Seminar CCIX: difficulties of studying medieval Balkh

The backlog now advances to the autumn term of the academic year just gone, a mere ten months now, and finds me in the Medieval Seminar of the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages at Birmingham on 7th October 2014, when one of our resident scholars, Arezou Azad, was presenting with the title, “Balkh Art & Cultural Heritage Project: exploration, maps and Silk Road history from northern Afghanistan”. I should read Arezou’s book, because although Balkh is some way off my usual patch it’s really interesting, a real point where worlds met as the routes across the north of the Himalayas arrived at a junction heading both south to India and west to Persia, a major early Buddhist centre and that not the first or last faith to locate itself there, this also being the place of death of Zoroaster; under medieval Islam, likewise, it was a thriving university town that supplied many of the Caliphate’s leading scholars, and now somehow it’s a place almost no-one in the West has heard of.1 So I was eager to find out what I should already have read in the speaker’s book, which is always one gain of going to seminars, isn’t it?

What better image to borrow than the project website’s masthead, not least because it’s quite impressive…

The project about which Arezou set out to teach us is indeed an ambitious one: there have been eleven people involved both on site and spread across the scholarly globe, as the website says: “a team of experts with specialist knowledge on Afghan archaeology, coins, ceramics, and Persian and Arabic texts”, and more besides given that some of the documents from the area are in Bactrian, a language that really very few people in the world now read (which is frustrating to me, as these documents are obviously charters and I want to know how they compare…). They have aimed to look at settlement patterns, resource use, connections and conversion, fortification (the city walls seem to have been almost gone between the tenth and fifteenth centuries, but there is some suggestion that a new circuit was put up to encircle the whole oasis, a 72 km effort that it would be marvellous actually to prove), administration, religious building and a few other things besides including editions of the few surviving texts from the city. These include the Bactrian charters, which are apparently largely one family’s archive (which is perhaps even more intriguing than a civic one would be), and a fifteenth-century history of the city called the Fada’il-i Balkh, surviving in a Persian translation of its Arabic original and providing biographical notes about seventy generations of city luminaries, including a couple of notable queens and some learned women about whom Arezou has already written.2

Inside a post-Timurid shrine in Balkh, photo by Arezou Azad

Inside a post-Timurid shrine in Balkh, photo by Arezou Azad

All of this is however complicated by the fact that the project is trying to study a place now in Afghanistan, which is not currently perfectly accessible… Balkh is largely clear of warzone but local security is still quite tight, not least because that actually puts it very close to the border with Uzbekistan. That also has the complication that sites in the city’s old territory are now in fact across the border, meaning that they have to have a team member working with old Soviet archæological reports on finds that they can’t get at. The finds that they can get at, meanwhile, are in Kabul, were mostly excavated by French teams in the 1970s and were found in storage of the most dreadful kind, rooms full of uncatalogued potsherds and coins carefully stored in airtight plastic bags with perhaps just a little bit of moisture along with them that consequently provided perfect conditions for thriving populations of mould to grow on them then die in the bag.3 Even once conserved, the original records of these coins’ discovery context has been lost, and the situation is little better for many of the other finds, but what little is known suggests that they are only from two or three areas of the city, so that a great deal remains archæologically blank.

A coin of al-Mubarak (Balkh)

A coin of al-Mubarak, which is to say Balkh, cleaned and conserved; I can’t tell you metal or date but it’s one of the finds!

The team can’t afford to maintain an actual presence in either Balkh or Kabul except for local interns, who have been having to work largely unsupervised and unpaid with what help the Délégation archéologique française en Afghanistan is able to offer. This seems not to have stopped them making great efforts, but it’s obviously not ideal and putting their findings to work is very difficult. Indeed, at the time Arezou was speaking, the whole team had only been able to meet twice since they began the project in late 2011, although there was to be a conference in January 2015, which seems to have been the last time the project website was updated. The publication of those papers is obviously a desideratum, but at the end of Arezou’s paper my hopes for what they may contain were, I have to admit, considerably dampened.4 It seems as if new primary material is going to be very hard to add into any new synthesis, so the best we can hope for may be the refinement and greater accessibility of earlier syntheses. There are some places—and many worse than this, right now—which we just can’t study properly!

Professor Hugh Kennedy in discussion with Dr Mark Whittow at the BACH conference, Oxford 2015

The conference looks as if it may have been fun, though! Here the pictures from it show Professor Hugh Kennedy in discussion with Dr Mark Whittow.

1. That book being A. Azad, Sacred Landscape in Medieval Afghanistan: Revisiting the Faḍāʾil-i Balkh (Oxford 2013).

2. A. Azad, “Female Mystics in Medieval Islam: The Quiet Legacy” in Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient Vol. 56 (Leiden 2013), pp. 53–88, DOI: 10.1163/15685209-12341277. The Bactrian documents have been being published for some years now as Nicholas Sims-Williams (ed.), Bactrian Documents from Northern Afghanistan, Vol I: Legal and Economic Documents (Oxford 2001), idem, Bactrian documents from Northern Afghanistan, Vol. 2: Letters and Buddhist texts (London 2007) and Bactrian Documents from Northern Afghanistan III: Plates (Oxford 2013), which must have been a trial judging by the three different publishers. The Fada’il-i Balkh has been edited before, as Shaykh al-Islām al-Wā’iz & ‘Abd Allāh al-Husaynī (edd.), Fadā’il-i Balkh (Tehran 1350 [1971]), but this is apparently “inadequate” (Azad, Sacred Landscapes, p. 22 n. 2), and a new one by project member by Ali Mir Ansari, which will then be translated by Arezou and Edmund Herzig, apparently as Azad, Ansari & Herzig (transl.), Faḍāʾil-i Balkh (London forthcoming), is in progress still.

3. Kids, a curator’s advice to you: if you have old coins in a sealable plastic receptacle, like a zip-lock bag or something, poke a pinhole in that plastic or you too may face this problem after 35 years…

4. Arezou’s Birmingham webpage does mention as forthcoming something that looks as if it might be that publication, A. Azad, Edmund Herzig & Paul Wordsworth (edd.), Early Islamic Balkh: History, Landscape and Material Culture of a Central Asian City (forthcoming), but that’s the only trace I can find so far.

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