1902 Encyclopedia > Herat, Afghanistan

Herat, Afghanistan

HERAT is the city of great interest both historically and geographically, and is of even greater interest politically, its importance at the present day being indicated by its popular designation of the "key of India." Its origin is lost in antiquity. The name first appears in the list of primitive Zoroastrian settlements contained in the Vendidád Sadé, where, however, most of the names in the same list,--such as Sughdu (Sogdia), Mourú (Merv or Margus), Haraquiti (arachotus or Arghend-ab), Haetumant (Etymander or Helmand), and Ragha (or Argha-stán),-- it seems to apply to the river or river-basin, which was the special centre of population. This name of Haroyu, is it written in the Vendidád, or Hariwa, as it appears in the inscription of Darius is a cognate form with the Sanskrit Sarayu, which signifies "a river," and its resemblance to the ethnic title of Aryan (Sans. Arya) is purely fortuitous; though from the circumstance of the city being named "Aria Metropolis" by the Greeks, and being also recognized as the capital of Ariana, "the country of the Arians," the two forms have been frequently confounded. Of the foundation of Herat (or Heri, as it is still often called) nothing is known. We can only infer from the colossal character of the earth-works which surround the modern town, that, like the similar remains at Bost on the Helmand and at Ulán Robát of Arachosia, they belong to that period of Central-Asian history which preceded the rise of Achaemenian power, and which in Grecian romance is illustrated by the names of Bacchus, of Hercules, and of Semiramis.

The natural advantages of Herat are mainly due to its river, which, arising in the high uplands 350 miles to the eastward, where the Koh-I-Bábá, the prolongation of the Hindú-Kúsh, bifurcates into the two parallel ranges of the Sufíd-koh or "white mountains" to the north and the Siyáh-koh or "black mountains" to the south, passes in the upper part of its course through a succession of rolling downs of the finest pasture-land, and lower down traverses a more contracted valley, enlivened, however, throughout with smiling villages and orchards, till it reaches the eastern limit of the alluvial plain of Herat. Here at the present day nine large canals (in former times there were twenty) carry off the waters of the Heri-rúd for the irrigation of the circumjacent plain, which on a rough calculation may be said to contain nearly 400 square miles of land available for cultivation. M. Khanikoff, who visited Herat in 1858, observes the nowhere in the East,--not even in Samarcand or Kokhara or Ispahán, where the art of colonization is supposed to be carried to perfection,--had been seen water-courses constructed with so much skill, or maintained with so much care, as in the valley of the Heri-rúd; and the adds that, although at the period of his visit nine-tenths of the villages of the plain, which is ordinary times amount to nearly 500, were partially in ruins and the adjoining fields laid waste, the cereal produce of the remaining lands was still far in excess of the wants of the settled inhabitants. The Heri-rúd, passing betweeb 3 and 4 miles to the south of Herat, where it is spanned by a magnificent bridge of twenty-three arches, called the Púl-i-Málán, continues its course westward to the extremity of this rich and fertile plain; then it turns north through an arid country for some 200 miles to Sarakhs, receiving two small streams from the west, the Áb-i-Jám and Ab-i-Meshed, and forming the territorial boundary between Persia and Afghanistan, As the Herirúd id formed of the converging drainage of the Sufíd-koh and Siyáh-koh rnges, and its volume thus depends on the extent of snow that falls in the mountains, it is impossible to define with any exactitude the limit of its northern course; but in ordinary seasons water is rarely found in the river bed beyond Sarakhs, and never does the stream penetrate to the northward of a line uniting Abiverd and Merv; and it is of the more importance to more this geographical feature, as in many of our modern maps the line of the Heri-rúd, or Tejend, as it is called in its lower course, is prolonged through the desert 200 miles to the north-westward of Sarakhs.

