Pashto and Persian: بلخ;
Ancient Greek and
Bactrian: Βάχλο Bakhlo) is a town in the
Balkh Province of
Afghanistan, about 20 km (12 mi) northwest of the provincial
capital, Mazar-e Sharif, and some 74 km (46 mi) south of the
Amu Darya river and the
Uzbekistan border. It was historically an
ancient centre of Buddhism, Islam, and
Zoroastrianism and one of the
major cities of Khorasan, since the latter's earliest history.
The ancient city of
Balkh was known to the Ancient Greeks as Bactra,
giving its name to Bactria. It was mostly known as the centre and
Bactria or Tokharistan.
Marco Polo described
Balkh as a
"noble and great city".
Balkh is now for the most part a mass of
ruins, situated some 12 km (7.5 mi) from the right bank of
the seasonally flowing
Balkh River, at an elevation of about 365 m
Alexandra David-Néel associated
Shambhala with Balkh,
also offering the Persian Sham-i-Bala, "elevated candle" as an
etymology of its name. In a similar vein, the Gurdjieffian J. G.
Bennett published speculation that Shambalha was Shams-i-Balkh, a
Bactrian sun temple.
2.1 Bactrian religion
2.4 Arab invasion
Saffarids to Khwarezmshahs
2.7 Modern times
Balkh in 1911
3 Main sights
3.1 Ancient ruins of Balkh
4 Cultural role
4.1 Other notable people
5 See also
7 Further reading
8 External links
Bactrian language name of the city was βαχλο Bakhlo. The name
of the province or country also appears in the Old Persian
inscriptions (B.h.i 16; Dar Pers e.16; Nr. a.23) as Bāxtri, i.e.
Bakhtri. It is written in the Avesta as Bāxδi. From this came the
intermediate form Bāxli,
Sanskrit Bahlīka (also Balhika) for
"Bactrian", and by transposition the modern Persian Balx, i.e. Balkh,
and Armenian Bahl.
Balkh is considered to be the first city to which the Indo-Iranian
tribes moved from north of the Amu Darya, between 2000 and 1500 BC.
Arabs called it Umm Al-Belaad or Mother of Cities on account of
its antiquity. The city was traditionally a center of
Zoroastrianism. The name Zariaspa, which is either an alternate
Balkh or a term for part of the city, may derive from the
important Zoroastrian fire temple Azar-i-Asp.
Balkh was regarded as
the place where
Zoroaster first preached his religion, as well as the
place where he died.
Balkh (here indicated as Bactres), the capital of Bactria
Indo-Iranians built their first kingdom in Balkh
(Bactria, Daxia, Bukhdi) some scholars[who?] believe that it was from
this area that different waves of
Indo-Iranians spread to north-east
Seistan region, where they, in part, became today's Persians,
Pashtuns and Baluch people of the region. The
changing climate has led to desertification since antiquity, when the
region was very fertile. Its foundation is mythically
ascribed to Keyumars, the first king of the world in Persian legend;
and it is at least certain that, at a very early date, it was the
rival of Ecbatana,
Nineveh and Babylon.
For a long time the city and country was the central seat of the
dualistic Zoroastrian religion, the founder of which, Zoroaster, died
within the walls according to the Persian poet Firdowsi. Armenian
sources state that the Arsacid Dynasty of the Parthian Empire
established its capital in Balkh. There is a long-standing tradition
that an ancient shrine of
Anahita was to be found here, a temple so
rich it invited plunder.
Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great married
Roxana of Bactria
after killing the king of Balkh. The city was the capital of the
Greco-Bactrian Kingdom and was besieged for three years by the
Seleucid Empire (208–206 BC). After the demise of the Greco-Bactrian
kingdom, it was ruled by Indo-Scythians, Parthians, Indo-Parthians,
Kushan Empire, Indo-Sassanids, Kidarites,
Hephthalite Empire and
Sassanid Persians before the arrival of the Arabs.
