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Afghanistan: Old Balkh

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Old Balkh > Afghanistan > Asia

[Visited: October 2017]

Since antiquity, Afghanistan has been at the crossroads of Asia, and as such it has seen influences from many different cultures. The Persians ruled the country, Alexander the Great was here, the Arabs, the Mongols, the Mughals, English, and more recently, the Soviet Union and the US - and this list is certainly not complete. They all came and disappeared, left their marks, they all had their influence in shaping this legendary country. From Mazar-e-Sharif, it takes us less than an hour to reach Balkh. Now a quiet, dusty market town, it once was one of the great cities in Asia, capital of the Bactrian Empire, and called Bactra. It was the centre of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Islam. Famous travellers like Xuanzang, Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta passed by. We are searching for what remains of this once great city. The fate of most great cities: destruction at the hands of the adversaries, and Balkh is no exception.

Picture of Old Balkh (Afghanistan): The ancient citadel of Balkh: only the walls remain

Our first stop is at the remains of the Masjid Sabz, or Green Mosque. Built in the early 15th century by Shah Rukh, it is clearly inspired by the Timurid style so common in this part of Asia. Much of the minaret is gone, but when we walk to the open space at the feet of this late Middle Age mosque, we see that part of the building is still covered in tiles. Green is the dominant colour, hence the name of the mosque. It takes imagination to fantasize about the looks of this mosque some 500 years ago - completely covered with tiles, the building still intact. As it is, time and wars have had their devastating impact. In the park, we see a tomb of Rabi'a Balkhi, the famous female Persian poet who was imprisoned by her own brother after he found out she had a secret love affair with her slave. She wrote her most famous poem on the wall of her room, with her own blood, as she was dying. Her slave escaped, killed the brother before putting an end to his own life. Yet another tragic love story.

Picture of Old Balkh (Afghanistan): The Green Mosque of Balkh

We drive out of Balkh, to the ruins of what looks like it must have been a circular building. This is where Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi lived, better known as Rumi, the poet, Sufi mystic, Islamic scholar, and more. The crumbling remainders of his house stand in the middle of fields and close to houses where people live. We then head to the crumbling walls of Bila Hissar, the fortress of ancient Balkh, and when we stand on the top after a short climb, and look out over the circular walls, and the remains of walls we see in a distance which surrounded the city, we realize how big Balkh must have been before the inevitable Genghis Khan destroyed it in 1220. When we drive through the town again, where people are buying and selling at the street market stalls as if this was a regular town, we see remains of city walls everywhere. Our driver Koko Shams somehow does not show us the remains of stupas that can also be found here, as remains of the Buddhist era of Balkh. We head to the ruined remains of the oldest mosque of Afghanistan, Non Gombad. It is protected by a corrugated roof; work inside is in progress, and unfortunately, this means the site is closed off. Through the iron fence, we can see square columns, with decorations carved out. On our way back to Mazar, we pass by several other remains of city walls: Bactra keeps on expanding in our imagination, especially because we realize we have only scratched at the surface of what this great ancient city has left behind.

Picture of Old Balkh (Afghanistan): View of the ruins of the house of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi
Picture of Old Balkh (Afghanistan): Tiles decorating all details of the Green Mosque in Balkh
Picture of Old Balkh (Afghanistan): Looking up the dome of the Green Mosque of Balkh
Picture of Old Balkh (Afghanistan): Close-up of a pillar in the Green Mosque of Balkh
Picture of Old Balkh (Afghanistan): The Masjid Sabz, or Green Mosque, seen from the western side
Picture of Old Balkh (Afghanistan): Side view of the green Mosque of Balkh
Picture of Old Balkh (Afghanistan): Ribbed dome of the Timurid Green Mosque of Balkh
Picture of Old Balkh (Afghanistan): Blue and green tiles decorating the Green Mosque of Balkh
Picture of Old Balkh (Afghanistan): Non Gombad, or Nine-Domed Mosque: supposedly the oldest mosque in Afghanistan
Picture of Old Balkh (Afghanistan): Masjid Sabz, or Green Mosque, in Balkh
Picture of Old Balkh (Afghanistan): Old city wall of Balkh
Picture of Old Balkh (Afghanistan): Remains of the house of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi, also known as Rumi
Picture of Old Balkh (Afghanistan): Ruins of the wall of the citadel of Balkh

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