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Ruins of the Masjid Sabz (the "Green Mosque"), named for its tiled dome (in July 2001)
Ruins of the Masjid Sabz (the "Green Mosque"), named for its tiled dome (in July 2001)
Balkh is located in Afghanistan
Location in Afghanistan
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Country  Afghanistan
Province Balkh Province
District Balkh District
Elevation 1,198 ft (365 m)
Population (2006)
 • City 77,000
Time zone + 4.30

Balkh (/bɑːlx/; Persian/Pashto: بلخ Balkh; Bactrian: βαχλο, ẞaxlɔ) was an ancient city and centre of Buddhism, Sufism and Zoroastrianism in what is now northern Afghanistan. Today it is a small town in the province of Balkh, about 20 kilometers northwest of the provincial capital, Mazar-e Sharif, and some 74 km (46 mi) south of the Amu Darya. It was one of the major cities of Khorasan, since the latter's earliest history. Marco Polo described Balkh as a "noble and great city".[1]

The ancient city of Balkh was known to the Ancient Greeks as Bactra, giving its name to Bactria. It was mostly known as the centre and capital of Bactria or Tokharistan. Balkh is now for the most part a mass of ruins, situated some 12 km from the right bank of the seasonally flowing Balkh River, at an elevation of about 365 m (1,200 ft).

Outside the town was a large Buddhist monastery later known as Naubahar (or Nava Vihāra in Sanskrit).[2]

French Buddhist Alexandra David-Néel associated Shambhala with Balkh, also offering the Persian Sham-i-Bala, "elevated candle" as an etymology of its name.[3] In a similar vein, the Gurdjieffian J. G. Bennett published speculation that Shambalha was Shams-i-Balkh, a Bactrian sun temple.[4]


The name of province or country appears in Old Persian inscriptions (B.h.i 16; Dar Pers e.16; Nr. a.23) as Bāxtri, i.e. Bakhtri. It is written in the Avesta Bāxδi. From this came the intermediate form Bāxli, Sanskrit Bahlīka, Balhika ‘Bactrian,’, Armenian Bahl, and by transposition, the modern Persian Balx, i.e. Balkh"[5]


Balkh is considered to be the first city to which the Indo-Iranian tribes moved from the North of Amu Darya, between 2000 – 1500 BC.[6] The Arabs called it Umm Al-Belaad or Mother of Cities due to its antiquity.[7] The city was traditionally a center of Zoroastrianism.[8] The name Zariaspa, which is either an alternate name for Balkh or a term for part of the city, may derive from the important Zoroastrian fire temple Azar-i-Asp.[8] Balkh was regarded as the place where Zoroaster first preached his religion, as well as the place where he died.

Map showing Balkh (here indicated as Bactres), the capital of Bactria

Since the Indo-Iranians built their first kingdom in Balkh[9] (Bactria, Daxia, Bukhdi) some scholars[who?] believe that it was from this area that different waves of Indo-Iranians spread to north-east Iran and Seistan region, where they, in part, became today's Persians, Tajiks, Pashtuns, and Baluch people of the region.[citation needed] The period between 26th and 20th century BC was the most important period in the history of Balkh; it's in this relatively short period that a kingdom was established, then the population started to disperse and the kingdom started to shrink[10] until the Median and Persian empires in 700 BC, around 1000 years later.[11] The changing climate has led to desertification since antiquity, when the region was very fertile.[citation needed] The city's long history and former importance are recognized by the native population, who speak of it as the Mother of Cities and the place of Zoroaster's death.[12] Its foundation is mythically ascribed to Keyumars, the first king of the world in Persian legend ; and it is at least certain that, at a very early date, it was the rival of Ecbatana, Nineveh and Babylon.

For a long time the city and country was the central seat of the Zoroastrian religion, the founder of which, Zoroaster, died within the walls, according to the Persian poet Firdowsi. Armenian sources state that the Arsacid Dynasty of the Parthian Empire established its capital in Balkh. There is a long-standing tradition that an ancient shrine of Anahita was to be found here, a temple so rich it invited plunder. Alexander the Great married Roxana of Bactria after killing the king of Balkh.[13] The city was the capital of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom and was besieged for three years by the Seleucid Empire (208–206 BC). After the demise of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom, it was ruled by Indo-Scythians, Parthians, Indo-Parthians, Kushan Empire, Indo-Sassanids, Kidarites, Hephthalite Empire and Sassanids before the arrival of the Arabs.

