The Balkh Art and Cultural Heritage Project 
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ibn hauq balkhMap of Khurasan, including the city of Balkh (indicated in red), accompanying Ibn Hauqal's geographical work in a manuscript dated to 1086 C.E. North is to the bottom of the image. Facsimile after Kramers 1939 (Istanbul MS [1086])

The BACH cartographers have been collating data, including historical place names, topographical features and archaeological and textual evidence analysed by other BACH team members. Mapping research currently focuses at two scales: the city, and the wider landscape of Balkh.

The historic city of Balkh is represented by archaeological remains from a number of different historical periods of occupation. The modern town, with its circular planned layout, covers part of the late Antique and early Islamic city but the current urban spread is much smaller than it has been in the past. Standing remains of several walls were identified from the earliest investigations of the city, but in spite of a number of excavations, the phases in the city’s development remain unclear. The BACH Project is combining data from excavated material, historical toponyms, and satellite imagery, to produce a composite plan of the urban landscape in a Geographical Information Systems (GIS) platform.

The Balkh Oasis stretches far beyond the city walls. The ruins of hundreds of smaller towns, villages, outposts and farmsteads are scattered across the irrigated zone. The Balkh river delta and its distributaries have shifted over time and have been altered by irrigation channels, and these changed are reflected in the settlement patterns. Using the Gazetteer of archaeological sites compiled by Ball (Paris, 1982), as well as modern satellite imagery, historic maps, and survey material collected by the Délégation archéologique française en Afghanistan (DAFA), the BACH project is exploring the hinterland of early Islamic Balkh and its relationship to the city. Another focus of the regional scale mapping is to analyse the evidence for routes connecting Balkh with other towns and cities in the region. As well as analysing historical travel accounts which detail these connections, archaeological evidence for roadside way-stations is being investigated through satellite imagery. Like the urban mapping, all data from the wider landscape study is collated and analysed within a GIS framework. The finished datasets will be published here as Google Maps layers. A work-in-progress example of a map with layers is shown below.

You can also view the KML files that are used by the above map directly in GoogleMaps by clicking here.

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

دری ]

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