The Strange Survivor Of A 12th-Century Civilization

“I am as one who is left alone at a banquet, the lights dead and the flowers faded.” —Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Last Days of Pompeii

In A Nutshell

The Ghurid dynasty was a flourishing, powerful civilization in 12th- and 13th-century Afghanistan. Little factual evidence about the civilization remains, though, and the location of the dynasty’s capital cities are largely un-excavated. One monument stands, virtually untouched, amid the city’s ruins. The Minaret of Jam is a 65-meter-tall (213 ft) tapering, cylindrical tower that’s intricately carved with Kufric inscriptions, decorated with turquoise tiles, and is amazingly intact.

The Whole Bushel

The monument is miles and miles from any modern town, standing in a valley near the meeting of the Hari-rud and Jam Rivers in Afghanistan. It’s 65 meters (213 feet) tall, and, at first glance, it’s the only man-made structure in the valley. A closer look reveals standing stones nearby, inscribed with Hebrew text. There are also the fallen remains of a few buildings, and what might have once been other towers.

Every inch of the tower’s exterior is decorated with intricate, geometric designs, Kufric script, and turquoise tiles. The script tells the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and it’s taken from the Qur’an. The base of the tower is 9 meters (29.5 feet) across, and the tower itself is made up for four superimposed levels. Inside is a double spiral staircase that rises the height of the tower, past three balconies.

It’s thought that the tower marks the center of what was once a great city called Firuzkuh. The city would have been the capital of an empire that stretched across Afghanistan and into northern India. In the 12th and 13th centuries, this area was ruled by the Ghurid dynasty; what remains of them now are more extravagant legends than actual facts.

Most of those legends come from a court chronicler named Juzjani, who was writing about the Ghurid cities in 1260. According to the stories, the capital city was a luxurious place, home to artists, poets, writers, and philosophers. Orators and scholars were renowned, and the luxuries available were staggering. Jewels, perfumes, leathers, and the finest silks were all readily available, buildings were covered with gold. The city’s riches were distributed among its residents so no one wanted for anything. Armor and weapons were all the finest around, and so were cattle, horses, camels and dogs.

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While undoubtedly there’s some exaggeration in the tales, it’s hard to tell. The massive sites around the minaret has been largely untouched by modern archaeologists. Most work done in the area – which hasn’t been much – has been aimed at preserving the still pristine minaret. After more than 800 years the monument has begun to lean, and conservation efforts have gone into stabilizing it first.

Even the purpose of the minaret isn’t known for sure. Hypothesis include a religious significance, as supported by the verses from the Qur’an. It’s not known if it was purely commemorative, though, or if it might have served a practical function like calling the citizens to prayers. It’s also been put forward that the tower was built to commemorate a military victory of some sort.

Inscriptions that have been translated have given archaeologists the construction date—1194. They’ve also referred to the minaret as the Victory Tower, which could be in reference to the contemporary emperor’s 1192 victory in Delhi over the Ghaznavid Empire.

It’s thought that the tower marks the site of a complex that was once the summer home of the emperors. Nearby are the remains of what is thought to be a mosque, but, like most of the rest of the complex, it’s been all but wiped away by the sands of time.

The city of Firuzkuh was destroyed by Mongol invaders in 1222, leaving only this single standing tribute to the powerful leaders that had once ruled a dynasty.

Show Me The Proof

UNESCO: Minaret and Archaeological Remains of Jam
The Minaret of Jam and the Ghurids

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