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The Balkh Art and Cultural Heritage Project 

The BACH Project

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.

Naw BaharNaw BaharThe Avesta, the Zoroastrian holy book, called it 'Balkh, the beautful', and an Islamic narrative tradition of the ninth/tenth century AD named Balkh the 'mother of cities' (umm al-bilad). Located off the main 'Khurasan highway' that linked the Far East to Iran (and, by extension, the Mediterranean), Balkh would appear to be inconveniently located for a city of its size. However, it is also located on the north-south road that linked India to Central Asia, standing in a wide, fertile plain at the foot of the Hindu Kush mountains, with a regular freshwater source from the Balkhab River stemming from the Bamiyan basin.

The remains of pre-Mongol Balkh, covering around six square kilometres (the intra-mural area measures 2-3 square kilometres), represent a rare opportunity to recover something approaching a complete urban form for a settlement of this type and date (Azad 2010; Le Berre & Schlumberger 1964; Foucher 1942; Schwarz 1933). The relatively calm security situation in Balkh affords the researcher with a window of opportunity, which could close if the situation deteriorates. The lack of current development at the site allows a unique insight into mediaeval city morphology in contrast to other historic cities in Central Asia. Mediaeval Bukhara, for instance, is inside the modern city; and many of the cities of southern Afghanistan are out of bounds to scholars due to poor security conditions.

Our primary goal is to recover and understand Balkh's urban form. This builds upon previous survey work in Balkh, which mapped key features of the town, including the enclosure wall, canals, previously excavated areas and the locations of mounds (Ball 1982).

With the completion of recent fieldwork (2005-9) by the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA), survey data is integrated with the above-ground and textual evidence, and analysed with a focus on:

  • the multiple, and possibly changing, functions of Balkh. The town's status as an important trading centre is reflected in textual mentions of its caravanserais, and its axial roads leading in all directions; that the city was a garrison town and militarised frontier site (thaqr) is indicated by the texts and the presence of significant fortifications; the canals running into the interior of the city may be part of the traveller facilities (Le Berre 1964, Salakhetdinova 1970, Azad 2010). These and other functional aspects of Balkh form a background to our investigation of urbanism in the area.
  • the relationship between central and peripheral areas of settlement. Did the coming of Muslim rule lead to the growth of the city? How built-up was the extra-mural territory and did it differ in character to settlement inside the walls? What are the implications of this for the lifestyles and activities of the occupants? Balkh is unique among the major Islamic cities of Central Asia in that the pre-Islamic religious environment seems to have been Buddhist rather than Zoroastrian and Christian. In what ways did this affect the impact of the coming of Islam on the urban topography? When did Buddhism decline in Balkh? What was the fate of the great Naw Bahar Buddhist shrine after the coming of Muslims? Was the Naw Bahar monastery and its adjacent rural estate integrated into the city (Azad 2010)? What are the implications of this for existing hypotheses on conversions of monasteries?
  • the identification of urban zoning by economic status and/or activity. Can we identify centres of local neighbourhoods? Is long-distance trading activity dispersed throughout the settlement or can distinct zones be identified? If so do these confirm existing models of Islamic urbanism as characterised by peripheral trading areas, e.g. at Rayy and Nishapur? (Schwarz 1933, Wilkinson 1950).
  • the identification and characterisation of significant, public spaces and their relationship to the wider urban plan. Where were the markets, major buildings, including the Congregational Mosque, and sacred sites of Balkh, and how did they mark the urban landscape?

The project aims to elucidate how the mediaval inhabitants experienced the city, in terms of urban landscape, while living their everyday lives; to examine urbanism not as a series of static maps but as a dynamic societal process. However, this project does not simply enable a deeper understanding of a fascinating and important archaeological site – it also provides a key opportunity to re-assess existing scholarship on urban archaeology in mediaeval Central Asia.

There are three groups of studies that are relevant for our attempt to reconstruct Balkh's urban space, namely on: a) Balkh specifically; b) the 'Islamic city'; and c) sacred landscape.

Map copyright Le Berre 1955Map copyright Le Berre 1955a. Balkh-specific studies

Despite its long history, and its prominence in the early mediaeval Arabic sources, only a few text-based studies on the topography of early mediaeval Balkh exist. Schwarz (1933) surveyed the descriptions of Balkh in mediaeval Arabic accounts. Schefer (1883) and Habibi (1971) provided editorialcommentary on topographical sections of a thirteenth-century local history, the Faza'il-i Bakh. Meftah (1997) studied the topography of Balkh throughout history.

