In the white dusty plains of northern Afghanistan, archaeologists are seeking to unravel the secrets of one of the oldest mosques in the world, whose structure is still standing after a thousand years of solitude.
The 9-Dome Mosque, named for the cupolas that once crowned its intricately decorated columns, glimmers with remnants of the blue lapis lazuli stones that encrusted it. Carbon dating in early 2017 suggests the ancient structure in Balkh province was built in the eighth century, soon after Islam swept into Central Asia but exactly when, and who by, remains a mystery.
The very survival of this modest square of just 20 by 20 meters (65 foot by 65 feet) has beguiled experts.
"It's a miracle it's still standing despite time and erosion," said Italian architect Ugo Tonietti, from the University of Florence, who specializes in heritage conservation. The mosque, which has weathered the centuries partly due to the arid climate of the region, is one of the best preserved Islamic buildings of its age in the world and is "highly valuable and highly vulnerable," he said.Time has washed most of the color from its columns, but the mosque was once a dazzling spectacle.
"This is a masterpiece. You have to imagine how it looked like, fully decorated with lapis, some parts in red, it was all covered and painted: It was like a garden of paradise inside, with a sky above, the domes with white and blue decoration," he said.
The delicate vine leaves etched onto the pillars resemble those seen at Samarra, Tonietti said, referring to the powerful ninth century Islamic capital city that ruled the Abbasid Empire extending from present day Tunisia to Pakistan. But the mosque at Balkh could be even older, with the carbon dating and historical sources suggesting it could have been built as early as the year 794.
"This means that the mosque of the Abassid Empire has been influenced by Afghanistan, not the other way around," said Julio Sarmiento-Bendezu, director of the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan, who is leading excavations at the site.
On the trail of Genghis Khan
"This mosque is exceptional in its beauty, conservation, decoration and the knowledge it holds," he said.
But Noh Gonbad, its Persian name, was only rediscovered by chance. In the late 1960s, an American archaeologist traveling in the region asked local people to take her to a mosque destroyed by Genghis Khan, the Mongol emperor who rampaged across the region in the early 13th century. Villagers led her to this lonely, half-buried temple some 20 kilometers (12 miles) west of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Once found, however, the building languished once again as war was unleashed on Afghanistan, enveloping the country in decades of bloodshed, and it was not until 2006 that excavations began on the site.
"We thought at first that it was an isolated monument, but as we went on we saw that it was stuck to other older structures," said Sarmiento-Bendezu. In July archaeologists unearthed the base of the pillars, at a depth of 1.5 meters (5 feet), but surveys suggest even deeper remnants.
"Like all excavations, those of the Nine Domes Mosque pose more questions than they answer," says archaeologist Bendezu. AFP / BALKH