Le Minaret Ghouride de Jam: Un chef d'oeuvre du XIIe siecle.

Author:Flood, Finbarr Barry
Position:Book Review


Le Minaret Ghouride de Jam: Un chef d'oeuvre du XIIe siecle

Paris: Diffusion de Boccard, 2004, 171 pp.; 69 b/w ills. [euro]50

The twelfth-century minaret at Jam in central Afghanistan (roughly midway between Herat and Kabul) is possibly the most spectacular medieval monument in the Islamic world (Fig. 1). Standing 255 feet high in the narrow confines of a remote mountain valley that is difficult of access, susceptible to flooding by spring meltwaters, and once protected by a network of mud-brick towers, the minaret's existence only came to the attention of Afghan and foreign scholars in the 1950s. Since its discovery, the minaret has attained the rank of a national symbol in Afghanistan, while assuming canonical status as a cynosure of medieval Persianate architecture among art historians. In 2002, it was added to UNESCO's World Heritage List, although this has done little to stem the widespread looting of the site.

Despite its renown, the monument has remained enigmatic, its date uncertain, its function disputed, and its immediate architectural relations unknown. The inscription of Surat Maryam, an entire Qur'anic chapter (sura) relating to Mary, the mother of Jesus, on its surface is unique in the Islamic world and has further fueled speculation about the raison d'etre of the minaret and the cultural milieu that gave rise to it. (1)

The mountainous province of Ghur, in which the minaret stands, was a rather marginal region of the eastern Islamic world that converted to Islam only in the ninth or tenth centuries--much later than many of the surrounding areas--and was famed chiefly for its large hunting dogs. Ghur enjoyed a brief moment of glory in the half century after 1150, when one of the maliks (chiefs) of the region sacked Ghazna, the eponymous capital of the Ghaznavid sultans who had dominated the eastern Islamic world for almost one hundred and fifty years, and assumed the title of sultan. This dramatic event, which earned its perpetrator the sobriquet Jahan-soz (World-burner), marked the abrupt entry of these mountain chiefs onto the wider political stage and began their meteoric rise from regional obscurity. The apogee of the Ghurid sultanate was reached under the reign of sultans Ghiyath al-Din Muhammad b. Sam (558-599/1163-1203) and Mu'izz al-Din Muhammad b. Sam (569-602/1173-1206) of the Shansabanid clan. The brothers ruled in a condominium, with Ghiyath al-Din, the elder statesman, overseeing the westward expansion of the sultanate from Firuzkuh in west-central Afghanistan. Mu'izz al-Din was based in Ghazna, from where he extended the sultanate's reach into the former Ghaznavid territories in the Indus Valley and into north India after 588/1192. Another line of the dynasty, famous for its patronage of Persian literati, ruled from Bamiyan. At its zenith in the last decade of the twelfth century, the Ghurid sultanate stretched from the Iranian metropolis of Nishapur in the west to the Indian city of Benares in the east, from the steppe of Central Asia in the north to Sind in the south. The floruit of both dynasty and region was short-lived; the death of Mu'izz al-Din in 1206 effectively marks the end of Ghurid power and the disintegration of the sultanate.

Since its discovery, the minaret has been recognized as the chef d'oeuvre of Ghurid patronage, whose high aesthetic values are today attested by only a handful of fragmentary monuments scattered across Afghanistan, Pakistan, and north India. The Jam minaret is believed to be a precursor of the most famous of these, the Qutb Minar in Delhi (from 1199). Its basic elements and historical context were sketched in a brief study by Andre Maricq and Gaston Wiet in 1959. (2) A number of subsequent short articles have supplied further details. (3) Although the minaret bears a foundation text, scholarship has long been divided about its interpretation, with opinion split between a reading of 570/1174-75 and 590/1193-94. The latter date has long been accepted in most of the literature on the minaret, which has consequently been identified as a commemorative monument, erected after a major Ghurid victory against the Chauhan rulers of northwest India in 588/1192. In light of this idee recu, denunciations of idolatry and unbelief in its Qur'anic inscriptions have often been read as allusions to the defeated Indian foes of the Ghurid sultans.


