|Ruins of the Masjid Sabz (the "Green Mosque"), named for its tiled dome (in July 2001)|
|BalkhLocation in Afghanistan|
|Coordinates: 36°45′N 66°54′E / 36.750°N 66.900°E / 36.750; 66.900|
|1,198 ft (365 m)|
Balkh (Persian/Pashto: بلخ Balkh; Bactrian: Baktra) was an ancient city and centre of Zoroastrianism in what is now northern Afghanistan. Today it is a small town in the province of Balkh, about 20 kilometers northwest of the provincial capital, Mazar-e Sharif, and some 74 km (46 mi) south of the Amu Darya. It was one of the major cities of Khorasan, since the latter's earliest history. Marco Polo described Balkh as a "noble and great city".
The ancient city of Balkh was under the Greeks renamed Bactra, giving its name to Bactria. It was mostly known as the centre and capital of Bactria or Tokharistan. 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).
Outside the town was a large Buddhist monastery, later known as Naubahar.Contents
Balkh is one of the oldest cities in the world and is considered to be the first city to which the Indo-Iranian tribes moved from the North of Amu Darya, between 2000 - 1500 BC. The Arabs called it Umm Al-Belaad or Mother of Cities due to its antiquity. The city was traditionally a center of Zoroastrianism. The name Zariaspa, which is either an alternate name for Balkh or a term for part of the city, may derive from the important Zoroastrian fire temple Azar-i-Asp. Balkh was regarded as the place where Zoroaster first preached his religion, as well as the place where he died.Map showing Balkh (here indicated as Bactres), the capital of Bactria
Since the Indo-Iranians built their first kingdom in Balkh (Bactria, Daxia, Bukhdi) some scholars believe that it was from this area that different waves of Indo-Iranians spread to north-east Iran and Seistan region, where they, in part, became today's Persians, Pashtuns, and Baluch people of the region. Modern Tajiks of Balkh province and surrounding areas are also descended from ancient bactrians. The period between 26th and 20th century BC was the most important period in the history of Balkh; it's in this relatively short period that a kingdom was established, then the population started to disperse and the kingdom started to shrink until the Median and Persian empires in 700 BC, around 1000 years later. The changing climate has led to desertification since antiquity, when the region was very fertile. The city's long history and former importance are recognized by the native population, who speak of it as the Mother of Cities and the place of Zoroaster's death. Its foundation is mythically ascribed to Keyumars, the first king of the world in Persian legend ; 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 Firdowsi. 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 Kayanians (or Kayanian in Persian) were historically local rulers of an area centered near Balkh where now is known as Iran.
Alexander the Great married Roxana of Bactria after killing the king of Balkh. The city was the capital of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom and was besieged for three years by the Seleucid Empire (208–206 BC). After demise of Greco Bactrian kingdom, it was ruled by Indo-Scythians, Parthians, Indo-Parthians, Kushan Empire, Indo-Sassanids, Kidarites, Hephthalite Empire and Sassanids before arrival of Arabs.
The chinese pilgrim Fa-Hein (c.400) found the Hinayana prevalent in Shan Shan , Kucha , Kashgar, Osh, Udayana and Gandhara. Hsuan-tsang also notices that Buddhism was widely practiced by the Huns rulers of Balkh who descended from Indian royalties.
In literature, Balkh has been described as Balhika, Valhika or Bahlika. Balkh town is well-known to Buddhist countries because of two great Buddhist monks of Afghanistan - Trapusa and Bahalika. There are two stupas over their relics. As per a popular legend, Buddhism was introduced in Balkh by Bhallika, disciple of Buddha and the city derives its name from him. He was a merchant of the region and had come from Bodhgaya. First Vihara at Balkh was built for Bhallika when he returned home after becoming a Buddhist monk. Xuanzang visited Balkh in 630 when it was a flourishing centre of Hinayana Buddhism. People called the city ‘Little Rajagriha’ since it housed many sacred relics.
According to Memoirs of Xuanzang, there were about a hundred Buddhist convents in the city or its vicinity at the time of his visit there in the 7th century. There were 30,000 monks and a large number of stupas and other religious monuments. The most remarkable stupa was the Navbahara (Sanskrit, Now Vihara: New Monastery), which possessed a very grand statue of Buddha. 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.
Furthermore we know that a number of Buddhist religious centres had flourished in Khorasan the most important was the Nawbahar (New Temple) near the town of Balkh , which evidently served as a pilgrimage centre for political leaders who came from far and wide to pay homage to it.
A large number of Sanskrit medical, pharmacological toxicological texts were translated into Arabic under the patronage of Khalid, the vizier of AL-Mansur. Khalid was the son of a chief priest of a Buddhist monastery. Some of the family were killed when the Arabs captured Balkh; others including Khalid survived by converting to Islam. They were to be known as the Barmikis of Baghdad.Arab InvasionA silver dirham of the Umayyad Caliphate, minted at Balkh al-Baida in AH 111 (= 729/30 CE).
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.
