The Looting of Turquoise Mountain

First published in The New York Times

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 wilderness.

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 answer.

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 tower?”

”Well, we’ve dug up quite a lot of stuff from the ground.”

”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 Ghorid.”

”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 money.”

”How much do you sell these objects for?” I asked Bushire.

”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 houses.”

”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 ago.”

”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 remained.”

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 antiquities.”

”Well,” he said. ”The villagers will not find anything significant.”

”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.”

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