Re-discovering Afghanistan: the majestic Minaret of Jam

One of the two World Heritage Sites in Afghanistan, Jam minaret and archaeological remains of Jam in the mountains of Ghor Province, the site is not easily accessible neither from Bamiyan nor Herat, and can only be reached by a long drive on rough roads.

It is called a “minaret and archaeological site,” but it is unclear if it is actually a minaret. There is no mosque (perhaps there was an open-type mosque), and there are many opinions, including that it may be a victory tower built over a pre-Islamic pagan holy site.
It could well be Firozkoh of the legendary city, according to one of hypothesis.

There were three main capitals in Ghurid dynasty, Ghazni, Bamiyan, and Firozkoh. The location of one of those three, Firozkoh, is not known, and it is speculated that the ruins near the minaret may be the site of that capital. Incidentally, Chaghcharan in Ghor Province has recently changed its name to Firozkoh and has become a gateway town for tourists visiting the Minaret of Jam from the Bamiyan side.

Remains of buildings on the rocky hill by the minaret. The watchtower is clearly visible.

The Minaret of Jam was built during the reign of the Ghurid dynasty that ruled from Afghanistan to northwestern India, reaching the peak of its power from 1150 to 1215 and reached its peak during the reign of the 12th century king, Ghiyath al-Din Muhammad (1162-1203) and his brother Mu’ izz ad-Din Muhammad (1203-1206). The dynasty was divided after the death of these brothers, and the capital was destroyed by Genghis Khan’s army in 1221. In 1943, the governor of Herat publicized the site, and finally in 1957, the Afghan Historical Society and the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan visited and “discovered” this valuable site.

The Minaret of Jam is 65 meters high and has three levels.

The site is located at the confluence of two rivers, Harirud and Jam, which has eroded the foundation and tilted the slim tower slightly. The Minaret of Jam is the only remaining structure from the Ghurid dynasty and is very important for understanding Islamic architecture in the medieval period. It was registered as a World Heritage Site (Heritage in Crisis) in 2002.

The Minaret of Jam has three levels, each level separated by a balcony corbel and topped by a circular arcade of six arches.

Six arches arcade at the top

The first tier up to around 37m is elaborately decorated with molded buff-colored brick reliefs.

The octagonal base of the minaret is 14.5 meters in diameter and 65 meters high, with a tapered tower made of baked bricks. The eight vertical panels corresponding to the octagonal base are superbly done with molded bricks. The rich variety of geometric and plant patterns developed in Bukhara. The most amazing feature is the Arabic Kufi script, in which the entire inscription band of the 19th sura of the Koran (or  Qur’an, the holy scripture of Islam), the chapter of Maryam, is represented from one panel to another.

Kufi Arabic, a manifestation of the 19th chapter of the Koran, surrounds the panel and goes on and on and on.Just below the first balcony is a bright Persian blue kufi inscription, the only colored inscription on the surface, declaring the names of the rulers who spearheaded the construction of this minaret. “Ghiyasuddin Mahammad ibn Sam, Sultan Magnificent! King of Kings!” The architect’s name is also inscribed in small letters: “Ali, son of…”.

The name of the founder appear, “Ghiyasuddin Mahammad ibn Sam, Sultan Magnificent! King of Kings!”

The Qutub Minar in Delhi, India, is the world’s tallest minaret (72.5 m) made of bricks, built around 1200 during the Delhi Sultanate, whose founder, Quṭb al-Dīn Aybak, served the Ghurid dynasty. The minaret of Qutub Minar was built under the influence of the minaret of Jam. Conversely, there is a “Ghazni minaret” in Ghazni of Ghazna Dynasty, and the Minaret of Jam was constructed under the influence of this minaret.

Qurub Minar (Delhi), which was inspired by the Minaret of Jam.
Ghazni’s minaret that inspired and influenced the minaret of Jam.

It used to be possible to climb the spiral staircase inside the minaret, but the entrance is now closed, no longer inaccessible.The view of the “Minaret of Jam” at the end of a long and rough journey is breathtaking and full of archeological awe and majectic beauty.


Image & Text : Mariko SAWADA

Reference :”An historical guide to Afghanistan ” Nancy Hatch Dupree

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Re-discovering Afghanistan: Wakhan Corridor, and the Kyrgyz in the Afghan Pamir

Wakhan Corridor, Afghanistan is the “last frontier” for travelers who love unexplored areas. Unpaved rough road, bumby and dusty, has been completed to Lake Chaqmaqtin. Now it became possible to drive to Little Pamir, the home of the Kyrgyz people. The four-day trek has become to take a four-hour 4WD trip. See the lifestyle of the Kyrgyz people living on the plateau with your own eyes – as it is rapidly changing,  some old traditions and charming rustic lifestyle may get diluted and disappear in modernity.

Wakhan Corridor

The Wakhan corridor is a long and narrow territory, in a way a corridor in the Badakhshan province of Afghanistan bordering Tajikistan, China, and Pakistan. It is a mountainous plateau where the source of the Amu Darya river originates, and in summer, plentiful water and meadows appear and are called “Pamir”. This idyllic pastoral landscape has a lot of historical significance.
This corridor-like borderline was created in 1873, when the border between Afghanistan and the Russian Empire was drawn along the Panj and Pamir rivers. Twenty years later, in 1893 the border (the Durand Line) between Afghanistan and the British Indian Empire (now Pakistan) was drawn. It was the buffer zone for the “Great Game” between Russian and British empires at that time.

