Entry: Ancient City of Balkh (Afghanistan) Sunday, October 30, 2005

I made a list of sights to see in Balkh from my 30 year old Historical Guide to Afghanistan. Squeezing two in the front seat and cramming the back, it's only half a dollar in a shared taxi to Balkh, 18 kilometers away.

Balkh is an ancient city, once of great fame as a spiritual center from Zoroastrianism to Buddhism to Islam. Zoroaster preached here sometime between 1000 and 600 BC. It is the birthplace of the famous Sufi poet, Rumi and contains the tomb of the tragic poetess Rabi'a Balkhi.

I followed a path into a round central park, surrounded by tall trees and with a dry fountain at its center. Dominating the park was the 500 year old shrine of the theologian Khwaja Abu Nasr Parsa, with a blue fluted dome, flanked by interesting corkscrew pillars. Nearby was the tomb of Rabi'a Balkhi. A simple marble tombstone of Arabic inscriptions sits atop the dungeon in which she died. Her wrists were slashed by her brother who did not approve of her affair with a certain manservant. Using the blood from her own wrists she composed her last poem.

To the north of the park is Bala Hissar, the massive ruins of ancient Balkh. Here I found a lone French archaeologist sitting in the dust overlooking his dig. In his lap lay a notebook of maps, graphs, and scribbled notes. I asked if anything interesting was found recently. They had uncovered some of the original walls and some old pottery, but nothing of the Greek era, which is what they are most interested in finding.

I walked further up the hill and was surprised to find the massive scale of ruins that they before me. Spread out all the way to the horizon was nothing but mounds of rubble and dust. The city was so thoroughly destroyed by Genghis Khan that nothing remained but piles of grey dusty bricks. Some of the outer city walls stood in the desolation. When I climbed up to peer into the distance, all I could see were a few boys on donkeys crossing the plane in a wake of dust.

I descended the other side of the wall back towards the new city. A swampy area stood between me and the mud huts that I had to walk around. I felt vulnerable so far from the main road and self-conscious of the town's suspicion. I tried to comfort myself with extending a lot of "Salams" and "Hellos". I was glad to find a main road again.

I climbed another wall and sat on top of an old Russian tank with two teenage boys. Below my feat was a heap of white sun-bleached bones. I kicked over a human skull with dried mud bulging from its eye sockets.

The two boys took me down to a second archaeological dig site run by the French. I managed to get permission for a single photo, but when the French team came back from tea I think they were afraid of me and weren't very friendly. The problem was that I was dressed in the local style, and while it helps to preserve anonymity at the market it compounds suspicion in other cases. When I said "good luck" to the young French girl at the dig, she looked terrified. I decided to get back to Mazar. The sights here were only mildly interesting anyway.

It had been a month since my last head shaving so I straight away found a barber. There is something very relaxing and enjoyable in getting a shave. Of course I kept the length of my beard alone; now it hangs perhaps three inches off my chin.

Since the charger to my Palm device had burnt out in the night, I had no choice but to cut the connector off the transformer and to have it soldered onto another power supply. Thankfully, Maimana Market was full of electronic parts and the request was easily fulfilled, and for free.

Then I explored the road north of the shrine. I rummaged through some traditional chapans, those brightly colored robe-like jackets, but I much preferred the old style I had seen in the antique shops.

I napped straight through Azan and was hungry when I awoke. I had the same plate of Kabuli rice I had when I first arrived. Walking back to my hotel I ended up next to a massive British soldier with a ripple of fat behind his head and a big black tribal tattoo on his arm. There were a dozen or so patrolling the dark streets this night. At one point a soldier raised his gun down a dark alley and I thought he was going to shoot at something. He was only looking through his night vision scope. I wasn't keen on being in the line of fire so I darted back to my hotel ASAP.


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