The Minaret of Jam is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in western Afghanistan. It is located in the Shahrak District, Ghor Province, by the Hari River. The 65-metre high minaret, surrounded by mountains that reach up to 2400m, was built in the 1190s, entirely of baked-bricks.
It is famous for its intricate brick, stucco and glazed tile decoration, which consists of alternating bands of kufic and naskhi calligraphy, geometric patterns, and verses from the Qur’an (the surat Maryam, relating to Mary, the mother of Jesus).
The circular minaret rests on an octagonal base; it had 2 wooden balconies and was topped by a lantern. It is thought to have been a direct inspiration for the Qutub Minar in Delhi, which was also built by the Ghurid Dynasty. After the Qutub Minar in Delhi, India, which it inspired, the Minaret of Jam is the second-tallest brick minaret in the world.
The Minaret of Jam belongs to a group of around 60 minarets and towers built between the 11th and the 13th centuries in Central Asia, Iran and Afghanistan, ranging from the Kutlug Timur Minaret in Old Urgench (long considered the tallest of these still in existence) to the tower at Ghazni. The minarets are thought to have been built as symbols of Islam’s victory, while other towers were simply landmarks or watchtowers.
The archaeological landscape around Jam also includes the ruins of a ‘palace’, fortifications, a pottery kiln and a Jewish cemetery, and has been suggested to be the remains of the lost city of Turquoise Mountain.
The archaeological site of Jam was successfully nominated as Afghanistan’s first World Heritage site in 2002. It was also inscribed in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage in Danger, due to the precarious state of preservation of the minaret, and results of looting at the site.
The Minaret of Jam is probably located at the site of the Ghurid Dynasty’s summer capital, Firuzkuh (Firuz Koh). The 12th and 13th century Ghurids controlled not only Afghanistan, but also parts of eastern Iran, Northern India and parts of Pakistan.
The Arabic inscription dating the minaret is unclear – it could read 1193/4 or, more likely, 1174/5. It could thus commemorate the victory of the Ghurid sultan Ghiyas ud-Din over the Ghaznevids in 1192 in Delhi, or the defeat of the Ghuzz Turks at Ghazna in 1173. The assumption is that the Minaret was attached to the Friday Mosque of Firuzkuh, which the Ghurid chronicler Juzjani states was washed away in a flash-flood, some time before the Mongol sieges. Work at Jam by the Minaret of Jam Archaeological Project, has found evidence of a large courtyard building beside the minaret, and evidence of river sediments on top of the baked-brick paving.
The Ghurid Empire’s glory waned after the death of Ghiyath ud-Din in 1202, as it was forced to cede territory to the Khwarezm Empire. Juzjani states that Firuzkuh was destroyed by the Mongols in 1222.
The Minaret was little known outside of Afghanistan until Sir Thomas Holdich reported it in 1886 while working for the Afghan Boundary Commission. It did not come to world attention, however, until 1957 through the work of the French archaeologists André Maricq and Gaston Wiet. Later, Werner Herberg conducted limited surveys around the site in the 1970s, before the Soviet invasion of 1979 once again cut off outside access.
The Minaret of Jam is currently threatened by erosion, water infiltration and floods, due to its proximity to the Hari and Jam rivers. Another threat are the earthquakes which happen frequently in the region. Looters and illegal excavations have also damaged the archaeological site surrounding the minaret. The tower has started to lean, but stabilisation work is in progress to halt this danger.