Lost and found.A cultural tower of Babel or a stairway to heaven. In a mountain valley of Afghanistan a French explorer discovered this ancient Ghorid tower, previously known only to legend. It is an artifact, an imposing one, of Ghurid and Ismailis, also known as the Assassin  presence of whom David C. Thomas has termed the ”old men of the mountain”. Deep in the valley of Jham in central Afghanistan rushes the river of Hari Rud, whose winding course for centuries led conquerorsand adventurers eastward in search of new worlds. To the north in ancient Bactria, the ”mother of cities”, Zoroaster preached the supremacy of one God thousands of years ago. It was here and in Gandhara to the south that the Mecedonian warriors of Alexander the Great molded a Graeco-Buddhist culture and left a legacy of form to the first Buddha image; that of a Greek god. Into this cauldron of ideologies, in the seventh century A.D. swept the power of Islam.

Minaret of Jham

Minaret of Jham

The minaret of Jham, standing beside the Hari Rud, testifies to the strength of the Moslem empire by the twelfth century, when the princes of ancient Ghor built this funerary monument. Soaring over sixty meters high, the minaret is a stone tower covered with decorative panels and Kufic inscription. However, the strangest thing about it is that no traveler from the outside world had reported seeing it and no one knew for sure that it existed until 1957, when Andre Maricq, a member of the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan, was drawn to Ghor by the local legend of a great minaret.

”Striking parallels exist between these two dynasties – marginalised and despised by their neighbours, they established secure mountain strongholds, which acted as refuges and bases from which to expand.They reached their zenith under charismatic and astute leaders, who extended Ismā‘īlī and Ghūrid domains far beyond their heartlands. Ultimately, however, both dynasties succumbed to invading nomad armies from the steppe – the Khwārizm-Shāh and then Ögedey’s Mongol armies overran the Ghūrids in 619/1222, while thirty-five years later, Hülegü’s Mongol armies forced the surrender and dismantlement of the Ismā‘īlī fortresses. Both dynasties were lost to the vagaries of history – all that remains, apart from the tumbled stones of their fortresses, are the often biased and exaggerated accounts of medieval chroniclers.jham2

Amidst the similarities between the Ismailis and the Ghurids, distinct differences are evident which help to explain their changing fortunes. The Ismailis were an oppressed Shi‘a minority, viewed as heretics by the majority of their Muslim brethren. Consequently, they developed a strong sense of  identity and ideology that ensured unquestioning allegiance to their ‘Grand Master’. Ismaili leaders generally recognised their limitations, and modified their goals and tactics in the light of the prevailing
political and military circumstances. The Ghurids were more prone to internecine rivalries, but once united, they were territorially more ambitious than the Ismailis. Seizing upon the weaknesses of their neighbours, they rapidly accumulated an empire stretching from eastern Iran to Bengal in India. The primary purpose of Ghurid expansion, however, seems to have been to extract tribute and appropriate booty. These external sources of income enabled them to aggrandise their urban centres and sustain a population beyond the natural carrying capacity of the land.

Jham, or Jam is one of the most spectacualar monuments in the Islamic world. Constructed of baked brick, the exterior is lavishly decorated with terra cotta, stucco and blue glazed tiles. Despite its renown, the monument has remained enigmatic, its date uncertain, its function disputed, and an immediate architectural relationship that both contested and elusive. Much concerns the nature of the term ”Islamic art” and the desire to deconstruct the term itself from its cultural interface and expose its heterodoxy; a deconstruction of the nature of the Muslim self and a distancing from the homogeneity of the relationship between Islam and non Muslim ”others”. It appears that the Jham minaret is marker between the Eastern Muslim traditions of India and that of the Western Muslim civilization.

The inscription on the blue ”kashis” extols the name of the great Ghorid sultan. ”The august king of kings Ghiyath ud-Din Abu’l Fath, glorifier of Islam and the faithful, companion of Emir of the faithful”. It was this sultan who from his mountain fastness sent a swift and overpowering army in 1193 for the conquest of Delhi in India and whose dynasty, for a brief span of years, ruled an empire extending from the farthest reaches of India to the borders of Babylonia. mariq, who found the rubble of a sizeable city near the great minaret, supposed that it marked the site of the lost Ghor capital of Firuzkoh.

” I entered the minaret, which is in a remarkable state of preservation, by a narrow aperture about 12 feet from the ground, at which point the walls are seven feet thick and constructed of flat fired bricks, about two inches high and  eight inches square. A spiral staircase leads to a vaulted platform through which I passed to the second stage. Steplike bricks projecting from the side of the drum lead through other platforms and enabled me to climb within a few feet of the top. Descending, I was surprised to find that I came to a different aperture to that which I had entered. It was twice as far from the ground! I had to return before I solved the mystery-there were two spiral staircases. It must have been an advanced architectural problem to fit them into so narrow a shaft.” ( Michael Alexander, 1958 )

”The other type is the superstitious to which belong the fetish- worshipping varieties of Buddhist and Hindu and pagan (Equatorial Africa and Polynesia) with their paraphernalia of miracles, sacrifices, priestcraft, penance, vicarious atonements and the like. It is up to the missionary to show that the Christian form of such things is superior to the local variety and the difficulty is usually insuperable. The native can produce much bigger and more improbable miracles, a much more terrifying demonology, a far more fascinating pantheon, with a more alluring (and, so to say, actual) ritual than even the papist. The native perhaps seems little reason why he should not accept Christianity, but certainly none at all why he should discard his own beliefs which seem to him more vivid and more veracious, better adapted and better attested than the new. It is in fact only among the very lowest class of superstitious savages that Christianity makes any headway. Where Christian and Moslem missions are in direct rivalry, Islam collects the higher and Christianity the lower sections of the society.” ( Aleister Crowley )

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