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Balkh town is well-known to Buddhist countries because of two great Buddhist monks of Afghanistan – Trapusa and Bahalika. There are two stupas over their relics. According to a popular legend, Buddhism was introduced in Balkh by Bhallika, disciple of Buddha and the city derives its name from him. He was a merchant of the region and had come from Bodhgaya. In literature, Balkh has been described as Balhika, Valhika or Bahlika. First Vihara at Balkh was built for Bhallika when he returned home after becoming a Buddhist monk. Xuanzang visited Balkh in 630 when it was a flourishing centre of Hinayana Buddhism. People called the city ‘Little Rajagriha’ since it housed many sacred relics.[citation needed]

According to Memoirs of Xuanzang, there were about a hundred Buddhist convents in the city or its vicinity at the time of his visit there in the 7th century. There were 3,000 monks and a large number of stupas and other religious monuments. The most remarkable stupa was the Navbahara (Sanskrit, Now Vihara: New Monastery), which possessed a very grand statue of Buddha. Shortly before the Arabic conquest, the monastery became a Zoroastrian fire-temple. A curious notice of this building is found in the writings of Arabian geographer Ibn Hawqal, an Arabian traveler of the 10th century, who describes Balkh as built of clay, with ramparts and six gates, and extending half a parasang. He also mentions a castle and a mosque.

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The chinese pilgrim Fa-Hein (c.400) found the Hinayana prevalent in Shan Shan , Kucha , Kashgar, Osh, Udayana and Gandhara. Xuanzang also notices that Buddhism was widely practiced by the Huns rulers of Balkh who descended from Indian royalties.[14]

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Furthermore we know that a number of Buddhist religious centres had flourished in Khorasan the most important was the Nawbahar (New Temple) near the town of Balkh , which evidently served as a pilgrimage centre for political leaders who came from far and wide to pay homage to it.[15]

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A large number of Sanskrit medical, pharmacological toxicological texts were translated into Arabic under the patronage of Khalid, the vizier of AL-Mansur. Khalid was the son of a chief priest of a Buddhist monastery. Some of the family were killed when the Arabs captured Balkh; others including Khalid survived by converting to Islam. They were to be known as the Barmikis of Baghdad.[16]

Arab Invasion

A silver dirham of the Umayyad Caliphate, minted at Balkh al-Baida in AH 111 (= 729/30 CE).

At the time of the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 7th century, however, Balkh had provided an outpost of resistance and a safe haven for the Persian emperor Yedzgird who fled there from the armies of Umar. Later, in the 9th century, during the reign of Ya'qub bin Laith as-Saffar, Islam became firmly rooted in the local population.

Arabs occupied Persia in 642 (during the Caliphate of Uthman, 644–656 AD). Attracted by grandeur and wealth of Balkh, they attacked it in 645 AD. It was only in 653 when Arab commander, al-Ahnaf raided the town again and compelled it to pay tribute. The Arab hold over the town, however, remained tenuous. The area was brought under Arabs' control only after it was reconquered by Muawiya in 663 AD. Prof. Upasak describes the effect of this conquest in these words: "The Arabs plundered the town and killed the people indiscriminately. It is said that they raided the famous Buddhist shrine of Nava-Vihara, which the Arab historians call 'Nava Bahara' and describe it as one of the magnificent places which, comprised a range of 360 cells around the high stupas'. They plundered the gems and jewels that were studded on many images and stupas and took away the wealth accumulated in the Vihara but probably did no considerable harm to other monastic buildings or to the monks residing there".

The Arab attacks had little effect on the normal ecclesiastical life in the monasteries or Balkh Buddhist population outside. Buddhism continued to flourish with their monasteries as the centres of Buddhist learning and training. Scholars, monks and pilgrims from China, India and Korea continued to visit this place.

Several revolts were made against the Arab rule in Balkh.

