Geography and Destiny For centuries, scarce resources and difficult terrain have required people in the Hindu Kush region to develop unique solutions to survive. But while geography has brought challenges, it has also offered opportunities. In Afghanistan, geography is a multi-sided destiny.
Identity and Perception Local, tribal, and religious identities in the Hindu Kush region have always shifted depending on one’s point of view. As Afghanistan decides what it means to be Afghan, it faces a kaleidoscope of moving perspectives.
Tradition and Modernization Afghans have always had to be flexible. At times, this flexibility has brought people together, and at other times it has torn them apart. Reconciling tradition and modernization means making sense of what’s at stake when people change--and when they don’t.
Traces and Narratives History is not always written. Much of what we know about Afghanistan comes from scattered artifacts, symbols, and oral traditions. Understanding these traces means piecing together the narratives that history leaves behind.
Traces & Narratives
Abbe, André. Minaret of Jam. UNESCO, Afghanistan.
Producer: Alexis Menten
We came around the edge of a scree slope and saw the tower. A slim column of intricately carved terra-cotta set with a line of turquoise tiles rose two hundred feet. There was nothing else. The mountain walls formed a tight circle around it and at its base two rivers, descending from snowy passes, ran through ravine into wilderness. Pale slender bricks formed a dense chain of pentagons, hexagons, and diamonds winding around the column. On the neck of the tower, Persian blue tiles the color of an Afghan winter sky spelled: GHIYASSUDIN MUHAMMAD IBN SAM, KING OF KINGS....
-From The Places in Between, by Rory Stewart
The most surprising city in Afghanistan is probably the city of Jam, known mostly today by its minaret, but also by some ongoing excavations carried out in the last few years.
The Minaret of Jam, which is the second highest in the world and 200 feet high, was lost, basically, to outsiders until the 1950s. That’s extraordinary, to not know about a world masterpiece. It’s now been named a UNESCO World Site. And we have to imagine it was a flourishing city when this minaret was built.
Mountain cultures in Afghanistan tend to remain somewhat isolated from the world, concentrating their resources and ambition towards survival in the difficult terrain of their homeland. But from one isolated mountain province in Afghanistan, Ghor, a great empire descended to rule the lands of Central Asia.
The chief Ghorid ruler, Ala-ud-din was one of the great warriors of ancient times. He earned the title of "the World Burner" by moving into and destroying the prime city of the Ghaznavids, Ghazni.
The Ghorids ruled from their mountain capital deep in the Hindu Kush mountains in central Afghanistan, which is sometimes known as the lost city of the Turquoise Mountain. Of this fabled mountain city, only a single minaret remains, isolated in a lonely valley.
Food, fodder, and all goods for the city must have been carried in, either over the snow passes we just crossed or, if the villagers were right, on a causeway of planks laid for five kilometers up the Hari Rud River. The valley walls were steep, prone to landslides, and difficult to build on. The lower houses must have received at most an hour’s sunlight a day.
No easy roads connected the city to the Ghorids’ kingdoms in Herat, Bamiyan, or Ghazni, still less Delhi. Nevertheless, the villagers’ excavations suggested that more people had lived in this remote, unpleasant, impractical gorge eight hundred years ago than lived in any town in Ghor today. This suggested a great deal about the power of the Ghorids and their desire to emphasize their mountain roots in opposition to the rival nomads of the plains.”
-From The Places in Between, by Rory Stewart
Ever since its rediscovery by a French scientist in 1957, the minaret of Jam has raised more questions than it has answered – not only about the Ghorids, but about the function of minarets themselves.
We don’t know why minarets were built. Everyone says, “Minaret. Aha. Call to prayer.” It doesn’t seem like that’s a functional explanation, in the sense that why do you need a five-story building to call to prayer. You couldn’t hear your voice, if you were that tall. Furthermore, it seems that the earliest built mosques did not have minarets.
In addition to its role as a religious structure, the minaret of Jam may have been built as a monument, landmark, or a watchtower.
Minarets were probably multi-functional. Some of them marked passes, particularly in this part of the world, the passes through Afghanistan and into Pakistan or Iran. Some of them may have been symbols of Islam, simply made to show the presence of Islam. Some of them were surely used to mark congregational mosques.
Today preservationists are fighting to save the minaret of Jam from not only the ravages of time and of the elements – but also of man. The very isolation of the Ghorid empire’s lost city today makes it inaccessible and dangerous for the archaeologists who want to excavate the site, and at the same time protects looters who smuggle antiques from the watchful eyes of the authorities.
Of a fabled mountain city that was capitol to a great Ghorid Empire, only a minaret remains, isolated in a lonely valley.