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From Alexander the Great to the Taliban, Kandahar has been a city of great historical and strategic importance for many centuries- its name derived from Alexander’s eastern name “Sikander’ or “Iskander.” Sadly today, the once great city stands devastated by years of war. Damage caused by mines and the shelling of irrigation systems has badly affected local agricultural capacity.
Kandahar is the second largest city in Afghanistan with a population of nearly 500,000. It is located in the southern part of the country, about halfway between Kabul and Herat on the southern highway.
The old city is laid out in a rectangle approximately 2 km by 1 1/2 km and is divided into four sections by four large streets which meet each other at the Char Suq in the center of the city. Formerly the old city was surrounded by a 30 foot wall, but, except for small sections to the east and south, it was largely demolished as the city outgrew it by the 1940s. The Shar-i-Nau or new city of Kandahar is on the west side of the old city and extends about 2 1/2 km on both sides of a main street.
The countryside around Kandahar is very flat and semi-desert. Years before a reclamation project under the direction of the Helmand-Arghandab Valley Authority had turned much of this into farmland. The Arghandab and Tarnak Rivers flow by Kandahar to the north and south respectively.
Kandahar is a new city, founded in the 18 th Century by Ahmad Shah Durrani, the first king of modern Afghanistan. The city is also referred to as Ahmadshahy after the king who founded it. From its founding until 1773 it was the capital of Afghanistan; it is now the administrative center of Kandahar Province.
The Kandahar area is rich in ancient history. About 40 miles from Kandahar is the mound of Mundigak representing thirteen succeeding civilizations, the earliest being tentatively dated about 5,000 B.C. Alexander the Great founded Alexandria of Arachosia in the region, but its exact location is still a mystery although the Zol Shar or ancient city to the southwest of Kandahar is recognized as a possible site.
During the 16th and 17 th centuries, the area was repeatedly fought over by the Saffavid Empire of Persia and the Moghul Empire of India. Ironically, it was the independence-minded Afghans of Kandahar, first under the leadership of Mir Wais Hotak and later of Ahmad Shah Durrani, which led to the decline of both empires and annexed much of their territories to the young Afghan kingdom in the 18 th Century.
Kandahar was once one of the largest fruit producing areas in Afghanistan. Modern processing and canning factories were located here, and a large part of the country’s foreign exchange-earning fruit exports originated here. Its position half way between Kabul and Herat on the southern highway also made it a favorite overnight stop for travelers.
The Shahidanu Chawk, or the “Martyr’s Square” with the monument to fallen soldiers, is located in the present center of town between the old and new cities of Kandahar. The monument was built between 1946 and 1949.
Located near the northern edge of the old city, the mausoleum houses the remains of the founder of the present city of Kandahar, Ahmad Shah Baba, “the Father of Afghanistan,” the first king of modern Afghanistan. The building is octagonal in shape and surmounted by a dome with a covering of bright blue tiles. Inside is the tomb itself, and, on the marble floors, are many brightly colored Afghan carpets.
Next to the Mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Durrani is the most sacred shrine in Afghanistan containing the cloak of the Prophet Mohammed. This relic was acquired from the Amir of Bokhara in 1768 as part of a treaty. It is not possible to view the cloak itself as it is said to only be brought out in times of national crisis. However, in 1994 Mullah Omar took the cloak from the shrine, held it up before thousands of clerics and Kandaharis in an effort to lay claim to the role of “Amir-Al-Momineen” or “Commander of all Faithful.” Prior to that event, it had not been seen since the 1930’s.
The Arg citadel was built during the 19 th Century and at one time was the residence of the governors of Kandahar and also housed the garrison. Only small sections remain today, but the veranda offers a fine view of the city.
At the same time the cloak of the Prophet was brought to Kandahar, a second relic, a gold sheath containing hair of the Prophet, was also acquired. This sacred object is housed in a shrine near the Char Suq in the center of the city. In the spacious and shady courtyard of the shrine compound there was once a traveler’s rest house.
Kandahar, like most cities in Afghanistan, was surrounded by defensive walls until the 20 th Century. The walls of Kandahar have been torn down in over the years as the city has expanded beyond them. There are still some small sections on the east and south which remain.
The bazaars of Kandahar are concentrated along the four streets which meet at the Char Suq in the center of the city. The Char Suq divides the area into four main bazaars, the Kabul Bazaar, the Herat Bazaar, the Shah Bazaar, and the Shiakarpur Bazaar. In these bazaars the shopper will find the famous embroidered shirts of Kandahar, pottery, donkey bags, Turkoman rugs, prayer beads, and many other exotic items. The Sar Posha Bazaar near the Char Suq is a small covered bazaar that many people also find interesting.
A short distance to the south of the city is the Deh Khatay district. Here are the kilns in which the bricks and pottery sold in the bazaar are fired. Straw grape-carrying baskets are also made here. In the afternoon during the harvest season the area is alive with camels and donkeys loaded with baskets of grapes on their way into the city to prepare the day’s harvest for export.
North of Kandahar is the shrine of the famous Kandahari saint, Hazratji Baba. The grave is twenty-three feet long which attests to the greatness of this man. At the head are many multi-colored pennants. Near the grave there is also a reservoir which has some very interesting paintings on its walls.
East of Kandahar is an interesting monument consisting of 42 stairs leading to a chamber carved into rock. In the chamber is an inscription stating that the monument was ordered built by Babur, the founder of the Moghul Empire, and listing the conquests of the emperor and his son, Humayun.
One of the most important battles in Afghan history was fought at the base of these steps when Amir Abdur Rahman defeated forces loyal to his cousin Ayub Khan thereby paving the way to establishing Afghanistan as a nation.
Near Chihil Zina is the Zol Shar or ancient city of Kandahar which was destroyed in 1738 by Nadir Shah Afshar. Excavations at the site uncovered Buddhist, Greek and Islamic archaeological treasures. Among the most interesting objects found are two Ashoka edicts carved in stone dating back to the 3 rd Century B.C.
Mir Wais Hotak was the Eighteenth Century leader of Kandahar who started movement for Kandahar’s independence in 1709. His work was the prelude to the founding of the kingdom of Afghanistan in 1747. His mausoleum is very similar to that of Ahmad Shah Durrani.
The shrine of a 15 th Century holy man, Baba Wali has become a favorite picnic spot on Fridays. Near the shrine are terraces shaded by pomegranate trees which overlook the valley.
Sher Surkh is the village in which the coronation of Ahmad Shah Durrani took place. Located in a rich grape growing region, it is an interesting town. A guide, however, is necessary as the town is inconspicuous from the road.
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