Balkh (Persian: بلخ),
also known as Bactra, was once a major world city but was destroyed entirely
by the Mongols. Today it is a small town in the province of Balkh, northern
Afghanistan, about 20 kilometers northwest of the provincial capital, Mazari
Sharif, and some 74 km (46 miles) south of the Amu Darya, the Oxus River of
antiquity, of which a tributary formerly flowed past Balkh.
Balkh was one of the major cities of Khorasan. It was located in a
Persian-speaking area of eastern Persia.
The ancient city of Balkh, the oldest in today's Afghanistan, is associated
with the Vedic name Bhakri, which later became Bactra for the Greeks, giving
its name to Bactria. It was mostly known as the centre and capital of
Bactria or Takharistan. Balkh is now for the most part a mass of ruins,
situated some 12 km from the right bank of the seasonally-flowing Balkh
River, at an elevation of about 365 m (1,200 ft).
History of Balkh
Balkh is one of the oldest cities of the region and is
considered to be the first city to which the Indo-Iranian Aryan tribes moved
from the North of Amu Darya, approximately between 2000 - 1500 BCE. The
Arabs called it Ummul-Belaad or Mother of Cities due to its oldness and
The changing climate has led to desertification since antiquity, when the
region was very fertile. The antiquity and greatness of the place are
recognized by the native populations, who speak of it as the Mother of
Cities and the birth place of Zoroaster at Balkh and also believed by
Zoroastrians that he is buried there. Its foundation is mythically
ascribed to Keyumars, the Persian Romulus; and it is at least certain that,
at a very early date, it was the rival of Ecbatana, Nineveh and Babylon.
There is a long-standing tradition that an ancient shrine of Anahita was to
be found here, a temple so rich it invited plunder.
For a long time the city and country was the central seat of the Zoroastrian
religion, the founder of which, Zoroaster, died within the walls, according
to the Persian poet Firdousi. Armenian sources state that the Parthian Arsac
established his capital here. Some scholars believe that a number of
mythological rulers of ancient Iran e.g. some kings of Kavi Dynasty (or
Kayanian in Persian) were historically local rulers of an area centerd
around Balkh. From the Memoirs of Xuanzang, we learn that, at the time of
his visit in the 7th century, there were in the city, or its vicinity, about
a hundred Buddhist convents, with 3,000 devotees, and that there was a large
number of stupas, and other religious monuments. The most remarkable was the
Nava Vihara, which possessed a very costly statue of Buddha. The temple was
led by Kashmiri Brahmins called Pramukh (who, through the arabized form of
the name, Barmak, came to be known as the Barmakids). Shortly before the
Arabic conquest, the monastery became a Zoroastrian fire-temple. A curious
notice of this building is found in the writings of Arabian geographer Ibn
Hawqal, an Arabian traveler of the 10th century, who describes Balkh as
built of clay, with ramparts and six gates, and extending half a parasang.
He also mentions a castle and a mosque.
At the time of the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 7th century, however,
Balkh had provided an outpost of resistance and a safe haven for the Persian
emperor Yedzgird who fled there from the armies of Umar. Later, in the 9th
century, during the reign of Ya'qub bin Laith as-Saffar, Islam became firmly
rooted in the local population.
Idrisi, in the 12th century, speaks of its possessing a variety of
educational establishments, and carrying on an active trade. There were
several important commercial routes from the city, stretching as far east as
India and China.
In 1220 Genghis Khan sacked Balkh, butchered its inhabitants and levelled
all the buildings capable of defense — treatment to which it was again
subjected in the 14th century by Timur. Notwithstanding this, however, Marco
Polo could still describe it as "a noble city and a great."
In the 16th century the Uzbeks entered Balkh. The Moghul Shah Jahan
fruitlessly fought them there for several years in the 1640s. Balkh formed
the government seat of Aurangzeb in his youth. In 1736 it was conquered by
Nadir Shah. Under the Durani monarchy it fell into the hands of the Afghans;
it was conquered by Shah Murad of Kunduz in 1820, and for some time was
subject to the Emirate of Bukhara. In 1850 Mahommed Akram Khan, Barakzai,
captured Balkh, and from that time it remained under Afghan rule.
Balkh in 1911
Because of a malaria outbreak during flood season at
Balkh, the regional capital was shifted in the 1870s to Mazari Sharif.
In 1911, the Encyclopedia Britannica described a settlement of about 500
Afghan settlers, a colony of Jews and a small bazaar set in the midst of a
waste of ruins and acres of debris. Entering by the west (Akcha)
gate, one passed under three arches, in which the compilers recognized the
remnants of the former Friday Mosque (Jama Masjid). The outer walls, mostly
in utter disrepair, were estimated about 6˝-7 miles (10.5 to 11.3 km) in
perimeter. In the south-east, they were set high on a mound or rampart,
which indicated a Mongol origin to the compilers.
The fort and citadel to the north-east are built well above the town on a
barren mound and are walled and moated. There was, however, little left but
the remains of a few pillars. The Green Mosque Masjid Sabz, named for its
green-tiled dome (illustration, right), is said to be the tomb of the khwaja
Abu-Nasr Parsa (pictured to the right). Nothing but the arched entrance
remained of the former madrasa.
The town was garrisoned in 1911 by a few hundred irregulars (kasidars), the
regular troops of Afghan Turkestan being cantoned at Takhtapul, near Mazari
Sharif. The gardens to the north-east contained a caravanserai that formed
one side of a courtyard, which was shaded by a group of magnificent chenar
trees Platanus orientalis.