KABUL: A small baked-brick structure in northwestern Afghanistan has for decades perplexed archaeologists, with some dating its origins to the 9th century and others even a hundred years earlier — making it one of the oldest monuments of Islam.
Known as Noh Gonbad, after nine domes that used to cover it, the structure is located 3 km from the modern city of Balkh. A mihrab found at the site — a niche indicating the direction of the Kaaba — is evidence that it had served as a mosque.
The distinctive stucco ornamentation of its columns combines motifs reminiscent of the styles dominant in the early decades of the Abbasid Caliphate and of the Samanid Empire.
“This mosque is one of the most beautiful and elegant examples of Samanid-era settlements,” Saleh Mohammad Khaliq, historian and former provincial culture director of Balkh, told Arab News.
“It was built completely in the style of the common architecture of the region, which was influenced by Sasanian, Buddhist and Gandhara art.” Measuring only 20 by 20 m, it stands alone.
The nine vaults collapsed long ago, with folk stories blaming their destruction on the Mongol invasion of Balkh in 1220.
Time and earthquakes dealt their blows too. Archaeologists first researched the mosque in the 1960s but little was done during the next four decades because of civil unrest and then war in Afghanistan.
In 2006, excavations began and conservation work in the past few years helped to stabilize the structure.
The mosque comprises a columned prayer hall and forecourt aligned with the direction of the Kaaba on its northeast-southwest axis.
Decoration on the columns and arches consists of vine leaves and geometrical figures, which have been compared with those used in Samarra, Iraq.
But other styles are present too, meaning that parts of the building were constructed or existed in different periods.
“It is the oldest remaining mosque from the first centuries of the Islamic era in Balkh and in Afghanistan, and the beauty of this building makes it special too,” Khaliq said.
“Ibn Battuta, the well-known traveler, compared the structure of the Balkh mosque with the Alhambra mosque in Granada, Spain, and the size of the columns with the mosques of Rabat in the Maghreb, but considered it more beautiful than them.”
Named after the nine domes that existed at the time of its glory, it is also known as the Hajj Piyada Mosque. The word “piyada” means “on foot.”
“On the day of Eid Al-Adha, in the early centuries of Islam, those who could not go for Hajj would come on foot to this mosque from far and near parts of Balkh. They came and prayed, paid alms and worshiped, and believed that they had received the reward of Hajj,” Khaliq said.
“After the destruction of this mosque, the tradition continued, and continues until now.”
For Balkh residents such as Hasibullah Hazim, 35, the mosque is a reminder of the region’s lost luster. “This mosque is special to all, this mosque was built in the 8th century, the kings of the time used this mosque,” he said.
“The Hajj Piyada Mosque is not only for the citizens of Balkh, but for everyone. This mosque was built during the Abbassid Caliphate, it is a historical place.”
Yaseen Wakilzada, 60, remembered how he would visit the site in childhood and how crowds of tourists from Balkh and other provinces would come to see the ruins too.
“Everything you see (there) is history,” he said. “It’s a special pride for Balkhi residents, recognized in the whole Muslim world.”