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The Victory Towers, painted by James Atkinson around 1839 (image via Wikimedia)

Three architectural wonders from 12th century Afghanistan are currently in danger of collapse: the minaret of Jam in Ghur province and the two “Victory Towers” in Ghazni. But while the former seems doomed to ruin, a project by the US State Department to digitally document the latter offers a model by which such monuments — threatened by the elements and continued war in the region — might be saved for posterity.

The minaret of Jam (image via Wikimedia)

The 213-foot-high minaret of Jam in western Afghanistan is believed to be the world’s second-tallest brick minaret, according to the BBC. Built out of bricks in 1194 CE, its exterior is emblazoned with geometric patterns and calligraphic verses from the Qur-an. Aside from a supporting wall and some light stabilization work, the now-leaning tower has never been restored. Despite being a UNESCO World Heritage site, Lack of funding has made it difficult to protect against rising floodwaters from the nearby Hari-Rud river and looting, so that 20–30% of its exterior has already been lost.

The 75-foot-high Victory Towers were built in central eastern Afghanistan by Sultans Masud III and Bahram Shah — the last of the Ghaznavids, a Turko-Persian Muslim dynasty that ruled the Silk Road empire stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Ganges Delta from the 10–12th centuries. Today, threats posed by water erosion, earthquakes (an early 20th century rumble shortened them significantly), looting and vibrations made by trucks driving on a nearby road have replaced those of invading armies.

Detail of the minaret of Jam (image via Wikimedia)

Yet even if they crumble, the Victory Towers won’t be completely lost, as a fascinating virtual exhibition on the U.S. State Department’s website reveals. It documents how, in July 2011, its Cultural Heritage Center sent architects from the National Park Service’s Historic American Building Survey to digitally record the structures.

Over the course of two summer days, architects Dana Lockett and Paul Davidson worked in extreme heat while wearing body armor, scanning each tower with a high definition laser from six different positions. Because of safety issues, the work had to be quick, which meant the architects didn’t have time to follow up on the scans with hand measurements ensuring accuracy.

(screengrab via Youtube)

As a result, their team spent the following two years back in Washington D.C. meticulously flattening the data for the final line drawings. Two Afghan architects also contributed their historical expertise. On the State Department’s website, it describes the project as “an effort to help cultural heritage professionals in Afghanistan preserve the towers by providing baseline documentation that will underpin future conservation and preservation activities.” The drawings will be archived at Kabul University’s Department of Architecture and the US National Park Service’s Heritage Documentation Programs.

Detail of the intricate brickwork on the Mas’ud III tower alongside a flattened image of the same brickwork overlaid by “point cloud” data from the laser scanner (images courtesy of HABS)

Might the US step in with a similar effort to document the minaret at Jam? According to the BBC, cultural activists in Ghor want their next president to save it — though that might be easier with the help of a project like the Victory Towers one. It seems to be in the US’s interests, considering it has also collaborated with Afghanistan on many other cultural patrimony projects, including working toward preserving and expanding the National Museum in Kabul, helping to restore the Herat Citadel, and even funding billboard campaigns highlighting important Afghan monuments. What’s one more minaret?

Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and loitering in her community bookstore.

8 replies on “Three Afghani Masterpieces Face Same Threats, Different Futures”

  1. Although I appreciate the intent to preserve these monuments, something about this feels lazy. If the US was truly committed to saving the last remaining bits of Afghanistan’s architectural history, then they would provide the resources to do so. Also, who are these monuments being preserved for in this digital file format? Certainly not the residents of that country. I think this is a missed opportunity and misguided effort on the part of the state department.

  2. The Afghans can’t eat, have sex with or kill these archaeological treasures. They will not be particularly interested in them…..just saying…O:-)

    1. You have hit the nail on the head! Yep, we Afghans aren’t interested in it for the mentioned purposes, we’ve got joes like you for that. However, we are very much interested in them because it reminds us of our glorious past – the era before we were unwillingly embroiled in your ‘Big Game’ scenario. Just saying. 😉

  3. Pleased to say when we visited both the minaret and the victory towers last month they were still standing and still in good condition. See Hinterland Travel Facebook page for recent photos.

  4. It would be impossible to save or document the vast amount of historical resources left in Afghanistan. They are disappearing quickly from the ravages of war. The State Dept. asked us to document the Victory Towers and funded the effort because the Province of Ghazni, where the towers are located, had a special designation by INESCO as the “Cultural Center of Asia” for the year 2013. The documentation was in celebration of this designation. The documents we created are not only digital. The measurements were taken digitally, but the final products are drawings and photographs printed on archival paper which can last for at least 500 years in a controlled environment. These documents will be archived in Afghanistan as well as the US to ensure their longevity. There are many other projects in Afghanistan being done by the State Dept. to help preserve their cultural history. You get a sense of how important these resources are from talking with the Afghans as I did while there in 2011. Is it not worth the effort to try our best to keep a record of important historic architecture for future generations no matter where they are located?

  5. Jam is an amazing place. I worked as an archaeologist there in 2003 and 2005, and advocated for scanning the minaret, amongst other urgently needed cultural heritage works. Unfortunately, no money was available – we raised all the funding for our 2005 seasons ourselves, and for the 2007 season which we were unable to undertake. It is important to remember, however, that the World Heritage Site is the whole Ghurid summer capital, not just the minaret. Looting is extensive and needs to be monitored. Jam, and other archaeological sites in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, etc. are largely looted to feed the rapacious illicit antiquities market in the West and the Gulf. Tougher laws are needed to curb the robbing and trafficking.
    Congratulations to the Ghazni scanning team – the images look amazing. Are there plans to study the inscriptions and decoration in more detail?

    1. The Jam work sounds very interesting, David. The most complaints we heard from State Dept. employees was about looting and vandalism on Afghan sites so it must be a huge problem. Must be extremely hard to monitor these sites in such dangerous zones.
      Yes, there is a team of Afghan professors that will take our drawings and try to decipher exactly what the inscriptions are on the Victory Towers. There had been some interpretation done before, but with the inscriptions flattened in our drawings and all the minute details included they should be able to clearly see what is left of the applied patterns and writing. A fair amount of the detail pieces have fallen off or been stolen though and might hinder the inspection, but where the pieces have fallen off a void was left in the stucco that in some cases exactly replicates the missing piece. Im sure they will make some significant results.

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