Why the Afghan city Balkh is important to Zoroastrianism

Balkh - Green Mosque

“When setting out on a journey, do not seek advice from those who have never left home.”

This verse by Rumi is perhaps a testament to his own immersive journeys through the complex lands of Central Asia. However, this Persian poet’s verses also provoke thoughts about the journeys taken by several travellers and philosophers through his birthplace. From picturesque travelogues to eloquent memoirs; beautiful bold poems and intensive historical documentation; the region of Balkh has held an interesting position, both geographically and culturally.

Situated in present-day northwestern Afghanistan, very close to the border with Uzbekistan, the region of Balkh boasts a desolate and jagged mountainous terrain, located by the placid Balkh river. One of the oldest cities in the world, its history dates back as early as 330 BC when it was captured by Alexander, and made the capital of the Greek satrapy of Bactria. The first city to which the Indo-Iranian tribes moved between 2000 and 1500 BC, the region of Balkh came under the rule of various conquerors — the Turks, Kushans, and Arabs until it was reduced to rouble by Genghis Khan in 1220. Rebuilt by Timur in the 15th century, it was incorporated into Afghanistan in 1850. Today, Balkh stands as a small town with flourishing cotton industry. 

Give its illustrious history, the region has to its credits several names. It has been referred to as ‘a distinctive Khorassani city’, ‘the Land of One Thousand Cities’ by the Greeks; ‘Mother of Cities’ by the Arab/Turkic/Persian writers. Its diverse cultural influences continue reflecting on its heritage and lifestyle to date. In spite of having faced radicalisation during the Taliban era, Balkh in today’s Afghanistan represents a truly cosmopolitan and multicultural city. The city’s ancient earthen walls are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the city continues to be an important space for Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and more interestingly, Zoroastrianism. 

Although usually associated with Iran, it is believed that the religion of Zoroastrianism actually originated in Afghanistan between 1800 and 800 BC. Though contested, Zoroaster, the ancient Iranian spiritual leader who founded this religion, is said to have lived and died here, and first preached his religion in the Balkh region. The province was also said to be the established capital of the Parthian Empire. Given these origins, Zoroastrianism is an important religion in Afghanistan today, with about 2000 who identify as Zoroastrians. 

Balkh is also known to be the birthplace of Nowruz, the Persian/Iranian new year observed by Zoroastrians and other diverse groups in Afghanistan and the world on the Spring Equinox. The history of celebrating Nowruz in Balkh dates back to 3000 years. Considered a pagan holiday, the festivities were banned during the Taliban era (1996-2001).

However, today, Afghans celebrate the festival with great fervour, mostly by travelling to Balkh that sees the organisation of several sporting activities and fairs for two weeks. People dress up in new clothes and make meat pilau and a special salad with seven different kinds of dry fruits. Following the day after Nowruz, farmers exhibit their livestock and agricultural produce. This year will be the year 1399 according to the Persian calendar, however, the celebrations were cancelled in the region given the outbreak of coronavirus.

On the occasion of International Day of Nowruz and the Iranian/Persian/Afghan/Kurdish New Year on 21st March, the SOAS South Asia Institute in association with Sussex Asia Centre and Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies; planned to celebrate the ‘Night of Balkh’ with academic presentations on the region, cultural programs, music and Afghan/Balkhi cuisines on campus. However, keeping the current health risks in mind, the event is to be rescheduled to a later date.

For more details about the event, please watch this space

  • Devyani Nighoskar is a 24-year-old SOAS Digital Ambassador from India. A former journalist, she is currently pursuing her M.A in Critical Media and Cultural Studies. You may check out her work on Instagram @runawayjojo.

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