Snapshots of Afghanistan: Mazar-i-Sharif

Our photos of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, showing another side to the city beyond what you see in the news.

 

On a dark October evening in Kabul, we were chatting with an Australian filmmaker on assignment in Afghanistan. He’d been living in country on and off for more than a decade, and was amusing us with a steady stream of tales. The conversation inevitably shifted to our own travels in Afghanistan, and at one point, the filmmaker grinned a wry smile.

“Trust me: this isn’t the last time you’ll be in Afghanistan. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about this country that brings people back time and time again.”

As he spoke those words, we found ourselves nodding in agreement—Afghanistan had already enraptured us with its divided but proud people, and its scattered remnants of great civilizations hidden underneath layers of violence and dust of the ages. But only time can prove the truth of his words.

Photos of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan

Afghanistan dreaming

Days ago, I tore through the travelogue The Places in Between by Rory Stewart, a Scotsman who traversed the center of Afghanistan on foot. His simple but poignant observations about the country had me dreaming of the things I’ve seen, and ended with my flicking through photos in an attempt to relive what was undoubtedly one of our most fascinating—if challenging—legs of travel.

I’m sitting on hundreds of gigabytes of photos from our weeks in Afghanistan. Many of them haven’t been shared (partially because I’m woefully behind on photo editing) because I’m cautious about how I want to depict the country to others.

The wrong impression?

We’ve already received too many messages by people interested in traveling to Afghanistan after reading through our posts and seeing our Instagram photos… but they haven’t given any thought to the risks involved. They simply assume it’s another Middle Eastern country (strike one, it’s Central Asian) to check off their travel bucket list (strike two) since it’s not actually very dangerous, right? (strike three, peace out)

Afghanistan is a country at war thanks to both internal and external forces. Poverty runs rampant, and large swathes of its population are illiterate. Attempts to modernize are strangled by purveyors of strict, conservative Islam.

But, on the other hand, life goes on in Afghanistan. Its people have faced more struggles than many of us can even imagine, but they aren’t necessarily dodging bullets and bombshells on a daily basis, as the news might lead us to believe.

Interested in traveling to Afghanistan? Make sure to check out our comprehensive Afghanistan travel guide!

Photos of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan - Children at the Shrine to Hazrat Ali - Lost With Purpose

I want to share this perspective, but I don’t want to present the wrong idea, either. I’m just a traveler who passed through, barely scraping the surface. I don’t have deep insights into the country, I simply had a chance to see what happens beyond world news headlines. Finding a way to convey my experience with words is a challenge for me—words can be biased, and mine often run away with themselves. Photos are a much clearer way to provide a glimpse into the country.

Now that we’ve had several months to digest, I feel now is as good a time to share as ever.

(Plus, I’ve finally gotten around to editing my photos.)

I’ll be sharing them in batches, since it seems unfair to reduce an entire country to one photo post. First off: Mazar-i-Sharif, the starting point of our Afghan journey.

I was admittedly on edge at this point. We still had no idea what was and was not okay to do on Afghanistan’s streets. Were we dressed properly? Did we act strangely? Were we going to die?

(Answers: Mostly. Probably. No.)

But my concerns were quickly replaced with other emotions: a lot of awe, a strong dose of sadness, and much appreciation for Afghans and the lives they live.

Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, has far more to it than war and terror. From the stunning mosaic of the Blue Mosque, to the ancient ruins of Balkh, once the Bactrian capital, there are all kinds of histories and religions to be found in the area. Click through for photos of daily life in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan.

Snapshots of Afghanistan: Mazar-i-Sharif

Photos of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan - Afghan breakfast of bread, cream, and green tea - Lost With Purpose

Starting the day with a typical breakfast: bread, cream, and sweet tea.

Photos of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan - A boy chasing white pigeons - Lost With Purpose

Boy vs. pigeons outside of the Blue Mosque, Mazar-i-Sharif’s most famous building.

Photos of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan - A woman walking in the blue mosque - Lost With Purpose

A woman in chador, a black conservative cloak. Chador are typically worn by women closer to the Iran border, or by women who spent time living in Iran, where they are much more commonplace.

Photos of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan: An Afghan family walking in the Blue Mosque
Photos of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan: A girl running with a balloon in the center shrine to Hazrat Ali.
Photos of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan: A woman sitting in burqa in the shrine to Hazrat Ali in Mazar-i-Sharif.

Photos of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan - Boys and women clustering to feed the white pigeons around the Blue Mosque in Mazar - Lost With Purpose

Boys and women taking turns feeding the white pigeons surrounding the Blue Mosque.

Photos of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan - Young boys playing in front of the Blue Mosque (Shrine to Ali) after school - Lost With Purpose

Young boys playing after school. Talk about an epic hangout spot!

