Mother of Cities: The Oxford Balkh History Project

As we fully enter the conference season, many will be reminded that a “panel” implies varying degrees of cohesion between the different speakers.  Conference-goers who attended “Balkh: Transformation of a Sacred City in the Early Islamic Era” at the recent ASPS conference in Sarajevo from September 1-6 witnessed a panel in which all of the speakers had been working together for over two years using entirely different sources in different languages to address a common set of research problems related to the city of Balkh in northern Afghanistan. 

These members of the Balkh Art and Cultural Heritage ProjectArezou Azad (Oxford), Edmund Herzig (Oxford), Robert Hoyland (ISAW / Oxford), and Tasha Vorderstrasse (University of Chicago)  – kindly sat down with me after their respective presentations to discuss Balkh, collaborative history, and long-term exchange in turbulent locales.

Balkh Citadel

Balkh’s Place in History

During his presentation, Herzig set the stage for his colleagues by situating the project as an urban history: Were there patterns of change with regard to irrigation and fortification?  What was the relationship between Balkh and its hinterland?  Was it more of a “Transoxanian city” or more of a “Khorasanian city”?  Herzig and the other speakers repeatedly returned to the notion that Balkh’s fortune’s were tied to regional networks: When it was a hub city connecting integrated territories, it thrived, and when it was a border town at the frontier of competing polities it was sometimes eclipsed by other cities in the region, such as Marv during the Islamic conquests.

The project’s origins lie in Azad’s study of the Fada’il-i Balkh, the earliest known local history of Balkh, which was originally written in Arabic (1214 C.E.) but only survives in the Persian adaptation (1278 C.E.).  In particular, Azad uses the text to build evidence that the sites that became thoroughly Islamized into saint shrines, for instance, during the 9th-11th centuries were the very same spots that had been venerated by other creeds – most notably Buddhism – in centuries prior.

As the contours of a centuries-long, trans-confessional sacred landscape began to emerge from the study of this single text, related questions came to the fore which could not be answered exclusively from within the Persian tradition. “We thought: Why stop there?  There is just too much material, and our current understanding of Balkh is too vague, to leave it at that,” commented Herzig, who was Azad’s supervisor during the early phase of her work on the Fada’il-i Balkh.  From that point, Herzig and Azad secured funding from the Leverhulme Trust for a three-year collaborative project, which has just reached the end of its second year.

The project was kicked off with a workshop in Oxford on 5-6 January 2012, “The Balkh Art and Cultural Heritage Project (BACH):  Exploration, maps and silk-road history from Balkh, northern Afghanistan”,  which generated considerable interest and brought a number of scholars on board.  Tasha Vorderstrasse’s grounding in Chinese history may seem somewhat far afield from Balkh’s perch in Central Asia, but because the city boasted a sizable Buddhist monastery, Chinese pilgrim accounts stand as a valuable source for the city’s history, particularly in the 7th– 9th centuries.  Buddhist accounts of the city tended to view it exclusively within the framework of their own religion, ignoring anything that did not fit.  As Vorderstrasse pointed out, however, we know from a Chinese and Syriac-language stele from Xian that there was also a Nestorian Christian community at Balkh.  Perhaps more tantalizingly, Chinese Buddhist accounts emphasized the distinctiveness of Balkh, complaining of the cold, bad food, and strange customs.  These prosaic complaints (along with other evidence) suggest the intriguing possibility that Balkh was emblematic of a distinctive variety of Central Asian Buddhism, though details are sparse.

Robert Hoyland rounds out the project by bringing Arabic-language sources to the table, mostly in order to better understand the Arab conquest of Bactria.  Balkh makes for an interesting microcosm of broader struggles going on in the Islamic world during the mid eighth century, namely: What qualifies one as a “Muslim” and – very much related – who is subject to the poll-tax (jizya).  This dispute came to a head in Balkh when Harith ibn Surayj led a large-scale rebellion allied with the Turgesh Turks against the Umayyad dynasty.  Surayj’s rebellion hinged on the Turgesh promises of support he obtained in the city of Balkh, along with his theological conviction that faith alone was enough to count one as a Muslim, which held great appeal for the non-Arab majority in the Balkh region.  In a sense, then, Hoyland’s research provides a bookend to the emergence of a sacred landscape common to multiple religions, as articulated by Azad and Vorderstrasse, by explaining how the local population became more thoroughly Muslim.