However, scholars have not yet connected the literary to the archaeological evidence collected by DAFA since the 1920s. Although DAFA has been focussed on the Hellenistic city of Bactra, these explorations have nonetheless unearthed valuable data from the Islamic periods, which are embedded in DAFA's published reports. The mapping of Balkh starts with DAFA's Foucher (1942-7), who distinguished between the ‛modern' and ‛old' city. Schlumberger (1949), Young (1955), and Le Berre & Schlumberger (1964) achieved greater reliability, and relevant pottery was studied by Gardin (1957). At the wall ramparts and the mound of Tepe Zargaran archaeologists found ceramics, coins, and documentary and stylistic evidence from Greco-Bactrian times (third to the first century BC). Le Berre categorised his maps as ‛Bactres I' (vaguely, pre-Islamic Bactra); ‛Bactres IA' (pre-Islamic and early Islamic Bactra); ‛Bactres II' (Islamic Balkh up to the Mongols); and ‛Bactres III' (post-Timurid Balkh). These maps have gaps in their periodisation and need more specificity, particularly for the Islamic period.

In the late 1960s art historians began studying the extra-mural nine-domed structure, or nuh gunbad. Golombek (1969) dated it to the 'Abbasid period. Pugachenkova (1968) studied a number of eleventh-century tomb structures. Melikian-Chirvani (1968) and Sourdel-Thomine (1971) studied the eleventh-century Baba Hatim shrine 40 km west of Balkh, and Bivar (1977) deciphered parts of its inscription. Adamec (1979) edited a declassified 1914 gazetteer, including a volume on ‛Mazar-i Sharif and North-Central Afghanistan', and Ball (1982) compiled an archaeological gazetteer of the country.

b. Urban history studies

Significant research has been undertaken on the nature of the ‛Islamic city,' or the ‛Oriental city' during the past century. The terms of this debate have moved from emphasising the role of Islam in the structuring of city centres, to more nuanced attempts to consider the role of religion in urban form within a complex network of social and cultural influences. Kennedy (1985, 2006) limits his focus to the period between late antiquity and the first two centuries after the arrival of Islam using archaeological and literary data. Naymark (1999, 2003) studied the early Islamic period in Varakhsha and Bukhara based on European travel accounts, archaeological and literary evidence. Relevant comparanda are also provided by the recent archaeological studies of the antique and Islamic cities of Merv by Herrmann (1999) and of Samarqand by Grenet (2004).

c. Sacred Landscape Studies

Shrine at BalkhShrine at BalkhThe mediaeval local history of Balkh primarily describes Balkh as a sacred landscape, a way of viewing the environment that needs to factor into our analysis of the historical city. Scholars of Islamic history generally have not considered important concepts developed by anthropologists in this regard. The volume edited by Hirsch & O'Hanlon (1995) is particularly helpful. The fundamental underpinning is that narratives on environments are not an objective mirror image of the environment, but a subjective representation with codes and points of emphasis. Particular structures—natural and man-made—acquired a sacral quality that was perpetuated through narratives. The study of sacred landscape is still in its infancy amongst historians of the Middle East and Central Asia. Frenkel (2001) considered the Realpolitik of the Mamluk ruler Baybars (r. 658-76/1260-77) to be the motivating force behind his shrine-building policies. Other studies have focused on shrines, probably because they feature so prominently in Arabic and Persian sources. The local history of Balkh also gives shrines a major role in Balkh's sacred landscape. While these studies examine shrines as individual structures, they do not consider them in the context of the wider landscape. A notable exception is DeWeese's (2000) article on Sayram (mediaeval Isfijab).

We have at our disposal a rich variety of sources, which this project will bring into one analytical framework when looking at pre-modern Balkh. An analysis of this material thus has the potential to change significantly our ideas of the growth of cities, and the nature of long-distance trading in early Islamic Central Asia.

The project is gathering data by four means:a detailed artefact analysis, particularly of ceramics and coins.

  • a comprehensive survey of mediaeval textual evidence from a variety of language groups (especially Persian, Arabic, Chinese, Tibetan, Bactrian, and Armenian).
  • a revision of the critical edition of the local history, Fada'il-i Balkh, and an English translation.
  • a programme of mapping mediaeval Balkh with an interactive web-based interface.


Some key partners in the project are the Ministry of Information and Culture, Afghanistan, Kabul National Museum, La Délégation archéologique française en Afghanistan, Kabul University, and the Afghan Institute of Archaeology.


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