Part of a series on the
History of Afghanistan
Indus Valley Civilisation
247 BC–224 AD
135 BC – 248 AD
20 BC – 50? AD
Principality of Chaghaniyan
Emirate of Afghanistan
Kingdom of Afghanistan
Republic of Afghanistan
Democratic Republic of Afghanistan
Islamic State of Afghanistan
Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan
Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
Bactrian documents - in the Bactrian language, written from the fourth
to eighth centuries - consistently evoke the name of local deities,
such as Kamird and Wakhsh, for example, as witnesses to contracts. The
documents come from an area between
Balkh and Bamiyan, which is part
Balkh town is well-known to
Buddhist countries because of two great
Buddhist monks of
Afghanistan – Trapusa and Bahalika. There are two
stupas over their relics. According to a popular legend,
Balkh by Bhallika, disciple of Buddha, and the city
derives its name from him. He was a merchant of the region and had
come from Bodhgaya. In literature,
Balkh has been described as
Balhika, Valhika or Bahlika. First Vihara at
Balkh was built for
Bhallika when he returned home after becoming a
Balkh in 630 when it was a flourishing centre of
According to the Memoirs of Xuanzang, there were about a hundred
Buddhist convents in the city or its vicinity at the time of his visit
there in the 7th century. There were 3,000 monks and a large number of
stupas and other religious monuments. The most remarkable stupa was
Navbahara (Sanskrit, Nav Vihara: New Monastery), which possessed a
gigantic statue of Buddha. Shortly before the Arab conquest, the
monastery became a Zoroastrian fire-temple. A curious reference to
this building is found in the writings of the geographer Ibn Hawqal,
an Arab traveller of the 10th century, who describes
Balkh as built of
clay, with ramparts and six gates, and extending for half a parasang.
He also mentions a castle and a mosque.
A Chinese pilgrim, Fa-Hein, (c.400) found
Hinayana practice prevalent
in Shan Shan, Kucha, Kashgar, Osh,
Udayana and Gandhara. Xuanzang
Buddhism was widely practised by the Hunnish rulers of
Balkh, who descended from Indian royal stock.
A Korean monk, Huichao, noted as late as the Eighth century after the
Arab invasion that the residents of
Buddhist king. He noted the Arab invasion and that the king
Balkh at the time had fled to nearby Badakshan.
Furthermore, we know that a number of
Buddhist religious centres
flourished in Khorasan. The most important was the Nawbahar (New
Temple) near the town of Balkh, which evidently served as a pilgrimage
centre for political leaders who came from far and wide to pay homage
A large number of
Sanskrit medical, pharmacological toxicological
texts were translated into Arabic under the patronage of Khalid, the
vizier of Al-Mansur. Khalid was the son of a chief priest of a
Buddhist monastery. Some of the family were killed when the Arabs
captured Balkh; others including Khalid survived by converting to
Islam. They were to be known as the Barmikis of Baghdad.
An ancient Jewish community existed in
Balkh as recorded by the Arab
Al-Maqrizi who wrote that the community was established by
the transfer of Jews to
Balkh by the Assyrian King Sennacherib. A Bāb
al-Yahūd (Gate of Jews) and al-Yahūdiyya (Jewish town) in
attested to by Arab geographers. Muslim tradition stated that the
Jeremiah fled to
Balkh and that
Ezekiel was buried there.
This Jewish community was noted in the eleventh century as the Jews of
the city were forced to maintain a garden for the Sultan Mahmud of
Ghazni for which they paid a tax of 500 dirhems. According to Jewish
Timur gave the Jews of
Balkh a city quarter of their own
with a gate to close it.
The Jewish community in
Balkh was reported as late as the nineteenth
century where Jews still resided in a special quarter of the city.
The famed Jewish exegete
Hiwi al-Balkhi was from Balkh.
A silver dirham of the
Umayyad Caliphate, minted at
Balkh al-Baida in
AH 111 (= 729/30 CE).
At the time of the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 7th century,
Balkh had provided an outpost of resistance and a safe haven
for the Persian emperor Yazdegerd III who fled there from the armies
of Umar. Later, in the 9th century, during the reign of Ya'qub bin
Islam became firmly rooted in the local population.
