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Mazār-i-Sharīf (Dari and Pashto: مزار شریف‎; [mæˈzɒːre ʃæˈriːf]), also called Mazār-e Sharīf, or just Mazar, is the fourth-largest city of Afghanistan, with a 2015 UN–Habitat population estimate 427,600.[2] It is the capital of Balkh province and is linked by highways with Kunduz in the east, Kabul in the southeast, Herat in the southwest and Termez in Uzbekistan in the north. It is about 55 km (34 mi) from the Uzbek border. The city also serves as one of the many tourist attractions because of its famous shrines as well as the Islamic and Hellenistic archeological sites. The ancient city of Balkh is also nearby.

The name Mazar-i-Sharif means "Tomb of the Prince", a reference to the large, blue-tiled sanctuary and mosque in the center of the city known as the Shrine of Ali or the Blue Mosque. Some people believe that the tomb of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, is at this mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif, after Ali's remains were transferred to Mazar-i-Sharif as per request of Ja'far as-Sadiq.[citation needed] This is however rejected by other Muslims, as the majority believe he is buried in Najaf, Iraq.

The region around Mazar-i-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 a friendship treaty was signed between emirs Murad Beg and Ahmad Shah Durrani. Mazar-i-Sharif is also known for the famous Afghan song Bia ke berem ba Mazar (Come let's go to Mazar) by Sarban.[3]

Mazar-i-Sharif is the regional hub of northern Afghanistan, located in close proximity to both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It is also home to an international airport. It has the highest percentage of built-up land (91%)[4] of all the Afghan provincial capitals, and it has additional built-up area extending beyond the municipal boundary but forming a part of the larger urban area. It is also the lowest-lying major city in the country, about 357 metres (1,171 ft) above sea level. The city was spared of the devastation that occurred in the country's other large cities during the Soviet–Afghan War and subsequent civil war, and is today regarded one of the safest cities in the country.[5]

History

Ancient period

The Achaemenids controlled the region from the sixth century BCE. Alexander the Great conquered the area but was then incorporated to the Seleucid Empire after his death. The decline of the Seleucids consequently led to the emergence of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom. Around 130 BCE, the Sakas occupied the region and the Greco-Bactrian kingdom fell. The Yuezhi took Mazar-i-Sharif and the surrounding area which led to the creation of the Kushan Empire. The Sasanians subsequently controlled the area after the fall of the Kushans. The Islamic conquests reached Mazar-i-Sharif in 651 CE.[6]

9th century until 1919

The region around Mazar-i-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 Mazar-i-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 Muhammad, appeared to reveal that he had been secretly buried near the city of Balkh.

Mazar-i-Sharif & surroundings from ISS, 2016

The famous Jalal al-Din Rumi was born in this area but like many historical figures his exact location of birth cannot be confirmed. His father Baha' Walad was descended from the first caliph Abu Bakr and was influenced by the ideas of Ahmad Ghazali, brother of the famous philosopher. Baha' Walad's sermons were published and still exist as Divine Sciences (Ma'arif). Rumi completed six books of mystical poetry and tales called Masnavi before he died in 1273.

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. During the nineteenth century, due to the absence of drainage systems and the weak economy of the region, the excess water of this area flooded many acres of the land in the vicinity of residential areas causing a malaria epidemic in the region. Thus the ruler of North Central Afghanistan decided to shift the capital of the city of Mazar-i-Sharif.[7]

The Mazar-i-Sharif means "the noble shrine". This name represents the Blue Mosque which is widely known to be the grave of Ali (Muhammad's son-in-law).[8]

The city along with the region south of the Amu Darya became part of the Durrani Empire in around 1750 after a treaty of friendship was reached between Mohammad Murad Beg and Ahmad Shah Durrani, the founding father of Afghanistan. In the late 1870s, Emir Sher Ali Khan ruled the area from his Tashkurgan Palace in Mazar-i Sharif. This northern part of Afghanistan was un-visited by the British-led Indian forces during the Anglo-Afghan wars of the 19th century.

Late 20th century

During the 1980s Soviet–Afghan War, Mazar-i-Sharif was a strategic base for the Soviet Army as they used its airport to launch air strikes on mujahideen rebels. Mazar-i-Sharif was also the main city that linked to Soviet territory in the north, especially the roads leading to the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. As a garrison for the Soviet-backed Afghan Army, the city was under the command of General Abdul Rashid Dostum. Mujahideen militias Hezbe Wahdat and Jamiat-e Islami both attempted to contest the city but were repelled by the Army.

