A nameless, sun-baked clay minaret stands against a flawless blue sky. Dating from the 12th century and missed by Ghengis Khan and his marauding armies
Image credit Lynne O’Donnell
The BBC News Magazine reports last month on the incomparable heritage sites in Balkh Province, northern Afghanistan. The ancient city of Balkh was known as the mother of all cities. “More than a decade after her first visit, Lynne O’Donnell returns with a group of archaeologists, trying to uncover more of its treasures.”
Across the far northern Afghan plain, a hot wind blows the dun-coloured dust into blinding clouds, and the women’s burkas into blue billows. It is 40C in the shade, and even the small black goats being herded through the sand dunes look sapped by the heat. These are the lowlands of Balkh, where ancient trade routes attracted nomads, warriors, settlers, adventurers and evangelists, who left behind secrets that archaeologists are just beginning to unlock. This area places Afghanistan at the heart of political, economic, social and religious power across Asia, as far back as 4,000 years ago. The last time I drove across the Bactrian plain was in 2001. I had sailed down the Amu Darya river on a barge from Uzbekistan as British and American forces were pounding the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks in the US.
I have returned 12 years later with Afghan and French archaeologists to tour some of the oldest, most magnificent and historically significant sites in the world – sites that are shedding light not only on Afghanistan’s past, but on the development of human civilisation, from India to China and beyond. The Bactrian plain is the treasure house of Afghanistan’s secret history. Across this desert, Alexander the Great marched his army, killed the king of Balkh and married his beautiful daughter, Roxanne. Some 1,500 years later, Genghis Khan swept through and destroyed teeming cities that were melting pots of diversity. The philosopher Zoroaster, founder of the first monotheistic religion 3,500 years ago, lived and possibly died here. Rumi, the 13th Century poet who wrote in Persian, was born in Balkh – and is also, some Afghans like to think, buried here.