Balkh (ancient Bactra) is a city in northern Afghanistan. It lies on an alluvial fan to the west of Mazar-i Sharif, the modern regional center and capital of the province of Balkh. Balkh is a city of great antiquity, pre-dating the Islamic period by centuries. It gave its name to the satrapy (province) of the Achaemenid Empire known as Bactria, and remained an important regional center – at times ruled independently – during the Hellenistic and Islamic periods. Only in the mid-nineteenth century, with the growth of Mazar-i Sharif, did the ancient city lose its regional importance. Its longstanding significance was in part due to its location at the crossroads of east-west caravan networks linking Transoxiana to India.1
Islamic Balkh comprised a walled inner city or shahristan and a suburban area or rabad. The oldest section of the city dating to before the Hellenistic period is an enclosure, roughly circular in plan, known as Bala Hisar. A fortified citadel (arg) was located along its southern walls. The city expanded into the areas south and east of the original circular enclosure, and defensive walls were built around this exterior area during the Hellenistic period and renovated and extended in Islamic times under the Timurids. The modern town of Balkh lies south of the Bala Hisar in the area of expansion mentioned above.
Remains of several important Islamic monuments can be found within and surrounding the city. The oldest Islamic monument on site is the Mosque of Haji Piyadah, also known as the Masjid-i Nuh Gumbad (Mosque of Nine Domes), which likely dates to the 9th/late 2nd or early 3rd century AH. The form and ornamentation of this mosque speak to the linking of Afghanistan and the central Islamic lands, for the piers and springing of the arches that once supported its domes retain stucco ornament stylistically similar to that found at imperial Abbasid sites in Mesopotamia. At the center of the modern city stand the Timurid Shrine of Abu Nasr Parsa (d. 1459-61/864-5 AH) and the 17th century Madrasa of Sayyid Subhan Quli Khan. The Balkh oasis also boasts the remains of several pre-Islamic, Buddhist monuments. The mound known as Tepe Rustam contains the remains of a grand stupa. It is thought to be the shrine of the monastery known as Naw Bahar mentioned in many Islamic and pre-Islamic sources. The ruins of the shrine itself may be synonymous with another nearby mound known as Takht-i Rustam.
Simpson, St J., F. Hiebert, P.L. Kohl, R. Talbert, Jeffrey Becker, W. Röllig, Tom Elliott, H. Kopp, DARMC, Sean Gillies, B. Siewert-Mayer, Francis Deblauwe, and Eric Kansa, 'Bactra/Zariaspa: a Pleiades place resource', Pleiades: A Gazetteer of Past Places, 2019 https://pleiades.stoa.org/places/961886 [accessed: 05 December 2019].
The Mosque of Haji Piyadah to the southwest of Balkh is one of the oldest known monuments of Islam and the oldest known mosque in Afghanistan. Its remains stand some 3 km south of the center of the modern city of Balkh, beyond what would have been the southern perimeter of the medieval city. The modern name of the mosque comes from that of a saint buried in the small domed tomb standing immediately before the mosque entrance. Its other popular name, Nuh Gunbad, refers to the nine vaults or domes that covered the original structure. Based on its form and especially its stucco ornament, Lisa Golombek tentatively dated the building to the middle or second half of the ninth century CE/middle of the third century AH, an opinion echoed in scholarship elsewhere.1 More recently, Chahryar Adle proposed an earlier date between 794-803/178-187 AH, corresponding to the reign of Fadhl ibn Barmak as governor of Khurasan.2 After a damage assessment made by the Délégation archéologique française en Afghanistan in 2006, conservation on the building was performed by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in 2010.
