The Minaret of Jam J

Reaching a dizzying height of 65m, the Minaret of Jam (Minar-e Jam; ticket US$5, still/video camera US$5/10, vehicle US$10, translator US$15) stands as a

lonely sentinel at the confluence of the Hari Rud and Jam Rud rivers, the greatest surviving monument of the medieval Ghorid empire. Forgotten by the outside world until the mid-20th century, it remains a holy grail for many travellers to Afghanistan. The first view of the minaret as it looms suddenly and unexpectedly from the folds of the mountains is worth all the rough roads it takes to get there.

The minaret was built in 1194 for Sultan Ghiyasuddin, the grandest of the Ghorid rulers, and marks the highpoint of their fired-brick architecture (Ghiyasuddin also commissioned Herat's Friday Mosque at this time). Three tapering cylindrical storeys rise from an octagonal base, the whole completely covered in intricate cafe-an-

la.it brick decoration. Interlocking chains, polygons and medallions wind delicately around the shaft, interspersed with text from the Quran.

At the neck of the first section, a band of Kufic text spells out Ghiyasuddin's name in glazed turquoise, the only colour on the minaret. Above this are spars from the original wooden scaffold and brick buttresses that would originally have supported a balcony. The second and third shafts are more restrained in their decoration, surmounted by a final lantern gallery with pinched and pointed arches. Few muezzins have ever had such a stage for their call to prayer.

At the time of its construction, the minaret was the tallest in the world and until the 20th century only the Qutb Minar in Delhi was taller. For many years, archaeologists were mystified as to its purpose. Its isolated location begs the same question from every visitor: why here? Given the lack of associated buildings, it was assumed by many to be part of a concurrent Central Asian trend for raising single massive towers as statements of political power, possibly marking victory over a pagan populace. Jam is now recognised to be the site of the lost city of Firuzkoh, the Ghorids' capital destroyed by the Mongols (see the boxed text, below).

It's possible to climb the minaret and the views are amazing. A ladder allows you to crawl through a narrow entrance hole to the interior. There are two staircases, winding around each other like a DNA double-helix. Care should be taken on the narrow steps and a torch isn't a bad idea. The stairs end in an open chamber, from where you

FIRUZKOH - THE TURQUOISE MOUNTAIN

Unlike the majority of Afghan empires that arose from the plains, the Ghorids were born of the mountain fastness of the Hindu Kush. Even so, the decision to build their capital Firuzkoh (The Turquoise Mountain') in such an inaccessible place - far from the trade routes, with barely a square metre of flat arable land - seems an act of almost wilful perversity. Until recently, archaeologists were reluctant to accept Jam as the site of the lost city.

Post-Taliban surveys have forced a change of mind. In the immediate vicinity of the minaret, several courtyards and pavements of baked brick have been uncovered (possibly the minaret's mosque), along with the remains of other buildings. If the Ghorids' own chronicles are to be believed, the mortar for these was mixed with the blood of prisoners taken from recently conquered Ghazni. A Jewish cemetery was also recorded at the site before the war, while the watchtowers on the slopes to the west of the minaret were probably part of Firuzkoh's larger defences. Smaller looted artefacts have included carved doors, coins and pottery from as far as Iran and China. Archaeologists continue to survey the site.

can look out over the confluence of the rivers. A second staircase continues from here up to the lantern gallery, although the climb feels more than a little precarious.

In 2002, the Minaret of Jam became Afghanistan's first World Heritage site, simultaneously being placed on the list of World Heritage sites in danger. It's easy to see why. Sat on the confluence of the Hari Rud and Jam Rud rivers, erosion of the foundations has been a constant worry, and gabion walls have been built to reinforce the structure. Even so, the minaret still lists at a worrying angle. Illegal looting, which ironically reached its peak after the fall of the Taliban, has also damaged the site, and robber holes can easily be spotted in the area.

SLEEPING & EATING

There is a small government-run guesthouse (r US$30; dinner US$10, breakfast US$5) next to the minaret. Rooms are simple, but the mattresses are comfortable and the shower is one of the most welcome you'll take in the country. Meals are hearty. In Garmao, the nearest village 15km away up the Jam Rud, the Hotel Jam (70Afg) offers the usual chaikhana deal of a space on the floor for the price of dinner.

GETTING THERE & AWAY

No public transport goes to Jam. The best option is to take transport between Chaghcheran and Herat and get off at Garmao, where several locals act as motorbike taxis to the minaret (500Afg, two hours). The road is little more than a track, and is the roughest on the central route. Onward transport options from Garmao can be tricky, as vehicles are usually full when they drive through the village, but HiAces usually pass through en route to Chaghcheran (400Afg, five hours) around dawn, or to Herat (500Afg, one day, staying overnight at Darya Takht) in the afternoon. The road west, with its villages and orchards, is very picturesque.

With your own vehicle, Jam can be reached from Chaghcheran in seven hours, or from Herat in about 15 hours. There are two equally dramatic routes from Chaghcheran - the southerly main road via Garmao, or the northern road via Ghar-e Payon. The latter brings you to the minaret from the opposite bank of the Jam Rud. There is no bridge and the river can only be forded by vehicles in the late summer. When the spring melt is in full spate, it can only be crossed by means of a zip wire - not for the faint-hearted!

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