Today little more than a provincial market town, Balkh was once of such stature that the Arabs dubbed it the ‘Mother of Cities’. Nowhere in Afghanistan has such a glorious history as Balkh, and its remaining sights are well worth the short trip from Mazar-e Sharif.
The town is possibly the oldest recorded in the country. Some Islamic traditions have Balkh being founded by Noah after the great flood, but it is better recognised as the birthplace of Zoroaster, founder of the world’s first monotheistic religion. The record is hazy here – the best estimates have him being born around the 6th century BC. The town of Bactra was established enough to be a satrapy of the Achaemenid empire by the time Alexander the Great took on the Persians two centuries later.
Balkh was the scene of Persia’s last stand against the Greeks, with the Bactrian ruler Bessus claiming the Achaemenid crown from the fleeing Darius, only to be killed in turn by Alexander in 329. Alexander’s men were horrified by Balkh – Zoroastrian beliefs forbade burial or cremation to avoid polluting the earth, so the Greeks took control of a city roaming with packs of ‘devourer dogs’ who disposed of the recent dead. Balkh served as the forward base for Alexander’s Central Asian campaigns, and it was here that he married Roxane, adding Afghan blood to the royal lineage, as well as declaring his own divinity.
After Alexander, Balkh was the centre of a succession of Graeco-Bactrian dynasties who held sway over the region until falling to the nomadic Kushans. Balkh prospered as a way station on the new Silk Road, with its people turning to Buddhism.
When the Arabs brought Islam to Afghanistan, Balkh was rich. They, and the Bukharans after them endowed it with fine mosques and palaces, and the city enjoyed a reputation as one of the great centres of Islamic learning.
Rumi, one of the most celebrated of Sufi saints, was born in Balkh, although fled the city in the face of the Mongol onslaught of 1220. When Marco Polo passed through 50 years later he still found the city ‘despoiled and ruined’. Balkh never recovered its glory, despite a brief hurrah under Timurid rule. As nearby Mazar-e Sharif prospered, Balkh struggled through the centuries until cholera and malaria forced a large-scale abandonment in the mid-19th century.