Dostum mutinied against Mohammad Najibullah's government on March 19, 1992, shortly before its collapse, and formed his new party and militia, Junbish-e Milli. The party took over the city the next day. Afterwards Mazar-i-Sharif became the de facto capital of a relatively stable and secular proto-state in northern Afghanistan under the rule of Dostum. The city remained peaceful and prosperous, whilst rest of the nation disintegrated and was slowly taken over by fundamentalist Taliban forces.[9] The city was called at the time a "glittering jewel in Afghanistan's battered crown". Money rolled in from foreign donors Russia, Turkey, newly independent Uzbekistan and others, with whom Dostum had established close relations.[10] He printed his own currency for the region and established his own airline.

This peace was shattered in May 1997 when he was betrayed by one of his generals, warlord Abdul Malik Pahlawan who allied himself with the Taliban, forcing him to flee from Mazar-i-Sharif as the Taliban were getting ready to take the city through Pahlawan. Afterwards Pahlawan himself mutinied the Taliban on the deal and it was reported that between May and July 1997 that Pahlawan executed thousands of Taliban members, that he personally did many of the killings by slaughtering the prisoners as a revenge for the 1995 death of Abdul Ali Mazari. "He is widely believed to have been responsible for the brutal massacre of up to 3,000 Taliban prisoners after inviting them into Mazar-i-Sharif."[11] Several of the Taliban escaped the slaughtering and reported what had happened. Meanwhile, Dostum came back and took the city again from Pahlawan.

However the Taliban retaliated in 1998 attacking the city and killing an estimated 8,000 noncombatants (see Battles of Mazar-i-Sharif (1997–98)). At 10 am on 8 August 1998, the Taliban entered the city and for the next two days drove their pickup truc

The name Mazar-i-Sharif means "Tomb of the Prince", a reference to the large, blue-tiled sanctuary and mosque in the center of the city known as the Shrine of Ali or the Blue Mosque. Some people believe that the tomb of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, is at this mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif, after Ali's remains were transferred to Mazar-i-Sharif as per request of Ja'far as-Sadiq.[citation needed] This is however rejected by other Muslims, as the majority believe he is buried in Najaf, Iraq.

The region around Mazar-i-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 a friendship treaty was signed between emirs Murad Beg and Ahmad Shah Durrani. Mazar-i-Sharif is also known for the famous Afghan song Bia ke berem ba Mazar (Come let's go to Mazar) by Sarban.[3]

Mazar-i-Sharif is the regional hub of northern Afghanistan, located in close proximity to both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It is also home to an international airport. It has the highest percentage of built-up land (91%)[4] of all the Afghan provincial capitals, and it has additional built-up area extending beyond the municipal boundary but forming a part of the larger urban area. It is also the lowest-lying major city in the country, about 357 metres (1,171 ft) above sea level. The city was spared of the devastation that occurred in the country's other large cities during the Soviet–Afghan War and subsequent civil war, and is today regarded one of the safest cities in the country.[5]

The Achaemenids controlled the region from the sixth century BCE. Alexander the Great conquered the area but was then incorporated to the Seleucid Empire after his death. The decline of the Seleucids consequently led to the emergence of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom. Around 130 BCE, the Sakas occupied the region and the Greco-Bactrian kingdom fell. The Yuezhi took Mazar-i-Sharif and the surrounding area which led to the creation of the Kushan Empire. The Sasanians subsequently controlled the area after the fall of the Kushans. The Islamic conquests reached Mazar-i-Sharif in 651 CE.[6]

9th century until 1919

The region around Mazar-i-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 Mazar-i-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 Muhammad, appeared to reveal that he had been secretly buried near the city of Balkh.

Mazar-i-Sharif & surroundings from ISS, 2016

The famous Jalal al-Din Rumi was born in this area but like many historical figures his exact location of birth cannot be confirmed. His father Baha' Walad was descended from the first caliph Abu Bakr and was influenced by the ideas of Ahmad Ghazali, brother of the famous philosopher. Baha' Walad's sermons were published and still exist as Divine Sciences (Ma'arif). Rumi completed six books of mystical poetry and tales called Masnavi before he died in 1273.

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. During the nineteenth century, due to the absence of drainage systems and the weak economy of the region, the excess water of this area flooded many acres of the land in the vicinity of residential areas causing a malaria epidemic in the region. Thus the ruler of North Central Afghanistan decided to shift the capital of the city of Mazar-i-Sharif.[7]

The region around Mazar-i-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 Mazar-i-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 Muhammad, appeared to reveal that he had been secretly buried near the city of Balkh.

