Minaret of Jam: what it is and why it is important

On Aug 28th, 2014 BBC published an article about the minaret of Jam, Afghanistan, which is “in danger to collapse”. The news spread throughout Twitter, drawing more attention on the fact.
The minaret’s importance was first recognized by UNESCO in 1982, that nominated it World Heritage Site. Then, in 2002, it was listed under the UNESCO’s World Heritage in Danger Status.

Thus, the news of its endangered status is not new at all, and from a 2007 report we learn that the works for the “Emergency Consolidation of the Minaret of Jam” were already in progress.

But…wait a second.. what is the Minaret of Jam? Why is it so important?

In BBC’s article the information about the monument and its importance in the history of architecture and architectural decoration are quite scattered as the main aim of the article seems to underline the lack of money for the necessary restoration and the disastrous state in which the monument is.
My aim here is to give information about the history of the minaret, its importance in the history of Islamic architecture and what has been done for its preservation so far.

Jam and its minaret – the discovery and the consolidation projects

According to an article by Rory Stuart, The New York Times, the minaret was first visited by a foreigner in 1957. What is sure is that in 1961, the Italian architect Andrea Bruno made a first survey of the tower. As early as 1960s, the first efforts towards a consolidation of the leaning minaret were undertaken, and a temporary dam was built, to prevent floods. In the 1970s, additional surveys were undertaken: their aim was to determine the degree of leaning of the minaret… in 1978 a first project for the consolidation of the minaret was proposed, again by Andrea Bruno. The Russian invasion of Afghanistan the following year brought the project to a stop. It was only with the beginning of the new millennium that consolidation measures were undertaken. The base was strengthened and the bed of the river that flows next to the minaret cleaned. In 2005 the emergency consolidation was completed. The 2007 report underlines how more consolidation works are needed for the maintenance of the minaret: the base needs further strengthening and the tower needs to be better protected from eventual floods.
The new BBC article states, however, that the “there is not enough money to protect it and more flooding could bring it down”.

Ghiyath al-Din Minar © Norbert Fontaine (Archnet)

The importance of the minaret

The 65-meter-high tower of Jam is an extraordinary example of Islamic architecture. The diameter of its base is only 8 meters: a singularly small base for such a high building…
It was built during the second half of the 12th century: sources differ in reporting the construction date. The 2007 report states it was erected in  1165, Sourdel-Thomine in 1175 and Pinder-Wilson in 1195, giving different reading of the foundation inscription at the base of the tower.
What we know is that the building was erected by the Ghurid ruler Ghiyath al-Din. If the reading by Sourdel-Thomine is accepted, it is possible that it was erected to commemorate his conquest of Ghazna, 1173.

Far from the “mystery” that Rory Stuart describes in his article when defining the function of the building, it is quite plain that the tower is actually a minaret. It is true that usually minarets are built within a mosque, or at least have an adjacent religious building, but it is also true that in Iran, Transoxiana and in the eastern zone of the dar al-Islam, minarets could also be self-standing structures. From an analysis of the position, inscriptions and etymology used to name them, the minarets in this area were also used to state that the surrounding area belonged to the dar al-Islam. This statement was directed not only towards the non-Muslim population that lived in the confining territories, but also towards all the people that travelled in the country, for commercial purposes for instance. The minarets could also serve as road signals, for instance on pilgrimage routes.
It is not a case that in the archaeological excavations around the building, lavish ceramics were recovered: this points out that in the area luxury items were largely imported. Also, these discoveries, together with scattered remains of settlements in the surrounding area, can indicate the presence of a wealthy city around the minaret: it has been held that it might be the Ghurid capital, Firuzkuh, destroyed in 1222 by Gengis Khan.
Together with that, the minaret was erected in a buffer zone against the expansion of the Seljuks westwards.

The minaret of Jam is strikingly interesting mostly because of its integrity: both the minaret and the surrounding landscape has hardly been touched since the erection of the tower. Thus, both the architecture and the surface decoration are original and give us a great perspective of the period’s style.