The Arabs' control over Balkh did not last long as it soon came under the rule of a local prince, called Nazak (or Nizak) Tarkhan. He expelled the Arabs from his territories in 670 or 671. He was a zealous Buddhist. He is said to have not only reprimanded the Chief-Priest (Barmak) of Nava-Vihara but beheaded him for embracing Islam. As per another account, when Balkh was conquered by the Arabs, the head priest of the Nava-Vihara had gone to the capital and became a Muslim. This displeased the people of the Balkh. He was deposed and his son was placed in his position.

Nazak Tarkhan is also said to have murdered not only the Chief Priest but also his sons. Only a young son was saved. He was taken by his mother to Kashmir where he was given training in medicine, autonomy and other sciences. Later they returned to Balkh. Prof. Maqbool Ahmed observes," One is tempted to think that the family originated from Kashmir, for in time of distress, they took refuge in the Valley. Whatever it be, their Kashmiri origin is undoubted and this also explains the deep interest of the Barmaks, in later years, in Kashmir, for we know they were responsible for inviting several scholars and physicians from Kashmir to the Court of Abbasids." Prof. Maqbool also refers to the descriptions of Kashmir contained in the report prepared by the envoy of Yahya bin Barmak. He surmises that the envoy could have possibly visited Kashmir during the reign of Samgramapida II (797–801). Reference has been made to sages and arts.

The Arabs managed to bring Balkh under their control only in 715 AD, in spite of strong resistance offered by the Balkh people during the Umayyad period. Qutayba ibn Muslim al-Bahili, an Arab General was Governor of Khurasan and the east from 705 to 715. He established a firm hold over lands beyond the Oxus for the Arabs. He fought and killed Tarkhan Nizak in Tokharistan (Bactria) in 715. In the wake of Arab conquest the resident monks of the Vihara were either killed or forced to abandon their faith. The Viharas were razed to the ground. Priceless treasures in the form of manuscripts in the libraries of monasteries were consigned to ashes. Presently, only the ancient wall of the town, which once encircled it, stands partially. Nava-Vihara stands in ruins, near Takhta-i-Rustam.[17] In 726, the Umayyad governor Asad ibn Abdallah al-Qasri rebuilt Balkh and installed in it an Arab garrison,[18] while in his second governorship, a decade later, he transferred the provincial capital there.[19]

The Umayyad period lasted until 747, when Abu Muslim captured it for the Abbasids during the Abbasid Revolution. The city remained in Abasdid hands until 821, when it was taken over by the Tahirid dynasty, albeit still in the Abbasids' name. In 870, the Saffarids captured it.

From Saffarids to Mongols

In 870, Ya'qub ibn al-Layth al-Saffar rebelled against Abbasid rule and founded the Saffarid dynasty at Sistan. He captured present Afghanistan and most of present Iran. His successor Amr ibn al-Layth, tried to capture Transoxiana from the Samanids, who were nominally vassals of Abbasids, but he was defeated and captured by Ismail Samani at Battle of Balkh in 900. He was sent to the Abbasid Caliph as a prisoner and was executed in 902. The power of Saffarids was diminished and they became vassals of the Samanids. Thus Balkh now passed to them. Samanid rule in Balkh lasted until 997, when their former subordinates, the Ghaznavids, captured it. In 1006, Balkh was captured by Karakhanids but Ghaznavids recaptured it 1008. Finally Seljuks conquered it in 1059. In 1115, it was occupied and looted by irregular Oghuz Turks. Between 1141 and 1142, it was captured by Atsiz, Shah of Khwarezm after Seljuks defeat to Kara Khitan at Battle of Qatwan. Ahmad Sanjar decisively defeated army of Ghurids, commanded by Ala al-Din Husayn and he took him prisoner for 2 years before releasing him as a vassal of the Seljuks. At next year, he marched against rebellious Oghuz Turks from Khuttal and Tukharistan. But he was defeated twice and was captured after a second battle in Merv. Oghuzs looted Khorasan after their victory. Balkh was nominally ruled by Mahmud Khan, former khan of Western Karakhanids but real power was held by Muayyid al-Din Ay Aba, amir of Nishabur for 3 years. Sanjar finally escaped from captivity and returned to Merv through Termez. He died in 1157 and Balkh again passed to Mahmud Khan until his death in 1162. It was captured by Khwarezmshahs in 1162, by Kara Khitans in 1165, by Ghurids in 1198 and again by Khwarezmshahs in 1206.

