Mazar E Sharif, Afghanistan
In the Islamic tradition, even in the early years, the tombs of prominent Muslims were generally well known and easily located. The greatest exception to this rule is that of the burial site of Ali, the 4th Caliph and 1st Imam, who is believed to be buried in a number of different places. The most generally accepted location of his tomb is in the city of Najaf in Iraq. However, a significant minority place his gravesite at the Masjid Hazrat Ali in Mazar E Sharif. Also known as the Blue Mosque, it is the most important and visited Islamic shrine in Afghanistan, and was until the arrival of the Mughals, the most important in Central Asia.
According to both Sunni and Shi’ite tradition, Ali lived out his life in the Islamic heartlands of Arabia and Mesopotamia. There is no record of his ever having traveled as far as Afghanistan, and though his tomb was originally kept secret, there is no reason to believe that it was any place other than southern reaches of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. However, a sizeable minority of Muslims have maintained for the last eight centuries that the body of Ali has in fact been in Afghanistan all of these years. According to local tradition, an Afghan cleric received a vision of Ali sometime around the 12th century. In the dream, the Caliph directed the cleric to the location of the true gravesite. A subsequent excavation uncovered an ancient tomb which contained a perfectly preserved body.
The body was immediately declared to be that of Ali, the 4th caliph, and pilgrims came from miles around to venerate the tomb. The local Seljuk rulers decided to uphold the claim and established a mosque at the site. Although the authenticity of the tomb was never accepted in the wider Islamic world, its relatively easy accessibility drew hordes of visitors from throughout Central Asia, many of whom did not have the time or money to make it all the way to Mecca.
Unfortunately, the wealth that the pilgrim trade brought to the city made Mazar E Sharif a prime target for conquest, and when the Mongols arrived it was one of the first Muslim cities to fall. The Shrine of Ali was sacked and totally destroyed, and thereafter remained abandoned for many years, until the arrival of the Timurids. Newly converted followers of Islam, the Timurids were excited at the prospect of having one of the great Islamic heroes buried in their territory. Funds poured in to build a new mosque, and by the end of the 15th century Mazar E Sharif was again overflowing with visitors. In later years the shrine would become the chief pilgrimage city of the Mughals despite its remote location.
For the next four centuries Mazar E Sharif survived as a reasonably quiet backwater of Central Asia, content to receive pilgrims and their wealth. During the 19th century Afghanistan fell in to the tug-of-war between the British and Russian Empires, at which time Mazar E Sharif became a spiritual center of resistance to the European colonial powers. Later it was caught in the crossfire between moderate and fundamentalist Muslims. Amazingly the Blue Mosque has survived much of the carnage of the 20th century largely intact. Among its devout followers, who have rallied around it in defiance of foreign powers, it is considered the one of the holiest cities in Islam.
The Masjid Hazrat Ali is a unique blend of Persian, Indian and Central Asian styles and is regarded as the most beautiful mosque in Afghanistan. Nothing remains of the original building. The current mosque dates from the early 16th century, and has been renovated frequently. The structure, which is covered from top to bottom in intricate tilework and mosaics, features numerous wings, extensions, towers and minarets. Because of this it appears like a symmetrically organized pile of children’s building blocks. The various levels are crowned with a veritable mountain range of blue domes.
The interior of the mosque is similarly decorated with brilliant tilework. The tomb of Ali, which was actually destroyed and desecrated at the time of the Mongols, is believed to lie beneath the main dome of the mosque. Also within the complex are several other tombs belonging to sons of Dost Mohammed Khan, a 19th century ruler. The Blue Mosque is also famous for its sizeable population of holy pigeons.
The Masjid Hazrat Ali absolutely dominates the center of Mazar E Sharif, approximately 185 miles northwest of Kabul. Due to ongoing problems in the region, visitor information was not available as of the time of this writing. Web: N/A.
While the Blue Mosque has been stubornly maintained over the centuries in the face of the innumerable wars that have ravaged the area, virtually no other major religious sites of significance in Northern Afghanistan are still standing.