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Under threat: The Magnificent Minaret of Jam

Minaret of Jam put on UNESCO?s World Heritage List.

Published on 1 October 2002

Author(s): The New Courier #1 October 2002

Type:  News

One of the few ancient monuments in Afghanistan to survive the wrath of war, the fury of the elements and acts of destruction by the Taliban, is the Minaret of Jam. None too soon, it has been placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

The slender, tapering minaret soars to a height of 65 meters over the floor of a remote valley in western Afghanistan. Modern scholars only reached the site in 1957, when discovery intact of the enormous 12-century brick tower caused a sensation. It was a mystery to architects how such a structure stood for so long in one of the world’s most active earthquake zones. And historians wondered why it was the only monument left standing by Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes, who devastated the region in 1221. The Minaret of Jam is the second tallest brick tower in the world after the Qutub Minar in New Delhi. It is three-tiered and decorated with a variety of geometric and floral patterned bands and inscriptions in brick and stucco. Located east of Herat, the minaret stands on the site of what may be the capital of the Ghorid Dynasty, which ruled Afghanistan from 1148 to 1214. The site also includes the ruins of a palace, fortifications, and a Jewish cemetery.

The Minaret of Jam is one of over 60 towers, dating from between the early 11th and mid-13th centuries, still standing in Afghanistan, Iran, and the Central Asian Republics. The special taste for towers in this period, is ascribed to the widespread recognition of the form as an appropriate symbol of the triumph of Islam in the region. Some towers that appear independent today were once attached as minarets to mosques built of sun-dried brick that have since disappeared. Other towers, however, were conceived as independent, and also served as landmarks to guide caravans across the landscape, or watchtowers in times of war. The most impressive of this latter type is undoubtedly the Minaret of Jam. Scholars speculate that it was because of
its usefulness as a watchtower that the Mongols spared it. They also believe that wooden beams inside the brickwork may have provided some of the necessary tensile strength for the tower to survive earthquakes.

The minaret is now threatened by water seeping from the two rivers at whose confluence it stands, by vibrations from a planned road-building project nearby, and continuing illegal archaeological digs. “It is vital that this monument and the whole archaeological site be placed under constant surveillance,” says UNESCO consultant Prof. Andrea Bruno of Italy, who is also urging that the proposed road route be altered.

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