The Balkh Art and Cultural Heritage Project 
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Nuh Gunbad stucco decoration, possibly Abbasid era. Photo by Arezou Azad.Nuh Gunbad stucco decoration, possibly Abbasid era. Photo by Arezou Azad.Key Research Questions

There are important questions to be asked of the material and textual evidence from medieval Balkh, among them the following:

I. Topography and Human Settlement of the City and its Oasis

I.1. Where on the site was the earliest Muslim settlement? Did the Muslims occupy the great fortified enclosure known as the Bala Hisar (cf. Samarqand) or did they establish a new quarter outside the fortifications of the old settlement (cf. Merv)?

I.2. Can we trace and date the city's water supply?

I.3. In what ways did the Mongol conquest affect the city? Is there evidence for destruction at this time (cf. Merv)? If so was the city reconstructed on the same site (cf. Bukhara) or moved to an adjacent site (cf. Samarqand) or a more distant one (cf. Merv)?

I.4. Is there evidence of a Timurid reconstruction or was the pattern one of continuing occupation?

I.5. Can we trace changes in the settlement pattern in the wider Balkh oasis?

I.6. Can we identify the character and function of specific buildings and sites that are surviving from this period?

II. Politics and Administration

II.1. Was there a governor's palace (Dar al-Imara) in the city?

II.2. What evidence is there for continuity of minting coins, and of what sort in Balkh in the medieval Islamic period?

II.3. What can we say about the location and development of the city's walls, gates and towers?

II.4. Was the city (re)fortified during the period of Seljuq rule (cf Merv)?

II.5. What specific roles did women play?

III. Sacred Landscape

III.1. How long did the Buddhist temples remain in use?

III.2. Where was the Great Mosque described in textual sources? Was it within the Bala Hisar?

III.3. Is there evidence of other sacred sites, such as, shrines?

III.4. Can we relate the current names attached to archaeological sites with textual sites?

  • Brief Timeline
  • Project Milestones
  • The BACH Project
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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