A satellite image on which Thomas identified over 1,100 robber holes in Afghanistan from which antiquities had been looted | Photo courtesy David C. Thomas
A satellite image on which Thomas identified over 1,100 robber holes in Afghanistan from which antiquities had been looted | Photo courtesy David C. Thomas

Archaeology is a reliable source material in building up historical narratives and the monograph titled The Ebb and Flow of the Ghurid Empire by David C. Thomas is much more than simply an account of the iconic minaret of Jam, located in the remote Shahrak District of the Ghur province in Afghanistan.

Standing in an isolated valley at the intersection of the Jam and Hari — or Herat — rivers, the minaret is surrounded by barren mountains. Also known as the last monument of the Lost City of the Turquoise Mountain (Firozkoh), this only surviving testament to the Ghurid era — Afghanistan’s last great indigenous empire — remains as an enduring legacy of a period in which Muslims, Christians and Jews lived side by side in harmony, united by their commonalities rather than divided by their differences.

Firozkoh, or the Turquoise Mountain, was the legendary Afghan summer capital of the semi-nomadic Ghurid rulers in the Middle Ages. Reputedly one of the greatest cities of its age, this prosperous, multicultural centre was believed to also be the home of a Jewish trading community — as evidenced from inscriptions on tombstones found in the 1950s. The city was destroyed by Ogedei Khan, son of the Mongol ruler Genghis Khan, in the early 1220s.

Built on an octagonal base measuring eight metres in diameter — singularly small for such a soaring construction — and consisting of four cylindrical shafts resting on top of one another, the 64-metre-tall minaret of Jam becomes progressively slimmer the higher it gets. It is made of fired brick and lime mortar, with two wooden balconies and a lantern at the top. A double spiral staircase runs through it, while the exterior is decorated in exquisite detail, featuring stucco and glazed turquoise tiles decorated with geometric patterns and intricate Kufic and Naskhi calligraphy of verses from the Holy Quran.

An archaeological analysis of Afghanistan’s last great indigenous empire remarkably integrates the traditional and the technological

It is difficult to determine the reason the minaret was erected — the Arabic dates on it could read either 1193-4 or 1174-5 — but it may have been built to commemorate the Ghurid sultan Ghiyas-ud-Din’s victory in 1186 over the Ghaznavids in Lahore. In the 1970s, however, Dr Ralph Pinder-Wilson, director of the British Institute of Afghan Studies, conducted a major study which concluded that the minaret was built to commemorate Mueez-ud-Din’s victory over Prithviraj Chauhan.

According to an article by Rory Stewart in The New York Times, the minaret of Jam was first visited by a foreigner in 1957. In 1961, Italian architect Andrea Bruno conducted the first survey of the tower and additional surveys were done through the proceeding decade, but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 brought all conservation projects regarding the minaret to a halt.

In 1982, UNESCO nominated the minaret as a World Heritage site; in 2002, it was given ‘danger’ status. A year later, the Minaret of Jam Archaeological Project (MJAP) was formed and two seasons of successful fieldwork were carried out in spite of innumerable difficulties, which prompted the author to take up the Ghurids as the study of his doctoral thesis at La Trobe University in Australia.

However, frustration with the security issues surrounding fieldwork led Thomas in 2007 to become the driving force behind the Archaeology Sites of Afghanistan in Google Earth (ASAGE) project, by which he was able to use satellite imagery to systematically survey large areas of the country that had previously been underexplored or ignored.

Thomas incorporates a variety of approaches and perspectives to reassess the Ghurid sultanate, adopting a holistic approach to melding historical and archaeological data. This enables him to propose speculative answers to questions previously overlooked — or considered impossible to answer — because of the deficiencies in traditional forms of historical data. He analyses the characteristics of the Ghurids’ summer capital of Firozkoh and polity, their lifecycles and lifestyles, and the dichotomy between predominantly urban archaeological evidence and seasonally nomadic societies through the integration of historical, archaeological and satellite image data.

An important point in his book is the relatively recent attempts to correlate modern geopolitical concepts of boundaries, nation states and national identity; Thomas is of the view that these should not be imposed on pre-modern polities without due consideration, particularly given the tendencies of nationalist movements to manipulate archaeological data.

In his discussion of the area surrounding the minaret, Thomas also brings up the Jewish cemetery at Koh-i-Khushkak where more than 70 gravestones have been discovered. The graves are inscribed with Hebrew, Aramaic and Persian names — all male — in the Judeo-Persian language, but written in Hebrew script.

The book concentrates primarily on the major Ghurid urban centres of Jam/Firozkoh, Bamiyan, Ghazna, Herat and Lashkar-i-Bazaar, and focuses on the questions of Ghurid identity and ideology, the nature of their society, the dynasty’s geographic isolation and the prospects of cultural heritage management of Jam and other Ghurid sites. At the same time, there is plenty more that will pave the way for further cultural and historical research — the co-director of MJAP has catalogued and analysed over 500 pieces of ceramic sherds collected during fieldwork and this can easily be considered the first, significant analysis of the ceramic repertoire found at a Ghurid site. There is archaeobotanical research which reveals the presence of barley and wheat, oil seeds and a variety of fruit and nuts including grapes, figs, apples, pears and pistachios as well as achaeozoological inquiries that show the existence of sheep, goats, gazelles and hares.

Thomas’s book is interesting not only for its subject matter — it is arguably the first detailed analysis of archaeological work carried out in the Ghurid heartland of central Afghanistan — but also for its process that integrates the traditional with the technological. Satellite archaeology has facilitated the desktop studies of specific sites and entire regions through free, high-resolution, geo-referenced images. This means it is no longer necessary to work purely on-site; data already available compounded with visuals taken via Google Earth, can help greatly with discovering new archaeological sites.

The reviewer is Director of the Museum, Archives and Art Gallery Department of the State Bank of Pakistan

The Ebb and Flow of the Ghurid Empire
By David C. Thomas
Sydney University Press, Australia
ISBN: 978-1743325414
414pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 22nd, 2019