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The Minaret of Djam, Afghanistan

      Archaeologists often ask whether spiritual, religious, political, or economic movements  are reflected in the structure and decorations of monuments. Focusing on this basic question, this  chapter attempts to shed light on the historical and cultural movements reflected in the Minaret of  Djam, that unique relic of the Ghurid dynasty (1148–1215 CE). Described in detail by several scholars, this monument has often been characterised as a ‘tower of glory’ commemorating a victory  under the Ghurid overlord, Ghiyath al-Din Muhammad b. Sam (d. 1203), over the Ghuzz nomads at  Ghazna in 1173, or perhaps the elevation of his brother Mu‘izz al-Din Muhammad b. Sam (d. 1206)  to the sultanate (r. 1203–06), rather than later victories on the northern Indian sub-continent.

The term ‘tower of glory’ applied to similar monuments, such as the victory towers in Ghazna or  the Ghurid Qutb Minar in Delhi, suggests that they were built to proclaim the greatness and legitimacy of the ruler; this cannot be precluded entirely, but it must be critically questioned. A more  likely context regarding the minaret’s physical expression (for instance, its function in religious,  architectural,  and philosophical terms) seems to be evident. Thus, a dialogue between archaeology and history is very important. Should archaeological studies reveal results that differ from  those of historical studies, both disciplines would have to investigate and challenge their sources  anew, and determine whether or not the material at their disposal is as informative as it was originally suspected to be. It is possible that there are a variety of contradictions within the sources –  contradictions that could be resolved through critical investigation.
Material culture supplies archaeologists with much data worthy of interpretation. As to the  findings, inscriptions on monuments may have a central role in bearing witness to cultural developments. We should consider that ‘an archaeological context can be understood materially as completely built-up of finds or described structurally as an arrangement of features’. Indeed, object and  text cannot be defined as equivalent semantic signs as they follow their own principles and cannot  be deciphered in the same manner. Objects are tridimensional, non-linear and composed of an  unlimited number of predefined signs in order to reproduce the spoken word. Regarding the object  in a discursive context, on the other hand, we might observe that material culture is directly created  through text, a kind of constructive perspective. Whereas the image reflects a write-up of the oral  tradition or text, iconography is formalised. The Minaret of Djam m (see Figure) can be contextualised using two different methods discussed by Ian Hodder, one of the pioneers of post-processual  theory in archaeology:
A more precise definition for the context of an archaeological attribute is the totality of the relevant environment, where ‘relevant’ refers to a significant relationship to the object – that is, a relationship necessary for discerning the object’s meaning . . . Context can be taken to mean ‘with-text,’ and so the word introduces an analogy between the contextual meanings of material culture traits and the meaning of words in a written language.
Fig. 1 The Minaret of Djam, upper section - Courtesy Werner Herberg,1970 (
Fig. 1 The Minaret of Djam, upper section - Courtesy Werner Herberg,1970 (

 The World Heritage listed11 Minaret of Jåm (Figure) has some of the most extensive Qur’anic inscriptions on any monument ever raised. According to the archaeologist David C. Thomas, ‘the date of the construction of the minaret is less clearly preserved’ in the brickwork of the foundation panel. The Arabic words for seventy (sab’in) and ninety (tis’in) are ‘virtually indistinguishable in the absence of diacritics’. Thomas tells us that Sourdel-Thomine dated the tower to 570 AH (2 August 1174 to 21 July 1175 CE), disagreeing with Pinder-Wilson, who prefers Maricq and Wiet’s reading of 1193/94.13 The tower, the second tallest (64.6m)14 brick minaret after the Qutb Minar, has an octagonal base diameter of 9.14m, and stands on the south bank of the Heri Rud in a remote narrow valley amidst the impressive Central Mountains geographical region in Ghur, Shahrak District (Figure 2).

The most important Ghurid-era site, Djam was inimitably investigated by David Thomas in the Minaret of Jåm Archaeological Project (MJAP). It is located 215km to the east of Herat, some 1,900m above sea level, with nearby mountains rising to almost 3,500m. The World Heritage site is also very important for the discovery of a nearby Jewish cemetery at the Kuh-i Kushkak, which  contains some ninety-one Judeo-Persian tombstones dating to the period 1012–1220. Thought to be Firuzkuh, an ancient and vibrant Ghurid center of sophisticated urban life under Ghiyath al-Din Muhammad b. Såm, the city was completely destroyed by the Mongol armies under Genghis Khan’s son, Ögedey, in 1222, after which it was abandoned and never re-occupied.
Fig. 3 View of the Minaret of the Great Mosque of Quairawan in Tunisia in the early twentieth century - Postcard from 1900 (anonymous work)
Fig. 3 View of the Minaret of the Great Mosque of Quairawan in Tunisia in the early twentieth century - Postcard from 1900 (anonymous work)

 This hypostyle mosque was founded in 641–2 by the Muslim conqueror of Egypt and was rebuilt and enlarged in 673 during the reign of Mu‘awiyah ibn Abi Sufyan (602–80), the first Umayyad caliph, who added a minaret to each of its four corners.24 Creswell believed that these early minarets were called sawma‘a as they were likened to the small square cells used by the Christian monks of Syria. Later, the square minarets followed Umayyad expansion into North Africa and Spain. Throughout medieval times, the minaret was regarded as the majestic tower ‘in its lofty height and magnificent formation’. During this period, as they came into contact with other tower traditions, Muslims developed various regional minaret types.

During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a series of about sixty brick minarets were erected in eastern Islamic lands, either attached to a mosque or free-standing. Like the Minaret of Jåm, a number of these towers, such as the Seljuk-era minaret at Dawlatabad (1108–09) and the Ghaznawid minarets of Mas‘ud III (r. 1099–1115) and Bahram Shah (r. 1117–52) at Ghazna, are regarded by some as free-standing ‘victory towers’.
Copyright Ulrike-Christiane Lintz
June 6th, 2020