< < <
Date Index
> > >
NYTimes.com Article: The Looting of Turquoise Mountain
by alvi_saima
08 September 2002 05:35 UTC
< < <
Thread Index
> > >
This article from NYTimes.com 
has been sent to you by alvi_saima@yahoo.com.

The Looting of Turquoise Mountain

August 25, 2002


In a deserted maze of narrow gorges in the central
mountains of Afghanistan, I turned a corner and saw a
tower. It rose 200 feet, a slim column of intricately
carved terra cotta set with a line of turquoise tiles.
There was nothing else. The mountain walls formed a tight
circle around it, and at its base two rivers, descending
from high mountain passes, ran through the ravines into

I was crossing Afghanistan on foot, and it had taken me two
weeks to walk to this spot from Herat, the principal city
of western Afghanistan. The valley of Jam, as the area is
called, was a place of relative tranquillity, protected by
high mountains from the pro-Taliban feudal lord to the
south and the anti-Taliban feudal lord to the north. There
was no human in sight, no sound, no sign of the last 24
years of Afghan war. There was only a tower of pale,
slender bricks, more than 800 years old according to an
inscription at the top of the tower. A dense chain of
pentagons, hexagons and diamonds wound round the column.
And in Persian blue tiles, the color of an Afghan winter
sky, on the neck of the tower, the words: ''Ghiyath al-Din
Muhammad, King of Kings. . . . ' 

This sultan had built a fabulous city in the highlands
called the Turquoise Mountain, which existed for less than
a century before it was destroyed by Genghis Khan and lost
to history. Except for the Timurids in the 15th century,
Afghanistan was never to experience such a civilization
again. Only a few of Sultan Ghiyath al-Din's buildings
survived, scattered over a 200-mile area. No one was
certain how they related to his empire, which had stretched
from Iraq to India and controlled the Silk Road to China.
One of those buildings was the tower in front of me. 

The tower of Jam was first visited by a foreigner in 1957.
Several archaeologists subsequently made the difficult
journey, but they were unable to decide what the tower had
been. The Russian invasion of 1979 stopped further visits
from Western scholars. Some archaeologists concluded that
it had been part of a mosque, called it the minaret of Jam
and looked for the lost city of the Turquoise Mountain in
the valley. They discovered very little except, to add to
the mystery, a small 12th-century Jewish cemetery a mile
and a half from its base. Others asserted that this was a
pre-Muslim holy site and that the tower had been built to
mark the arrival of Islam in this most lonely and sacred
spot. Whatever their differences, the archaeologists had
managed to agree on two things -- that the tower was a
uniquely important piece of early Islamic architecture and
that it was in imminent danger of falling down. 

In the last decade, much of Afghanistan's cultural heritage
was removed or destroyed; the Kabul Museum was looted and
the Bamiyan Buddhas were dynamited by the Taliban. By the
time of my visit, officers of the Society for the
Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage had
received no reliable reports on the tower of Jam for six
months. Indeed, no one in Kabul was sure whether the tower
was still standing. 

I went inside the tower and began climbing the steep steps.
With considerable difficulty, I managed to ascend perhaps
120 feet, emerging into a circular chamber. I continued up,
climbing between portions of an old staircase, until I
emerged just below the lantern, where the muezzins would
step out to sing the call to prayer. Above me were
smoke-blackened wooden beams, which must have once
supported an external balcony. I looked out from the
skylight and saw on the facing ridge two small ruined
towers and, to my surprise, a line of trenches cut into the
gravel slope. 

When I emerged from the tower, I found a man squatting on
the ground, stroking his long beard. Standing to greet me,
he said in Persian: ''Peace be upon you, may you not be
tired. How are you? I hope you are well?'' and other
politenesses, all at a rapid pace with no pause for an

I gathered that this man was Bushire, the legendary fighter
who was said to have led 80 men against the Soviets and
then, during the last five years, fought the Taliban. I had
a letter of recommendation to him in Persian and took it
out, but he waved it away because it was very likely he was
illiterate. Instead, he invited me to his house. 

Below, near his mud house, I noticed a curious stone lying
on the ground. I picked it up and found that it was a piece
of gray marble carved with a floral frieze. Inside the
guest room, we sat on the carpets while Bushire's son fed
the fierce fire in the stove with dry twigs. 

