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].
Built between the early eight century and the first half of the ninth century CE, the Noh Gunbad Mosque is believed to be the oldest and most important early Islamic-era building in Afghanistan and possibly in the wider region.
With its original features it stands out as an early example of an innovative style for mosques, probably influenced by pre-existing Irano-Sassanid patterns. The exquisite and rare stucco decorations that remain on the columns and arches are believed to be in early Abbasid or Samanid styles and the building has been placed on a tentative list in UNESCO's World Heritage List. With all nine domes collapsed, the three standing columns and two arches constitute the architectural and artistic core of the site. Badly damaged by time and disregard, the risk of structural failure of the arches in the event of an earthquake is extremely high.
The structural instability of one of the remaining four freestanding columns has resulted in severe damage to the main arch that rests upon this column, threatening the structural integrity of the whole site and the survival of the plaster decorations.
The Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) is completing a project to stabilize the damaged column and arch and to protect the plaster decoration. This project is being implemented together with Afghan authorities from the Ministry of Information and Culture and local institutions in Balkh province, and coordinated with international partners including the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA), Associazione Giovanni Secco Suardo / World Monuments Fund, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), UNESCO and other technical partners.
The restoration is being undertaken withsupport from the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation of the US Government.
Source: Aga Khan Trust for Culture
Masjid-i No Gunbad (Vernacular)
Nuh Gunbad (Variant)
Nu Gumbad (Variant)
Masjid Hadji Piyade (Haji Piyada) (Variant)
Tarikh Khaneh (Variant)
Masjid-i Tarikh (Variant)
Noh Gunbad (Variant)
Mid-8th to early 9th century, restoration 2010 and ongoing