Arabs occupied Persia in 642 (during the Caliphate of Uthman, 644–656 AD). Attracted by grandeur and wealth of Balkh, they attacked it in 645 AD. It was only in 653 when Arab commander, al-Ahnaf raided the town again and compelled it to pay tribute. The Arab hold over the town, however, remained tenuous. The area was brought under Arabs' control only after it was reconquered by Muawiya in 663 AD. Prof. Upasak describes the effect of this conquest in these words: "The Arabs plundered the town and killed the people indiscriminately. It is said that they raided the famous Buddhist shrine of Nava-Vihara, which the Arab historians call 'Nava Bahara' and describe it as one of the magnificent places which, comprised a range of 360 cells around the high stupas'. They plundered the gems and jewels that were studded on many images and stupas and took away the wealth accumulated in the Vihara but probably did no considerable harm to other monastic buildings or to the monks residing there".
The Arab attacks had little effect on the normal ecclesiastical life in the monasteries or Balkh Buddhist population outside. Buddhism continued to flourish with their monasteries as the centres of Buddhist learning and training. Scholars, monks and pilgrims from China, India and Korea continued to visit this place.
Several revolts were made against the Arab rule in Balkh.
The Arabs' control over Balkh could not last long as it soon came under the rule of a local prince, called Nazak (or Nizak) Tarkhan. He threw out Arabs from his territories in 670 or 671. He was a zealous Buddhist. He is said to have not only reprimanded the Chief-Priest (Barmak) of Nava-Vihara but beheaded him for embracing Islam. As per another account, when Balkh was conquered by the Arabs, the head priest of the Nava-Vihara had gone to the capital and became a Muslim. This displeased the people of the Balkh. He was deposed and his son was placed in his position.
Nazak Tarkhan is also said to have murdered not only the Chief Priest but also his sons. Only a young son was saved. He was taken by his mother to Kashmir where he was given training in medicine, autonomy and other sciences. Later they returned to Balkh. Prof. Maqbool Ahmed observes," One is tempted to think that the family originated from Kashmir, for in time of distress, they took refuge in the Valley. Whatever it be, their Kashmiri origin is undoubted and this also explains the deep interest of the Barmaks, in later years, in Kashmir, for we know they were responsible for inviting several scholars and physicians from Kashmir to the Court of Abbasids." Prof. Maqbool also refers to the descriptions of Kashmir contained in the report prepared by the envoy of Yahya bin Barmak. He surmises that the envoy could have possibly visited Kashmir during the reign of Samgramapida II (797–801). Reference has been made to sages and arts.
The Arabs could bring Balkh under their control in 715 AD only, in spite of strong resistance offered by the Balkh people during the Umayyad period. Qutayba ibn Muslim al-Bahili, an Arab General was Governor of Khurasan and the east from 705 to 715. He established a firm Arab hold in lands beyond the Oxus. He fought and killed Tarkhan Nizak in Tokharistan (Bactria) in 715. In the wake of Arab conquest the resident monks of the Vihara were either killed or forced to abandon their faith. The Viharas were razed to the ground. Priceless treasures in the form of manuscripts in the libraries of monasteries were consigned to ashes. Presently, only the ancient wall of the town, which once encircled it, stands partially. Nava-Vihara stands in ruins, near Takhta-i-Rustam. The Umayyad period lasted until 747, Abu Muslim captured it for the Abbasids during his rebellion against them.
In 870, Ya'qub ibn al-Layth al-Saffar rebelled against Abbasid rule and founded Saffarid dynasty at Sistan. He captured present Afghanistan and most of present Iran. During Saffarid rule, bright period of it was started. Amr ibn al-Layth, successor of him intended to capture Transoxiana from the Samanids, were nominally vassals of Abbasids. But, he was defeated and captured by Ismail Samani at Battle of Balkh in 900. He was sent to caliph of Abbasid as prisoner and was executed in 902. Thus, power of Saffarids was waned and they were become vassals of Samanids. Thus Balkh was passed to them. Samanid rule of Balkh was lasted till 997, Ghaznavids, former subordinates of them capturing it. In 1006, Balkh was captured by Karakhanids but Ghaznavids recaptured it 1008. Finally Seljuks captured it in 1059. In 1115, irregular Oghuz Turks occupied and looted in. Between 1141 and 1142, it was captured by Atsiz, Shah of Khwarezm after Seljuk's defeat to Kara Khitan at Battle of Qatwan. Ahmad Sanjar decisively defeated army of Ghurids, commanded by Ala al-Din Husayn and he took prisoner him for 2 years before releasing as vassal of Seljuks. At next year, he marched against rebellious Oghuz Turks from Khuttal and Tukharistan. But he was defeated twice and was captured after second battle in Merv. Oghuzs looted Khorasan after their victory. Balkh was nominally ruled by Mahmud Khan, former khan of Western Karakhanids but real power was in Muayyid al-Din Ay Aba, amir of Nishabur for 3 years. Sanjar finally escaped from captivity and returned to Merv through Termez. He died in 1157 and Balkh was passed to Mahmud Khan before his death in 1162. It was captured by Khwarezmshahs in 1162, by Kara Khitans in 1165, by Ghurids in 1198 and again by Khwarezmshahs in 1206.
