National Highway 1 from Kabul to Kandahar, will bring you under the walls of the storied, but now humbled, city of Ghazni. Its ramparts once sheltered brilliant Persian poets the likes of Hakim Sanai, the ‘eyes of Sufi poetry’ and inspiration to Rumi. The memory of that elegance now in tatters, the city suffers one blow after another in the present war: the sandalwood, ceramics, dates and peacock plumes, the lapis lazuli, tea and almonds of a Silk Route past all but forgotten. As with so many other towns and settlements, it’s about survival now. The Towers of Victory beyond the walls, graved though they be with exquisite calligraphy, seem to have lost the thread of triumphant story asking now, ‘What has become of a refined and proud past?’
No traverse of Afghanistan, even in wartime, can fail to impress the traveler with its brilliant green valleys lost as they are midst desert mountains. A village elder in such a valley, asked what distinguished his lush community, replied,
“Why would I want to live in any other corner of the world?
In our valley there are 64 varieties of nightingales!”
Elders deserve some Sufi poetic license. But avian splendor aside, there underlies that valley a feat of engineering every bit as admirable as the nightingales. It is the ancient technology of kariz. Dug deep into the mountains are gently sloping tunnels – some many kilometers long – that conduct water from highland aquifers into the valleys below where orchards and fields flourish in what would otherwise be dust-blown desert.
Those who inherit this 3000-year-old vocation are known to live foreshortened lives given the hazards of toil midst darkness and rockfall. But the community’s life hangs on what the kariz bring, so, it is said, those engineers are assured the cream of what the community has to offer: the choicest fields, the most elegant brides, places of privilege at feast and customary gathering. Now the havoc of protracted war has placed this fragile system in jeopardy as maintenance is abandoned and as once lush valleys, indeed, society itself, concuss with aerial bombing, IEDs and drone-launched Hellfire missiles.
But the kariz are not the only wonder that the traveler may miss. Leaving the walls of Kandahar, the westward journey passes south of a long-lost structure of medieval times. In Ghor province, accessible only by impossibly rugged roads, stands the Minaret of Jam, now thought to be the remains of the legendary Turquoise Mountain capital. Rory Stewart, in the account of his foot trek across the country (‘The Places In Between’) has suggested that at the time of its construction it may well have been the tallest structure in the world, a monument to the victories of Islam.
That a 215-ft. (65 meters) tall structure of ornate beauty should be standing alone for centuries, silent and hidden in a remote valley is itself a spur to curiosity and imagination. Time and cataclysmic flood have swept away the vestiges that would have explained its whys and wherefores, leaving it a stunning orphan in the mountain wilderness.