One of the first impressions when looking at the panorama of a portion of the walls of the ancient city of Balkh (see banner at the top of this page) is its vastness. The walls encircle an area of about 1,000 acres (400 hectares) and some of the walls disappear into villages, while in other parts of the wall there live squatters. It is not without justification, that Balkh was called the mother of all cities during its prime. Archaeological excavation of the site could not begin until 2003.
According to some accounts, Zarathushtra made Balkh his home after King Vishtasp of Bakhdhi became a patron king of Zoroastrianism. By these accounts Zarathushtra also died in Balkh at the hands of a Turanian invader.
After a 1924 French excavation expedition that was looking for an ancient Alexandrian city, no professional archaeologist has been able to work in Balkh until recently, when the French returned an mapped out 135 sites of archaeological interest in the region.
The treasure of information that may lie buried at Balkh still waits to be discovered and we can only hope that any discoveries do not instigate a wave of looting.
Satellite image of ancient and modern Balkh cities. Base image courtesy Google Earth
Cheshm-e-Shafa. The City of Infidels
In the spring of 2008 French and Afghan archaeologists announced that they had uncovered the ruins of a vast, hither-to unknown, ancient city at Cheshm-e-Shafa, the City of Infidels, some 20 miles (30 kilometres) from the ruins of Balkh fortress. They found centuries-old shards of pottery mingle with spent ammunition rounds from the recent civil war on Cheshm-e-Shafa's wind-swept mountainside.
For years, villagers have dug the baked earth on the heights of Cheshm-e-Shafa for pottery and coins to sell to antique smugglers. Tracts of the site look like a battleground, scarred by craters.
The name, City of Infidels, suggests the locals knew that this was once an important Zoroastrian city. The dig team have uncovered a 6-foot-tall (2-meter-tall) anvil-like stone believed to have been an altar at a fire temple dating back to around the 6th century BCE. An Afghan working at the excavation was anxious that media coverage could bring the unwanted attention of extremists to the site.
Excavations on the heights of Cheshm-e-Shafa
Excavations on the heights of Cheshm-e-Shafa
Surkh Kotal / Atashkadeh-ye Sorkh Kowtal
Surkh Kotal seen from afar Note the wide terraces leading to the top
In the predominantly Tajik northern Afghan province of Baghlan, about 32 km (20 miles) southwest of the town of Baghlan and 18.5 km (11.5 miles) north of the provincial capital of Pol-i Khomri, on the road to Mazar-e-Sharif, are the ruins of the Atashkadeh-ye Sorkh Kowtal (also spelt Surkh Kotal), a 1st century CE Zoroastrian fire temple believed to have been built by the Kushan emperor Kaniska I (c. 50 - 120 CE) whose statue was found within the temple.
The site was excavated archaeologically by 1952 and again in 1966 by Prof. Schlumberger of the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan. The ruins have since been plundered, statues stored in a museum smashed by the Taliban, and artefacts looted. A statue of the king has been pieced together by French conservationists.
Built on the top and side of a hill, the temple complex would have been a imposing site, before its destruction, towering over the vast valley plains below. It was accessed by a long flight of steps leading to a stairwell, above which was a monumental stairway some fifty five metres high, rising in four flights, flanked by four terraces, to the temple on top of the hill.
The stairs led to a temple containing a 11m. x 11m. sanctuary - a cella - in which there was a platform flanked by four columns, and on which rested a fire altar.
The terraces of Surkh Kotal when excavated
The terraces of Surkh Kotal today
Kushan emperor Kaniska I
Altar platform inside the sanctuary
During excavations, three statues wearing trousers and a long mantle. One of the statues resembles a similar one found in Mathura, India and bears an inscription, "The great king, king of king, his majesty Kaniska." The script of the inscriptions is Greek while the language is Irano-Bactrian.
Layout plan of the sanctuary and staircase
Top sanctuary level and view of the valley plains
The texts of the inscriptions found at Surkh Kotal are similar to the the text of the inscriptions found at the Rabatak site just north of Surkh Kotal. The foundation inscription in the Bactrian language, was made up of a series of stone blocks that originally lined the front of the third terrace. One inscription at the entrance reads "Kaniska the Victorious", and another inscription records that the temple was restored by a local lord named Nukunzuk (Nokonzoko)who restored the water supply to the temple that had dried up.
Attached to the main building is a subsidiary fire-temple where a large pile of fine ash was found.
One report gives Chashma-i Shir and Sar-i Chashma as alternative names for Surkh Kotal.
Ancient Fire Temple of Naubahar / No Gombad
Video of the Atash Kadah (Fire Temple) at Naubahar / No Gombad. Narrated in the Dari / Farsi language
Design-work at the Gonbad ruins
The Naubahar / No Gombad ruins are located just south of the city of Balkh and are variously described as being those of a mosque, a Zoroastrian fire temple, and a fire temple that was converted into a Buddhist temple and then into a mosque. 'Nau' or 'no' can mean 'new' or 'nine'. 'Bahar' can mean 'spring'. 'No Gombad', a more recent name, means nine domes. The ruins are also known as Khoja Piada, Masjid-E Haji Piyada, and Haji Nau Peyodya (new walking pilgrim to Hajj). An alternative spelling is Noh Gumbad.
The indications are that the present structure, dated between 850 - 900 CE, was built over an earlier structure that could have been constructed as early as the first century BCE.
The structure measures some 20 by 20 metres or 65 by 65 feet. The design work on the columns also features a paisley-like boteh motif.
Various Islamic authors such as twelfth and thirteenth century CE Islamic authors, Yaqut ibn-Abdullah (al-Rumi) and Shams ibn-Khallikan, note that the Naubahar structure was a Zoroastrian temple. An earlier tenth century CE author, al-Masoudi, adds in Muruuju dh Dhabab that Barmak, the eponymous ancestor of the renowned Barmaki (also Barmakiyan) family was a Magian (cf. magi, Zoroastrian priests - a name that Islamic authors gave Zoroastrians) and high priest of great fire-temple at Naubahar.
The Barmaks / Barmaki / Barmakiyan
Tenth century CE Islamic author, al-Masoudi, wrote in Muruuju dh Dhabab that "He who exercised these functions (of high priest) was respected by the kings of this country and administered the wealth offered to the temple. He was called Barmak, a name given to those invested with this dignity, whence is derived the name of the Barmecides (Barmaki, from Baramika); for Khalid bin Barmak was the son of one of these great pontiffs."
The Barmakiyans appear to have adapted themselves quite well to Islamic rule, converting to Islam and making themselves indispensible to their Islamic overlords even becoming vazir (first mininster). Tenth century author, Ibn al-Nadim (a Persian with an Arabic name) is quoted as noting in his Kitab al-Fihrist (The Catalogue), that the Barmaki conversion to Islam was not considered as genuine.
Zakariya al-Qazwini (1203 - 1283 CE), another Persian author with an Arabic name, is quoted as having written in his geographical dictionary, Athar al-Bilad, that, "The Persians and Turks used to revere it (the Nawabahar temple) and perform pilgrimages to it and present offerings to it. Its length was one hundred cubits, its breadth the same, and its height somewhat more, and the care of it was invested in the Baramika. The Kings of India and China used to come to it, and when they reached it they worshipped and kissed Barmak's hand, and Barmak's rule was paramount in all these lands. And they ceased not, Barmak after Barmak, until Khurasan was conquered in the days of Uthman b. Affan and the guardship of the temple came at length to Barmak, the father of Khalid."