The Magazine

History in Stone

The untapped riches of Afghanistan.

Mar 23, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 26 • By ANN MARLOWE
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I turned carefully to scan the horizon. Nearby, French archeologists had recently uncovered 40 stupas and three Buddhist monasteries, but I couldn't see them. With just a foot of crumbling mud brick separating me from a 60-foot fall, I didn't push my luck.

I was on top of the Minar-i-Zadyan, Afghanistan's oldest minaret, also known as the Minaret of Daulatabad, 20 miles from Balkh. I'd allowed my Afghan friends' kids to climb the dark, steep internal stairway with me and a voluble young Afghan archaeology buff, Reza Hossaini. But the minaret is missing as much as a third of its original height, coming to an end in broken masonry rather than a platform from which the call to prayer would have sounded. I was worried that seven-year-old Leeza, who has no fear of heights, would lose her balance as she shifted around to examine the view.

Although it was first documented in 1938 by the Western researcher Eric Schroeder, the minaret was not surveyed until 1952 and is not described in any of the classic travel books on Afghanistan, not even in Nancy Hatch Dupree's comprehensive 1977 guide. The only web reference is on the site of a preservation organization Dupree founded in 1994, the Society for the Preservation of Afghan Cultural Heritage (SPACH).

The obscurity of the minaret is explained by the fact that, until recently, getting there from Balkh took three hours on an appalling road, enough to deter all but the most fanatic devotees of medieval Islamic architecture. It was only a year ago that a spanking new asphalt road reduced the travel time between Balkh and Daulatabad, 27.5 kilometers away, from more than two hours to 10 minutes.

A further half-hour over 14 kilometers of dirt road, winding around
storybook mud brick Turkmen villages, brings you to Zadyan, the village that contains the minaret. The men and women who live in the surrounding villages still wear the striking national dress--pointed hats with headscarves for the women, vibrantly colored handwoven caps for the men and boys--and weave carpets for a living. If you don't look too hard, it can seem as though time stopped here when the minaret was built--around 1108-09, according to the Archaeological Gazetteer of Afghanistan.

At 60 feet the minaret is squat; taller, its proportions would have been perfect. Today its beauty is in the astonishingly well-preserved bands of geometric decoration that wind all the way up, and the subtleties of the fine brickwork. Reza pointed out that the thick relief of the brickwork provides ample footholds for climbers; local kids occasionally scale the tower and, he said, some have fallen to their deaths in the attempt.

The minaret ends abruptly just above the second of two Arabic inscriptions. Reza transcribed the splendid but baffling Kufic into modern Arabic script I could read with some help:

In the name of God, the Merciful and Compassionate, Oh you believing people, called by the azan on the day of Friday, try to pray to God. The building of this minaret the great ruler the trusted by the government and honor of the community, Abu Jafar Mohammed Ibn-Ali.   .  .  .

The inscription trails off into fragments.

A steady trickle of Afghan pilgrims visited the minaret while we were there--spillover from a mysterious shrine a hundred feet away, known as Hazrat Saleh, or Honored Saleh. The building doesn't look ancient, and the legend of the obscure Islamic prophet Saleh to which it refers is also associated--with much more probability--with a 2,000-year-old Arabian site, Maidan Saleh. (Saleh was a prophet sent by Allah to the Arabs before Mohammad.) Reza pointed out that the green-draped tomb of Saleh inside the shrine is facing east, while Islamic graves are customarily arranged so that the deceased face Mecca, which is west of Afghanistan. He thinks this indicates the pre-Islamic origins of the site. Another oddity: On the outside of the shrine is an arched niche where pilgrims have left pats of mud in the hope of a cure for skin ailments.

While locals make pilgrimages to Hazrat Saleh and the minaret, there were no other foreigners around. In fact, the only foreigners I have ever seen at ancient sites in Afghanistan are the archaeologists working there. Mainly because of misapprehensions about security, the astonishing historical and archaeological riches of Afghanistan are nearly unvisited. Prehistoric petroglyphs, Achaemenid citadels, Buddhist stupas and monasteries, Greco-Bactrian and Kushan sites with Hellenistic columns and fire altars, and a thousand years of Islamic architecture jostle for space, and many can be seen just off the main roads. Potential visitors lump the area around Balkh and the whole Afghan north, which are as safe as dozens of other developing countries, with the war zones of Helmand and Kandahar.