July 6, 2019
On the plains between the western edge of the Hindu Kush and northern shores of Amy Darya or Oxus, is a plain that was once the kingdom of Bactria. Looking at the scruffy, rough-at-the-edges areas of Balkh, you would hardly think this was once a grand city and the capital of this coveted kingdom.
It is perhaps best known as the place where Alexander the Great conquered the kingdom of Bactria and married Roxana. At the edge of present-day Balkh is a roughly circular earthen wall enclosing the city state built by Alexander. About a couple of kilometers in diameter, the area is bare except for a large mound in the center and a smaller mound nearby. Of the walls themselves, very little remains. Jagged bits of wall show up like broken teeth; some parts are demolished to provide access beyond.
There is another wall beyond the perimeter of this citadel; this is supposedly the even older wall of the Bactrian kingdom before it fell to Alexander. Parts of it are badly restored while others march down village streets in their jagged spendor. In the shade of some parts graze goats and sheep.
But Balkh was prominent long before the advent of Alexander. Historical accounts state it was home to the Indo-Iranians between 2000 and 1500 BC and myths and legends abound. Persian legend locates Balkh as the capital of the first king of the world and the shrine of Anahita was supposedly here. According to Firdausi the famous Persian, Zoroaster died within its walls. The Greco-Bactrian kingdom of Alexander the Great was followed by those of the Scythians, Parthians and the Kushans. Writings of Fa Hien and Huan Tsang, the Chinese Buddhist pilgrims describe Balkh as a flourishing city and an important place of pilgrimage.
With the demise of the Kushan empire came the Sassanids; then came the Arabs. Set squarely on the Silk Road Balkh was a veritable melting pot of the nations of the then-known world and each left their mark. There are sites aplenty, but they are far-flung. Much as I would like to, the current tense situation in this city makes it impossible to explore.