From an economic and cultural perspective, the province of Herat is one of the most important regions in Afghanistan; through it pass millennia-old trade routes that have connected China and Central Asia to India and the Mediterranean. Its name can be traced as far back as the 'Haraiva' in Achaemenid inscriptions, and arguably even further back in time to the ancient Indian texts of the late 2nd millennium BC. The region looks back on a turbulent history: conquered by Alexander the Great, fought over as a border region between the Parthians and Greeks, between Persia and Central Asia, and during the Mongols, Timurid, and Safavid eras. After periods of decline, the region underwent successive periods of flourishing, during which time the Herat even superseded Samarkand as the regional artistic and political centre.
This rich cultural heritage is threatened by the population explosion and extensive illegal excavations and archaeological plundering. Against this backdrop, a project was launched in 2004, with funding from the German Federal Foreign Office, which aims to document archaeological sites and monuments in the region that remains largely unexplored to this day. As result, an archaeological project was started in 2005 and a museum project in 2008. Work in Herat was completed in 2012 with the opening of the museum. Still ongoing is the training programme for Afghan conservators in Berlin, sponsored by the Gerda Henkel Foundation.
The survey’s mission was to map archaeological sites and monuments in the wider region as a whole. Despite the inaccessibility of many districts due to minefields, difficult terrain, and the volatile security situation, researchers nevertheless managed to document some 420 sites. The locations represent a wide range of sites (fortifications, settlements, caravanserais, bridges, and religious monuments), which range in date from as far back as the 3rd millennium BC to the late 19th century. The project thus amounts to a sweeping archaeological survey which takes in the period long before the Timurids and, thanks to its geographical scope, builds on previous research conducted in Ghor and Helmand.
Such extensive probing of the terrain is no longer possible in the province of Herat today. The training of Afghan colleagues in this field therefore marks an important contribution to the eventual establishment of a national register of the country’s archaeological sites and the preservation of its cultural heritage. In conjunction with the excavations made in the city and, most importantly, the museum’s collection, researchers now have an extensive study collection and a wealth of documentation available to them that provide fresh insight into the region’s long cultural history.
Modern-day Herat is characterized by an array of Timurid and Safavid-era monuments. However, discarded rubble from five centuries of local urban history reveal a much older history of the site. Alexander the Great was long thought of as the city’s destroyer and founder, and the citadel of "Qala-e Ikhtyaruddin" is also attributed to him. By the 10th century, Arab and Persian historians spoke of the city as a thriving centre between Bukhara and Nishapur, and in the 11th century it was the seat of the Ghaznavid governor. In the 12th century it served as the capital of the Ghurid sultanate. It was during this period by the latest, that the famous city walls, Friday Mosque, and most probably also the citadel were built. The devastating Mongol invasions in 1221/22 were followed by a period of revival under the Kurts. Under the reign of Shāhrukh, son of Timur, Herat became the capital of Timurid empire and, for almost 100 years, was a major political and cultural centre, whose fine arts and intricate buildings were of world renown. In the 17th century, the city declined in importance, but remained strategically relevant well into the late 19th century.
But where exactly does the old city of Herat lie? It is assumed to lie beneath the old town, with its grid street plan, or in the hilly district of Kohandaz. In 2005 excavations in Kohandaz revealed the remains of a settlement dating from the 10th to the 13th century lying beneath the Timurid cemetery. It rests on eight-metre-high layers of sediment from the Hari Rud river; however traces of an ancient settlement were not discovered here, but were unearthed elsewhere. In Qala-e Ikhtyaruddin a 13-metre-deep trench was cut, peeling back layer upon layer of the fort complex’s 2600-year-old history, starting with Emir Abdur Rahman Khan in the late 19th century, back through the Timurid and Ghurid dynasties, to the 8th century BC. Archaeologists thus managed to uncover for the first time evidence of a pre-Islamic settlement in Herat.
Another focal point for research were investigations into the architectural history of the citadel, with researchers now beginning to have a clearer picture of how the complex evolved over time from the 13th to 18th century. The excavations revealed an impressive gate complex with original architectural ornamentation that dates from the period of reconstruction under Shāh Rukh and which was subsequently abandoned during the rebuilding activities in the late 17th and the 18th century. With conservation of the gate house and towers completed in January 2010, the northern face of the citadel has now regained its original character and the outer walls have been strengthened.
Founded in 1925, the museum in Herat lost nearly two-thirds of its 3000 objects through the political turmoil of the last few decades. The exhibits range in date from the mid-3rd millennium BC up to the early modern era. Besides prehistoric artefacts from ancient Bactria, the museum boasts an array of objects from the 11th to 13th centuries.
In the summer of 2008, parallel to the work by the Aga Khan Trust to safeguard the citadel, work began on the cataloguing the museum’s archaeological collection and manuscript archives, on setting up a conservation studio and storerooms, as well as creating a new exhibition. After a long period of closure, the artefacts went on display in late 2011, in a new showing of the permanent collection held in the historical setting of the citadel.
As part of the project, local conservators from Herat and Kabul have received advanced training and staff have been given guidance in collections management. Since winter 2009, the local training scheme is supplemented with extended training periods in Berlin, funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation.