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Tuesday, 6 November, 2001, 13:49 GMT
Afghanistan's holy city
A Northern Alliance soldier on top of a Soviet tank in the northern Takhar province of Afghanistan
Fighting has started again near the strategic city
By the BBC's Eurasia analyst Malcolm Haslett

The northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif is the focus of news reports because it is a major target for the opposition Afghan Northern Alliance.

Afghan men dance at a wedding celebration
Mazer-e-Sharif is a centre of culture and religion for Afghans
However it is renowned in its own right as a unique historic and religious centre, a holy place for both Sunni and Shia Muslims and identified as the birthplace of the ancient religious philosopher Zoroaster.

Mazar-e-Sharif means 'The Noble Shrine'. It is the traditional burial site of the Caliph Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed.

His blue-tiled shrine in the centre of the city was built in the 15th century.

It has long been venerated by both Shia and Sunni Muslims, and in more peaceful times it was a major pilgrimage centre.

Folklore

With its twin city of Balkh, a few kilometres to the west, it is rich in history and folklore.

It is said to be the birthplace of the ancient philosopher Zoroaster, and was subsequently the home of many other philosophers and poets, including the 13th century Sufi poet Rumi.

The city is also associated with the spring festival of Nawrooz, and used to attract hundreds of thousands of people for its celebration.

Mazar-e-Sharif is the largest city in northern Afghanistan, and in recent decades it developed rapidly as an industrial centre.

Most of the investment for the oil and gas refineries and cotton-processing plants came from the Soviet Union, which saw Mazar-e-Sharif as very much part of its sphere of influence.

The majority of the inhabitants are ethnic Uzbeks or Tajiks, with close links to the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

The main opposition to the Taleban in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance, is made up largely of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Shiite Hazaras.

Target

When they lost control of the city to the Taleban in 1998, it was seen as a major blow to hopes of preventing the Taleban taking over the whole country.

Now Mazar-e-Sharif is once again a prime target for the Northern Alliance, and fighting has started near the city.

However, Taleban forces are well dug in, and there are fears that Mazar-e-Sharif, which in past fighting has suffered major damage and seen atrocities committed by both sides, could undergo further traumas.

See also:

23 Oct 01 | South Asia
Massacre warning for Afghan city
18 Oct 01 | Media reports
War of words over Afghan town
23 Oct 01 | South Asia
Battle for Afghan stronghold
26 Oct 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
An encounter with General Dostum
13 Dec 98 | South Asia
'All we want now is peace'
11 Dec 98 | South Asia
Mazar-e-Sharif calm after storm
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