The Enduring Splendors of, Yes, Afghanistan

A writer and photographer crisscross a nation ravaged by a quarter century of warfare to inventory its most sacred treasures

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We leave our shoes in a gatehouse and walk across the smooth marble surface of the courtyard. The stones beneath us gleam like ice in the late afternoon sun. Above, blue domes thronged with white birds look like snowcapped peaks. The tile work on the walls is intricate and rich, a subtle glowing tapestry of muted umbers, ochres and shades of blue and green that blaze in the sun. An old man walks by, fingering his prayer beads, muttering to God; he turns to me and smiles beatifically before going on his way. This mosque is particularly sacred to the Hazara tribe, who are Shi’as, but both Shi’as and Sunnis worship here side by side. Long ago, Shi’as split off from the Sunni mainstream to pursue a more mystical, socially radical path. Shi’as are a majority in only one nation, Iran. Elsewhere, as in Afghanistan, they are a vocal, often restive minority, widely persecuted and, under the Taliban, even massacred. But Hazrat Ali is a mosque for all Muslims, as hospitable to Sunnis as it is to Shi’as, and as welcoming to non-Muslims as to the faithful. Here there is an undeniable feeling of openness and oneness. As the Afghan Sufi poet al-Sana-ie of Ghazni wrote, “At the gates of Paradise no one asks who is Christian, who is Moslem.”


On September 9, 2001, in the far northern town of Khojabahuddin, two Arab terrorists posing as journalists killed the nationalist Afghan leader Ahmadshah Massood with a bomb concealed in a video camera battery pack. Massood and his fellow Tajik tribesmen from the PanjsherValley had led the war against the Soviets in the ’80s, turning back six major Soviet offensives and descending from the mountains to attack Soviet convoys headed south to Kabul. When the foreign Muslims of Al Qaeda and their Afghan/ Pakistani Taliban allies tried to take over the country in the chaos following the Soviet withdrawal, Massood and his followers fought them too. His murder two days before 9/11 was undoubtedly timed to remove the last Afghan opposition to Taliban and Al Qaeda before the inevitable U.S. retaliation against Afghanistan’s terrorist regime.


Now that the United States, allied with Massood’s fighters and other anti-Taliban forces, has swept the Taliban away, the martyred Massood is being hailed as the savior of his nation. Because tens of thousands of Afghans and dozens of foreign dignitaries are expected to show up for his ceremonial interment in Bazarak a year to the day after his death, we go a day early, on September 8.


It takes six hours to get there. The road zigzags high above the PanjsherRiver. As night falls, we pass throughcorn and wheat fields, orchards of nut and fruit trees, mulberry thickets, windbreaks of willows. Villages twinkle in the darkness: the ingenious Panjsheris have devised their own small hydroelectric plants, powered by the flowing river, full from the melting mountain snows. Peaks loom high on both sides of the PanjsherValley, rising to more than 18,000 feet. There are glaciers up there, and snow leopards, Marco Polo sheep, ibex. We have entered the Hindu Kush, the western Himalayas.


I lose track of time and of exactly where we are on the map when suddenly Azat pulls off the road and stops at the base of a hill. I look up, and there is the blue metal dome of the mausoleum. We are here. We climb the hill, past Panjsheri sentries. It is after 9:00 p.m., but other mourners and worshipers are already there. Like them, we remove our shoes and walk across ornate tiles to the building itself. Inside, the sarcophagus is wrapped in tapestries depicting the holy places of Mecca. Someone has laid a small bouquet of wildflowers on top. A young village boy’s lips move silently in prayer as tears fall from his eyes. An old peasant looks over at me and shakes his head gently, sadly: our grief is your grief, he seems to be saying; you and I, we know what greatness the world has lost here. In a little while, I walk outside into the chill starlight. Behind me, the shrine glows, a blue-and-white diamond in the vastness of the mountains.



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