Arabs occupied Persia in 642 (during the Caliphate of Uthman,
644–656 AD). Attracted by the grandeur and wealth of Balkh, they
attacked it in 645 AD. It was only in 653 when Arab commander al-Ahnaf
raided the town again and compelled it to pay tribute. The Arab hold
over the town, however, remained tenuous. The area was brought under
Arab control only after it was reconquered by
Muawiya in 663 AD. Prof.
Upasak describes the effect of this conquest in these words: "The
Arabs plundered the town and killed the people indiscriminately. It is
said that they raided the famous
Buddhist shrine of Nava-Vihara, which
the Arab historians call 'Nava Bahara' and describe it as one of the
magnificent places, which comprised a range of 360 cells around the
high stupas'. They plundered the gems and jewels that were studded on
many images and stupas and took away the wealth accumulated in the
Vihara but probably did no considerable harm to other monastic
buildings or to the monks residing there".
The Arab attacks had little effect on the normal ecclesiastical life
in the monasteries or
Buddhist population outside. Buddhism
continued to flourish with their monasteries as the centres of
Buddhist learning and training. Scholars, monks and pilgrims from
India and Korea continued to visit this place.
Several revolts were made against the Arab rule in Balkh.
The Arabs' control over
Balkh did not last long as it soon came under
the rule of a local prince, a zealous
Buddhist called Nazak (or Nizak)
Tarkhan. He expelled the
Arabs from his territories in 670 or 671. He
is said to have not only reprimanded the Chief Priest (Barmak) of
Nava-Vihara but beheaded him for embracing Islam. As per another
Balkh was conquered by the Arabs, the head priest of the
Nava-Vihara had gone to the capital and became a Muslim. This
displeased the people of the Balkh. He was deposed and his son was
placed in his position.
Nazak Tarkhan is also said to have murdered not only the Chief Priest
but also his sons. Only a young son was saved. He was taken by his
mother to Kashmir where he was given training in medicine, astronomy
and other sciences. Later they returned to Balkh. Prof. Maqbool Ahmed
observes "One is tempted to think that the family originated from
Kashmir, for in time of distress, they took refuge in the Valley.
Whatever it be, their Kashmiri origin is undoubted and this also
explains the deep interest of the Barmaks, in later years, in Kashmir,
for we know they were responsible for inviting several scholars and
physicians from Kashmir to the Court of Abbasids." Prof. Maqbool also
refers to the descriptions of Kashmir contained in the report prepared
by the envoy of Yahya bin Barmak. He surmises that the envoy could
have possibly visited Kashmir during the reign of Samgramapida II
(797–801). Reference has been made to sages and arts.
Arabs managed to bring
Balkh under their control only in 715 AD,
in spite of strong resistance offered by the
Balkh people during the
Umayyad period. Qutayba ibn Muslim al-Bahili, an Arab General was
Khurasan and the east from 705 to 715. He established a
firm hold over lands beyond the
Oxus for the Arabs. He fought and
killed Tarkhan Nizak in
Tokharistan (Bactria) in 715. In the wake of
Arab conquest, the resident monks of the Vihara were either killed or
forced to abandon their faith. The Viharas were razed to the ground.
Priceless treasures in the form of manuscripts in the libraries of
monasteries were consigned to ashes. Presently, only the ancient wall
of the town, which once encircled it, stands partially. Nava-Vihara
stands in ruins, near Takhta-i-Rustam. In 726, the Umayyad
Asad ibn Abdallah al-Qasri
Asad ibn Abdallah al-Qasri rebuilt
Balkh and installed in it
an Arab garrison, while in his second governorship, a decade
later, he transferred the provincial capital there.
Umayyad period lasted until 747, when
Abu Muslim captured it for
Abbasids (next Sunni Caliphate dynasty) during the Abbasid
Revolution. The city remained in
Abbasid hands until 821, when it was
taken over by the Tahirid dynasty, albeit still in the Abbasids' name.
In 870, the
Saffarids captured it.