Photos of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan - View through the windshield of a taxi driving to Balkh, Afghanistan - Lost With Purpose

Driving along chaotic roads to the ancient town of Balkh, Afghanistan, 20 kilometers from Mazar-i-Sharif.

Photos of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan - A New York taxi license plate in Mazar - Lost With Purpose

Sometimes in Afghanistan, it’s better to not ask questions.

Photos of Balkh, Afghanistan - Two men watching over a Sufi shrine in Balkh - Lost With Purpose

Self appointed gatekeepers to a Sufi shrine and mausoleum in the town of Balkh.

Photos of Old Balkh, Afghanistan - Ruins of the Masjid Sabz (Green Mosque) in Balkh - Lost With Purpose

Ruins of the Masjid Sabz (Green Mosque) in Balkh.

Photos of Old Balkh, Afghanistan - Sunlight on tombstones outside of the Masjid Sabz (Green mosque) in Balkh - Lost With Purpose

Dappled sunlight and peaceful places outside of the Green Mosque.

Photos of Balkh, Afghanistan - Caretaker of a Sufi shrine in a traditional Afghan pakol hat - Lost With Purpose

This jolly caretaker to a Sufi shrine managed to show us around despite only speaking Dari… and some crazy tongue involving with a lot of squeaks, whistles, and tongue action. Not sure if we’re cursed or blessed forever.

Photos of Balkh, Afghanistan - A girl swinging in Old Balkh - Lost With Purpose

The most desolate swing in the world… right before the shouting men in turbans rolled in.

Photos of Old Balkh, Afghanistan - The walls of Balkh, once captial of the Bactrian kingdom - Lost With Purpose

The walls of Balkh have housed the likes of Alexander the Great and Zoroaster.

Photos of Balkh, Afghanistan - Ruins of the city of Old Balkh - Lost With Purpose

The once-great city has also been razed by conquerors such as Genghis Khan and Timur in bygone eras.

Photos of Balkh, Afghanistan - A small green Sufi shrine amongst the walls of Old Balkh - Lost With Purpose

A small shrine amongst the ancient walls of Balkh.

A woman in burqa walking past an abandoned mosque archway in Balkh, Afghanistan.
A man sitting contemplatively at the foot of a minaret of the Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, at sunset.
A modest Sufi tomb through an archway in Balkh, Afghanistan.

Photos of Balkh, Afghanistan - Haji Piyada mosque, AKA Noh Gombad, under restoration - Lost With Purpose

The Haji Piyada mosque (also known as Noh Gombad), is the oldest mosque in Central Asia. Like most monuments in Afghanistan, it’s been battered by the ages, but restoration work is underway to save this unique building. Whoop!

Photos of Balkh, Afghanistan - A man pushing a cart of dried leaves in Balkh - Lost With Purpose

Balkh used to be lush, fertile land, but it’s dried up over the centuries, and is now desert-like. But if there’s one thing you can count on, it’s people adapting to make the best of what they have.

Photos of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan - A man with beard and turban on the side of the road - Lost With Purpose

Locals around Afghanistan warned us to be wary of men with big beards and turbans, as they were more likely to be Taliban. Figuring out what was a “big beard” by Afghan standards proved to be easier said than done…

Photos of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan - A boy selling colorful women's clothes in a central bazaar - Lost With Purpose

Though women’s clothes on the street seem colorless, walk into the bazaar, and you’ll be treated to an explosion of color!

Photos of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan - Women in burqa shopping for colorful clothes in the central bazar - Lost With Purpose

Many Afghan women wear vibrant clothes under their burqas or outer layers, though you’d never guess it from the colorless clothes seen on the street. Pay close attention to the fluttering hems and you’ll see for yourself!

Photos of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan - Entrance to the Blue Mosque at sunset - Lost With Purpose

No matter what we got up to during the day, we always found ourselves drawn back to the Blue Mosque for sunset. Guesses as to why?

Photos of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan - Crowds at the Blue Mosque in Mazar at sunset - Lost With Purpose

… and we weren’t the only ones.

Photos of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan - Man checking phone in front of the mosaic walls of the Blue Mosque - Lost With Purpose

We’re always drawn to shrines. In practice, they’re far more than places of worship—they’re like community spaces. Whether you come to chat with friends, catch up on unread texts…

Photos of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan - Boys taking selfies at sunset at the Blue Mosque - Lost With Purpose

… or just take selfies at sunset with your bestie, anyone is welcome, as long as they’re respectful.

 

Mazar-i-Sharif blew our minds—the Blue Mosque is the most beautiful building I’ve ever laid eyes upon—and it was only the first stop. There are more cities and more wonders on their way, so stay tuned!

 

Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, has far more to it than war and terror. From the stunning mosaic of the Blue Mosque, to the ancient ruins of Balkh, once the Bactrian capital, there are all kinds of histories and religions to be found in the area. Click through for photos of daily life in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan.

