History of Balkh, the city of saints

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The history of Balkh, one of the cities that has always been linked to the faith, as well as the historic center of ancient Bactria

The words of Ibn Battuta

“And after traveling for a day and a half in an uninhabited desert of sand, we came to Balkh, a semi-destroyed city where no one lives anymore – but whoever sees it would say it was inhabited, it was so well built: once it was a very large, with mosques and madrasahs with deep blue decorations of which the vestiges still remain today. “

Balkh, the city of a thousand faiths

The city of Balkh was founded between 2000 and 1500 BC. and it is considered among the oldest cities in the world, so much so that since its dawn it saw as rivals places such as Babylon, Nineveh and Ecbatana. From its origins it distinguished itself from the others not only as a great center of commerce, but also as a place “suitable for saints”, to the point of becoming, first, the headquarters of Zoroastrianism, and then one of the most important places for Buddhism as well. In fact, Trapusa and Bahalik originated from Balkh who, according to the Buddhist tradition, would have been the first followers of Gautama and, returning to their hometown, created stupas, marking the beginning of Buddhism in Central Asia and transforming themselves, in the course of the centuries, a privileged destination for pilgrims who also came here from China (Faxian and Xuanzang) and Korea (Hyecho). To complete the complex religious picture, the presence of Jews is attested in Balkh since ancient times, so much so that, according to some Arab historians, Ezekiel was buried here.


Over time, it will be conquered first by the Persians and then by Alexander the Great, who, in his long pilgrimage, married Roxane, a girl originally from Bactria, the region of Balkh. With the death of the great leader, the city became the capital of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, then passing to the Sassanids, who ruled it until the arrival of the Arabs. Their conquest will prove to be decisive for the Buddhist belief which will begin to have increasingly strong and pressing problems with the new authority, while managing to remain flourishing for several centuries. It should be noted that with the arrival of the Abbasids things will improve, so much so that, according to tradition, the noble family of the Barmachids, which is even mentioned in “The Thousand and One Nights” and which even boasted a vizier, would have been of origin Buddhist.

The decline of Balkh

With the fall of the Abbasids, the city passed first to the Saffarids, then to the Samanids, the Kara Khitan, the Seljuks, the Khwarazmian Empire and finally to the Mongols of Genghis Khan. The arrival of the great conqueror will prove fundamental, as it will destroy a large part of the city, which from that moment will lead to an irremediable decline. It will in fact be torn to pieces again by Tamerlane, then falling prey to the Shaybanids, the Safavids, the Mughals, the Durrani and finally, in 1850, the Emirate of Afghanistan; starting from 1866, however, it completely lost its prestige, so much so that it was replaced by Mazar-e-Sharif as an administrative center.


In 1934 a great restoration and modernization work was carried out that will allow it to become an important center for cotton and karakul wool, however it will particularly suffer the arrival of the Taliban, who carried out various looting here. Jalal al Din Rumi was born here on 30 September 1207.

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