Home > Endangered minaret puts Afghanistan on World Heritage list - Updated: 24-09-2002 10:32 am
26-06-2002 10:00 pm - Budapest - The Minaret of Jam, which rises 65 metres above the floor of a narrow valley in west-central Afghanistan, has today been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The tower, with its elaborate lace-like brickwork, is the world’s second tallestminaret, and is of considerable importance to the history of Islamic civilization and architecture.
The site, which includes surrounding archaeological remains, is the first in Afghanistan to feature on the List. But it is also a site under serious threat and, for this reason, has also been added to the List of World Heritage in Danger.
The Minaretof Jam was built in 1194 by Sultan Ghiyath al-din Mohammed Ibn Sam (1163-1202) in the province of Ghur. It is made of fired brick and covered with geometric and floral motifs and Kufic inscriptions, using a technique developed in Bukhara in the 10th century. The richness of the decoration marks the high point of an artistic tradition that lasted a few decades longer until the fall of the Ghurid Dynasty in the early 13th century. The Minaret of Jam was the inspiration for New Delhi’s Qutb Minar minaret,which is the tallest in the world.
Built on the south bank of the Hari-rud River, some 1,900 metres above sea-level, the Minaret of Jam was forgotten for centuries before being rediscovered on August 18, 1957 by an expedition led by Ahmed Ali Kohzad, president of the Afghan Historical Society, and French archaeologist André Maricq, who described it as follows: “The landscape opened up. The torrent we were near emptied into the Hari-rud River and just where the two met, amid a ring of sombre mountains, rose the golden silhouette of this huge tower, enhanced by a band of blue tiling around it (...) The sight of this giant decorated tower is just magical.”
The minaret’s beauty is not its only attraction. It is also a very important key to understanding the history of the Ghurid Dynasty and medieval Islam, and, in this regard much of its mystery has yet to be unveiled. Historians and archaeologists have wondered for decades about its initial purpose. Was it part of a mosque, even though there is nosign of one? Or some kind of “victory tower” to glorify the Ghurids, who had built an empire and conquered Delhi? Was it, indeed, the site of Firuzkoh, the Ghurid capital destroyed by the Mongols and which has never been found?
Some answers may be hidden in the ruins of a fortress, a palace and a wall with lookout towers that stand on the north side of the river. Stones with Hebrew inscriptions have also been found not far away, suggesting the existence of a Jewish cemetery. They were discovered in the early 1960s by Italian architect Andrea Bruno, now a UNESCO consultant, and taken to Kabul Museum. The site also includes the remains of a bazaar, destroyed in 1964 to make way for a hotel. Scientific excavations may soon tell us more about the true history of Jam. Unless, that is, thieves have left nothing behind.
For years, the unguarded site has been the target of illegal excavations and looting. Experts say many items from the Ghurid Period have vanished. Sections of the minaret’s elaborate brickwork have been torn out and stones have been removed from the wall to be reused elsewhere. When Andrea Bruno led an expedition there in March this year, he noted many illegal digs along the north bank of the river.
Built at the junction of two rivers, the Hari-rud and the Jam-rud, the minaret is also threatened by water infiltration that could undermine it. Stabilisation work to cope with a slight leaning has been started and needs to be continued. Another problem is a planned road that would cross the archaeological part of the site.
These numerous threats have led the World Heritage Committee to add the site to the List of World Heritage in Danger. Being on both Lists (the World Heritage List and the List of Endangered Sites) serves to mobilise the international community so that emergency steps to protect the site can be taken.
UNESCO’s aim with the List of World Heritage in Danger is to persuade the international community of the need to boost the protection of these sites threatened by mining, industrial pollution, looting, war, badly managed tourism, poaching and the like. Once they are on the List, they usually get more effective attention at national level and more international funding.
The inclusion of Jam takes the number of sites on the List of World Heritage in Danger to 32, along with: Butrint (Albania), the Royal Palaces of Abomey (Benin), the Srebarna Nature Reserve (Bulgaria), Angkor (Cambodia), the Manovo-Gounda St. Floris Natural Park (Central African Republic),the Mount Nimba Nature Reserve (Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea), five parks and reserves in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Sangay National Park (Ecuador), Abu Mena (Egypt), the Simen National Park (Ethiopia), the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve (Honduras), the Manas Wildlife Sanctuary and Group of Monuments at Hampi (India), the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls (a site proposed by Jordan), Timbuktu (Mali), the Air and Ténéré Natural Reserves (Niger), Bahla Fort (Oman), the Fort and Shalamar Gardens inLahore (Pakistan), the Chan Chan Archaeological Zone (Peru), the Rice
Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras (Philippines), the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary (Senegal), the Ichkeul National Park (Tunisia), the Rwenzori Mountains National Park (Uganda), Yellowstone and the Everglades National Park (United States), the Historic Town of Zabid (Yemen) and the Natural and Culturo-Historical Region of Kotor (Yugoslavia).