Despite the undoubted contributions that these past publications have made to our understanding of the minaret, many questions remained, awaiting a definitive monographic study such as the present one. Janine Sourdel-Thomine was uniquely positioned to undertake the task, not only in her capacity as the doyenne of Islamic art history in France but also in light of her long-term interest in medieval Afghan architecture, architectural decoration, and epigraphy. She is particularly associated with the study of Ghurid architecture through her work on the important multiperiod palace complex at Lashkari Bazar in southern Afghanistan and her pioneering attempt to define a Ghurid architectural style. (4) In one sense, the present study continues the work of the Delegation Archeologique Francaise en Afghanistan, for it is largely based on documentation garnered by the architect Marc Le Berre, a member of the Delegation, during the fall of 1960, long before the Soviet invasion and consequent civil strife terminated research at the site. It also represents the culmination of decades of rumination on its subject, however, and takes full advantage of recent research on Ghurid architecture and history.

The monograph is divided into four chapters, each dealing with a different aspect of the monument. Chapter 1 considers the topography of the site of Jam in light of the 1960 survey, as well as the contentious issue of whether the modern Jam marks the site of the destroyed Ghurid summer capital of Firuzkuh. Chapter 2 analyzes the architecture of the monument and the formal principles governing the articulation of its exterior. Chapter 3 offers a stylistic and taxonomic analysis of its floral, geometric, and epigraphic ornament. Chapter 4 considers the content of its epigraphic program, including both historical and Qur'anic inscriptions.

The comprehensive attention to detail throughout the work, while commendable, tends to obscure the thread of the author's argument, and concise summaries of her conclusions at the end of each chapter would have been welcome. One might also quibble with the relative dearth of cross-referencing between text and image, which sends the reader scrambling at key points in the narrative, breaking its continuity. The problem is reinforced by erratic placement of the images: figure 56, which falls on page 96, is not discussed until page 133. That said, the monograph is of singular importance for the history of medieval Islamic architecture, rich in empirical observations and innovative hypotheses capable of reconfiguring an entire art historical landscape at one fell swoop. Such insights are all the more welcome when that landscape is as dimly perceived and poorly understood as medieval Ghur.

The work opens with a discussion of the immediate architectural and topographic relations of the minaret, whose apparent isolation from any monumental architectural remains has led to speculation about its function. This problem, not unique to Jam, is also posed by other eastern Iranian and Afghan minarets of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, some of which may have functioned as beacons to guide wayfarers rather than places from which the adhan, the call to prayer, was given. (5) The isolation and restricted visibility of the Jam minaret renders the former function unlikely.

The minaret stands on the south bank of the Hari Rud, at a point where the river valley enlarges. The French survey of 1960 recorded a wide esplanade with a riverside containment wall of fired bricks just east of the minaret (figs. 12, 14B). The author identifies this as the remains of a possible mosque, although without addressing the somewhat idiosyncratic placement of the minaret on the qibla (Mekka-oriented) side of a mosque. The mosque may have been constructed from more ephemeral materials, such as the mud brick and pise from which the fortified structures on the surrounding hillsides were built. A twelfth-century minaret at Qasimabad in Iranian Sistan, which today stands in splendid isolation, was once similarly associated with a mud-brick mosque, as may also have been the case with two freestanding minarets in Ghazna that probably inspired the Ghurid minaret. (6) The disappearance of a mud-brick structure, leaving a minaret constructed from more durable fired brick, would hardly be surprising: the destruction of the Friday Mosque of Firuzkuh, the Ghurid summer capital, by flood just before 597/1200, at the zenith of Ghurid power, highlights the vulnerability of monumental architecture in this region. (7)

Although something of a consensus has emerged since the initial 1959 publication on Jam, accepting its identification with Firuzkuh, alternative sites have been suggested; these include Taywara, much further to the south. Sourdel-Thomine registers the topographic limitations of the valley site (into which sunlight barely penetrates in winter) and the difficulties of access, which are such that it could not have supported an imperial capital in the sense that most modern scholars imagine (with an army of slave soldiers and mercenaries, an attendant state bureaucracy, and so on). It should be noted, however, that recent illegal excavations on the hills surrounding the site have reportedly uncovered evidence for a great density of occupation in small, multistoried structures, recalling medieval accounts of Firuzkuh as heavily populated. (8) Nevertheless, the author's interrogation of the concept of a "capital" is well taken; the Persian historian Zakariya ibn Muhammad Qazwini (d. 682/1283)...

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