The famous Jalal al-Din Rumi was born in this area but like many historical figures his exact location of birth cannot be confirmed. His father Baha' Walad was descended from the first caliph Abu Bakr and was influenced by the ideas of Ahmad Ghazali, brother of the famous philosopher. Baha' Walad's sermons were published and still exist as Divine Sciences (Ma'arif). Rumi completed six books of mystical poetry and tales called Masnavi before he died in 1273.

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. During the nineteenth century, due to the absence of drainage systems and the weak economy of the region, the excess water of this area flooded many acres of the land in the vicinity of residential areas causing a malaria epidemic in the region. Thus the ruler of North Central Afghanistan decided to shift the capital of the city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

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. During the nineteenth century, due to the absence of drainage systems and the weak economy of the region, the excess water of this area flooded many acres of the land in the vicinity of residential areas causing a malaria epidemic in the region. Thus the ruler of North Central Afghanistan decided to shift the capital of the city of Mazar-i-Sharif.[7]

The Mazar-i-Sharif means "the noble shrine". This name represents the Blue Mosque which is widely known to be the grave of Ali (Muhammad's son-in-law).[8]

The city along with the region south of the Amu Darya became part of the Durrani Empire in around 1750 after a treaty of friendship was reached between Mohammad Murad Beg and Ahmad Shah Durrani, the founding father of Afghanistan. In the late 1870s, Emir Sher Ali Khan ruled the area from his Tashkurgan Palace in Mazar-i Sharif. This northern part of Afghanistan was un-visited by the British-led Indian forces during the Anglo-Afghan wars of the 19th century.

During the 1980s Soviet–Afghan War, Mazar-i-Sharif was a strategic base for the Soviet Army as they used its airport to launch air strikes on mujahideen rebels. Mazar-i-Sharif was also the main city that linked to Soviet territory in the north, especially the roads leading to the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. As a garrison for the Soviet-backed Afghan Army, the city was under the command of General Abdul Rashid Dostum. Mujahideen militias Hezbe Wahdat and Jamiat-e Islami both attempted to contest the city but were repelled by the Army.

Dostum mutinied against Mohammad Najibullah's government on March 19, 1992, shortly before its collapse, and formed his new party and militia, Junbish-e Milli. The party took over t

Dostum mutinied against Mohammad Najibullah's government on March 19, 1992, shortly before its collapse, and formed his new party and militia, Junbish-e Milli. The party took over the city the next day. Afterwards Mazar-i-Sharif became the de facto capital of a relatively stable and secular proto-state in northern Afghanistan under the rule of Dostum. The city remained peaceful and prosperous, whilst rest of the nation disintegrated and was slowly taken over by fundamentalist Taliban forces.[9] The city was called at the time a "glittering jewel in Afghanistan's battered crown". Money rolled in from foreign donors Russia, Turkey, newly independent Uzbekistan and others, with whom Dostum had established close relations.[10] He printed his own currency for the region and established his own airline.

This peace was shattered in May 1997 when he was betrayed by one of his generals, warlord Abdul Malik Pahlawan who allied himself with the Taliban, forcing him to flee from Mazar-i-Sharif as the Taliban were getting ready to take the city through Pahlawan. Afterwards Pahlawan himself mutinied the Taliban on the deal and it was reported that between May and July 1997 that Pahlawan executed thousands of Taliban members, that he personally did many of the killings by slaughtering the prisoners as a revenge for the 1995 death of Abdul Ali Mazari. "He is widely believed to have been responsible for the brutal massacre of up to 3,000 Taliban prisoners after inviting them into Mazar-i-Sharif."[11] Several of the Taliban escaped the slaughtering and reported what had happened. Meanwhile, Dostum came back and took the city again from Pahlawan.

However the Taliban retaliated in 1998 attacking the city and killing an estimated 8,000 noncombatants (see Battles of Mazar-i-Sharif (1997–98)). At 10 am on 8 August 1998, the Taliban entered the city and for the next two days drove their pickup trucks "up and down the narrow streets of Mazar-i-Sharif shooting to the left and right and killing everything that moved—shop owners, cart pullers, women and children shoppers and even goats and donkeys."[12] More than 8000 noncombatants were reported killed in Mazar-i-Sharif and later in Bamiyan.[13] In addition, the Taliban were criticized for forbidding anyone from burying the corpses for the first six days (contrary to the injunctions of Islam, which demands immediate burial) while the remains rotted in the summer heat and were eaten by dogs.[14] The Taliban also reportedly sought out and massacred members of the Hazara, while in control of Mazar.[12]