''What are you doing at the moment?'' I asked. 

''I am a
director of a society which has been set up to protect the
tower,'' Bushire said. ''We get money from foreigners
abroad to preserve its history.'' 

''And have you found out anything about the history of the

''Well, we've dug up quite a lot of stuff from the

''What kind of things?'' 

''Oh, we have sold most of them to traders from Herat, but
I'm sure there are a few pieces left. Son, go and see what
there is next door.'' 

His son, Abdullah, returned with a tray of green tea and
some objects wrapped in a cloth. There was a marble slab
with a floral pattern (like the piece that I'd found
outside); a terra-cotta ewer, apparently from the 12th
century, covered with a bold black design of waves and fish
eyes; a bronze six-sided die with five spots on each side;
a hemispherical bead carved from bone; and a large clay
disc with a peacock in the center. 

''And where are these from?'' I asked. 

''From all over
the mountainside.'' 

After tea, I climbed up the hill beside the tower. The
gravel was loose and the slopes steep, and I needed to use
my hands. I soon found myself clambering over rough
trenches, some almost 10 feet deep. Along the rim of the
pits were piles of sand and broken fragments of pottery. I
passed shards of brilliant yellow porcelain, half of a
terra-cotta bowl, a section of ancient gutters and some new
spades and pick axes. Clearly the antique robbers did not
steal one another's tools. 

Those digging had made no attempt to preserve the shape of
the buildings they had found; only in a tiny section on the
ridge could you even trace the walls of the rooms. The
villagers were tunneling as deeply and as quickly as
possible to reach whatever lay beneath, and destroying a
great deal in the process. The trenches, which had been
invisible from the base of the tower, now stretched across
every slope in sight. The villagers seemed to have
succeeded where the archaeologists had failed. They had
uncovered what looked like an ancient city -- and were
rapidly laying it waste. 

The theft in the valley of Jam is only the most obvious
evidence of a general destruction of Afghanistan's cultural
heritage. But the pillaging of Jam is a recent,
post-Taliban phenomenon. The chaos that followed the 1989
Soviet withdrawal kept antiquity traders away from the
valley, and the Taliban had protected it as an Islamic
site. Now, with a measure of order restored but with a lack
of control from Kabul, looting is in full season. The
demand for these objects and the money for the excavations
come primarily from dealers and collectors in Japan,
Britain and the United States. But there have also been
reports of American servicemen buying antiquities from
villagers. Items from Jam are already being offered on the
art market in London, described as Seljuk or Persian to
conceal their Afghan origin. 

I was looking down at the pits on the ridge when there was
a shout from Abdullah, who was pushing up the steep slope
to join me. 

''We found an inscription on an old stone here, which a
trader deciphered for us,'' he said. ''It said that this
palace had been built by the daughter of Ghiyath al-Din the

''Where is this inscription now?'' 


I followed him along the narrow walls of the trenches,
sliding down the steep face toward Bushire's house. ''Do
you want this?'' asked Abdullah, pausing to pick up a
complete terra-cotta pot. 

''No, thank you. Actually, I think these things should be
in a museum.'' 

''Indeed,'' said Abdullah, adding, ''Do you think you could
bring us a metal detector next time you visit?'' 

That evening, there was a large group in Bushire's house.
Someone had told them I was interested in history, and they
were hoping for advice on where to dig. ''When did you move
here?'' I asked the commander. 

''A year ago,'' Bushire replied. ''Before that there were
no houses in this place. The slopes are so steep that
building is difficult, and so narrow that there is very
little sun. We cannot grow crops here. We only moved here
to dig.'' 

''How many of you are digging here?'' 

''A few hundred. People are now coming down from all the
surrounding villages, two hours in each direction.'' 

''Do you control this?'' 

''No, no. Anyone is free to
dig,'' he said. ''You can have a go yourself. 

''This old man,'' Bushire continued, pointing to a
toothless villager, ''found a whole set of beautifully
carved ivory chessmen a month ago, in one of the smallest
houses on the hill. And he has just sold a wonderful carved
wooden door, one and a half meters high, with tigers and
hunting scenes, to a merchant from Herat for a lot of

''How much do you sell these objects for?'' I asked

''This,'' he replied, holding up the 12th-century ewer,
with its bold wave pattern, ''is worth one or two American
dollars -- good money. That's why we are here. The door or
chess pieces can go for more. But it isn't as much as we
would like. The people must have taken a lot with them
before the city was burned.'' 