Today the site is surrounded by a rural landscape and no connection to any nearby village is evident. However, recent research in to the historical topography of the surrounding area suggests that it was located in the enclosure of Naw Bahar, a large Buddhist monastery pre-dating the rise of Islam and therefore one of the most significant areas in the Balkh oasis.3
The mosque is built of mud and baked bricks and covered with plaster. As its remains stand today, it comprises a square, columned prayer hall and forecourt aligned with the qibla on a northeast-southwest axis. The square prayer hall measures twenty-meters per side on the exterior. Inside, the space is divided into nine bays by six thick columns in two rows three deep. Arches spring from these columns and join the side walls on pairs of engaged columns. Based on the structure of this hall and debris found in the rubble, it appears that small cupolas made of brick masonry covered each of the nine bays created by the free-standing and engaged columns. It is this structure that gives the mosque the popular name “Nuh Gunbad.” The north wall of the prayer hall was originally pierced by three arched openings, but these were later filled in. A square tomb chamber associated with the grave of Haji Piyadah adjoins the infilled northern wall of the prayer hall.
The prayer hall communicates with the forecourt through a triple-arched portico. Recent excavations revealed parts of a low barrier constructed of baked bricks that crossed part of this portico, acting as a sort of railing or screen. The remains of a stair-minaret the may have led to the roof of the mosque were excavated on the southern corner of the prayer hall.4
The walls of the prayer halls appear to have been coated in plaster without carved or painted decoration. Carved stucco decoration covered the bases of the pillars, their capitals, as well as the soffits and spandrels of the arches that sprung from them. The short screen-walls on the courtyard façade and the lower half of the mosque’s second mihrab (later rebuilt) also featured carved stucco decoration. In general, the decoration consists of vine scrolls and other vegetal elements. On the spandrels, these are encapsulated within interlacing geometric frames. The decoration, with five-lobed leaves tightly wound in repeating vine scrolls and framed within a geometric grid, is reminiscent of Mesopotamian ornament of the ninth century. Comparisons are frequently made to the deeply-cut styles of carved stucco ornament at Samarra.5 There is also a relationship to the ornament found in the earliest levels at the Mosque of Isfahan.
The mosque’s remains as they stand today represent the result of at least three building phases. The mihrab was reconstructed twice, for example. The north wall of the prayer hall was also enclosed and the tomb of Haji Piyadah constructed into it at a later date. As mentioned above, the dating of the original construction, which includes the exuberant stucco decoration of the pillars and arches, is a matter of debate. The dating of the building to the mid ninth-century or later rests on the assumption that the ornament and possibly the nine-bay plan are derivatives from styles that had become popular in the central Islamic lands during the Abbasid period and later diffused to the provinces. Adle's suggestion that the mosque dates to the end of the eighth/second century AH is based on several observations. First, he points out that the ornament only reflects part of the repertoire of imperial Samarra and relates to ornament used on other Iranian monuments tentatively dated earlier. Second, he suggests that the likely site of the mosque in the enclosure of Naw Bahar and the high quality of its architecture points to the Barmakids as possible patrons. The Barmakids were a powerful dynasty of Abbasid viziers whose ancestors were stewards of the Buddhist temples there and thus had both a connection to the landscape and the wealth and resources to construct a magnificent monument. Fadhl ibn Barmak was made governor of the eastern provinces, including Balkh, under Harun al-Rashid, and arrived in the city in 794/178 AH, providing a terminus post quem for the possibility of his founding a mosque.6
Golombek 1969, Finster 1994.
Philippe Marquis et al., “Haji Piada/Noh Gonbad: Works Carried Out by the French Archaeological Delegation.” In Nine Domes of the Universe, 51-52.
For the low wall and stair minaret, see Adle 2011, 575 and 585, respectively.
For a detailed discussion of the ornament, see Finster 1994.
Adle, Chaharyar. “La mosquée Hāji-Piyādah/Noh-Gonbadān à Balkh (Afghanistan). Un chef d’oeuvre de Fazl le Barmacide construit en 178-179/794-795?” Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Inscriptions 155:1 (2011): 565-625. Reprinted in Nine Domes of the Universe, 200-261.
Ball, Warwick. Archaeological Gazetteer of Afghanistan, Cat. 410. Revised Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.
Finster, Barbara. Frühe Iranische Moscheen, 175-181. Berlin: D. Reimer, 1994.
December 5, 2019 (AKDC Staff): Data edited (date changed to ca. 9th c. based on new research, preferred name changed to Masjid-i Haji Piyadah, alternate names added); Description expanded; References added.