Friday, November 11, 2011

Mazar-e-Sharif; a Historic City of Afghanistan

Mazār-i-Sharīf or Mazār-e Sharīf (Persian/Pashto: مزارِ شریف, ˌmæˈzɒːr ˌi ʃæˈriːf) is the fourth largest city of Afghanistan, with a population of about 375,181 as of 2006. It is the capital of Balkh province and is linked by roads to Kunduz in the east, Kabul in the south-east, Herat to the west and Uzbekistan to the north. The city is a major tourist attraction because of its famous shrines as well as the Muslim and Hellenistic archeological sites. In 2006, the discovery of new Hellenistic remains was announced. 

The region around Mazar-e-Sharif has been historically part of Greater Khorasan and was controlled by the Tahirids followed by the Saffarids, Samanids, Ghaznavids, Ghurids, Ilkhanates, Timurids, and Khanate of Bukhara until the mid-18th century when it became part of the Durrani Empire after an agreement was signed between Amir Murad Beg and Amir Ahmad Shah Durrani. The Mazari Sharif Airport in the city has been heavily used during the 1980s Soviet war and the latest 2001-present war in Afghanistan.

Mazari Sharif means "Noble Shrine", a reference to the large, blue-tiled sanctuary and mosque in the center of the city known as the Shrine of Hazrat Ali or the Blue Mosque. Some Muslims believe that the tomb of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, is at this mosque in Mazari Sharif. Twelver Shi'as however, believe that the real grave of Ali is found within Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, Iraq, as was disclosed by the Sixth Twelver Shi'a Imam, Ja'far as-Sadiq. On the other hand, some believe that it is possible that the shrine in Mazari Sharif is of Zoroaster (Zarathushtra), the founder of the first universally monotheistic religion. As a common theme in the Iranian lands falling into the hands of the advancing Muslims, the true identity of many holy and sacred sites were hidden to prevent their sacrilege and destruction.


The region around Mazar-e-Sharif has been historically part of Greater Khorasan and was controlled by the Tahirids followed by the Saffarids, Samanids, Ghaznavids, Ghurids, Ilkhanates, Timurids, and Khanate of Bukhara. According to tradition, the city of Mazari Sharif owes its existence to a dream. At the beginning of the 12th century, a local mullah had a dream in which the 7th century Ali bin Abi Talib, cousin and son-in-law of Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), appeared to reveal that he had been secretly buried near the city of Balkh. After conducting researches in the 12th century, the Seljuk sultan Ahmed Sanjar ordered a city and shrine to be built on the location, where it stood until its destruction by Genghis Khan and his Mongol army in the 13th century. Although later rebuilt, Mazar stood in the shadow of its neighbor Balkh, until that city was abandoned in 1866 for health reasons. 

The city and region became part of the Afghan Durrani Empire in around 1750 when after an agreement was signed between Mir Muhammad Murad Beg and Ahmad Shah Durrani, the founding father of Afghanistan. In the late 1870s, Afghan Emir Sher Ali Khan escaped from Kabul to take refuge in Mazar-e Sharif, which was un-affected by the Anglo-Afghan wars of the 19th century between Afghanistan and then British India.

Mazar-e Sharif remained peaceful for the next one hundred years until 1979, when then neighboring Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. During the 1980s Soviet war, Mazari Sharif was a strategic base for the Soviet Army, as they used its airport to launch air strikes on Afghan mujahideen. In the early 1990s, after the Soviet withdraw from Afghanistan, control of Mazar was contested by the Tajik militia Jamiat-e Islami, led by Ahmad Shah Massoud and Burhanuddin Rabbani, and the Uzbek militia Jumbesh-e Melli led by Abdul Rashid Dostum. As a garrison for the Soviet-backed Afghan army, the city was under the command of Dostum, who mutinied against Najibullah's government in 1992.

Under Dostum's 5 year rule from the early 1990s to early 1997, Mazar was an oasis of peace. As the rest of the nation disintegrated and was slowly taken over by the Taliban, Dostum strengthened political ties with the newly independent Uzbekistan as well as Turkey. He printed his own currency and established his own airline. This peace was shattered in May 1997, when he was betrayed by one of his generals, Abdul Malik Pahlawan, forcing him to flee from Mazar as the Taliban were getting ready to take the city.
Taliban conquest:

Between May and July 1997, the Taliban unsuccessfully attempted to take Mazar, leading to approximately 3,000 Taliban soldiers being executed or massacred by Abdul Malik and his Shia followers. In retaliation for this incident, the Taliban on August 8, 1998, returned and led a six-day killing frenzy of Hazaras, a report the Taliban denied at that time. Soon after, the city was occupied and taken over by the Taliban. It was this capture of Mazar, the last major city in Afghanistan to fall to the Taliban, that prompted Pakistan's recognition of the Taliban regime. Soon afterward, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia extended official recognition to the regime, while Turkmenistan resumed relations – although the Taliban were not officially recognized by Turkmenbashi as the rulers of Afghanistan.

