The minaret of Jam, one of Afghanistan’s cultural marvels, is in danger of collapse. Centuries of neglect and frequent floods have weakened this fabled 800-year-old structure in the remote province of Ghor.
British classicist, traveller, and poet Peter Levi travelled to Afghanistan with the writer Bruce Chatwin in 1970. That same year at the age of 77, the intrepid explorer and travel writer Freya Stark also made the difficult and dangerous journey in search of the minaret, which she wrote about in The Minaret of Djam: An Excursion in Afghanistan (1970).
In his book The Light Garden of the Angel King: Journeys in Afghanistan (1972), Levi says that the existence of the minaret of Jam, a late 12th century royal commemorative tower, was unknown to Western historians and archaeologists until 1886, when the English geographer Sir Thomas Holdich found it while working for the Afghan Boundary Commission. It was then forgotten again until 1957 when it was studied by two French archaeologists.
The Ghurids were a 12th to 13th century Muslim dynasty of Iranian origin centred in Ghor. At its zenith, their empire stretched over a vast area that included the whole of modern Afghanistan, the eastern parts of Iran and the northern section of the Indian subcontinent, as far as Delhi. The minaret of Jam is probably located at the site of the Ghurid Dynasty’s now lost capital, Firozkoh.
The 62-metre high minaret was built entirely of baked bricks and is famous for its intricate stucco and glazed tile decoration, which consists of alternating bands of calligraphy, geometric patterns, and verses from the Qur’an. Archaeologists believe that the minaret was once attached to the Friday Mosque of Firozkoh, which may have been washed away in a flash-flood in the early 13th century. Work by the Minaret of Jam Archaeological Project has found evidence of a large courtyard building beside the minaret and river sediments on top of the baked-brick paving.
The minaret is famous for its intricate brick work and geometric decorations and inscriptions. But locals say that a third of the decorative brick had fallen off and the minaret is now leaning. Erosion of the nearby river bank and illegal excavations are threatening its stability. The minaret is on the UN list of world heritage sites in danger and officials have warned that there is not enough money to protect it and more flooding could bring it down. No extensive restoration work has taken place since it was originally built.
Peter Levi fell for the ancient kingdom of Afghanistan in a big way. His book is one of several that recall the country’s landscape, architecture and people before the almost total destruction inflicted by the bitter wars of the past 40 years. He lovingly describes the minaret of Jam as:
“A tall, elegant, shadow-cut, biscuit-coloured pencil magnificently inlaid with turquoise inscriptions, built where its muezzin could best fill the valleys with echoes. Seen from below, the obsessional strength of its detail and the depth of its shadows have a mind-blowing power; seen from above it is a miracle of simplicity and proportion with the rocks… The paradox of the existence of a royal minaret among these appalling cliffs and desolate rock-refuges cannot be resolved unless the stronghold of the high valleys was the centre of the kingdom of Ghor.”