Saffarids to Khwarezmshahs
Ya'qub ibn al-Layth al-Saffar
Ya'qub ibn al-Layth al-Saffar rebelled against
and founded the
Saffarid dynasty at Sistan. He captured present
Afghanistan and most of present Iran. His successor Amr ibn al-Layth,
tried to capture
Transoxiana from the Samanids, who were nominally
vassals of Abbasids, but he was defeated and captured by Ismail Samani
Battle of Balkh in 900. He was sent to the
Abbasid Caliph as a
prisoner and was executed in 902. The power of
diminished and they became vassals of the Samanids. Thus
passed to them.
Samanid rule in
Balkh lasted until 997, when their former
subordinates, the Ghaznavids, captured it. In 1006,
Balkh was captured
by Karakhanids, but
Ghaznavids recaptured it 1008. Finally, the
Seljuks (Turks) conquered
Balkh in 1059. In 1115, it was occupied and
looted by irregular Oghuz Turks. Between 1141 and 1142,
captured by Atsiz,
Shah of Khwarezm, after the
Seljuks were defeated
Kara-Khitan Khanate at the Battle of Qatwan. Ahmad Sanjar
decisively defeated a Ghurid army, commanded by Ala al-Din Husayn and
he took him prisoner for two years before releasing him as a vassal of
the Seljuks. The next year, he marched against rebellious Oghuz Turks
Khuttal and Tukharistan. But he was defeated twice and was
captured after a second battle in Merv. The Oghuzs looted Khorasan
after their victory.
Balkh was nominally ruled by Mahmud Khan, the former khan of Western
Karakhanids, but the real power was held by Muayyid al-Din Ay Aba,
Nishabur for three years. Sanjar finally escaped from
captivity and returned to
Merv through Termez. He died in 1157 and
Balkh passed to Mahmud Khan until his death in 1162. It was
captured by Khwarezmshahs in 1162, by the Kara Khitans in 1165, by the
Ghurids in 1198 and again by Khwarezmshahs in 1206.
Muhammad al-Idrisi, in the 12th century, speaks of its possessing a
variety of educational establishments, and carrying on an active
trade. There were several important commercial routes from the city,
stretching as far east as
India and China. The late 12th-century local
chronicle The Merits of
Balkh (Fada'il-i-Balkh), by Abu Bakr Abdullah
al-Wa'iz al-Balkhi, states that a woman known only as the khatun
(lady) of Davud, from 848 appointed governor of Balkh, had taken over
from him with "particular responsibility for the city and people"
while he was busy building himself an elaborate pleasure palace called
Nawshǎd (New Joy).
Genghis Khan sacked Balkh, butchered its inhabitants and
levelled all the buildings capable of defence – treatment to which
it was again subjected in the 14th century by Timur. Notwithstanding
Marco Polo (probably referring to its past) could still
describe it as "a noble city and a great seat of learning." For when
Ibn Battuta visited
Balkh around 1333 during the rule of the Kartids,
who were Tadjik vassals of the Persia-based
1335, he described it as a city still in ruins: "It is completely
dilapidated and uninhabited, but anyone seeing it would think it to be
inhabited because of the solidity of its construction (for it was a
vast and important city), and its mosques and colleges preserve their
outward appearance even now, with the inscriptions on their buildings
incised with lapis-blue paints."
It was not reconstructed until 1338. It was captured by
1389 and its citadel was destroyed, but
Shah Rukh, his successor,
rebuilt the citadel in 1407.
Balkh under the command of Muhammad Shaybani.
They were briefly expelled by the
Safavids in 1510.
Babur ruled Balkh
between 1511 and 1512 as a vassal of the Persian Safavids. But he was
defeated twice by the
Khanate of Bukhara
Khanate of Bukhara and was forced to retire to
Balkh was ruled by Bukhara except for Safavid rule between 1598
Shah Jahan fruitlessly fought them there for several years
in the 1640s. Nevertheless,
Balkh was ruled by the
Mughal Empire from
1641 and turned into a subah (imperial top-level province) in 1646 by
Shah Jahan, only to be lost in 1647, just like the neighboring
Balkh was the government seat of
Aurangzeb in his
youth. In 1736 it was conquered by Nader Shah. After his
assassination, local Uzbek Hadji Khan declared the independence of
Balkh in 1747, but he submitted to Bukhara in 1748.
