Restored Citadel of Herat poignant reminder of past Afghan glory

Imperial soldiers once patrolled its battlements. Treasure lay heaped in vaulted storerooms. Prisoners languished in its depths; princes plotted the course of empires. But by late in the last century, the mighty fortress overlooking this western Afghan city had fallen into ruin.

Built on a plateau thought to have been a redoubt of Alexander the Great, the Citadel of Herat has been brought back to life. Reopened last month as a museum and cultural center after a painstaking refurbishment, the 15th century structure serves as a poignant reminder of past glories in a country beaten down by decades of war and deprivation.

More than 300 craftsmen spent nearly three years shoring up the citadel’s winding ramps, cavernous chambers and soaring buttresses, rebuilding delicate wooden latticework and piecing together damaged decorative tiles. Before the reconstruction could even begin, they had to clear out piles of fetid garbage and drain off pools of stagnant rainwater.


With the citadel’s commanding hilltop position, “it was always a project that quite literally stared us in the face,” said Ajmal Maiwandi, director of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which carried out the restoration with about $2.4 million in funding from the United States and Germany.

In the 1970s, UNESCO did extensive restoration at the site, working from historical depictions of the original structure. But the 1979 Soviet invasion, the country’s wrenching civil war and the reign of the Taliban led to prolonged neglect and destruction. The fortress reverted to its original role as a military encampment, used by Afghan security forces after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. The site wasn’t handed over to Afghanistan’s Culture Ministry until 2006.

Even before the convulsion of recent conflicts, the citadel had seen centuries of tumult. Through the ages, Herat’s Silk Road location was both boon and bane; trade flourished here, as did music, art and poetry. But the city was also a magnet for successive waves of marauders.

At the citadel’s formal opening, with foreign and Afghan dignitaries gathered in a sun-dappled courtyard, there was hopeful and perhaps quixotic talk that the fortress could help put Herat on the tourist map. Other than invading armies, outside visitors have been little seen since Afghanistan’s hippie-trail heyday of the 1960s and ‘70s.


Besides the draw of the structure itself, the citadel houses a museum with artifacts mainly found in and around the city: exquisite metalwork and pottery, illustrated manuscripts and ornamental objects, a 14th century cenotaph. Some of the pieces were uncovered during recent archaeological excavations that proceeded parallel to the reconstruction.

“With all this, we have been able to create a genuine cultural landscape,” said Ute Franke, a German museum curator who serves as deputy director of the German-Afghan Archaeological Project.

For all the sense of achievement surrounding the citadel project, it highlighted the peril posed to Afghanistan’s other historical sites, said Maiwandi, of the Aga Khan trust. His organization has restored four dozen monuments and structures in the city, but often-rapacious development has claimed many more, he told the crowd at the reopening ceremony.

“The new,” he said, “does not have to come at the cost of the old.”


Among those who aided in the restoration, there is also quiet concern about whether Afghan cultural authorities will be up to the task of curating the museum collection and caring for the site, an echo of wider worries about the winding down of the Western military presence, which will leave Afghan forces in charge of safeguarding a still-violent country.

One of the dignitaries at the inauguration was Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador. He recalled visiting Herat as a young traveler more than three decades ago and marveling at the sight of the half-destroyed citadel.

The fortress “was rebuilt by Afghan hands, by the hands of Heratis,” he said. “As this citadel represents, Afghanistan stood as a great nation. It will so stand again.”