Muhammad al-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 seat of learning.". Ibn Battuta visited Balkh towards 1335 during rule of Kartids, were vassals of Ilkhanate till 1335 and described it as a city still in ruins. It wasn't reconstructed until 1338. It was captured by Tamerlane in 1389 and its citadel was destroyed. But, Shah Rukh, successor of him rebuilt citadel in 1407.Modern times
In 1506 Uzbeks entered Balkh under command of Muhammad Shaybani. They were briefly driven by Safavids in 1510. Babur ruled Balkh between 1511 and 1512 as vassals of Safavids. But he was defeated twice by Khanate of Bukhara and was forced to retire to Kabul. Balkh was ruled by Bukhara except Safavid rule between 1598 and 1601. The Moghul Shah Jahan fruitlessly fought them there for several years in the 1640s. Nevertheless Balkh was ruled by Mughal Empire between 1641 and 1647. Balkh was the government seat of Aurangzeb in his youth. In 1736 it was conquered by Nadir Shah. After assassination of he, Hadji Khan, was local Uzbek declared independence of Balkh in 1747. But he was submitted to Bukhara in 1748. Under the Durani monarchy it fell into the hands of the Afghans in 1752. Bukhara regained it in 1793. It was conquered by Shah Murad of Kunduz in 1826, and for some time was subject to the Emirate of Bukhara. In 1850, Dost Mohammad Khan, the Emir of Afghanistan, captured Balkh, and from that time it remained under Afghan rule. In 1866, Balkh lost its administrative status to the neighboring city of Mazar-e Sharif.Balkh in 1911
Because of a malaria outbreak during flood season at Balkh, the regional capital was shifted in the 1866 to Mazar-e Sharif.
In 1911 Balkh comprised a settlement of about 500 houses of 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 6½–7 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 were built well above the town on a barren mound and were walled and moated. There was, however, little left of them but the remains of a few pillars. The Green Mosque Masjid Sabz, named for its green-tiled dome (see photograph top right corner) and said to be the tomb of the Khwaja Abu Nasr Parsa, had nothing but the arched entrance remaining of the former madrasa.
The town was garrisoned by a few thousand 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 chenar trees Platanus orientalis.Balkh today
A project of modernization was undertaken in 1934, in which eight streets were laid out, housing and bazaars built. Modern Balkh is a center of the cotton industry, of the skins known commonly the West as "Persian lamb" (Karakul), and for agricultural produce like almonds and melons.
The site, and the museum, have suffered from looting and uncontrolled digging in the recent wars.Main sights Ancient ruins of BalkhRemains of a Hellenistic capital found in Balkh.
No professional archaeologist had ever been able to work at Balkh until 2003 when excavations started to identify early strata down to the period of the Achaemenids and the Greeks. Remains of Hellenistic capitals were found, identified as remnants of the Seleucid and Greco-Bactrian city of Bactra.
The earlier Buddhist constructions have proved more durable than the Islamic period buildings. The Top-Rustam is 50 yd (46 m) in diameter at the base and 30 yd (27 m) at the top, circular and about 50 ft (15 m) high. Four circular vaults are sunk in the interior and four passages have been pierced below from the outside, which probably lead to them. The base of the building is constructed of sun-dried bricks about 2 ft (600 mm) square and 4 or 5 in (100 to 130 mm) thick. The Takht-e Rustam is wedge-shaped in plan with uneven sides. It is apparently built of pisé mud (i.e. mud mixed with straw and puddled). It is possible that in these ruins we may recognize the Nava Vihara described by the Chinese traveller Xuanzang. There are the remains of many other topes (or stupas) in the neighborhood.
The mounds of ruins on the road to Mazar-e Sharif probably represent the site of a city yet older than those on which stands the modern Balkh.Others
Numerous places of interest are to be seen today aside from the ancient ruins and fortifications:
The Balkh Museum was formerly the second largest museum in the country, but its collection has suffered from looting in recent times.
The museum is also known as the "Museum of the Blue Mosque", from the building it shares with a religious library. As well as exhibits from the ancient ruins of Balkh, the collection includes works of Islamic art including a 13th-century Quran, and examples of Afghan decorative and folk art. The museum receives about 100 visitors a day.Cultural role
Balkh had a major role in the development of the Persian language and literature. The early works of Persian literature were written by poets and writers who were originally from Balkh.
Many famous Persian poets came from Balkh, e.g.:
The name of province or country appear in Old Persian inscriptions (B.h.i 16; Dar Pers e.16; Nr. a.23) as Bāxtri, i.e. Bakhtri. It is written in the Avesta Bāxδi. From this latter came the intermediate form Bāxli, Sanskrit Bahlīka, Balhika ‘Bactrian,’, Armenian Bahl, and by transposition, the modern Persian Balx, i.e. Balkh"
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