The city of Herat is in 34º 22´ N. lat. and 62º 9´ E. long. It is very centrically situated, great lines of communication radiating from it in all directions—southward to Siestan (200 miles), south-eastward to Kandahar (370 miles), eastward to Cabul [Kabul] (550 miles), northward by Mymeneh to Bokhara (600 Miles) and by Merv to Khiva (700 miles), while to the westward four routes lead into Persia by Turbat to Meshed (215 miles), and by Birjend to Kermán (400 miles), to Yezd (500 miles), or to Ispahán (600 miles). The city forms a quadrangle of nearly a mile square (more accurately about 1600 yards by 1500 yards); on the western, southern, and eastern faces the lie of defence is almost straight, the only projecting points being the gateways, but on the northern face the contour is broken by a double outwork, consisting of the Ark or citadel, which is built of sun-dried brick on a high artificial mound within the enceinte, and a lower work at its foot, is called the Ark-i-now, or "new citadel," which extends 100 yards beyond the line of the city wall. That which distinguishes Herat from all other Oriental cities, and at the same time constitutes its main defence, is the stupendous character of the earthwork upon which the city wall is built. This earthwork averages 250 feet in width at the base and about 50 feet in height, and as it is crowned by a wall 25 feet high and 14 feet thick at the base, supported by about 150 semi-circular towers, and is further protected by a ditch 45 feet in width and 16 depth, it presents an appearance of imposing strength. Whether the place is really as strong as it looks has been differently estimated. General Ferrier, who resided for some time in Herat in 1846, states that the city is nothing more than an immense redoubt, and gives it as his opinion that as the line of wall is entirely without flanking defences, the place could not hold out for twenty days against a European army; and M. Khanikoff, who, though not a professional soldier, was a very acute observer, further remarks that the whole interior of the city is dominated from the rising ground at the north-east angle, while the water supply both for the ditch and the city would be at the mercy of an enemy holding the outside country, the wells and the reservoirs inside the wall, which would then be alone available, being quite inadequate to the wants of the inhabitants; but on the other hand all experince testifies to the defensibility of the position. Not to speak of the sieges which Herat sustained at the hands of Jenghiz Khan {Genghis Khan], of Timur, and of Ahmed Shah, we have only to remember that in 1837 the Afghans of Herat beat off the continuous attack for nearly ten months of a Persian army of 35,000 regular troops, supported by 50 pieces of artillery, and in many cases directed and even commanded by Russian officers. The truth seems to be that Herat, though in its present state quite unfit to resist a European army, possesses great capabilities if defence, and might be a skilful adaptation of the resources of modern science be made almost impregnable. A British engineer officer, Major Sanders, calculated in 1840 that an outlay of sixty and seventy thousand pounds, which would include the expense of deepening the ditch, clearing the glacis and esplanade, providing flanking defences and repairing the walls, &c., throughout, Herat might be rendered secure against ant possible renewal of the attack by Persia; but of course if an attack by a well-appointed European army were anticipated, more extensive preparations for defence would be required, including probably the erection of two independent forts on the high ground at Mosallá and Thaleh-bengi.

The city possesses five gates, two on the northern face, the Kutab-chak near the north-east angle of the wall, and the Malik at the re-entering angle of the Ark-i-now; and three others in the centres of the remaining faces, the Irák gate on the west, the Kandahar gate on the south, and the Khushk gate on the east face. Four streets called the Chahar-súk, and running from the centre of each face, meet in the centre of the town in a small domed quadrangle. The principal street runs from the south or Kandahar gate to the market in front of the citadel, and is covered in with a vaulted roof through its entire length, the shops and buildings on this bazaar being much superior to those of the other streets, and the merchants’ caravanserais, several of which are spacious and well built, all opening out on this great thoroughfare. Near the central quadrangle of the city is a vast reservoir of water, the dome of which is of bold and excellent proportions. It is stated by General Ferrier to have been constructed by command of Shah Abbas, and to be a chef d’oeuvre of its kind. It is supposed to contain above a twelve months’ supply of water for the entire city, but, as M. Khanikoff observes, it is within easy mortar range of the high ground at the north-east angle of the city, and might thus be destroyed by a few well-directed shells, in which case the ruins of the dome would fill up the basin and the water supply would be lost. The only other public building of any consequence in Herat is the great mosque or Mesjid-i-Juma, which comprises an area of 800 yards square, and must have been a most magnificent structure. It was erected towards the close of the 15th century, during the reign of Shah Hussein of the family of Timur, and is said when perfect to have been 465 feet long by 275 feet wide, to have had 408 cupolas, 130 windows, 444 pillars, and 6 entrances, and to have been adorned in the most magnificent manner with gilding, carving, precious mosaics, and other elaborate and costly embellishments. Now, however, it is falling rapidly into ruin, the ever-changing provincial governors who administer Herat having neither the means nor the inclination to undertake the necessary repairs. Neither the palace of the Charbagh within the city wall, which was the residence of the British mission in 1840-41, nor the royal quarters in the citadel deserve any special notice. At the present day, with the exception of the Chahar-súk, where there is always a certain amount of traffic, and where the great diversity of race and costume imparts much liveliness to the scene, Herat presents a very melancholy and desolate appearance. The mud houses in rear of the bazaars are for the most part uninhabited and in ruins, and even the burnt brick buildings are becoming everywhere dilapidated, The city is besides one of the filthiest in the East, as there are no means of drainage or sewerage, and garbage of every description lies in heaps in the open streets.

