In an idyllic valley with nothing but rugged hills stretching as far as the eye can see and a river snaking through it is an astonishing sight in the Ghor province of Afghanistan. It’s the soaring, needle-like Minaret of Jam, dressed in stucco and turquoise tiles, rising out the earth, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
Nearly 1,500 km south-east in Delhi, is the Jam Minaret’s architectural relative – one of India’s most iconic monuments, the Qutb Minar. Built by the Ghurid Dynasty in the late 1190s CE, the Qutb Minar is one of the earliest architectural expressions of Persianate culture on the Indian subcontinent.
Both towers were built for the very same reason: to mark the triumph of the Ghurid Dynasty in the plains of India. The connection between the two magnificent monuments is a fascinating relic from a time when borders were nebulous and Empires spanned the length and breadth of the subcontinent.
The great contrast between where these minarets now stand — one in the middle of a large modern metropolis and the other in a deserted but picturesque valley — makes the link between them suspend in the passage of time.
The Two Towers of Victory
The last decades of the 12th century witnessed the Ghurid Empire at its peak. Under the able military leadership of Muhammad Ghori and his elder brother Ghiyas al-Din Muhammad, the Ghurids supplanted the Ghaznavids in Afghanistan and eventually captured Delhi after defeating Prithviraj Chauhan in the decisive Second Battle of Tarin (1192 CE). It was to mark this pivotal moment that the Minaret of Jam and the Qutb Minar were constructed. There had long been a tradition of constructing victory towers in the Ghaznavid Empire, and it is from them that the Ghurids adopted this convention.
The construction of the Jam Minaret was completed in 1194 CE under the aegis of the elder Ghurid brother Ghiyas al-Din Muhammad. We know this due to Ghiyas al-Din’s name being inscribed right below the first balcony of the tower. Emblazoned against the 900-year-old turquoise glaze, an inscription reads:
The relationship between the two brothers was unique in that they conquered and governed the Ghurid Empire together. While Ghiyas al-Din mostly looked after the Western frontiers from his seat in Firuzkoh, Muhammad Ghori focused his efforts on the east, in India.
With the concept of primogeniture not being prevalent, it is significant that the two brothers, rather than resorting to the kind of fratricidal struggle that consumed later Persianate dynasties, chose the path of accommodation. Nonetheless, there was definitely a sense of deference towards Ghiyas al-Din on the part of his younger brother. It is more than telling that on a tower celebrating a battle that Ghori himself won, his own name is curiously missing.
As the magnificent victory tower was being built in Afghanistan, the construction of the Qutb Minar began in Delhi.
Unlike the minaret in Jam, the Qutb Minar took far longer to build due to the political vicissitudes that plagued the infant Sultanate. Construction began in the mid-1190s supervised by Muhammad Ghori’s General, Qutb al-Din Aibak.
The first storey was built in the lifetime of the Ghurid brothers, and the nasakhi epigraphy in Persian makes it clear that this minar, rather than being ‘Qutb’s’ as we have come to know it, was instead a project sanctioned and begun at their behest.
At the very top of the first storey, Ghiyas al-Din’s titles are inscribed in the exact manner as they are on the Jam Minaret. A little below, following some Qur’anic quotations, Muhammad Ghori’s titles are laid out. While nearly identical to his older brother’s lengthy adulations, unlike him, Ghori is not privileged with ‘Sultan al-Salatin’.
Hundreds of kilometres from Ghiyas’s immediate authority, Ghori at least ensured that his name would be in one of the two victory towers, commemorating a battle he had won. And right at the bottom, architectonically as well as in the emblematic hierarchy, Qutb al-Din Aibak’s name can be found, most accessible and easiest to read, therefore furthest from aloof sovereign power among the trio.
Nonetheless, it was Aibak and his successor, Iltutmish who carved the Delhi Sultanate out of the crumbling Ghurid Empire after the death of Muhammad Ghori in 1206 CE. And it was Iltutmish who finally completed the Qutb Minar by 1220 CE. For this reason, the monument is more widely associated with the Mamluk Dynasty, its Ghurid origins often clouded by the vacillations of early Persianate rule in India.
Apart from these prosaic political associations, the two minars share much in terms of architectural and artistic elements. Both were meant to be symbols of the then ascendant Ghurid power. While they served a religious purpose, allowing muezzins to make prayer calls, they were also universal symbols – those of kingship and sovereign legitimacy.
The composition of these minars serve these dual purposes. The intricate Kufic inscriptions that wrap around both of them not only exhibit the piety of the Ghurid brothers, but also characterise the divinity that sanctioned their conquests and rule. The marvellous geometric designs that cover the minars underline the aesthetic nature of Ghurid kingship and exhibit a faith that relies on subtle patterns rather than pictorial depictions for religious symbolism.
The Afterlife of the Minarets
If these historical and architectural similarities formed a compellingly close connection between these two monuments when first built, their incredibly dissimilar afterlives did much to make that association seem unlikely. The Qutb Minar went on to become a central fixture in a city that became a key political pivot on the Indian subcontinent for nearly a millennium, and which it remains to be even in present times.
The conservation of the minar was carried out by the ever-changing political leadership of Delhi through the centuries; be it the Tughlaqs in the 14th CE, the Lodhis in the 15th CE or the British in the 19th CE. These interventions allowed for the minar to be relatively unscathed by the time of Independence in 1947.
The Minaret of Jam, however, suffered a tragic fate.
Standing at the confluence of the Hari Rud and Jam Rud, this victory tower is all that remains of the once the magnificent city of Firuzkoh — the Turquoise Mountain— the fabled summer capital of the Ghurid Empire.
The sudden eruption of Mongol military might at the beginning of the 13th century CE resulted in the destruction of Firuzkoh. Led by Genghis Khan’s son Tolui Khan, the Mongol army sacked the prosperous city and razed it to the ground.
That the Jam Minaret survived was a miracle, one that is most probably owing to its utility as a watch tower for the Mongol soldiers.
The skeletal remain of a once glorious city, the Jam Minaret continued its precarious yet insulated existence at the confluence of the Hari Rud and Jam Rud for the next nine centuries, where it slipped into the recesses of history.
However, the contagion of modern conflict was to disrupt its quiet existence. The wars that followed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 caused significant damage to the Jam Minaret and its immediate surroundings. While in recent years, much has been done to preserve it, the present volatility in the political situation in Afghanistan suggests an uncertain future.
Yet it is enticing to contemplate counterfactuals. As Tolui Khan’s soldiers were plundering Firuzkoh, other Mongol armies were marching towards India. Over the next decades, the Mongols repeatedly besieged the walls of Delhi but successive Sultans were able to defend the city, even if only by the skin of their teeth. If they had failed, one wonders what might have been if the fate of Firuzkoh had befallen the city of Delhi, and the Qutb Minar had been rendered similar to its Ghurid cousin in the afterlife.
Currently at the Department of War Studies, KCL, Ranvijay Singh is a keen, albeit amateur, aficionado of military and South Asian history as well as mountaineering literature. His Twitter handle is @ranvijayhada.
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