''Yes. There are charred roof beams in most of the

''There was a city called the Turquoise Mountain, which
Genghis burned,'' I said, not sure whether these people
would have heard of it. 

''This is the Turquoise Mountain,'' said a man from Beidon,
a village six miles away. ''We found it here two months

''But the foreign experts in the 70's . . . ?'' 

''I used to tell the professors that my grandfathers
believed the Turquoise Mountain was here, but they never
listened,'' replied the old man who had found the chess
pieces. ''Why do you think our tribe is called Firokuhi
Aimaq?'' (The name means the Aimaq of the Turquoise
Mountain.) ''The foreigners dug so slowly, a few
centimeters at a time. All they found were the Jewish
headstones, which were on the ground. They should have
worked like us.'' 

Another man interjected: ''When we were children, we were
told legends of a causeway covering the river for miles
because the gorges were too narrow to get the camel
caravans in any other way. There was a tunnel, which ran
under the minaret, beneath the river and up the hill to the
princess's palace -- '' 

''And,'' the old man interrupted, ''there were two golden
birds on the battlements, one of which was melted to make
that caldron in Herat.'' 

''In my village,'' said the man from Beidon, ''we have
found weapons where my father said Genghis's first attack
was defeated. He made his second attack, while the snow
still lay on the ground, sending one army up the old wooden
causeway from Kamenj.'' 

''It was destroyed twice,'' Bushire added, ''once by
hailstones and once by Genghis.'' 

''Three times,'' I said. ''You're destroying what

They all laughed. 

If these were the ruins of the Turquoise Mountain, they had
once preserved the traces of not only an Afghan culture. As
the capital of a Silk Road empire, the city would have
contained art from all over 12th-century Asia. The new
colors and motifs of Persian ceramics and the new forms in
Seljuk metal would have lain alongside Ghorid innovations
in architecture, terra cotta and tile work. We know very
little about this period because as Genghis Khan buried the
Turquoise Mountain, he also obliterated the other great
cities of the eastern Islamic world. The Turquoise Mountain
could have preserved much about the lost glory of the whole
of pre-Mongol Asia. 

The villagers have already done so much damage with their
excavations that the site may now reveal few secrets about
the Ghorid period or any other. Most of its artistic
treasures are on their way through Pakistan and Iran to
Western markets. But even the scattered debris around the
trenches hints at how unusual this culture was. The site is
absurdly unsuitable for the capital city of a vast Asian
empire. The base of the valley is barren and for most of
the day without sunlight; the valley walls are prone to
landslides and access is through high passes, which in
winter are closed by snow. 

The chronicler Juzjani, who lived when the city was at its
height, wrote that the bricks of the Turquoise Mountain
were made by mixing the mud of the rival city of Ghazni
with the blood of its massacred citizens. He adds that the
Friday mosque was filled with Indian treasure, looted from
Delhi; and that on ''the palace-fortress are placed five
pinnacles inlaid with gold and also two gold humae'' --
legendary birds -- each about the size of a camel.'' 

Juzjani has often been accused of fabricating the city, but
the villagers' discoveries suggest he may have been
accurate. The huge Friday mosque beneath the two giant
minarets must have filled the entire base of the gorge,
straddling the river. Above it, a wall of tightly packed
houses would have risen almost vertically to the castles on
the ridgeline. The magnificence of the city's architecture
is suggested by the grandeur of the surviving minaret. 

After leaving jam, I took another five weeks to walk to
Kabul. In almost every village I passed, people were
digging for antiques, often in old graves. Over an area
that stretched 150 miles east of Jam, different villages
were finding pots with identical, highly stylized female
heads, suggesting that there had once been a single culture
across much of central Afghanistan. But again, the
villagers were not interested in recording or preserving
the evidence of that culture. 

The day I arrived in Kabul, I went to a conference held by
the United Nations. There I met an Afghan government
official who introduced himself as ''partially responsible
for the minaret of Jam.'' 

