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NORTHEASTERN AFGHANISTAN

MAZAR-E SHARIF &

NORTHEASTERN AFGHANISTAN

MAZAR-E SHARIF &

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156 AROUND MAZAR-E SHARIF

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Balk h

As nearby Mazar-e Sharif prospered, Balkh struggled through the centuries until chol- era and malaria forced a large-scale aban- donment in the mid-19th century.

Orientation

The main road from Mazar-e Sharif turns right into Balkh through the old city walls. Opposite the intersection are two large mounds, Takht-e Rostam and Teppe Ros- tam, ancient Buddhist stupas, probably from around the 4th century AD. The former once held a tooth of the Buddha; the latter now has a tank parked atop it. There are shops and a taxi stand at the junction. The centre of Balkh is 2km north past the ancient walls, where the unpaved road

BALKH

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meets a large park containing the Shrine of Khoja Abu Nasr Parsa. The Bala Hissar is beyond this. The No Gombad Mosque sits in farmland 1.5km south of the junction.

Sights

SHRINE OF KHOJA ABU NASR PARSA

Standing proud in Balkh’s central park, this shrine (‘Khoja Parsa’ for short) is a classic example of Timurid architecture, as well as a symbol of Balkh’s final flourish before sliding into permanent decline. It was built in the 1460s and dedicated to a famous theologian at the court of Sultan Baiqara who had retired to Balkh. The shrine is dominated by its monumental portal en- trance, flanked with twisted cable pillars and

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Bala Hissar

1 km 0.5 miles

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decorated in blue mosaic. The stumps of two minarets stand behind the facade. The shrine is topped with a turquoise ribbed melon dome sitting on a high drum decorated with Quranic verses. Although much of the tile- work is damaged, the building as a whole remains quite astounding. The door is normally kept locked, but it’s worth getting inside if possible. The inner dome stands 29m high above a breath- taking octagonal chamber, supported with internal arches. Light filters through screen windows in the dome’s drum, picking out the subtle rust-red and blue decoration. Attached to the right of the shrine is a modern madrassa (islamic school). The shrine was damaged in an earthquake in the 1990s and has recently undergone re- pair to the dome.

On the northeast edge of the park, and

largely hidden by trees, is an impressive arch, all that remains of the 17th century Madrassa of Sayid Subhna Quli Khan. Much ruined, it still has traces of blue Timurid- influenced tiling on the interior. The park is a pleasant place to sit and people-watch.

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INFORMATION

Market stalls............................ C4

SIGHTS & ACTIVITIES

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Tomb of Rabi'a Balkhi.............. C2 Teppe Rostam......................... C4 Takht-e Rostam....................... C4 Shrine of Khoja Abu Nasr Parsa.. C2 Madrassa arch......................... C2

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EATING

Khorasan Restaurant................ C3 Fruit & Vegetable Market......... C2 Balkh Restaurant...................... C3

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TRANSPORT

Taxis...................................... C2 Taxis...................................... C2 Shiberghan........................ C4 Minibuses to Mazar-e Sharif &

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To No Gombad Mosque (1.4km)

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Balkh

To Aqcha (66km); Shiberghan (114km); Andkhoi (183km)

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To Mazar-e Sharif (18.5km)

TOMB OF RABI’A BALKHI

Opposite the shrine of Khoja Abu Nasr Parsa is the small yellow-tiled tomb of Rabi’a Balkhi. Born in 9th century Balkh, she is credited as the first ( and greatest) woman to write po- etry in Persian. Her verses are read for their mystical and often erotic undertones. Rabi’a Balkhi fell in love with her slave, and was punished by her brother by being bricked up in a dungeon. She slashed her wrists and wrote her most famous poem – a bitter testa- ment to doomed love – in her own blood on the walls of the prison. The tomb was rediscovered in 1964, and is a popular place to visit for young women with romantic designs.

BALA HISSAR & CITY WALLS

The massive ramparts of the fortress of Bala Hissar stand guard on the northern edge of the city. The current fort was built by the Timurid in the 15th century on the site of an older citadel. The eroding mud-brick gives the place a much more ancient atmosphere. It’s easy to imagine this as the location of Alexander’s wedding feast to Roxane, or the fort’s luckless defenders being swept away by Genghis Khan’s hordes.

AROUND MAZAR-E SHARIF

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Balk h 157

Others have had similar thoughts, and the fort is an uneven moonscape of robber holes, dug by locals looking for treasure. Small potsherds, many brightly painted are littered everywhere. There is some nominal protection, but farmers still dig every win- ter in the area, hoping for some old glass beads or Graeco-Bactrian coins to sell to dealers in Mazar-e Sharif and supplement their meagre incomes. The ramparts give an interesting view

across Balkh, with its repeated series of walled compounds. One surprise is how green Balkh appears from above. The tow- ering dome of Khoja Parsa is barely visible through the tops of the trees in the park. The city walls, 12km around, can also be

appreciated from this height, snaking to- wards the highway. The footpaths following the line of the walls are worth exploring.

NO GOMBAD MOSQUE

This ruined 9th-century mosque is thought to be the oldest in Afghanistan. The name refers to its originally nine-domed struc- ture, an unusual design rarely encountered in Islamic architecture. It’s also known lo- cally as Masjid-e Haji Piyada (‘Mosque of the Walking Pilgrim’), for a local pilgrim. Today, little more than the mosque’s ar- cade piers remain, the columns and arches standing free from a raised earth floor that has never been excavated. The decoration is a delight of carved stucco, the whole cov- ered with arabesques, scrolls and abstract geometric designs. The style shows the in- fluence of similar buildings in Samarra in Iraq, presumably a reflection of recently converted Balkh’s connections with the rul- ing caliphate. The whole site is in need of consolida- tion, and is covered with a metal canopy and surrounded by a perimeter mud-brick wall. The mosque is still used by local vil- lagers for prayers and sermons on Fridays, so try to avoid visiting at this time. There is a friendly chowkidar (caretaker) on site who appreciates a small donation, and will show off his prize pigeons given half the chance. The mosque lies a 1.5km walk south of

the intersection for Balkh on the road from Mazar-e Sharif. The metal canopy is easily spotted from the path, rising clear from the fields of marijuana that surround the site (see boxed text, p155 ).

Balkh City Walls

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