The Minaret of Jam

One of the most celebrated of seasoned travellers’ destinations, the remote twelfth century Minaret of Jam has actually been visited by very few people since the fall of the Ghorid Empire following the invasion of Afghanistan by Ghengis Khan in 1219. The location of this magnificent monument was lost to the outside world until its rediscovery in the mid twentieth century and both warfare and politics have made safe access sporadic ever since. A small archaeological team from Cambridge recently had their funding withdrawn by UNESCO who deemed it too dangerous for them to continue: fortunately not before they had confirmed the site as the legendary Firuzkoh (the Turquoise Mountain), capital city of the Ghorid Empire.

Well, whatever the difficulties of getting there (and I’d better save the worst of those until I am home safely) we did actually make it. I probably have Elisabeth’s travel Pantheon to thank for this since, not far out from our disgusting overnight lodgings at Chaghcheran, we broke a spring on the bus and had to return to that particular pit of despair. Making it to Jam had always been problematic since the few available drivers have become less and less willing and more and more rapacious. I suppose you can see their point, taking foreigners on board is so unusual in these parts it is bound to attract the wrong sort of attention, so they can virtually demand what they like. Fortunately our Leader is very experienced at travelling hereabouts, although perhaps when he blows his top (as he does from time to time) he should understand just how internationally recognised some of those words have now become.

We really didn’t think we were going to get another chance, Inshallah, but a second bus miraculously appeared, this time with two additional “assistants” and a roof-load of cardboard boxes. The discomfort level was suitably high and any glimpses we had of the White Tent nomads, as opposed to the Kuchi in their black tents, were nigh on unphotographable. I did at last manage to get a picture of one of the new-style wells which seem to have been installed in even the remotest spots (presumably with some sort of NGO funding) and one of the hell hounds finally obliged. All Afghani countryside dogs seem to have been bred for their pugilistic tendencies. Sized somewhere between a Rottweiller and a Great Dane, they have docked ears and a ferocious snarl. No-one in their right mind would choose to pet one. Perhaps that is why the very few cats that I’ve seen are dappled, undersized creatures much given to darting into woodpiles or any other available cover.

How can I describe Jam without being able to post the pictures? Was it worth it? I’m sure that I will come to believe that it was, although I cannot help but anticipate that one day in the not too distant future I shall hear that it has been destroyed, like so much else in this country. It may be Afghanistan’s premier World Heritage site but it is also on the critically endangered list. The surrounding hills are honeycombed with looters’ diggings and the site has been offering up its treasures to illicit dealers for decades. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised to find that some of them know more about what is there than the scholars. The ground is littered with pot sherds, some glazed in bright Islamic colours and patterns.

The journey back was even worse. It being too far for us to reach Herat before nightfall, we had to stop at the little town of Chist-e Sharif where we attracted the attention of the security forces. Now, ordinarily I’d not post much information about something like this but the chaps did insist on being photographed. We had to spend the night in one of the barrack rooms as their chief decided that the local tea house was not safe enough and, so grubby was the place, I decided not to risk one of the bunks but lay down on the floor with my valuables for a pillow. I awoke early and got up to brave the execrable toilets only to find that my boots had disappeared. I groped around in the pre-dawn light as best I could but they were nowhere to be found. This was probably my lowest point on the trip to date, sitting on the floor in my three-day-clothing imagining the telling off I would get from the more experienced privationeers for losing my boots like that.

As it happened someone else had put their luggage on top of them and the police chief’s insistence that we wait for an escort before setting off for Herat gave us time to view a lovely Sufi shrine. For the first time in three days we had something approaching a breakfast, although the Chaghcheran collywobbles dampened most people’s appetite. There were more delays and complications to draw out the final leg of the journey but, even from the comfort of a Herat hotel room, I don’t think I can face narrating them yet.

Categories: Central Asia

1 Comment

  • Elisabeth says:

    I finally realized that you ARE blogging even though you said you would not, as long as you are traveling. Thank you so much for your time and effort. I am glued to the blog now waiting for any bit more of news and stories. Be safe!


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