''I'm delighted to meet you,'' I said in English. ''I have
just been to the minaret of Jam and -- '' 

''No, no,'' he said with a broad smile, ''it will be
impossible for you to visit that place now. There are many
mines, and you must not forget there is still a war in
Afghanistan. If you wished to wait till the summer, perhaps
we could organize a guard for you. But now no one can
visit. Even I cannot visit.'' 

''But I have just been there.'' 

''No, no, you are not
listening to me. This is a dangerous area.'' 

''I was there a month ago.'' 

''You were really there?''

''Yes,'' I said. ''And it is a very serious situation.
Villagers are digging up the hillside, looking for

''Well,'' he said. ''The villagers will not find anything

''There are hundreds of them working every day. They have
uncovered a large city, and they are looting it.'' 

''In any case, Unesco has appointed a team. There are
archaeologists who will be making a one-week survey trip.''

''But when?'' 

''When it is safe to go. . . . Everything in good time.
Now, excuse me. Yes?'' he asked, turning to a lady on my
left. ''How may I help you?'' 

''I am Bianca Jagger,'' she said, offering her hand, which
he didn't take. 

Two days later, I went to speak to the chairman of the
Society for the Protection of the Minaret of Jam, Gul Agha
Karimi. He hails from the province where the minaret stands
and was a civil servant during the Russian period. He knew
the people in the Jam Valley well. 

''This is a disaster,'' he said when I told him what was
happening. ''It was not going on last time I was there. It
is because there is no government. When the Taliban were
here, no one would have dared.'' 

''Someone needs to stop it,'' I said. ''We should send
archaeologists there immediately.'' 

He explained that the villagers would just ignore the
archaeologists, and that local commanders would kill any
security forces foolish enough to enter the area. The best
way to stop the looting, he said, was to bribe the big
commanders like Bushire, who would then order their people
to stop. 

''Who can do this?'' 

''Not the U.N. They don't have the contacts. They don't
understand the mind-set, the language and the politics;
they wouldn't be able to bribe and bully the villagers. You
might as well give up. By the time they decide what to do,
it will be too late. These traders work very fast.'' 

In the last six months the promised Unesco visits to Jam
have taken place, more seminars have been held, the minaret
of Jam has been declared a World Heritage Site and, as Gul
Agha predicted, nothing has been done to stop the
pillaging. Officials continue to refer to the minaret as
possibly a ''victory tower'' and refuse to recognize the
possibility that the Ghorid capital has been found and is
being destroyed. Prof. Andrea Bruno, who led the
excavations of the 1970's and has been leading the recent
Unesco visits, still maintains that, for now, the Turquoise
Mountain is only a legend. 

Just before I left the valley of Jam, Abdullah, Bushire's
son, showed me three pieces he found that morning. They
suggested that the Turquoise Mountain, if that's what it
was, was in some ways more open to the world in the 12th
century than it is today. One was a fragment of porcelain
with a delicate design in under-glaze red, possibly
indicating that it was imported 800 years ago from China.
The second was a coin depicting Zoroastrian fire
worshipers, one element in the complex religious patchwork
from which the minaret emerged. The Hebrew tombstones
showed there had been Jews; the sultan's ancestors may have
been Hindus, and the giant statues of a Buddhist
civilization dominated their second capital at Bamiyan. 

The third piece was a fragment from the rim of a plate. On
the surface, cross-legged, in a brightly colored robe, a
man with a halo was preaching in a flower garden. Mani, the
founder of a long-vanished religion, was associated with
bright robes and flower gardens. Manichaeans are assumed to
have left this area centuries before the Turquoise
Mountain, but the shard made me wonder whether they had in
fact survived until the Mongol invasion. 

''These pieces suggest interesting things about the culture
of the Turquoise Mountain and Afghanistan,'' I said,
handing them back to Abdullah. 

''I don't know about that,'' he said, ''and I won't be able
to sell them. But,'' he added, smiling, ''I like the man on
this plate. I think I'll preserve him.'' 

Rory Stewart is writing a book about his journey on foot
across Afghanistan earlier this year.


For information on advertising in e-mail newsletters 
or other creative advertising opportunities with The 
New York Times on the Web, please contact
onlinesales@nytimes.com or visit our online media 
kit at http://www.nytimes.com/adinfo

For general information about NYTimes.com, write to 

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

< < <
Date Index
> > >
World Systems Network List Archives
at CSF
Subscribe to World Systems Network < < <
Thread Index
> > >