Collaborative History

Particularly for history dealing with parts of the world like Central Asia, with primary sources written in more languages than any one person could possibly hope to master, one might expect collaboration between historians to be business as usual.  However, in contrast with other disciplines, historians almost invariably act as lone wolves, especially in the United States.

This state of affairs is partly a consequence of the geographical dispersion of scholars, a challenge familiar to the Balkh Art and Cultural Heritage Project.  In addition to meeting in person at conferences such as ASPS, participant researchers have addressed this challenge through modern technology.  Vorderstrasse elaborated: “Being in constant communication via Skype has made a big difference in how I am viewing my individual work.  It’s really easy to go off and do your own thing without communicating.  But this project has been working very well in that regard.”

Herzig added: “In the UK donors really encourage you to be multidisciplinary.  They want to see collaboration between scholars who would not necessarily communicate otherwise, which is a very positive incentive.”

Ceramic finds from DAFA archaeological excavations, with DAFA Director Philippe Marquis (middle). Photo by Arezou Azad.

The Balkh history project involved more scholars than the ones participating in the ASPS panel.  Hugh Kennedy headed a team who formulated the project’s common research questions, and the  French archaeological delegation in Afghanistan (DAFA) collaborated actively as well.  “Phillipe Marquis [of DAFA] was not technically part of the project, but it nevertheless felt like he was one of us,” said Herzig. Key partners in Afghanistan are Omara Khan Massoudi, the Director of the Kabul National Museum, Mohammad Nadir Rasouli of the National Institute of Archaeology, and Sakhi Muneer, Director of the National Archives. Other team members include Stefan Heidemann and Pierre Siméon, who are carrying out the numismatic and ceramics study of the Balkh finds held at the DAFA compound.

The project will most likely culminate in a collection of articles edited by Herzig and Azad.  Collaborating scholars are already planning an “afterlife” for the project, which will widen the scope to examine Khorasan and Transoxiana as a larger region, thereby integrating the project’s findings on Balkh specifically with hitherto separate scholarship on Bukhara, Samarqand, Marv, and other regional centers prominent during the first millennium C.E.

Local Engagement

Aside from research, one of the core goals of the project is building up local capacity in Afghanistan.  “The idea was to help build a corps of Afghan scholars who can come to conferences, participate in international dialogs, etc.  This hasn’t happened yet, but hopefully if there is a continuation of this project that vision will yet be realized,” explained Herzig.

Although Afghanistan remains a dicey place to collaborate in this fashion, Herzig pointed out that “Arezou [Azad] has a previous career with the UN working in active conflict zones, which is helpful for building confidence with the funders.”  Azad visited Balkh and Mazar-i-Sharif in 2009 to observe the physical topography and connect it with descriptions found in historical sources. It was during this trip that Afghan counterparts emphasized the need for training of junior cultural heritage workers on Afghanistan’s early Islamic history and its cultural heritage. “They would say things to me like: We don’t know our own history.  How can we build our future?” said Azad.

Hoyland also traveled to Afghanistan in connection with the project, in his case to give lectures and work with students at Kabul University.

Another team member, Ali Mir-Ansari, is revising the edition of the Fada’il-I Balkh (currently being translated by Azad/Herzig). He also recently carried out a training program for thirty staff at the National Archives on manuscript cataloging and archiving.  Meanwhile, Heidemann and Siméon have been training Afghan cultural heritage workers in Kabul to enable their participation in the study of the coins and ceramics from Balkh.

Herzig believes that the local capacity building efforts are symbiotic with the research component of the project.  “There is an incredible amount of local knowledge in Afghanistan.  Engaging with local scholars and students facilitates research, and research offers opportunities to collaborate with local scholars.”