Following the September 11 attacks in 2001, Mazar-i-Sharif was the first Afghan city to fall to the U.S.-backed 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. After the Battle of Mazar-i-Sharif in November 2001, the city was officially captured by forces of the Northern Alliance. They were joined by the United States Special Operations Forces and supported by U.S. Air Force aircraft. As many as 3,000 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.[15] 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.[16] The Bush administration reportedly blocked investigations into the incident.[17]

Karzai administration after 2002, which is led by President Hamid Karzai. The 209th Corps (Shaheen) of the Afghan National Army is based at Mazar-i-Sharif, which provides military assistance to northern Afghanistan. The Afghan Border Police headquarters for the Northern Zone is also located in the city. Despite the security put in place, there are reports of Taliban activities and assassinations of tribal elders. Officials in Mazar-i-Sharif reported that between 20 and 30 Afghan tribal elders have been assassinated in 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 Hezb-i Islami political party.[18]

Thomas de Maizière, Pashtun civilians being ethnically cleansed by the other groups, mainly by ethnic Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks.[19]

NATO-led peacekeeping forces in and around the city provide assistance to the Afghan government. ISAF Regional Command North, led by Germany, is stationed at Camp Marmal which lies next to Mazar-i-Sharif Airport. Since 2006, Provincial Reconstruction Team Mazar-i-Sharif had unit commanders from Sweden on loan to ISAF. The unit is stationed at Camp Northern Lights which is located 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) 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 2006, the discovery of new Hellenistic remains was announced.[20]

On April 1, 2011, as many as ten foreign employees working for United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) were killed by angry demonstrators in the city (see 2011 Mazar-i-Sharif attack). The demonstration was organized in retaliation to pastors Terry Jones and Wayne Sapp's March 21 Qur'an-burning in Florida, United States.[21] Among the dead were five Nepalese, a Norwegian, Romanian and Swedish nationals, two of them were said to be decapitated.[22][23][24] Terry Jones, the American pastor who was going to burn Islam's Holy Book, denied his responsibility for incitement.NATO-led peacekeeping forces in and around the city provide assistance to the Afghan government. ISAF Regional Command North, led by Germany, is stationed at Camp Marmal which lies next to Mazar-i-Sharif Airport. Since 2006, Provincial Reconstruction Team Mazar-i-Sharif had unit commanders from Sweden on loan to ISAF. The unit is stationed at Camp Northern Lights which is located 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) 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 2006, the discovery of new Hellenistic remains was announced.[20]

On April 1, 2011, as many as ten foreign employees working for United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) were killed by angry demonstrators in the city (see 2011 Mazar-i-Sharif attack). The demonstration was organized in retaliation to pastors Terry Jones and Wayne Sapp's March 21 Qur'an-burning in Florida, United States.[21] Among the dead were five Nepalese, a Norwegian, Romanian and Swedish nationals, two of them were said to be decapitated.[22][23][24] Terry Jones, the American pastor who was going to burn Islam's Holy Book, denied his responsibility for incitement.[25] 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."[26] U.S. legislators, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, also condemned both the burning and the violence in reaction to it.[27]

By July 2011 violence grew to a record high in the insurgency.[28] 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 insurgency.

On 10 November 2016, a suicide attacker rammed a truck bomb into the wall of the German consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif. At least four people were killed and more than one hundred others were injured.[29][30]

On 21 April 2017, a coordinated Taliban attack killed more than 100 people at Camp Shaheen, the Afghan Army base in Mazar-i-Sharif.[31]

In November 2018, it was revealed to the outside world that 40 houses in Qazil Abad, an immediate suburb of Mazar-i-Sharif, used unexploded Soviet Grad surface-to-surface rockets as construction materials. As a result, several people were killed and wounded from a few explosions over the years. These rockets, left behind by the Soviet Army in 1989 at the end of the Soviet–Afghan War, were used as cheap building materials by the poor residents of the village. It was estimated that over 400 rockets were incorporated into the village as wall and ceiling beams, door-stoppers, and even a footbridges used by children. When the outside world discovered this fact, the Danish demining group of the Danish Refugee Council visited the village and, after asking the residents, began demining and repairing the buildings, safely removing and disposing of the rockets through controlled detonation at the border with Uzbekistan.[32][33][34]

Mazar-i-Sharif has a cold steppe climate (Köppen climate classification BSk) with hot summers and cold winters. Precipitation is low and mostly falls between December and April. The climate in Mazar-i-Sharif is very hot during the summer with daily temperatures of over 40 °C (104 °F) from June to August. The winters are cold with temperatures falling below freezing; it may snow from November through March.[35]

See also