Isma’ili Mausoleum at Bukhara © Roya Marefat (Archnet)

As for the decoration, it is achieved through the use of bricks and high-relief terracotta which are juxtaposed on the surface in geometric patterns. This juxtaposition creates on the surface a play of light and shadow. The bricks are plain: only one of the inscription around the shaft is coloured with turquoise tiles.

The surface decoration of the minaret represents the continuation and apogee of a decorative technique typical of this part of the dar al-Islam, first seen in the Isma’ili Mausoleum in Bukhara (914-943), and further developed during the 10th century.

The inscriptions

As for the inscriptions, the minaret of Jam has a number of epigraphic bands. The content of the inscriptions are both religious and historical, as often happens.

As for the religious and Qur’anic inscriptions, the uppermost band contains the basmalah and is followed, in the band below, by an excerpt of Q 61:13-14:

نصر من الله وفتح قريب وبشر المؤمنين يا أيها الذين آمنوا
Victory from Allah and an imminent conquest; and give good tidings to the believers. O you who have believed.

In the lower part of the shaft, there is the entire Surat Maryam (Q 19), about the prophets Zachariah and Abraham and about the resurrection in the Judgement Day. Also, this surah comprises verses that denounce idolatry: Q 19: 49 and Q 19: 81.

As for the historical inscriptions, they contain the name and title of Ghiyath al-Din, who had the minaret built, the date, and interestingly the name of the signature of the architect, whose nisbah points out he came from Nishapur.

All the inscriptions are written in a beautiful Kufic, apart from the architect’s signature, in cursive, naskhi script.

From the content of the Qur’anic inscriptions we can infer some information about the context of construction: the main theme of Q 61: 13-14 is victory, provided by God to the believers. This can give a support to the thesis that the minaret was erected to celebrate the victory of the ruler over Ghazna. The denunciation of idolatry in Q 19 can be read as referred to the Indian subjects that lived under the Ghurids.
As for the degree of legibility of the inscriptions, it can be assumed that the glaze tiles with which the inscriptions are highlighted were used in order to make the inscriptions more visible for the reader.

So, this is a brief description of the minaret and its importance in the history of Islamic architecture… hope it is useful to those who want to better understand its meaning and also for those who were concerned for its endangered situation.

Essential bilbliography and further readings

Archnet, “Ghyiath al-din Minar” [http://archnet.org/sites/3928] (accessed Sep 9, 2014)

Archnet, “Emergency Consolidation of the Minaret of Jam” [http://archnet.org/sites/6241] (accessed Sep 9, 2014)

S. S. Blair, “The Madrasa at Zuzan: Islamic Architecture in Eastern Iran on the Eve of the Mongol Invasions”, in Muqarnas, 3 (1985), pp. 75-91.

A. Bruno, “The Minaret of Jam.” World Heritage Review, 4-15. Madrid: San Marcos, 2003.

A. W. Najimi, “Emergency Consolidation of the Minaret of Jam. On-site Review Report”, edited by Aga Khan Award for Architecture, 2007. [full article, via archnet] (accessed Sep 9, 2014)

R. Pinder-Wilson, “Ghaznavid and Ghurid Minarets.” Iran: Journal of the British Institute of Persian Studies 39 (2001), pp. 155-186.

M. Qazizada and D. Qarizadah, “Afghan historic minaret of Jam ‘in danger of collapse'”, BBC Afghan, August 28, 2014, [http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-28969385] (accessed Sep 9, 2014)

J. Sourdel-Thomine, Le Minaret Ghouride de Jam: Un Chef d’Oeuvre du XIIe Siècle, Diffusion de Boccard, Paris 2004.

R. Stewart, “The Looting of Turquoise Mountain” The New York Times, August 25, 2002. [http://www.nytimes.com/2002/08/25/magazine/the-looting-of-turquoise-mountain.html?src=pm&pagewanted=2] (accessed Sep 9, 2014)

UNESCO. “Minaret and Archaeological Remains of Jam.” [http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/211] (accessed Sep 9,2014)


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