Under the Durani monarchy it fell into the hands of the Afghans in
1752. Bukhara regained it in 1793. It was conquered by
Shah Murad of
Kunduz in 1826, and for some time was subject to the Emirate of
Bukhara. In 1850, Dost Mohammad Khan, the Emir of Afghanistan,
captured Balkh, and from that time it remained under Afghan rule.
In 1866, after a malaria outbreak during the flood season,
its administrative status to the neighbouring city of Mazar-e
Balkh in 1911
Balkh comprised a settlement of about 500 houses of Afghan
settlers, a colony of Jews and a small bazaar set in the midst of a
waste of ruins and acres of debris. Entering by the west (Akcha) gate,
one passed under three arches, in which the compilers recognized the
remnants of the former Friday Mosque (Jama Masjid). The outer walls,
mostly in utter disrepair, were estimated about 6½–7 miles (10.5 to
11.3 km) in perimeter. In the south-east, they were set high on a
mound or rampart, which indicated a
Mongol origin to the compilers.
The fort and citadel to the north-east were built well above the town
on a barren mound and were walled and moated. There was, however,
little left of them but the remains of a few pillars. The Green Mosque
Masjid Sabz, named for its green-tiled dome (see photograph top right
corner) and said to be the tomb of the Khwaja Abu Nasr Parsa, had
nothing but the arched entrance remaining of the former madrasa.
The town was garrisoned by a few thousand irregulars (kasidars), the
regular troops of
Afghan Turkestan being cantoned at Takhtapul, near
Mazari Sharif. The gardens to the north-east contained a caravanserai
that formed one side of a courtyard, which was shaded by a group of
A project of modernization was undertaken in 1934, in which eight
streets were laid out, housing and bazaars built. Modern
Balkh is a
centre of the cotton industry, of the skins known commonly in the West
as "Persian lamb" (Karakul), and for agricultural produce like almonds
The site and the museum have suffered from looting and uncontrolled
digging during the 1990s civil war. After the Taliban's fall in 2001
some poor residents digged in an attempt to sell ancient treasures.
The provisional Afghan government said in January 2002 that it had
stopped the looting.
Ancient ruins of Balkh
Remains of a Hellenistic capital found in Balkh.
Buddhist constructions have proved more durable than the
Islamic period buildings. The Top-Rustam is 46 m (50 yd) in diameter
at the base and 27 m (30 yd) at the top, circular and about 15 m
(50 ft) high. Four circular vaults are sunk in the interior and
four passages have been pierced below from the outside, which probably
lead to them. The base of the building is constructed of sun-dried
bricks about 60 cm (2 ft) square and 100 to 130 mm (4
or 5 in) thick. The Takht-e Rustam is wedge-shaped in plan with uneven
sides. It is apparently built of pisé mud (i.e. mud mixed with straw
and puddled). It is possible that in these ruins we may recognize the
Nava Vihara described by the Chinese traveller Xuanzang. There are the
remains of many other topes (or stupas) in the neighbourhood.
The mounds of ruins on the road to
Mazar-e Sharif probably represent
the site of a city yet older than those on which stands the modern
Numerous places of interest are to be seen today aside from the
ancient ruins and fortifications:
The madrasa of Sayed Subhan Quli Khan.
Bala-Hesar, the shrine and mosque of Khwaja Nasr Parsa.
The tomb of the poet Rabi'a Balkhi.
The Nine Domes Mosque (Masjid-e Noh Gonbad). This exquisitely
ornamented mosque, also referred to as Haji Piyada, is the earliest
Islamic monument yet identified in Afghanistan.
Tepe Rustam and Takht-e Rustam
Balkh Museum was formerly the second largest museum in the
country, but its collection has suffered from looting in recent
The museum is also known as the Museum of the Blue Mosque, from the
building it shares with a religious library. As well as exhibits from
the ancient ruins of Balkh, the collection includes works of Islamic
art including a 13th-century Quran, and examples of Afghan decorative
and folk art.
