A Trip to Balkh

“Come, whoever you are! Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving. This is not a caravan of despair. It doesn’t matter if you’ve broken your vow a thousand times, still and yet again come!”  -Rumi

The ancient city of Balkh sits just half an hour west and slightly north of Mazar-e-Sharif. It is a beautiful city filled with ancient historical buildings, gardens, and quirky sites. Over the past three years, I have visited this city about eight times, initially with a local driver, and later as the driver.

Here are some of the best things to do:

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In the countryside just south of Balkh, you will find the oldest mosque in Afghanistan, which is known by two names: “Masjid-e-Haji Pyada” (Mosque of the Walking Pilgrim), or “Masjid-e-Noh Gunbad” (Mosque of Nine Domes). The ceiling is entirely collapsed, but the pillars remain intact and the site is undergoing extensive excavation by the Aga Khan foundation. On one occasion, I was lucky enough to receive a personalised tour from the site supervisor. The mosque is surrounded by beautiful rose gardens. Next to it is a pond surrounded by ancient oaks, which makes a great spot for a picnic. You will most definitely spot a number of turkeys in the gardens.

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In the dead centre of the city, don’t miss out on the Mosque of Khoja Abu Nasr Parsa. After examining the beautiful tilework, take a stroll through the gardens. You can pause at the tomb of Rabia Balkhi, a famous female poet from the city, and buy a snack from one of the vendors. The more adventurous traveler can enjoy some fresh pomegranate juice or home-made ice cream.

Next, head north and discover the old city of Balkh. 100_5940.JPG

North of Balkh, you will find a circular field as large as the new city and surrounded by ancient walls. This is the ancient settlement of Alexander the Great. Look for the blue buildings. Here, for a few Afghanis, you can take a ride on a giant adult-sized swing set, ride on a horse, or climb the ancient city walls. You can also spend time climbing the hills and looking for bits of ancient pottery. When satisfied, turn back into town.

Make a small detour and visit the grave of the Jawan-Mard-e-Qasab (literally “The Gentleman Butcher”). He is said to be such a holy saint that any who suffer from toothache can drive a nail into the tree at his grave and be healed:

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Next, head due west. Here, you will find the tomb of yet another saint, a magnificent oak tree with a unique eye formation in its branches, as well as the home of the great Persian poet Rumi:

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On your way out of the city, stop on the south side and take a walk along the ancient city wall. You will end up at a quaint little gazebo where you can get a good view of the city in all directions. You will also catch a glimpse of the tomb of Mullah Mohammad Jan, a character immortalized in a famous folk song “Bya Ke Burem Ba Mazar.”

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Before saying your final farewell to Balkh, stop at a restaurant for a meal of Qabeli Pulao, Kebabs, and Naan.

Note: if you look at Balkh on Google Maps, you can get a good idea of what the city looks like. It is circular, with roads encircling it like a spider web.

Listen to Aryana Sayeed’s gorgeous performance of “Bya Ke Burem” by following this link:

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