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 Subhan Qoli Madrasa gate is believed to date back to
the 17th century Uzbek era and commissioned by Sayyid Subhan Qoli, a son of
Nazr Muhammad who ruled Balkh from 1651 – 1681 during which time his brother served as Khan of
Bukhara. Revenues from the silk route trade allowed Subhan Qoli to commission
the construction of the madrassa and accompanying gate, an action supported by
the Sufi community in the area with which Qoli had a positive relationship.
Subhan Qoli is believed to have ceremoniously given bricks to the local
religious leaders in the area in order to lay a portion of the Madrasa’s
foundation, displaying the community’s support and mutual ownership of the Madrasa.
The Madrasa represents a period of expanding academic and religious scholarship
in Balkh during the Uzbek period. The impressive gate leading to the madrassa
is ornamented with the delicate tile work of the Timurid style, and was
photographed and documented by a number of travellers and scholars including
Robert Machesney and Josephine Powell, who photographed the ruins of the gate
in the late 20th century.
The Madrasa was a significant structure in the area, with
the wafiya noting that “it comprises lofty arches and vaulted niches, a
majestic portal, a central courtyard and two large domed rooms, one of which is
intended as a lecture hall. The Madrasa also has 150 hojras (living chambers)
on two floors.” Tile work was extensively designed in the banna’i technique.
The madrasa itself is believed to be paired with the Mazar of Khwaja Abu Nasr Parsa Shrine, a common technique in the Uzbek and Timurid time
periods that intended for one structure to mirror and eclipse another.
Originally the main gate (iwan) of a expansive madrasa,
one of the largest religious structures in Timurid Balkh (with two floors,
extensive living chambers and 24 salaries positions), the remains of the
structure are in a dilapidated state and require urgent conservation. The
damaged facades retain only a fraction of the glazed tiles that once decorated
the whole structure. The consolidation of this gate structure will ensure that another
of the few remaining historic structures (above ground) in the centre of Balkh
is consolidated and incorporated into the wider conservation initiative.
Located at the eastern perimeter of the Park, directly opposite the Khwaja
Parsa Shrine on the western edge, following its conservation the gate of the
madrassa could potentially be used as the main public access into the garden.
In order for this to occur, the structure and the valuable glazed tiles would
have to be protected, ensuring that falling debris does not injure pedestrians.
The objective of the project was to undertake essential
repair and restoration works on an important historic monument in Balkh,
employing local craftsman and daily labourers ensuring that the trained
personnel can assist with future maintenance of the site. This project will
also provide a platform for continued development of Afghan professional capacity
and training for skilled craftsmen.