The landcape around Lake Chaqmaqtin
Bozai Gumbaz, old Kyrgyz tomb situated at the confluence of the Wakhjir River ( the source of the Amu Darya) and the Wakhan River.

In the Wakhan corridor, Wakhi people live from Ishkashim to Sarhad at altitude 2,500 – 3,300 meters, while Kyrgyz people live in the “Pamir” above 4,000 meters above sea level.

The area around Lake Chaqmaqtin is called “Little Pamir” and the plateau along the Pamir River from the Tajikistan border to Lake Zorkul is called “Big Pamir”. Both are mountainous plateaus. In the Little Pamirs, used to the seasonal nomadic element in their traditional lifestyle, Kyrgyz live to south of the lake in the summer, and move north of the lake in the winter.

Kyrgyz family with Lake in the background


Kyrgyz people in Wakhan Corridor

The Kyrgyz are Turkic people living in Central Asia. There have long been small groups of Kyrgyz who came to the Afghan Pamirs in search of summer grazing lands, but many Kyrgyz moved to the Afghan Pamirs during the Russian Revolution of 1917.They then created a lifestyle of seasonal small migrations in this largely isolated region. Later, when China was founded in 1949 and the communist government of Afghanistan was established in 1978, there were cross-border ethnic migrations, and it is said that about 1,300~1,400 Kyrgyz people are currently living in Afghan Pamir. Recently, people who feared the Taliban temporarily moved to the Tajikistan border after the establishment of the new Taliban regime in 2021, but they have returned after hearing that their lives and livestock would be protected.

According to the shura, a village authority in Andamin settlement, Little Pamir has 28 settlements. There used to be 500 people living in Little Pamir and about 800 people in Big Pamir, but about 3 years ago, people moved from Big Pamir to Little Pamir and now there are 1,150 people living in Little Pamir. This move might have happened partially due to the completion of the new road in 2020.

Kyrgyz people living around Lake Chaqmaqtin

Life on the plateau: harsh environment

On the way from Ishkashim to Sarhad, we met a Kyrgyz man who asked for help. According to the man, his wife, who had given birth in Pamir, was not feeling well and the clinic told him to go to a hospital in Ishkashim. “I have no money”, he said.
Some Kyrgyz people get things in exchange for sheep and other livestock with merchants visiting the Pamirs and have no cash. They need money to “get in the car and go to the hospital.” At this time, we could only give money and pray for the safety of this person’s wife.

In the village, we also met parents who lost their children and a man who lost his wife. And there were very few old people. We realized that they live in a harsh environment.

Kyrgyz Boy

The Kyrgyz people of the Afghan Pamirs are not self-sufficient. They raise livestock, produce dairy products, and obtain what they need from merchants who come to the Pamirs (Wakhi people from the Wakhan corridor, and Pashtoon people from the south). They exchange or sell their livestock and dairy products to obtain goods and cash for their daily needs. In many cases, the exchange of sheep is concluded with a promise to receive this year’s lambs next year.

Goats and sheep raised by the Kyrgyz people
Kyrgyz yak. Compared to the yaks of Pakistan, the Kyrgyz yaks are noticeably bigger
Making a dairy product called Qurut

Before the new Taliban regime (2021), there was trade with Chapruson, Pakistan. Every year 500 yaks and Qurut (a type of dried cottage cheese) made during the summer were sold. Now they sell sheep and goats to traders coming from Kabul and other part of Afghanistan and say they are looking forward to resuming trade with Chapruson.

Kyrgyz Women’s Summer Life

Kyrgyz women take care of the offspring of livestock born in the spring and early summer, milking them and making dairy products for a living. In the morning, the milking begins around 8 to 8:30 am. After that, the women wash dishes in the river, bake Naan bread, and make Qurut (cottage cheese which they will dry later for sale). Bargaining with merchants from the Wakhan corridor and southern Afghanistan is also part of the fun. The women like to buy fancy fabrics and wear new clothes for every important occasion. The merchants seem to have a good grasp of what suits their tastes. In comparison, men in Kyrgyzstan wear mainly “second-hand clothes” and look very plain.

milking a yak

Beauty, the life of the Kyrgyz

On our trip to Little Pamir, we spent four days in a settlement where a small group of Kyrgyz people live. Not only did we visit the yurts, but the children and families of the Kyrgyz came to visit our camp, interest in what we have and what we eat. Some of the children were so curious that they stayed at our camp from morning till night, while others could only come with their parents.

They milked yaks in the morning, washed clothes, made Qurut cottage cheese, baked Naan bread, and visited friends in their spare time.

Woman washing her hair while her older relative is making Qurut from fresh milk
Young Kyrgyz lady washing her hair
In the yurt where the Kyrgyz live
Girls washing dishes
Children visiting our campsite

A merchant who has been coming to Pamir for more than 20 years said: “There are people who became poor after the road was built.” and “I saw the guy who became poor because they sold a lot of yak and bought cars, which later broke down”.The construction of the road has probably attracted more traders than before, and the number of cash transactions has increased. While some people have become poor, some Kyrgyz families with cars and livestock seem to have become rich. The disparity is clearly on the rise.

Kyrgyz girl holding a baby goat

The Kyrgyz people’s way of life in the wilderness of Wakhan is absolutely fascinating. These nomads of the Afghan Pamirs have a lot of resilience and the history of coexisting and interacting with other ethnicities.


Photo & Text : Mariko SAWADA

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