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Minaret in the Mountains

Excavations near a 12th-century tower reveal the summer capital of a forgotten Islamic empire


Monday, September 23, 2019

Afghanistan Jam MinaretIn the remote province of Ghur in western Afghanistan, the Hari and Jam Rivers meet in a narrow valley where mountains tower 7,000 feet high over a seemingly impassable landscape. Far from any urban center, this valley is home to one of the world’s great architectural monuments—a 200-foot-high minaret rising above the valley floor in what seems to be splendid isolation. Built in 1174 of baked brick, the Minaret of Jam is covered in intricate geometric brickwork, with verses of the Koran rendered in blue-glazed tiles. It is one of the few surviving buildings commissioned by the Ghurid sultans, a seasonally nomadic dynasty that, from 1148 to 1215, ruled an empire that at one point stretched from eastern Iran to the Bay of Bengal. “They are like a flare that burst from nowhere,” says David Thomas, a research associate at La Trobe University and director of the Minaret of Jam Archaeological Project (MJAP). “They knock over previously established dynasties, amass territory all the way to northern India, and then, bang, they are gone again.” Though today they are obscure even to many scholars, the Ghurids had a major impact on the trajectory of history in a region whose inhabitants continue to play a geopolitical role that belies their remote location. The recently published work of MJAP is placing a renewed focus on the Ghurids and providing an opportunity to reassess the history of a little-known people.


Afghanistan Jam MapThomas’ research is based on fieldwork he and his team conducted at Jam in 2003 and 2005. Extensive looting had exposed large areas of archaeological deposits to the elements, and officials tasked MJAP with investigating trenches that had already been illegally dug. The team’s work enabled them to confirm, after many years of speculation, that the site of Jam was Firuzkuh, the Ghurid Dynasty’s summer capital. “When you look at the site, it seems there is nothing there apart from the minaret,” says Thomas. “But we’ve been able to marry together archaeological evidence and historical accounts that show this is Firuzkuh, and it gives us new insights into what a medieval nomadic capital looked like.” The site has been inaccessible to researchers since MJAP’s initial work, but Google Earth’s aerial imagery has given Thomas the chance to identify additional possible Ghurid-period sites in the area, and to put Jam in a larger regional context. Analysis of artifacts and samples from the looters’ holes has also given the team a compelling, if still incomplete, picture of life in the Ghurid summer capital, whose international reach and flourishing economy suggest this narrow valley in remote Afghanistan was once an important center. “It’s not what we would expect a capital city to be like today,” says Thomas. “But it can tell us a lot about who the Ghurids were, and how they thought about power.”

World of the Griffin Warrior

A single grave and its extraordinary contents are changing the way archaeologists view two great ancient Greek cultures


Monday, August 12, 2019

Pylos Combat Agate Seal StoneThe age of Homer was an age of heroes—Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae, Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, and Nestor, the king of Pylos, among others—whose deeds are chronicled in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Many archaeologists believe that Homer’s tales, despite being composed 500 or more years after the Late Bronze Age events they describe, had roots in a real past. “There’s always a kernel of truth to stories handed down from generation to generation,” says archaeologist Jack Davis. Whether these men were real people is unknown. But the culture they belonged to, which dominated Bronze Age Greece from around 1600 until 1200 B.C.—known as Mycenaean since it was given that name by nineteenth-century scholars—was certainly the model for the poems’ dimly remembered heroes from the deep past.


Pylos Greece Shrine Ring FacePylos Greece Gold NecklaceOver the past century, archaeologists and linguists have largely focused their studies on the Mycenaeans’ place in the early development of later classical Greek civilization. Excavations at Pylos, and at sites all across mainland Greece, have provided a great deal of evidence of the Mycenaeans in their prime. This research has revealed that at their peak they were tied into a world that encompassed most of the eastern Mediterranean, including ancient Egypt, the city-states of the Near East, and the islands of the Mediterranean. One such link, though, stands out as perhaps the most important: a deep connection to the island of Crete, which, in the Late Bronze Age, was inhabited by members of a culture scholars call Minoan after the legendary King Minos, a culture very different from that found on the mainland.


Scholars have long debated the nature of the relationship between the Mycenaeans and the Minoans. This discussion has centered on whether Mycenaean culture, and what is thought of as ancient Greek culture, dating to half a millennium later, was imported from Crete, or was a homegrown phenomenon. But the exceptional discovery of a man’s grave filled with more than 2,000 artifacts just outside Nestor’s palace in Pylos suggests that the concept of competing cultures might obscure a deep interconnectedness. “Archaeologists have a way of cutting the world up into well-bounded cultural entities, but it seems that in the Late Bronze Age new identities were being formed,” says archaeologist Dimitri Nakassis of the University of Colorado Boulder. “There used to be clear lines between the Minoans and the Mycenaeans, but a lot of work now points out that these are our categories, not theirs.”

Pylos Combat Agate Seal Stone slideshow thumbnail
Bronze Age Masterpiece