Balkh had a major role in the development of the
Persian language and
literature. The early works of
Persian literature were written by
poets and writers who were originally from Balkh.
Many famous Persian poets came from Balkh, e.g.:
Mawlānā Rūmī, born and educated in Balkh, in the 13th century
Amir Khusraw Dehlavi, whose father, Amir Saifuddin, was from Balkh
Manuchihri Damghani, born in Balkh, according to Dawlat Shah
Rashidudin Watwat, a poet
Sanih Balkhi, a poet
Shaheed Balkhi, Abul Muwayed Balkhi, Abu Shukur Balkhi, Ma'roofi
Balkhi, early poets of the 9th/10th centuries
Rabi'a Balkhi, first woman poet in the history of Persian poetry,
lived in the 10th century
Avicenna or Ibn Sina, 10th-century philosopher and scientist whose
father was a
Unsuri Balkhi, 10th/11th-century poet
Anvari, 12th century, lived and died in Balkh
Daqiqi Balkhi, Abu Mansur Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Daqiqi Balkhi. Born in
Other notable people
Ibrahim ibn Adham, a
Sufi saint and reputedly ruler of Balkh
Khalid ibn Barmak, wazir of the
Abbasid Caliphate and member of the
Abu Zayd al-Balkhi, Persian (850–934), polymath: geographer,
mathematician, physician, psychologist and scientist
Abu Ma'shar al-Balkhi, astrologer and astronomer at the
Hiwi al-Balkhi, Bukharan Jewish exegete and Biblical critic
Abu-Shakur Balkhi (915–?), Persian poet
Ibn Balkhi, a conventional name for a 12th-century Iranian historian
and author of the Persian book Fārs-Nāma
Abdullah, father of
Avicenna and respected
Ismaili scholar 
The Barmakids, who were from that city.
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Publications for The Institute of
Ismaili Studies. pp. 167–175.
ISBN 0-7103-0416-1. OCLC 22109949.
^ Adamson, Peter (2016). Philosophy in the Islamic World: A History of
Philosophy Without Any Gaps. Oxford University Press. p. 113.
Published in the 19th century
Edward Balfour (1885), "Balkh", Cyclopaedia of
India (3rd ed.),
London: B. Quaritch
Published in the 21st century
"Balkh". Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art & Architecture. Oxford
University Press. 2009.
Azad, Arezou. Sacred Landscape in Medieval Afghanistan: Revisiting the
Faḍāʾil-i Balkh. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Wikivoyage has a travel guide for Balkh.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Balkh.
Balkh Art and Cultural Heritage Project housed at the Oriental
Institute at the University of Oxford
Mazar-i-Sharif (Balkh) (in German)
Balkh with Google Earth on Global Heritage Network
Indigenous Indian civilization prevailed in Balkh,
the second half of tenth century AD
"Balkh". Islamic Cultural Heritage Database. Istanbul: Organization of
Islamic Cooperation, Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and
Culture. Archived from the original on 2013-06-15.
ArchNet.org. "Balkh". Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA: MIT School of
Architecture and Planning. Archived from the original on
Afghanistan by province
Kuran Wa Munjan
Qala i Naw
Dahana i Ghuri
Farang Wa Gharu
Khost Wa Fereng
Tala Wa Barfak
Lash Wa Juwayn
Qala i Kah
Khani Chahar Bagh
Khwaja Sabz Posh
Jaghatu (Bahrami Shahid)
Lal Wa Sarjangal
Khwaja Du Koh
Mir Bacha Kot
Shah Wali Kot
Hesa Awal Kohistan
Hesa Duwum Kohistan
Narang Aw Badil
Shaigal Aw Shiltan
Pachir Aw Agam
Dand Aw Patan
Khuram Wa Sarbagh
Ruyi Du Ab
Khwaja Baha Wuddin
Tarnak Aw Jaldak
Coordinates: 36°46′23″N 66°52′25″E / 36.77306°N
66.87361°E / 36.773