The major city of northern Afghanistan, Mazar-e-Sharif lies about 35 miles (56km) south of Uzbekistan. Ethnic Uzbeks form the majority of its population which in 1988 was 130,600. Tajik, Turkmen and Hazara people also live here.

The city name derives from "tomb of the saint", referring to the mythical discovery of the tomb of the Hazarate Ali, son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad and the fourth caliph of Islam. He was assasinated in 661. Due to fears that his body would be violated it was placed on a camel which apparently wandered off to Afghanistan.

A magnificent blue mosque and shrine marks the location of the tomb. The shrine was razed to the ground by Genghis Khan but rebuilt in 1481. Many pilgrims visit the city. The biggest festival of the year, called Nawroz, occurs on March 21 to announce the beginning of spring.

Mazar-e-Sharif is famed for its cotton and carpets. The hinterland is fertile and irrigated by the Balkh river. Flour-milling, silk and cotton textiles are among the most important industries.

In recent years, Mazar-e-Sharif has been raked by almost continual conflict in Afghanistan. Soviet troops established a military base near the city in 1979 and constructed a bridge over the Amu Darya river north of the city. The communist commander turned warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostum, made the city his powerbase until evicted by the Taleban in the late nineties. It was reported by human rights groups that many thousands of Hazara people were killed by the Taleban.

The city was captured by Northern Alliance forces, greatly aided by US airpower, on November 9,2001. Again it is feared that revenge killings have taken place.


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