BALKH, a city of Afghanistan, about 100 m. E. of Andkhui and some 46 m. S. of the Oxus. The city, which is identical with the ancient Bactra or Zainaspa, is now for the most part a mass of ruins, situated on the right bank of the Balkh river, 1200 ft. above the sea. It comprises about 500 houses of Afghan settlers, a colony of Jews and a small bazaar, set in the midst of a waste of ruins and many acres of débris. Entering by the west (or Akcha) gate, one passes under three arches, which are probably the remnants of a former Jama Masjid. The outer walls (mostly in utter disrepair) are about 6 to 7 m. in perimeter, and on the south-eastern borders are set high on a mound or rampart, indicating a Mongol origin. The fort and citadel to the north-east are built well above the town on a barren mound and are walled and moated. There is, however, little left but the remains of a few pillars. The Masjid Sabz, with its green-tiled dome, is said to be the tomb of a Khwaja, Abul Narsi Parsar. Nothing but the arched entrance remains of the Madrasa, which is traditionally not very old. The earlier Buddhist constructions have proved more durable than the Mahommedan buildings. The Top-i-Rustam is 50 yds. in diameter at the base and 30 yds. at the top, circular and about 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 2 ft. square and 4 or 5 in. thick. The Takht-i-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 Nan Vihara of the Chinese traveller Hsüan Tsang. There are the remains of many other topes (or stupas) in the neighbourhood. The mounds of ruins on the road to Mazar-i-Sharif probably represent the site of a city yet older than those on which stands the modern Balkh. The town is garrisoned by a few hundred kasidars, the regular troops of Afghan Turkestan being cantoned at Takhtapul, near Mazar-i-Sharif. The gardens to the north-east contain a caravanserai, which is fairly well kept and comfortable. It forms one side of a courtyard, which is shaded by a group of magnificent chenar trees.
The antiquity and greatness of the place are recognized by the native populations, who speak of it as the Mother of Cities. Its foundation is mythically ascribed to Kaiomurs, the Persian Romulus; 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 Zoroastrian religion, the founder of which is said to have died within the walls. From the Memoirs of Hsüan Tsang, we learn that, at the time of his visit in the 7th century, there were in the city, or its vicinity, about a hundred Buddhist convents, with 3000 devotees, and that there was a large number of stupas, and other religious monuments. The most remarkable was the Nau Behar, Nava Bihara or New Convent, which possessed a very costly statue of Buddha. A curious notice of this building is found in the Arabian geographer Yaqut. Ibn-Haukal, an Arabian traveller of the 10th century, describes Balkh as built of clay, with ramparts and six gates, and extending half a parasang. He also mentions a castle and a mosque. 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. In 1220 Jenghiz 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 this, however, Marco Polo can still, in the following century, describe it as "a noble city and a great." Balkh formed the government of Aurangzeb in his youth. In 1736 it was conquered by Nadir Shah. Under the Durani monarchy it fell into the hands of the Afghans; it was conquered by Shah Murad of Kunduz in 1820, and for some time was subject to the khan of Bokhara. In 1850 Mahommed Akram Khan, Barakzai, captured Balkh, and from that time it remained under Afghan rule.
See Hsüan Tsang, tr. by Julien, vol. i. pp. 29-32; Burnes's Travels in Bokhara (1831-1833); Ferrier's Travels; Vambery's Bokhara (1873); Report of the Russo-Afghan Boundary Commission of 1884-1885.
(T. H. H.*)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)