onto the plane than carpets.

Keeping healthy and sane is important so we do ‘Fit Club’ once a week, twice if keen. Usually an hour of circuits on the grass terraces using whatever we can for props. You can be quite creative with watermelons and gas canisters. I have a reputation as a hard taskmaster but 3-6 of us turn up regularly after work. The fort’s guards look on with amusement although they have joined us in earlier times.

Afghan of the week - Mohammad Nasir. National Architect Age-35

Afghan of the week - Mohammad Nasir. National Architect Age-35

Building – The site has moved on well. We are testing arches for the staircase using the local stone slabs and digging a deep lime pit that will be a pretty good swimming pool once the building material has aged (12 months ‘cooking’) and can be emptied/spread onto the walls of Murad Khane.

I’ve just got back from 8 days in Istanbul and motorbiking between the Black and Marmara seas which meant I missed the national elections. Returning it seems that the mixture of short drama and lengthy boredom just creates a stir-crazy atmosphere amongst the fort’s more ‘interesting’ characters.

Afghan of the week is Mohammad Nasir a national architect. He proudly shows off photos of his time in the Afghan army. Despite concern of his interest in what we are doing I have begun to like his style of steady progress. Here he is looking relaxed on top of the salt house with the Gazurgah mosque in the background.

Duncan DJ