Muhammad al-Idrisi, in the 12th century, speaks of its possessing a variety of educational establishments, and carrying on an active trade. There were several important commercial routes from the city, stretching as far east as India and China.

In 1220 Genghis Khan sacked Balkh, butchered its inhabitants and levelled all the buildings capable of defense – treatment to which it was again subjected in the 14th century by Timur. Notwithstanding this, however, Marco Polo (probably referring to its past) could still describe it as "a noble city and a great seat of learning." For when Ibn Battuta visited Balkh around 1333 during the rule of the Kartids, who were vassals of the Ilkhanate until 1335, he described it as a city still in ruins, "It is completely dilapidated and uninhabited, but anyone seeing it would think it to be inhabited because of the solidity of its construction (for it was a vast and important city), and its mosques and colleges preserve their outward appearance even now, with the inscriptions on their buildings incised with lapis-blue paints."[20] It was not reconstructed until 1338. It was captured by Tamerlane in 1389 and its citadel was destroyed. But, Shah Rukh, his successor, rebuilt the citadel in 1407.

Modern times

In 1506 Uzbeks entered Balkh under command of Muhammad Shaybani. They were briefly expelled by the Safavids in 1510. Babur ruled Balkh between 1511 and 1512 as vassal of the Safavids. But he was defeated twice by the Khanate of Bukhara and was forced to retire to Kabul. Balkh was ruled by Bukhara except for Safavid rule between 1598 and 1601. The Moghul Shah Jahan fruitlessly fought them there for several years in the 1640s. Nevertheless Balkh was ruled by Mughal Empire between 1641 and 1647. Balkh was the government seat of Aurangzeb in his youth. In 1736 it was conquered by Nader Shah. After his assassination, Hadji Khan, a local Uzbek declared the independence of Balkh in 1747. But he submitted to Bukhara in 1748. Under the Durani monarchy it fell into the hands of the Afghans in 1752. Bukhara regained it in 1793. It was conquered by Shah Murad of Kunduz in 1826, and for some time was subject to the Emirate of Bukhara. In 1850, Dost Mohammad Khan, the Emir of Afghanistan, captured Balkh, and from that time it remained under Afghan rule.[21] In 1866, after a malaria outbreak during the flood season, Balkh lost its administrative status to the neighboring city of Mazar-e Sharif.[22][23]

Balkh in 1911

In 1911 Balkh comprised a settlement of about 500 houses of Afghan settlers, a colony of Jews and a small bazaar set in the midst of a waste of ruins and acres of debris. Entering by the west (Akcha) gate, one passed under three arches, in which the compilers recognized the remnants of the former Friday Mosque (Jama Masjid). The outer walls, mostly in utter disrepair, were estimated about 6½–7 miles (10.5 to 11.3 km) in perimeter. In the south-east, they were set high on a mound or rampart, which indicated a Mongol origin to the compilers.

The fort and citadel to the north-east were built well above the town on a barren mound and were walled and moated. There was, however, little left of them but the remains of a few pillars. The Green Mosque Masjid Sabz, named for its green-tiled dome (see photograph top right corner) and said to be the tomb of the Khwaja Abu Nasr Parsa, had nothing but the arched entrance remaining of the former madrasa.

The town was garrisoned by a few thousand irregulars (kasidars), the regular troops of Afghan Turkestan being cantoned at Takhtapul, near Mazari Sharif. The gardens to the north-east contained a caravanserai that formed one side of a courtyard, which was shaded by a group of chenar trees Platanus orientalis.[24]

Balkh today

A project of modernization was undertaken in 1934, in which eight streets were laid out, housing and bazaars built. Modern Balkh is a center of the cotton industry, of the skins known commonly the West as "Persian lamb" (Karakul), and for agricultural produce like almonds and melons.

The site and the museum have suffered from looting and uncontrolled digging in the recent wars.[25]

Main sights

Ancient ruins of Balkh

Remains of a Hellenistic capital found in Balkh.

