2012
06.05

SYNOPSIS:  A VISIT TO THE MOST ANCIENT PLACE IN AFGHANISTAN AND THE BIRTH PLACE OF ZOROASTER:  BALKH.  THE DO’S AND DON’TS OF THIS TRIP.

Nobody has a clue where exactly Zoroaster was born, but it is agreed that it was somewhere in Balkh.  But there is no birth house, no marker, and no museum.  I wonder if half the population even knows who he is…  If I had known this before I came to Afghanistan, I would have not been so surprised to find Uzbekistan full of Zoroastrian history.  Before Zoroastrianism reached Iran it obviously had to cross Central Asia.  Live and learn!   Even Rumi, the famous Persian poet came from Balkh.  Alexander the Great married his famed Roxanna right here.  And, Balkh was on the Silk Road, on par with Bukhara or Samarkand.  Even Marco Polo came through here, wow!

On the map Balkh looks like a quaint little town, beautifully round, expanding in concentric circles from a central park.  A town with three worthwhile monuments right in the center; with a citadel and walkable  ancient city walls, two Buddhist mounds and the most ancient of all mosques of Afghanistan just two kilometers outside the city center.  I would have liked to spend a day walking around here, taking this all in and enjoying it.  But it turns out, many tour guides will not even take foreigners to Balkh any more – it is a Pashto town and known for its hostilities towards foreigners.   My “gun” was at my heels at all times, and Mubin rushed me around not even letting me get out of the car in some cases and outright forbidding me to even see one of the graves in the park which I had been looking forward to; even though it was only 150 feet away from where I was standing!

I asked Shirin, my gun, at one point:  “Balkh dust dorid?”  Do you like Balkh?  “Balkh dust na doram, Balkh Taliban ast” was his answer.  He simply equated the entire town with the Taliban, just because of their ethnic affiliation, and did not like it one bit.  That, of course, is an overstatement and a simplification which does not hold true.  But there have been killings in broad day light in Balkh of UN personnel and of a foreign man who had helped a woman who had fallen down.  Her husband killed him on the spot!  And Mubin had rocks thrown at him and a knife drawn at his client.

Mubin reminisced of the good old days when he could take foreign journalists to Balkh and just stroll around.  But the main reason he did not let me get inside the park to see Rabi-a–Balkhi’s Tomb is that it is a spot full of local women.  Rabi was the most important Persian female poet.  And I stood 100 feet from her tomb (not even seeing it) without getting to it.  What a shame.  Rabi’s poetry is reportedly full of erotic undertones and women with romantic ambitions seek out her grave.  She was killed by a family member for falling in  love with one of her slaves.  What a history!   But Mubin knew that if I were near that grave, I would want to photograph it and that’s where the trouble starts.  Women should not be photographed.  They will object, and if there is any related male nearby, I might be in big trouble.  I should have begged him to take my cameras and let me go, but I know even then he would not have wanted to take the chance.  Perhaps, he was overprotective, perhaps, he overreacted because he is Tajik, but I did not want to test him.

The other two monuments, the Shrine of Khoja Abu Nasr Parsa, a 15th century shrine of the Timurid era and a 17th century arch that remains from the Sayid Subhna Quli Khan Madrassa were both at the edge of the park.  His conditions were pretty clear:  Walk around once, photograph and get back into the car, gun at my heel, of course.  I followed orders.

At the citadel, he allowed me to walk around to look down into town.  There was pretty much nobody there, except a crazy caretaker of a small shrine who followed us around and wanted a bakshish.    But before we went into town, we stopped at the No Gombad Mosque, two kilometers outside of town which is situated inside a walled compound.  Pitifully little is left of this most ancient 9th century mosque; an entrance arch and a few pillars.  But from what little there is, you get a sense of the simple beauty this mosque must have once possessed.  No colored tiles, but brick patterns made up the decoration.  A chicken-wire fence has been put around the monument to protect it and it is obviously under construction.  I hope they will not over-restore it, but just preserve what is there.  The caretaker was in no mood to extract a bribe from us to let us enter; therefore photography was severely restricted.

Before you get into the city center, two ancient mud-clay mounds heap up between the modern mud-clay houses:  The Takht-e-Rostam and the Teppe Rostam (not to be confused with a monument of the same name near Samangan.  Mubin would not let me out of the car as he feared the population would take notice of my presence and signal it forward.  But he slowed down and allowed me some photographs through the window.  It is unclear to me what these mounds were used for, but since they are of Buddhist origin, they may have been a stupa and perhaps the remains of a monastic complex?  Since I have too little access to the internet I will need to find out more later.  Balkh’s history is truly impressive, but what will become of it is questionable and how much longer visits like mine today are possible is also up in the air.

Just for fun, Mubin decided to have us drive out about 60 kilometers North of Mazar-e-Sharif to the Friendship Bridge, the border crossing to Uzbekistan.   I don’t know how much friendship there is left between the Afghans and the Uzbeks since the border is closed to all but commercial traffic and a few diplomatic VIPs.  It was so hazy, that the bridge itself was barely visible.  It was still a nice thought.  We had fresh fish at a restaurant at the Amu Darya, here still a mighty river.  You may remember from the Uzbekistan blog that the Amu Darya there is so heavily drained for cotton production that it no longer reaches the Aral Sea.  Seeing the huge river here, whose other shore was almost too far to make out, made that seem almost impossible.  How healthy the fresh fish was is up for debate – the water looked murky, brown, and polluted.  I ate it anyhow.

Between Mezar-e-Sharif and the Uzbek border is desert.  Gone are the green, lush valleys and the snow-capped mountains which are only a few hours from here.  There are only sandy hills and some green desert shrubs.  And there was one curiosity – a hot, salty, desert spring.  We made a small detour to see it.  It comes out of the ground with full force.  A stone replica of a water pot has been built around it and a bunch of kids were having fun running through the hot gush.  Who would have thought?  The water is slightly salty, but not salty enough to not make the surrounding area sprout a dense green.

And today, I experienced one of the most bizarre forms of manifesting.  We had just returned from “dinner”.  I have requested as my routine dinner for the last three days a 7 PM ice cream, an apple and a banana.  After a full lunch, I can’t eat another meal and eating after 8 PM would just ruin my evening program of working on my images and the blog.  I was thinking about how to manage laundry with a sink which could not be plugged up even with my so-called universal plug (which is an essential travel item, btw) when the lights went off.  I sat in the dark.  But something was different from the usual electric outlet:  My air conditioner was still going.  So, there was no electric outlet.  I gave it a few minutes and then inquired at the desk.  Everyone else seemed to have light, except me.  Something “broke”, I was told and I was asked to move.

Believe it or not, I was moved into the executive suite!  I now not only have two beds, but a sofa, coffee tables, arm chairs, a refrigerator, a dining room table with six chairs,  a device that spits out good smells every few minutes, and a kitchen with – you won’t believe it, a plug-up sink!  Laundry was no longer a problem.  Thanks Ganesh!  🙂

Good night.

2 comments so far

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  1. This is a really good adventure Elisabeth!

  2. I certainly worried about your safety all the way through this blog and am ever so thankful that Mubin, Ganesh and many angels were watching over you. Might mention that the U.S. sent a drone over to Pakistan that killed al-Queda’s 2nd man – and I ask “why” – what can we expect from Pakistan in return?