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The Mysterious Minaret of Jam

Link - article by Avi Abrams

The 12-Century Wonder and Mystery of Afghanistan

Built back in 1190s by the once great Ghorid empire, this enigmatic and intricately-ornamented ancient "skyscraper" stands like a missile pointing at the stars - a 65-meter high minaret, the second biggest religious monument of its kind in the world.

Originally it was topped by the lantern - making it a sort of the dry land lighthouse (!), surrounded by the 2400m high mountains:

(Note a white jeep crossing the river in photo above: there was a bridge before, but it was destroyed during wartime...)

Amazingly, this imposing structure was standing forgotten for centuries... until rediscovered in 1886 by Sir Thomas Holdich; then forgotten again and rediscovered in 1957. Then the Soviet invasion in 1979 again prohibited access to the area, and since then only a handful of people from outside of Afghanistan have seen the minaret, because of its middle-of-nowhere location (check its coordinates on Google Maps)

(image credit: Keith Mellnick)

Perhaps the most intricate religious carvings on Earth

The minaret displays an incredibly intricate baked-brick work, stucco and glazed tile ornamentation (containing Kufic and Naskhi calligraphy and verses from the Qur'an, relating to Mary, the mother of Jesus):

Dan Cruickshank, who visited the place, writes about the carvings: "This chapter, called Maryam, tells of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, both venerated in Islam, and of prophets such as Abraham and Isaac. It's a text that emphasises what Judaism, Christianity and Islam have in common, rather than their differences. It seems the Ghorids placed the text here to appeal for harmony and tolerance in the land, a message that is more relevant now than ever."

(image via)

The Lost City of the Turquoise Mountain

The stupedous structure of the minaret of Jam is actually only a part of The City of the Turquoise Mountain, which is the lost Afghan capital of the Middle Ages - Firuzkuh (Firuz Koh). The city was once a prospering, multicultural center - before it was destroyed by a son of Genghis Khan in the early 1220s. The site even includes a Jewish cemetery, complete with carvings in Hebrew! This seems to prove a sizeable Judeo-Persian trading community, that was thriving there and had connections to other such Jewish centers in Medieval Afghanistan.

The mysterious ruins of Qasr Zarafshan are just across the river, looming over the Minaret - note their location on a hill upper right, in the right image below:

(images via)

Outstanding travel photographer Jane Sweeney has many galleries dedicated to such mysterious and ancient sites in Afghanistan. Below you see another fragment of the Qasr Zarafshan, and on the top right - Caravanserai, Daulitiar, between Yakawlang and Chakhcharan:

(top images, right image below credit: Jane Sweeney)

The "Leaning Tower", threatened by erosion

It's a wonder how this ancient tower still stands at all, considering constant floods and powerful earthquakes frequent in the area! Today, some effort is underway to strengthen the tower's foundation, but there is also another problem: many pillagers dig for gold in the area and sell the findings on the local markets...

View from minaret (note the trucks below to get a sense of scale):

(image credit: Keith Mellnick, via)

Hindu Kush Mountains provide an awesome background to the monument

Here is the Hindu Kush Mountains aerial panorama - read more about this region here

(image credit: J P C van Heijst, Flying Dutchman)

Gilgit, a beautiful village on the Karakoram Highway (Gilgit-Baltistan area), has a kind of background that asks to be put in an epic fantasy movie:

(image credit: Basil Pao, Palin's Travels)

Very colorful scene: Burusho women sorting apricots grown in the Hunza valley close to the Karakoram Highway (which spans Pakistan, Afghanistan and China):

(image via)

Old Kabul has some very imposing and ancient fortresses, haunted by history of some preposterous massacres and almost constant warfare. This is the Upper Bala Hissar viewed from West Kabul around 1879:

(image via)

Scotland-based Turquoise Mountain foundation leads a charitable effort to bring old glory back to Kabul - see photo coverage on National Geographic.

Afghanistan was often synonymous with political and religious strife throughout our day and age, but it was not always so: here is a very lovely photograph of girls in Kabul in the 1960s, and the smiling stewardesses of the 1960s Ariana Afghan Airlines:

Afghanistan is also the source for Lapis Lazuli stone - a favorite of pharaohs in Ancient Egypt:

Some other things Afghanistan is famous for:
- green tea (hundred varieties)
- pomegranates
- exotic markets (see Afghan women buying Naan bread in the photo below)
- opium poppies
- safron spices
- fabulous Afghan Rugs

(images via 1, 2)

As in every travel and in every land, the people's faces tell the story:

(images credit: Keith Mellnick)




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Blogger Ben Oliver said...

I would definitely recommend reading 'The Places in Between' by Rory Stewart. It's his brilliant account of his journey walking from Herat to Kabul.

It's such a fantastic book, and I mention it here because Stewart encounters the minaret at some point along his route.

Blogger Gaidig said...

Beautiful! On the other hand, I doubt the tower was truly lost, just unknown to Europeans and Americans. I am fairly certain that the local Afghan people knew it was there. I feel like it's disingenuous to act as though Westerners' knowledge is the only one that counts.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gaidig, the phrase that the tower was forgotten meant that it was forgotten to westerners, given the context of the rest of the text. I feel that it is a rush to judgement to feel that a phrase like that implies western arrogance.

Blogger Jenny Woolf said...

My great grandfather was in Afghanistan in Victorian times bringing telegraph cables. I wish he had kept a diary or taken photos.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really wish I could see something like that in the area of Afghanistan I am in. It is truly beautiful. Here... not so much. As I side note, we could all learn something from the message of tolerance on that tower.

Blogger Vagabond1066 said...

Is it a sign of tolerance, or a symbol of defiance built by those who had been conqured and forced to submit to islam? A leaning minaret covered in references to their native faiths built to show the contempt they felt for their new masters.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very nice, but those aren't opium poppies. They are flanders poppies

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is a wonderful tower. I'm surprised that those ambassadors of cultural tolerance and religious freedom, the taliban, haven't blown it up by now.

Blogger ABC said...

Great post

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Careful now Anonymous, we could easily replace 'Taliban' by USA, Britain, Spain or any other number of Western governments over the years that have treated countless other countries around the world to exactly the same regime.

I rarely quote the Bible, but the proverb about taking the plank out of your eye before removing the speck from another's seems appropriate.


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