Minaret in the Mountains

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


September/October 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.”