The Balkh Art and Cultural Heritage Project 
  • 1

About us

Ceramic finds from DAFA archaeological excavations, with DAFA Director Philippe Marquis (middle). Photo by Arezou Azad.Ceramic finds from DAFA archaeological excavations, with DAFA Director Philippe Marquis (middle). Photo by Arezou Azad.Oxford University's 'Balkh Art and Cultural Heritage Project,' funded by the Leverhulme Trust has a dual aim of undertaking new research on Afghanistan's early Islamic history, and in building the capacity of Afghan colleagues in cultural heritage research.

Since September 2011, a team of scholars in the UK and abroad has been studying the textual and material culture of Balkh in northern Afghanistan. Historical Balkh (near modern-day Mazar-i Sharif) was one of the oldest, largest and most important cities of Afghanistan until late medieval times. The study opens up exciting new areas of knowledge on Afghanistan's pre-Islamic past, and the way in which Islam was incorporated into historical memory. The project will go on until September 2014.

The project involves a team of experts with specialist knowledge on Afghan archaeology, coins, ceramics, and Persian and Arabic texts. The project partners with several research and cultural heritage organisations in Afghanistan, including the Ministry of Information and Culture, the Kabul National Museum and the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan (DAFA).

Management of the project is the responsibility of Edmund Herzig who organises the logistics of fieldwork, ensures budget planning and implementation, oversees the collation of results, and undertakes analyses subsequent to field work. James Allan, an experienced architectural historian, advises Edmund for the duration of the project.

Arezou Azad, co-manages the project, and oversees the textual survey and critical edition and translation of the Fada'il-i Balkh. She works closely with Ali Mir-Ansari. Paul Wordsworth is Research officer on the team, and is investigating the wider landscape of Balkh, analysing trade routes and regional hydrological networks. Both he and Michael Athanson are working on the digital cartography of the city. Other team members include Pierre Simeon, and Stefan Heidemann, who take responsibility for artefact analysis. Hugh Kennedy and Tasha Vorderstrasse work with textual sources in Arabic and Chinese respectively. Robert Hoyland has held a seminar series in Kabul on the early Islamic history Afghanistan and Central Asia. Each international team member has partnered with Afghan scholars for training and communication purposes. Nicholas Evans, a doctoral student in Oxford, worked through dozens of reports by Soviet archaeologists on Bactria; an intern Zeinab Alsadat Azarbadegan carried out London-based research in the India Office Records to support the mapping team, and helping in the planned Dari version of the BACH website.

  • Brief Timeline
  • Project Milestones
  • The BACH Project
  • Recent Articles

دری ]

Bactra—the Greek name under which pre-Islamic Balkh was known—encapsulated Bronze Age settlements around 2,000 BC when its ancient water systems were built.

It was a province of the Achaemenid Empire (sixth century BC), the capital of the Hellenistic kingdom of Bactria and a part of the Kushan Empire that flourished in the first to the third centuries AD.

The first surviving textual mention of ancient Bactria is in the Vendidad section of the Avesta, the Zoroastrian Holy Book. Bactria (Baxtri) is mentioned in the trilingual inscription of the Emperor Darius I (r. 522-486 BC) at Bisutun and Persepolis as one of the Achaemenid satrapies (provinces). According to varying traditions, Balkh was founded by the mythical Iranian kings Gusthasp, his father Luhrasp, or the first man, Gayumarth. The Zoroastrian Prophet Zoroaster is rumoured to have died in Balkh.

Read More

September 2011 - Launch of the BACH project

5-6 January 2012 - First BACH workshop in Oxford. Participants on the first day were limited to team members and special advisors to discuss the parameters of the BACH project, its training agenda, and practicalities, logistics and context. Day 2 included a wider audience of key experts on Afghan art, archaeology, documentary and narrative history of Balkh and comparable cities. Participants included Philippe Marquis, Roland Besenval, Edmund Bosworth, Nicholas Sims-Wiliams, Geoffrey Khan, Deborah Klimburg-Salter, James Howard-Johnston, Étienne de la Vaissière, Frantz Grenet, and Chahriyar Adle (by video link). Presentations were made on the basic topography of Balkh, the Nuh Gunbad (Hajji Piyada) site, and Zadiyan in the northern confines of the Balkh oasis, on coins, and Chinese and Arabic sources on historical Balkh. Comparanda from cities like Samarqand and Dehistan (Turkmenistan) were also considered.

April 2012 - First visit by BACH Oxford to Kabul conducted by Michael Jackson Bonner, aimed principally at working out the key elements and modalities for BACH cooperation on the ground, together with the Ministry of Information and Culture and the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA).

Read More

The Balkh Art and Cultural Heritage project (BACH) is funded by the Leverhulme Trust and is housed at the Oriental Insititute, University of Oxford.

This project focuses on the site of Balkh in the north of Afghanistan, south of the Oxus (Amu Darya) River. It analyses a selection of archaeological artefacts and unexplored texts against which hypotheses concerning the development of early Islamic cities can be tested. Balkh was in existence (as 'Bactra') since at least the fifth century BC, becoming a major economic centre and flourishing from the third century BC before being significantly reduced (but not abandoned) in the thirteenth century through the Mongol invasions.

The BACH project is not just about research. An essential element concerns training. Each of BACH's scholarly experts acts as a mentor and trainer to an Afghan trainee to analyse the material culture from, or textual finds on, Balkh. Trainees obtain daily on-the-job training during focussed visits to Kabul by BACH team members. The training follows a pre-determined curriculum, and includes reading lists of books and articles to be discussed during training. Trainees obtain stipends, and have the opportunity to engage with an international network through their mentors.

Read More

Journal articles

Shaked, Shaul, "Early Persian Documents from Khorasan" Journal of Persianate Studies 6 (2013): pp 153-162

Azad, Arezou, "The Faḍāʾil-i Balkh and its place in Islamic historiography" IRANJournal of the British Institute of Persian Studies 50 (2012): pp 79-102

Azad, Arezou, "Female Mystics in Mediaeval Islam: the quiet legacy", Journal of Economic and Social History of the Orient 56 (2013): pp 53-88

Siméon P., 2012."Hulbuk: Architecture and Material Culture of the Capital of the Banijurids in Central Asia (ninth–eleventh centuries)", Muqarnas, An Annual on the Visual Cultures of the Islamic World, vol. 29, pp. 385-421.

Read More

Banner Image: Tepe Rustam of Balkh, thought to be the old Buddhist temple site of Naw Bahar. Photo by Arezou Azad

.