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The Balkh Art and Cultural Heritage Project 

Brief Timeline

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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.

On the Bala Hisar of Balkh, with some late construction (18th to 20th centuries). Photo by Arezou Azad.On the Bala Hisar of Balkh, with some late construction (18th to 20th centuries). Photo by Arezou Azad.Alexander the Great overwhelmed the Achaemenids and their eastern territories including Bactria in 327 BC. In this year, Alexander married Roxana, the daughter of the Bactrian Oxyartes, at the Rock of Ariamazes in Sogdiana. In 256 BC, Bactria was turned into an independent Hellenistic kingdom of the Seleucids.

In the second century BC, nomadic peoples from the north conquered Bactria. Amongst these new rulers the Kushans achieved supremacy. By the first century their empire extended far beyond Bactria, across much of northern India and to the borders of Sogdiana in Central Asia.

The Sasanian King Ardashir I (r. AD 22?-40) vanquished the Kushan king of Bactria. The Iranian dynasty ruled over Bactria until the Muslim conquests, sometimes directly, but more often indirectly through resident élites.

Accounts on the timing and rapidity of the conquest of Balkh by the Muslim troops vary. A final conquest is generally agreed to have occurred under General Qutayba b. Muslim in 89/707-8 or 90/708-9 when the Hephthalite rebel Nizak Tarkhan was vanquished.

After the Muslim conquest, Balkh, along with Merv (in today's Turkmenistan), became one of the main centres of Arab settlement in northeastern Iran in the early eighth century AD.

Post-Timurid shrine at Balkh, near Tepe Rustam. Photo by Arezou AzadPost-Timurid shrine at Balkh, near Tepe Rustam. Photo by Arezou AzadDuring the early 'Abbasid caliphate (eighth-ninth centuries), Balkh was celebrated as the original home of the Barmakid family of viziers, whose forefathers had run the Naw Bahar Buddhist temple-monastery complex. Balkh acquired grand epithets, such as, 'the mother of cities', (Ar. umm al-bilad) and 'the dome of Islam' (qubbat al-Islam) and became one of the most important Islamic historical cities in Central Asia. From the coming of Islam until the Mongol conquest in 618/1220-1, Balkh was a major centre of commerce, learning and culture.

During the ninth to the 12th centuries, Balkh was ruled by various regional dynasts who professed their allegiance to the Caliphate, while enjoying a significant amount of autonomy. These dynasties included the Tahirids and Baniurids (205/821-257/871), the Saffarids (257/871-287/900), Samanids (287/900-382/992), Ghaznawids and Qarakhanids (389-435/999-1043-4), Saljuqs and Oghuz-Ghurids (435-548/1043-1153), the Qarakhitay and their Qarakhanid and Ghurid vassals (560/1165-601/1205).

Balkh was an important locus where the New Persian language developed. Famous Persian poets flourished here, such as Daqiqi (d. ca. 370/980); Abu al-Mu'ayyad al-Balkhi, who wrote precursors to Firdawsi's Shahnama ('Book of Kings); and the Ghaznawid court poets 'Unsuri (d. 431/1039-40?) and Anwari (d. 585/1189 or 587/1191), and the Mawlana Jalal al-Din al-Balkhi al-Rumi (d. 672/1273).

The earliest surviving local history of Balkh, the Persian Fada'il-i Balkh, must have been written during the rule of the subsequent dynasty, the Khwarazmshahs (602-617/1205-20), and it was during this time that the family of the poet-mystic Mawlana Jalal al-Din [Balkhi] Rumi emigrated from Balkh. This 'pre-Mongol' period—Chinggis Khan entered Balkh himself in 618/1221—is still many centuries before the name 'Afghanistan' came into being. Historians refer to this part of the world during this period as 'the eastern Islamic world' or 'the eastern Iranian world'.

In the more recent centuries, Balkh has been wrangled over by rulers from neighbouring Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. The Soviets had a major presence there when they occupied Afghanistan in 1978-87. Previously, the different Mongol lands or uluses exchanged hands in Balkh, frequently involving violent warfare between the different Mongol houses, notably the Ilkhānids from the west, the Chaghadaids in the north-west and the Golden Horde of the north.


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