“I met a traveller from an antique land”: Freya Stark in Afghanistan

Firuzkuh, or Turquoise Mountain, is the lost capital of the Ghorid dynasty of Afghanistan. It was reputedly one of the greatest cities of its age, but was destroyed by the son of Genghis Khan in the early 13th century.

Stark(1)At the age of 75, the traveller, linguist and writer Freya Stark set out westward from Kabul in Afghanistan to visit the Minaret of Jam and the remains of the lost city of Firuzkuh. This magnificent symbol of a powerful empire that once stretched from Iran to India lies in Afghanistan’s wild Ghor Province. Surrounded by high mountains, Jam is one of the country’s most inaccessible and remote places. When Freya Stark travelled there, few people in the world had laid eyes on it or managed to reach the desolate valley in which it stands.

The Minaret of Jam most probably marks the site of the ancient city of Firuzkuh. An inscription gives the date of construction as 1194, and another gives the name of the reigning Ghurid emperor, Sultan Ghiyas ud-Din (1157-1202). It is likely that the Minaret was constructed to commemorate his victory at Delhi in 1192 over the Ghaznavid Empire, hence the name sometimes given to it, the Victory Tower.

When Stark visited the country in 1968, it was at peace. But that year also marked the height of the Vietnam War; the premiere of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey; the arrest of James Earl Ray for the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.; the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union (putting an end to the Prague Spring); the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City just ten days before the Summer Olympics; and the release of the “White Album” by the Beatles. What follows is Freya Starks’ description of her first sight of the Minaret from her book The Minaret of Djam: An Excursion in Afghanistan (1970).

Djam(2)“At a corner between cliffs, the minaret was there, straight and tapering as a candle or a beautifully rolled umbrella, etched from top to bottom with patterns, ribands and bands and medallions, cut in the hard-baked brick whose biscuit colour showed light against the mountain walls. Almost under its octagonal base our little stream threw itself into the Hari Rud, that swept with loud green waters along its farther side.

Extraordinarily remote, without a house of a human being, the place seemed to be quivering with life: the river, the breeze, the brambles of wild roses, the trees and their shadows, the bits of castle wall that hung upon the rock across the water, the Past trampling through the defiles, and the minaret soaring into the sky with the impetus of its design still active upon it – a volume seemed shut there in a language no human key could open, a joyous strangeness whose natural laws we shared but could not understand.”

After decades of war, Afghanistan is suffering lawlessness and contempt for its own historical and cultural tradition that have led to the Minaret and the vestiges of Firuzkuh being ransacked for gold and damaged by illegal excavations. Sadly, despite being on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, all that future travellers may see, like Shelley’s “Ozymandias”, is another colossal wreck.

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