The Balkh Art and Cultural Heritage Project 
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Introduction to Balkh

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Shrine to Ali in Mazar-i Sharif, Balkh ProvinceShrine to Ali in Mazar-i Sharif, Balkh Province.Why study Balkh?

Historical Balkh is an important place to study for three main reasons. First, it has survived over more than four millennia; secondly, it has the untarnished reputation as a city of great scholarship and mysticism; and thirdly, it is noted for an exceptional level of mercantile achievement. Balkh is a major historical site, but about the place itself we know very little. This is why the Balkh Art and Cultural Heritage Project was established in 2011 (see Our research Section for details).

Where is Balkh?

Historical Balkh is located in the northwestern part of Afghanistan. The region is at the fringe of Afghanistan, and as fringes go, it is not easily accommodated in one or another of the major areas of the present or the past. One scholar, Richard Foltz, clearly situates Balkh (together with Mawara' al-nahr, 'the land across the river', i.e. the Oxus, but not the rest of Afghanistan) within Central Asia. Map showing the city of Balkh in Afghanistan. Source: Google Maps.Map showing the city of Balkh in Afghanistan. Source: Google Maps.According to the Fada'il-i Balkh written in the late 12th century AD, Balkh came into direct or indirect contact with places, such as Badakhshan (shared today between Afghanistan and Tajikistan and bordering the Pamir Mountains); China (chin wa ma-chin); Tirmidh, Bukhara and Samarqand (in today's Uzbekistan); the generic area of 'Turkistan' which includes places like Ferghana (in today's Kazakhstan); the Bamiyan Valley and al-hind/hindustan; and to a lesser extent with Kuhistan (in today's Iran) and Merv (Turkmenistan). Seen in this light, early Islamic Balkh can be securely placed within a Central Asian context, with significant links to South Asia.


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This video was produced by Matthias Naue, while conducting fieldwork for the numismatic research of the Balkh Art and Cultural Heritage Project with Professor Stefan Heidemann in Kabul, in the autumn of 2013. During their cleaning of the coins, the numismatic team had the opportunity to work alongside staff from the National Museum of Afghanistan to train them in some of the techniques of coin analysis. The video outlines the team’s aims, and presents interviews with the two Museum staff who explain what they were able to gain from the work. Owing to the highly corroded state of the copper alloy coins and the volume of excavated material to be analysed, a chemical method was used to remove some of the oxidized material. It was made clear during the training, therefore, that this method is unsuitable for general conservation of the Museum artefacts, and is a rapid method focussing only on the legibility of the coin inscriptions and insignia.



  • Brief Timeline
  • Project Milestones
  • The BACH Project
  • Recent Articles

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Bactra—the Greek name under which pre-Islamic Balkh was known—encapsulated Bronze Age settlements around 2,000 BC when its ancient water systems were built.

It was a province of the Achaemenid Empire (sixth century BC), the capital of the Hellenistic kingdom of Bactria and a part of the Kushan Empire that flourished in the first to the third centuries AD.

The first surviving textual mention of ancient Bactria is in the Vendidad section of the Avesta, the Zoroastrian Holy Book. Bactria (Baxtri) is mentioned in the trilingual inscription of the Emperor Darius I (r. 522-486 BC) at Bisutun and Persepolis as one of the Achaemenid satrapies (provinces). According to varying traditions, Balkh was founded by the mythical Iranian kings Gusthasp, his father Luhrasp, or the first man, Gayumarth. The Zoroastrian Prophet Zoroaster is rumoured to have died in Balkh.

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September 2011 - Launch of the BACH project

5-6 January 2012 - First BACH workshop in Oxford. Participants on the first day were limited to team members and special advisors to discuss the parameters of the BACH project, its training agenda, and practicalities, logistics and context. Day 2 included a wider audience of key experts on Afghan art, archaeology, documentary and narrative history of Balkh and comparable cities. Participants included Philippe Marquis, Roland Besenval, Edmund Bosworth, Nicholas Sims-Wiliams, Geoffrey Khan, Deborah Klimburg-Salter, James Howard-Johnston, Étienne de la Vaissière, Frantz Grenet, and Chahriyar Adle (by video link). Presentations were made on the basic topography of Balkh, the Nuh Gunbad (Hajji Piyada) site, and Zadiyan in the northern confines of the Balkh oasis, on coins, and Chinese and Arabic sources on historical Balkh. Comparanda from cities like Samarqand and Dehistan (Turkmenistan) were also considered.

April 2012 - First visit by BACH Oxford to Kabul conducted by Michael Jackson Bonner, aimed principally at working out the key elements and modalities for BACH cooperation on the ground, together with the Ministry of Information and Culture and the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA).

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The Balkh Art and Cultural Heritage project (BACH) is funded by the Leverhulme Trust and is housed at the Oriental Insititute, University of Oxford.

This project focuses on the site of Balkh in the north of Afghanistan, south of the Oxus (Amu Darya) River. It analyses a selection of archaeological artefacts and unexplored texts against which hypotheses concerning the development of early Islamic cities can be tested. Balkh was in existence (as 'Bactra') since at least the fifth century BC, becoming a major economic centre and flourishing from the third century BC before being significantly reduced (but not abandoned) in the thirteenth century through the Mongol invasions.

The BACH project is not just about research. An essential element concerns training. Each of BACH's scholarly experts acts as a mentor and trainer to an Afghan trainee to analyse the material culture from, or textual finds on, Balkh. Trainees obtain daily on-the-job training during focussed visits to Kabul by BACH team members. The training follows a pre-determined curriculum, and includes reading lists of books and articles to be discussed during training. Trainees obtain stipends, and have the opportunity to engage with an international network through their mentors.

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Journal articles

Shaked, Shaul, "Early Persian Documents from Khorasan" Journal of Persianate Studies 6 (2013): pp 153-162

Azad, Arezou, "The Faḍāʾil-i Balkh and its place in Islamic historiography" IRANJournal of the British Institute of Persian Studies 50 (2012): pp 79-102

Azad, Arezou, "Female Mystics in Mediaeval Islam: the quiet legacy", Journal of Economic and Social History of the Orient 56 (2013): pp 53-88

Siméon P., 2012."Hulbuk: Architecture and Material Culture of the Capital of the Banijurids in Central Asia (ninth–eleventh centuries)", Muqarnas, An Annual on the Visual Cultures of the Islamic World, vol. 29, pp. 385-421.

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Banner Image: Tepe Rustam of Balkh, thought to be the old Buddhist temple site of Naw Bahar. Photo by Arezou Azad