Saturday, March 12, 2016

Qala-i-Bust or Bost, in Helmand

Carol Miller

In the time of the Seljuk sultans, during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the citadel at Bost was an important landmark on the way between Khorasan (the northeastern Persian plateau) and Ghazni in the mountains of Afghanistan. Ancient Bost now lies in ruins some ten kilometers, or six miles - about twenty minutes-- south of the modern administrative town, with its industrial compounds, bordering the southern edge of Lashkar Gah, on the plains of Afghanistan.

Some recognize the name of Bost, or Bust, from the early Zoroastrian hymns of the Avesta. The famous ceremony to the Sun, the Now Ruz, or Nauruz, was celebrated here, in honor of the Spring equinox, three thousand years ago. The name reappears in Achaemenid town lists, as well as in first century accounts by missionaries, poets, tradesmen or military chroniclers. These references are vague but there is no doubt that a citadel, known as Bost, Bust, or Qala-I-Bist ("The Castle at Bist") not only existed but was prominent well before the Christian era, then was subsequently taken by early Arab conquerors around 661 A.D.

 The citadel was apparently useful to the Arabs for the mounting, from this point, of their assault on the regions of Kandahar and Kabul, but the hill tribes repeatedly confounded their efforts. Even at Bost, their ostensibly inviolable stronghold, Arab control was only tenuous and intermittent, constantly challenged by competing Aryan tribes of the region.

Ghaznavid arch, 1963's photograph



Bost later became a mint town, utilized by the Islamic Samanid Dynasty of Transoxiana, part of the widespread Persian Empire, in the ninth and tenth centuries. And as such the city grew, until it had become the second metropolis of the Afghan southwest. Ibn Haukal, an Arab traveler of the mid-tenth century, described it: "Bost is one of the principal cities in the province of Sejistan; and except for Zirenje, no city is larger or more imposing. The inhabitants of Bost are polite and generous, resembling in dress and manners several of the tribal peoples of both Iran and Mesopotamia (Iraq). It is a city well supplied with provisions, including fruits, and dates: merchants trade from the city with Hindoostan."


Throughout the eleventh century Bost prospered as the winter capital of the Ghaznavids, a Muslim dynasty that ruled Afghanistan and neighboring Punjab for more than two hundred years. The regime was founded by Alptigin (died 963), a Samanid slave, who conquered the strategic mountain town of Ghazni in 962 and managed to convert it into an independent kingdom.


The greatest of the Ghaznavids, however, and the name most associated with their fleeting supremacy, was Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, Alptigin's grandson, who despite his "lack of an illustrious lineage," as the Seljuks claimed, and his "piteous lack of preparation for leadership," successfully led numerous raids into the Punjab. He relentlessly looted Indian cities of enormous wealth, and this he used to transform Ghazni into one of the great centers of Islamic culture. Among his most prideful works was the magnificent marble mosque, that still stands today. Much of this wealth and grandeur, by inference, contributed to the embellishment of Bost.


Mahmud, according to both chronicle and tradition, was the "legendary Afghan emperor", and fearless conqueror. His prominence, beginning in about 999, corresponds to the outset of a new era for the peoples of the Near East, marking the collapse of the Samanids in the face of Turkish pressure from the steppes. Mahmud defeated his elder brother to gain control of Khorasan, the plateau of northeastern Iran, including today's Turkmenistan, and of Afghanistan proper, and for a time effectively held off both the Qarakhanids, the Turkish khans, and the Ghuzz, or Oghuz, Turks led by chieftains descended from a leader named Saljuq (or Seljuk), vying for control of the region. The Ghaznavids, however, were unable to keep the nomads from crossing the Oxus and pouring into Eastern Iran, and after a crushing defeat in 1040, they abandoned the eastern Islamic heartland and turned against the states of Northern India. Mahmud, an obsessive Muslim, destroyed Hindu temples, forced conversions to Islam, and carried off booty and slaves. Hindus especially abhorred his destruction of the temple to Shiva at Somnath in Gujarat. Mahmud's territorial gains, nevertheless, lay mainly in western and northern Afghanistan, which encompassed Bost, and in the Punjab, "The Land of the Five Rivers", which before his death he managed to annex to his holdings.


History then turned to Muhammad of Ghur, or Ghor, the late twelfth century founder of the first Delhi sultanate - a Turkic regime created by former slaves from Turkestan in Central Asia-- who in 1186 deposed the last Ghaznavid ruler of a reduced domain, with its capital at Lahore, in what today is Pakistan. By this time, in fact in 1151, Bost had already been burned and looted.


Bost was then completely demolished by Genghis Khan in 1220. Its gardens, however, continued to be eulogized by contemporary chroniclers until in 1383 Timur (Tamerlane) ravaged the irrigation system and consigned Bost to oblivion.


The gigantic mound which marks the site of Bost's citadel testifies to its age and importance. Vestiges remain on the summit of a number of once-elaborate structures, many of them of obvious architectural ambition. The most spectacular is still a spiral staircase within a well, forty-five meters deep and six meters in diameter. From this staircase, three tiers of four circular chambers look out into the shaft through a succession of arches. Many a comfortable afternoon's rest must have been enjoyed in these chambers, coolly shielded from the desert's heat.


The fort's strategic significance is easily noted from the summit: its ramparts dominate plains once crossed by busy caravan routes, as well as the roads of conquest, faith and diplomacy, particularly encompassing great Herat in ancient Khorasan, Baluchistan (once part of Iran), and India.

At the foot of the mound lie the ruins of the commercial city, with the remains of its bazaars, serais (inns), baths and mosques still clearly discernable; many of the mud brick walls still rise against the bright blue sky. The Arghandab River, furthermore, meets the Hilmand River at the foot of the citadel. Throughout its long history barges plied between Bost and Zaranj.


Yet the most remarkable monument, and certainly the most famous, is the magnificently decorated arch, spanning an astonishing twenty-five meters. Thought by archaeologists and architects to have been constructed as a ceremonial commemoration across the principal approach to the citadel, it was built in the eleventh century, at the height of both Ghaznavid and Seljuk power. Damaged by time and the desert, it has been lovingly restored.


Another attraction, the beautifully decorated twelfth century mausoleum, is known as the Ziarat-i-Shahzada Husain. There is still some doubt as to who built it. Today it commands the graveyard, one and a half kilometers north of the citadel walls. A passable road veers to the left on leaving the citadel.