As with most of the country, Mazar-e-Sharif has seen it's share of battles from Ghenghis Khan to the Taliban. It was one of the last cities to fall to the Taliban and one of the first cities freed (Nov 2001). Being a stronghold of the Northern Alliance and having a large population of Hazara people and predominately Shia muslims, Mazar-e-Sharif was the scene of some of the most atrocious acts of the Taliban Era. However, as the first city regained, it is now considered one of the more secure areas in the country.
The customer being flown had arranged to have a driver waiting at the airport and at our disposal for the day. We arrived to find an armored car waiting for us complete with security detail. Not exactly what we had in mind. Being followed around by a guy with an AK does not make for a day of leisurely sightseeing. Number 1 safety point, don't look obvious. Both the guard and driver said they spoke a little English, which usually means they know how to say the phrase "a little." After making it clear to our guard that he would be staying with the car, we were taken to the Blue Mosque. We've quickly realized that it is difficult to make concrete plans in Afghanistan; the situation here is fluid at best. When we arrived at the mosque, there were hundreds and hundreds of people walking through the gates. Safety point number 2, avoid crowds.
We called our fixer, Rafi, and asked if he knew of any reason to avoid the mosque. He asked if the crowd was Hazara, it was. Then he asked if they looked angry, they didn't. Then he asked if they were carrying banners, they were. He said they were either protesting the killing of a group of Hazara by the Kochi tribe (the government has done little to respond. . . but yet again, that's a whole other post), or they were mourning the recent death of one of their leaders. Since they didn't look angry and weren't protesting the war, he said it was probably safe. But just to be on the cautious side, he recommended that we take a driving tour of Mazar-e-Sharif and then return to the mosque to see if things had settled. He told this to our driver, who proceeded to drive around the mosque block about 15 times. This is when we learned that there isn't much to see in Mazar-e-Sharif besides the mosque. About lap 10, we realized that the crowd had completely dispersed. We parked and motioned to the guard to stay and tried to motion to the driver that we would take about an hour at the mosque, and we were off.
A little bit of background, the Blue Mosque is the reason why Mazar-e-Sharif exists. According to a little legend and a little fact, Muhammad's son-in-law/cousin Ali is buried here. It is said that his followers placed his body on a white camel after his assassination. Where the camel stopped would be Ali's resting place. Most believe he is buried in Najaf Iraq. However, in the 12th century, it was revealed to a mullah in a dream that Ali was buried near Balkh and the town of Mazar-e-Sharif (Tomb of the Exalted) was founded. A mosque has stood on this spot ever since.
I have to say that the Blue Mosque is one of the most impressive sites I have seen. It is also one of the few mosques in Afghanistan that non-Muslims can visit, or at least enter the courtyard. The mosque is known for its painted tiles and white doves. I think the pictures speak for themselves.
Of course, being the only foreigners at the mosque, we garnered quite a bit of attention. From the moment we entered the gates to the moment we got in the car, we were followed by a group of boys utilizing all the English they knew: Are you tourists? What is your name? What is your father's name? Where are you from? Do you work for the UN? Are you soldiers? Afghanistan, good, yes? Kalishnikov. Can I see your (point at sunglasses, point at cell phones, point at camera)? I have to say that I was impressed with their English.
As I write this blog post, I realize that there is so much that goes into one day of living in Afghanistan. It is such a different place than anywhere I have ever lived. Afghanistan takes a completely new historical and cultural context than what we know. As I write this, the last call to prayer has begun (by our tone deaf mullah across the street). It is impossible to fit each experience into a post without countless explanations and background information. And of course, I am learning as I go. As our minds reset, our bodies struggle to adjust. I currently have a high temperature and have spent the majority of the day in the bathroom. But, as we are quickly learning, all this is part of life in Afghanistan.