 

Want more on Afghanistan? Here’s a little insight into why we visited Afghanistan.

Alex

American by birth, British by passport, Filipina by appearance. Addicted to ice cream. Enjoys climbing trees, dislikes falling out. Has great fondness for goats which is usually not reciprocated.

More about Alex

19 thoughts on “Snapshots of Afghanistan: Mazar-i-Sharif

    That’s really, really awesome. I have no words! In Catalan we say: ”Se’m posa la pell de gallina”, which means that my skin is becoming like chicken skin 😀 I am really jealous… And your photos and colors of this place are merely beautiful. I read that there was a terrorist attack in this city recently, the first one in ages. Hopefully, it’s just something punctual which won’t be happening again… Ah! And if what that Australian man says it’s true… Let me know when you go back!

    Sebastiaan says:

    Thanks a lot man! Honestly, I get chicken skin thinking about this place, too.

    There have been a couple of attacks in Mazar recently. The German consulate (which is right around the corner of where we stayed) and an army base were attacked. However, we always say that the chance of being caught in such an attack isn’t very high. How often do tourists come near military bases?

    We hope we can visit again. It basically depends on our ability to put aside some money again 😉

    Let us know if you ever go. Cheers!

    Bama says:

    I heard that Mazar-i-Sharif was among the safest places in the country, although being Afghanistan security can be quite tricky from time to time. I am completely blown away by your photos of the Blue Mosque. I have seen images of this mosque before, but yours are by far the most awe-inspiring. Despite the hiccups, hopefully Afghanistan keeps moving to become a safe and stable country where people can live without fear.

    Sebastiaan says:

    Safety is a very relative term. Unfortunately, Mazar and the surrounding areas see bursts of violence, such as the attack on the German consulate a while back. We hope things will change for the better, but recent events indicate otherwise 🙁

    On the bright side, we’re glad you like our photos! The Blue Mosque is probably the most beautiful building we’ve ever seen, so it’s good to hear the photos do it justice.

    Natalie says:

    Great Photos! Thank you for sharing images from a country I have always wanted to go to, however, don’t think I’ll be able to go for a very long time.

    Sebastiaan says:

    Thanks a lot. Let’s hope it will get better one day!

    Andrew D says:

    Love your pics, the Blue Mosque is really beautiful. I would love to travel to Afghanistan, but sadly a couple of years have to pass, I think more than 20, if not more, so that everything violent has to end and they start rebuilding the country.

    Sebastiaan says:

    It’s definitely a gorgeous country. Let’s hope things get better sooner than that!

    Andrew D says:

    Hope is all we need! 😀

    Margaux says:

    Due to my interest in the regions you’ve explored, your blog was recommended to me a few days ago. One thing is for sure, coming here, I didn’t expect to read about Afghanistan. Aside from articles about the Wakhan Valley, I think it is the first time I’ve read blog posts about this country. That’s unique! And your pictures are truly beautiful!

    Sebastiaan says:

    Glad you found our blog. Hope you like it. We went to Afghanistan for three weeks at the end of 2016. Amazing experience. Working on several other photo articles on the country, so look forward to it.

    anjci says:

    Hey guys! Some superb photos there 🙂 I am going to Afghanistan next year, though I am not nearly as intrepid and will be forking out a hefty sum for a private guide – please don’t judge! Appreciate someone in the blogging sphere spreading a good word for the country so torn and unfortunate. Great photos, too, and safe travels!

    Sebastiaan says:

    Hi there, thanks for reaching out. Definitely not judging. Having a local guide is super useful both for safety purposes and to meet people. Good luck and have fun!

    Faz says:

    Hi there, i am a British citizen but originally from Afghanistan. I am going to Mazar i Sharif next month 1st September 2018. I have been going to Mazar i Sharif almost every year for the last 10 years for at least 3 weeks to visit family and friends and enjoy the sunshine and the food. I have been to a lot of European countries and a few Asian countries. Above all i love Afghanistan, it’s just because maybe i was born there. I love the weather specially season of spring , I love the poor but very hospitable and generous people. I love the fruits and food in there, specially street kebeb called Kebab Tika and raisoned rice with carrot and meat, called Qabili Palaw. What a food (Google it). When I go there, i always try to wear traditional clothes and not to show off too much. The good thing about me is that i look like them and no one looks at me differently. Although 8 years ago i had very long curly hair when i went there. I always thought people looked at me strangely. In the same trip i had to cut my hair shorter to be safer than sorry.

    Thijs Broekkamp says:

    Awesome pictures guys! It’s posts like these that made me want to go to Afghanistan in the first place! Just came back from Afghani and it was such a special trip, what an amazing country! Never felt unsafe either.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Lost With Purpose

Send this to a friend