The earlier Buddhist constructions have proved more durable than the Islamic period buildings. The Top-Rustam is 50 yd (46 m) in diameter at the base and 30 yd (27 m) at the top, circular and about 50 ft (15 m) high. Four circular vaults are sunk in the interior and four passages have been pierced below from the outside, which probably lead to them. The base of the building is constructed of sun-dried bricks about 2 ft (600 mm) square and 4 or 5 in (100 to 130 mm) thick. The Takht-e Rustam is wedge-shaped in plan with uneven sides. It is apparently built of pisé mud (i.e. mud mixed with straw and puddled). It is possible that in these ruins we may recognize the Nava Vihara described by the Chinese traveller Xuanzang. There are the remains of many other topes (or stupas) in the neighborhood.[26]

The mounds of ruins on the road to Mazar-e Sharif probably represent the site of a city yet older than those on which stands the modern Balkh.[citation needed]


Numerous places of interest are to be seen today aside from the ancient ruins and fortifications:

  • The madrasa of Sayed Subhan Quli Khan.
  • Bala-Hesar, the shrine and mosque of Khwaja Nasr Parsa.
  • The tomb of the poet Rabi'a Balkhi.
  • The Nine Domes Mosque (Masjid-e Noh Gonbad). This exquisitely ornamented mosque, also referred to as Haji Piyada, is the earliest Islamic monument yet identified in Afghanistan.
  • Tepe Rustam and Takht-e Rustam

Balkh Museum

The Balkh Museum was formerly the second largest museum in the country, but its collection has suffered from looting in recent times.[27]

The museum is also known as the "Museum of the Blue Mosque", from the building it shares with a religious library. As well as exhibits from the ancient ruins of Balkh, the collection includes works of Islamic art including a 13th-century Quran, and examples of Afghan decorative and folk art.

Cultural role

Balkh had a major role in the development of the Persian language and literature. The early works of Persian literature were written by poets and writers who were originally from Balkh.

Many famous Persian poets came from Balkh, e.g.:

Other Notable People

See also


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  3. David-Néel, A. "Les Nouvelles Littéraires";1954, p.1
  4. Bennett, J.G: "Gurdjieff: aking a New World". Bennett notes Idries Shah as the source of the suggestion.
  5. Daniel Coit Gilman, Harry Thurston Peck, Frank Moore Colby, "The New international encyclopædia, Volume 2", Dodd, Mead and Company, 1902. pg 341
  6. Nancy Hatch Dupree, An Historical Guide to Afghanistan, 1977, Kabul, Afghanistan
  7. 'UNESCO-one of the oldest cities in the world and was the thriving centre of Buddhist, Persian and Turkic arts and architecture'. As quoted in "Taliban, 2nd ed.", page 9 by journalist Rashid, Ahmed. also Frank Harold, Balkhi and Mazar-e-Sharif Silk Road Seattle, a project of the Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington
  8. 8.0 8.1 The Greeks in Bactria and India. William Woodthorpe Tarn. 1st Edition, 1938; 2nd Updated Edition, 1951. 3rd Edition, updated with a Preface and a new bibliography by Frank Lee Holt. Ares Publishers, Inc., Chicago. 1984. (1984), pp. 114–115 and n. 1.
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  14. Buddhism in central Asia By Baij Nath Puri , Motilal Banarsi Dass Publishers ,Page 130
  15. Reinterpreting Islamic historiography: Hārūn al-Rashīd and the narrative of the ʻAbbāsid caliphate By Tayeb El-Hibri Edition: illustrated, reprint Published by Cambridge University Press, 1999 Page 8 ISBN 0-521-65023-2, ISBN 978-0-521-65023-6
  16. India, the ancient past: a history of the Indian sub-continent from c. 7000 BC to AD 1200. Of course, Kashmir was not considered a part of India, nor did Kashmiris ever refer to themselves as Indian. By Burjor Avari Edition: illustrated Published by Taylor & Francis. ISBN 0-415-35616-4, ISBN 978-0-415-35616-9 Page 220
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  25. Ancient Afghan City Looted Anew, Associated Press, 2002
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Further reading

Published in the 19th century
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Published in the 21st century
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External links

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