The taxi ride to Balkh, the mother of all cities, took 30 minutes. The town was founded by Noah, is the birthplace of Zoroaster, it’s where Alexander the Great married his beloved Roxanne and it was abandoned in the 19th century because of constant malarial and cholera outbreaks. In its heyday it had 70 Madrassas and 70 Universities.
We climbed the remnants of the 15th century mud brick city walls overlooking the 4th century stupa and marvelled at the 12 kilometres of walls snaking in front of us.
Unfortunately it was market day and the narrow, dusty streets were totally packed with people. There was no chance of us remaining inconspicuous, so we chose to do a quick visit to the main park.
The ruins of the 1460 AD Khwaja Abu Nasr Parsa Shrine (alt: Khoja Abu Nasr) were covered in scaffolding, being renovated. As we stood looking at the 10th century tomb of Rabia Balkhi’s (Persia’s greatest female poet) crowds of men started to gather around us and the local police turned up. They weren’t happy. They shouted through megaphones for the men to disperse and then shouted at us to get back to our taxis immediately. One shoved my partner firmly in the back when he thought he wasn’t moving quickly enough.
The drive out of town to the 9th century Noh Gunbad Mosque (alt: Haji Piyada Mosque) , the oldest in Afghanistan, was uneventful. The mosque has only been half excavated and is being stabilised by a French team before the rest can be dug out. The stucco was beautiful but extremely fragile. The surrounding fields are now planted with cotton where once they grew cannabis.