With regard to the population, it fluctuates so rapidly, according to the circumstances of the period, that it is impossible to give an estimate of its normal strength. When Christie visited the city in 1809 it was in a very prosperous condition, having been undisturbed for fifty years, and was supposed to contain 100,000 inhabitants. A. Conolly in 1828 reduced the numbers to 45,000. Before the Persian siege in 1837 the population was estimated at 70,000, but at the close of the war 6000 or 7000 were all that remained. In 1845, at the time of General Ferrier’s visit, the numbers had increased again to 22,000, and continued to increase to the time of the capture of the place by Dost Mahomed Khan in 1863, when there were at least 50,000 inhabitants within the walls. Since that time Herat has been a mere provincial city governed from Cabul [Kabul], and its average population has ranged between 20,000 and 30,000, within which limits must be confined its present estimate.

The maximum population of which the enceinte would seem to be capable may be put at Christie’s estimate of 100,000, and it is manifest therefore that when Herat contained a population of a million and a half, as is testifies by so many contemporary authorities, the present city could have been only the citadel of this vast metropolis, the great mass of buildings lying along the slopes of the northern hills, where for a space of some 4 miles in length by 3 miles in breadth the surface of the plain, strewed over its whole extent with pieces of pottery and crumbling bricks, is also broken here and there by earthen mounds and ruined walls, the debris of palatial structures which at one time were the glory and wonder of the East. Of these structures indeed some have survived to the present day in sufficiently perfect state to bear witness to the grandeur and beauty of the old architecture of Herat. The mosque of the Mosellá, for instance, originally built in the 12th century, but restored or rather rebuilt at the end of the 15th century, and intended for the reception of the body of the Imam Reza which Shah Sultan Hussein wished to remove from Meshed to Herat, is, even in its present state of ruin and decay, one of the most imposing and elegant structures to be seen in Asia. "The mosque," says General Ferrier, "is completely covered with a mosaic glazed bricks in varied and beautiful patterns, and the cupola is of amazing dimensions. Several arcades supported by pillars in brick equal the proportions of the arch of Ctesiphon, and the seven magnificent minarets that surround it may be said to be intact, for the upper part of them only is slightly injured." Scarcely inferior in beauty of design and execution, though more moderate dimensions, is the tomb of the saint Abdullah Ansári, in the same neighbourhood. This building, which was erected by Shah Rokh Mirza, the grondson of Timur, nearly 500 years ago, contains some exquisite specimens of sculpture in the best style of Oriental art. Adjoining the tomb also are numerous marble mausoleums, the sepulchers of princes of the house of Timur; and especially deserving of notice is a royal building tastefully decorated by an Italian artist named Geraldi, who was in the service of Shah Abbas the Great. The locality, which is further enlivened by gardens and running streams, is named Gazir-gáh, and is a favourite resort of the Herátis. It is held indeed in high veneration by all classes, and the famous Dost Mahomed Khan is himself buried at the foot of the tomb of the saint. Two other royal palaces named respectively Bagh-i-Shah and Takht-i-Sefer, are situated on the same rising ground somewhat further to the west. The buildings are now in ruins, but the view from the pavilions, shaded by splendid plane trees on the terraced gardens formed on the slope of the mountain, is said to be very beautiful.

The population of Herat and the neighborhood is a very mixed character. The original inhabitants of Ariana were no doubt of the Aryan family, and immediately cognate with the Persian race, but they were probably intermixed at a very early period with the Sacae and the Massagetae, who seem to have held the mountains from Cabul [Kabul] to Herat from the first dawn of history, and to whom must be ascribed—rather than to an infusion of Turco-Tartaric blood introduced by the armies of Jenghiz [Genghis Khan] and Timur—the peculiar broad features and flattish countenance which distinguish the inhabitants of Herat, Siestan, and the eastern provinces of Persia from their countrymen further to the west. Under the government of Herat, however, there are a very large number of tribes, ruled over by separate semi-independent chiefs, and belonging probably to different nationalities. The principal group of tribe is called the Chahar-Aimák, or "four races," the constituent parts of which, however, are variously stated by different authorities both as to strength and nomenelature. Mountstuart Elphinstone, by far the best general authority on Afghan questions, gives the original four tribes as the Taimenís, the Hazárehs, the Taimúrís and Zúrís; and who made his inquiries on the spot, describes the Chahar-Aimák as the Kipchaks of Khanikoff, and raises the Firoz-kohi Aimáks to 30,000 families. These tribes all dwell in the mountains to the north-east, the east, and the south-east of Herat, a number in the aggregate perhaps a million souls. Major Taylor, who special inquiries on the subject in 1856, found that the governor of Herat could rise for fighting purposes from these tribes and the allied Turcomans of Merv 47,000 horse and 23,000 foot, but matters have very much changed since Herat came under the government of Cabul [Kabul] in 1863, the recent policy being to lower the fighting force of the semi-independent chiefs, ‘and to substitute infantry regiments raised and paid by the central authority. At present there are perhaps ten such regiments, which can be supplemented by about 10,000 horse and 10,000 irregular foot.

