The Minaret of Jam

In a remote valley in Ghor province stands one of the most famous monuments of Afghanistan, the Minaret of Jam. The Hari Rud River flows rapidly by the lonely tower which is surrounded by barren mountains. The road is difficult to find and can only be negotiated by jeep or sports utility vehicle. After the village of Shahrak, a track to the left leads to the river where the minaret stands in complete isolation. It was only discovered in 1957 by an expedition led by Ahmad Ali Kohzad, president of the Afghan Historical Society and French archeologist Andre Maricq, although rumors of its existence had been circulating for some time. Built in the 12th century, it is the only well-preserved monument of the Ghorid period. It is 65m in height, ranking second in the Islamic world, after the Kutub Minar in Delhi (73m) which was inspired by the Minaret.

It consists of a low octagonal base some 8m across and three cylindrical stages. It is accessible through a set of double spiral staircases that run from the base to the circular top. The first is decorated with geometrical patterns in fired bricks, arranged in panels separated by vertical bands of Kufi calligraphy etched in stucco and accented with turquoise ceramics. A wide horizontal band of blue tiles with more Kufi inscription runs around the top end in which, in a line of naskhi, the name of the calligrapher is given as 'Ali'. The inscription includes the complete Sura 19 of the Holy Quran entitled as Maryam, the mother of Jesus. It speaks about Virgin Birth and numerous prophets such as Adam, Noah, Moses, Aaron, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Ishmael and Enoch. The second and third stages are decorated with horizontal bands of inscriptions, again in fired bricks. The stages were originally separated by galleries, which have not survived. Along the shaft are several balconies and at the top is a large lantern which has also collapsed. The Persian and Central Asian tradition can be seen in its rich ornament of glazed tiles, stucco, the profusion of carved bricks and the use of wooden tie-beams in the structure, which differ from the contemporary Ghorid monuments in India.

The inscriptions confirm that the minaret was erected by Sultan Ghiyas ud-Din Muhammad ben Sam Ghuri (1163-1203), the ruler of Ghor. It was built, in all probability, around 1194 and is often linked with the legendary Ghorid capital, Firuzkuh (meaning 'turquoise mountain'), which was destroyed by Ghengis Khan in 1222 and has never been found since. There is no conclusive evidence, however, to draw a definite link.

The minaret's beauty is not its only attraction. It is also of considerable importance to understanding the history of the Ghorid Dynasty and the history of Islamic civilization and architecture. In this regard, much of its mystery has yet to be unveiled. Historians and archaeologists have wondered for decades about its initial purpose. A topographical survey of the site was made by Herberg and Davary, which showed in the immediate neighborhood of the minaret the ruins of a citadel, a small fort on a hill guarding a side-valley, three watch-towers, a water reservoir on top of the hill above the citadel and the remnants of a bazaar area. However, all these remains seem to be those of a medium-sized fort or a military camp rather than a capital city. Apart from this, the space immediately east of the minaret is not large enough to accommodate a mosque. The river valley upstream from the site is impassable by road and no communication between Herat and Kabul could have passed that way. One theory is that it was a victory tower built to commemorate some forgotten event. Accordingly, the minaret remains a mystery.

Perhaps more important in terms of immediacy is that threats continue to plague the Minaret. For years, the unguarded site has been the target of illegal excavations and looting. Experts say many items from the Ghorid Period have vanished. Sections of the minaret's elaborate brickwork have been torn out and stones have been removed from the wall to be reused elsewhere. Today, there are many illegal digs along the north bank of the river.

The minaret is also in danger of collapsing. Built at the junction of two rivers -the Hari Rud and the Jam Rud- the minaret is also threatened by water infiltration that could undermine it. A rescue operation originally undertaken by UNESCO in 1974, restarted in 1999 was completed in 2001. Also, although stabilization work to cope with a slight leaning has started, it will remain a persistent problem. Finally, another problem is a planned road that would cross the archaeological part of the site.

These threats have led UNESCO's World Heritage Committee to add the site, which is already on its “World Heritage List,” to the “World Heritage in Danger List” in an effort to raise awareness of the plight of the Minaret of Jam in the international community.