United States military action

Following 9/11, Mazar Sharif was the first Afghan city to fall to the Northern Alliance (United Front). The Taliban's defeat in Mazar quickly turned into a rout from the rest of the north and west of Afghanistan. On November 9, 2001 the city was officially captured by the Afghan Northern Alliance forces after the Battle of Mazar e Sharif with help from the United States Special Operations Forces and bombing by U.S. Air Force aircraft. As many as 2,000 Taliban fighters who surrendered were reportedly massacred by the Northern Alliance after the battle, and reports also place U.S. ground troops at the scene of the massacre. The Irish documentary Afghan Massacre - the Convoy of Death investigated these allegations. Filmmaker Doran claims that mass graves of thousands of victims were found by United Nations investigators. The Bush administration reportedly blocked investigations into the incident.

Small scale clashes between militias belonging to different commanders persisted throughout 2002, and were the focus of intensive UN peace-brokering and small arms disarmament programme. After some pressure, an office of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission opened an office in Mazar in April 2003. There were also reports about northern Pashtun civilians being ethnic cleansed by the other groups, mainly by ethnic Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks.

The city slowly came under the control of the Karzai administration after 2002, which is led by President Hamid Karzai. The 209th Corps of the Afghan National Army is based at Mazari Sharif, which provides military assistance to northern Afghanistan. The Afghan Border Police headquarters is also located in the city. Despite all the security put in place, there are reports of Taliban activities and assassinations of tribal elders. Officials in Mazar-e Sharif reported that between 20 to 30 Afghan tribal elders have been assassinated in the Balkh Province in the last several years. There is no conclusive evidence as to who is behind it but majority of the victims are said to have been associated with the Hezbi Islami political party.
NATO and United Nations presence
There are also NATO peacekeeping forces in and around the city providing assistance to the Afghan government. ISAF Regional Command North, led by Germany, is stationed at Camp Marmal which lies near to the city at an airport. Provincial Reconstruction Team Mazar-i-Sharif has since 2006 had unit commanders from Sweden, on loan to ISAF. The unit is stationed at Camp Northern Lights, located 10km west of Camp Marmal.

Camp Nidaros, located within Camp Marmal, has soldiers from Latvia and Norway, and is led by an ISAF-officer from Norway.

In late July 2011, NATO troops also handed control of Mazar-i-Sharif to local forces amid rising security fears just days after it was hit by a deadly bombing. Mazar-i-Sharif is the sixth of seven areas to transition to Afghan control, but critics say the timing is political and there is skepticism over Afghan abilities to combat the Taliban fight and struggle. Violence is at a record high in the insurgency, and transition comes as 150,000 NATO-led troops begin a gradual withdrawal designed to recall all foreign combat troops by the end of 2014.

The United States Department of State is building a consulate in the city which will be operational by the end of 2011.

April 2011 killings of UN workers and protesters
On April 1, 2011, as many as 10 foreign employees working for United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) were killed by angry demonstrators in the city. The demonstration was organized in retaliation to pastors Terry Jones and Wayne Sapp's March 21 Qur'an-burning in Florida, United States. Among the dead were five Nepalese, a Norwegian, Romanian and Swedish nationals, two of them were said to be decapitated. Terry Jones, the American pastor who was going to burn Islam's Holy Book, denied his responsibility for incitement. President Barack Obama strongly condemned both the Quran burning, calling it an act of "extreme intolerance and bigotry", and the "outrageous" attacks by protesters, referring to them as "an affront to human decency and dignity." "No religion tolerates the slaughter and beheading of innocent people, and there is no justification for such a dishonorable and deplorable act." U.S. legislators, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, also condemned both the burning and the violence in reaction to it.


The climate in Mazari Sharif is very hot during the summer with daily temperatures of over 40°C or 104 degree Fahrenheit in June and July. The winters are cold with temperatures falling below freezing.


The population of Mazari Sharif is around 375,181, which is a multiethnic and multilingual society. There is currently no reliable data on the exact percentage of each ethnic group but most sources suggest that the majority are Tajiks followed by Uzbeks, Hazaras, Pashtuns, Turkmen, and others. 

Occasional ethnic fightings have been reported in the region in the last couple of decades, mainly between Pashtuns and the other groups. Some latest news reports show assassinations taking place in the area but with no conclusive evidence as to who is behind it.

The dominant language in Mazari Sharif is Dari (Persian) followed by Pashto, both of which are the official languages of Afghanistan.
Local events:

The city is a centre for the traditional buzkashi sport, and the Blue Mosque is the focus of Afghanistan's Nawroz celebration.

Trade and industry:
There is some trade with Uzbekistan via the Afghanistan–Uzbekistan Friendship Bridge over the river Amu Darya. There is a rail service from Mazar to Uzbekistan.

The local economy is dominated by agriculture and karakul production; small scale oil and gas exploitation have boosted the city's prospects.

Notable buildings:

The modern city of Mazar-i Sharif is centered around the Shrine of Hazrat Ali. Much restored, it is one of Afghanistan's most glorious monuments. Outside Mazar-i Sharif lies the ancient city of Balkh.

  • Mazari Sharif Airport
Shrines and Mosques
  • Shrine of Hazrat Ali
  • Balkh University
Serena Hotel Mazar-i-Sharif
  • Aros-e-Shahr
  • Mazar Hotel
  • Farhat Hotel
  • Kefayat Hotel
  • Da Afghanistan Bank
  • Afghanistan International Bank (AIB)
  • Kabul Bank
  • Azizi Bank

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