The trade of Herat is also subject to great fluctuation. From its central geographical position it must naturally be an emporium of commerce between Persia, Turkestan, Afgahnistan, and India, while owing to the richness of the valley, which can usually furnish supplies for 150,000 men over above the consumption of the fixed inhabitants, as well as the mineral wealth of the adjoining mountains and the industrial activity of the city population, especially in regard to silk and woollen manufactures (the carpets of Herat being famous throughout the East), the country rapidly recovers from the effects of war, and its normal condition may be said to be that prosperity and abundance.

In actual territory Herat extends east and west from near the sources of the Heri-rúd above 300 miles to the Persian frontier beyond Ghorián, and north and south from the Merv boundary, in about 36º lat., 200 miles to the northern limit of Seistan. The inhabitants in the city of Herat are the most part Shiahs, and in regard to language and habits, as well as religion, are Persians rather than Afghans. There are, however, both in the town and in the neighbouring villages a certain number of Afghan colonists, who have been settled there—the greater part by Nadir Shah—during the last 150 years, as well as Hazárehs, Jamshídís, and Taimenís, with a fair sprinkling of Hindus and some forty families of Jews. The new revenue of the valley and its immediate dependencies in ordinary times is under £100,000 per annum, but the vizier Yar Mahomed Khan is supposed in the plentitude of his power, and when he had for a time brought a great part of Siestan under his sway, to have realized double that amount from the entire province.

To trace in any detail for fortunes of Herat would be to write the modern history of the East, for there has hardly been a dynastic revolution, or a foreign invasion, or a great civil war in Central Asia since the time of the Prophet, in which Herat has not played a conspicuous part and suffered accordingly. Under the Tahirides of Khorassan, the Soffarians of Siestan, and the Samanides of Bokhara, it flourished for some centuries in peace and progressive prosperity; but during the succeeding rule of the Ghaznevide kings its metropolitan character was for a time obscured by the celebrity of the neighboring capital of Ghazui, until finally in the reign of Sultan Sanjar of Merv about 1157 the city was entirely destroyed by an irruption of the Ghoz, the predecessors, in race as well as in habitat, of the modern Turcomans. Herat gradually recovered under the enlightened Ghoride kings, who were indeed natives of the province, though they preferred to hold their court amid their ancestral fortresses in the mountains of Ghor, so that at the time of Jenghiz Khan [Genghis Khan]’s invasion it equaled or even exceeded in populousness and wealth its sister capitals of Balkh, Merv, and Nishapoor, the united strength of the four cities being estimated at three millions of inhabitants. But this Moghul visitation was most calamitous; forty persons, indeed, are stated to have alone survived the general massacre of 1232, and as a familiar catastrophe overtook the city at the hands of Timur in 1398, when the local dynasty of Kurt which had succeeded the Ghorides in eastern Khorassan was put an end to, it is astonishing to find that early i
n the 15th century Herat was again flourishing and populous, and the favoured seat of the art and literature of the East. It was indeed under the prinoes of the house of Timur that most of the noble buildings were erected, of which the remains still excite our admiration at Herat,while all the great historical works relative to Asia, such as the Rozet-es-Sefá, the Habib-es-sier, Hafiz Abrú’s Taríkh, the Matlá’a-cs-Sa’adin, &c., date from the same place and the same age. Four times was Herat sacked by Turcomans and Uzbegs during the centuries which intervened between the Timuride princes and the rise of the Afghan power, and it has never in modern times attained to anything like its old importance. Afghans tribes, who had originally dwelt far to the east, were first settled at Herat by Nadir Shah, and from that time they have monopolized the government and formed the dominant elements in the population. It will be needless to trace the revolutions and counter-revolutions which have followed each other in quick succession at Herat since Ahmed Shah Duráni founded the Afghan monarchy about the middle of the last century. Let it suffice to say that Herat has been throughout the seat of an Afghan government, sometimes in subordination to Cabul [Kabul] and sometimes independent. Persia indeed for many years showed a strong disposition to reassert the supremacy over Herat which was exercised by the Suffavean kings, but Great Britain, disapproving to the advance of Persia towards the Indian frontier, steadily the encroachment; and, indeed, after helping the Herátis to beat off the attack of the Persian army in 1838, the British at length compelled the shah in 1857 at the close of his war with them to sign a treaty recognizing the future independence of the place, and pledging against any further interference with the Afghans. In 1863 Herat, which for fifty years previously had been independent of Cabul [Kabul], was incorporated by Dost Mahomed Khan principality, the actual Governor Ayúb Khan being the uterine brother and deputy of Yacúb Khan, who recently signed with the Government of India the famous treaty of Gandamak.

The above article was written by Maj.-General Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson (1810-95), Bart., K.C.B., F.R.S.; reorganised the Persian Army, 1833-39; served in the Afghan War, 1842; added valuable sculptures to the British Museum; author of A Commentary on the Cuneiform Inscriptions of Babylonia and Assyria and England and Russia in the East.

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