In Search of a Treasure in Afghanistan

Books for the Arab World in Troubled Times


Minaret of Djam, Afghanistan
Minaret of Djam, Afghanistan

Destination: Afghanistan

Book: The Minaret of Djam: A Journey Into Afghanistan by Freya Stark (Org. publ. 1970; new paperback, December 2010 released by Palgrave MacMillan)

Another in our series of places that we would like to visit in the Middle East, if the world were a bit more peaceful. Last year in a series on classic travel books, I talked about A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. This book takes place just south of Eric Newby‘s adventure.

Freya Stark (1893-1993) is eminently quotable, and since The Minaret of Djam: An Excursion in Afghanistan (The Freya Stark Collection)<imgstyle=”border:none!important;margin:0px!important;”src=”http:”” e=”” ir?t=”atravelerslibrary-20&l=as2&o=1&a=1848853130″” border=”0″ alt=”” width=”1″ height=”1″> is a rather brief book, fairly easily explained, I think I’ll quote her a lot. She starts right off in the introduction of this book, which was first published in 1970 when she was 77, with a thought about changing times.

…In twenty years, or ten perhaps, these adventures will seem nearer to the Dark Ages than to the Space Age and their memory will be that of the antique; and this journey, of a kind which I rejoin in only you do not know, will be a little monument to your love and goodness…

Minaret of Djam, Afghanistan
Minaret of Djam, Afghanistan

Stark sets out on a road trip with three other travelers  in a Land Rover to fulfill her goal of seeing the 65-meter high, 12th century minaret that stands in the remote center of Afghanistan. For as you learn in the geography of her circular journey, the ‘corners’ of Afghanistan are not remote–the cities of , Kabul, Herat and Khandahar (and the far northern Mazar-Sharif which is not part of this journey) stand on the edges around the remote mountainous interior.

She regrets the fast-moving changes that come over once-primitive lands, but she traveled to many “unvisited” places, uniquely as a woman and alone. Her specialty in life was to visit the Arabic lands.

Stark writes poetically, at a leisurely pace. She describes the people and places she is visiting in vivid, if complex detail. Then she veers off to thoughts of political striving, and geography.

Geography is behind trade, and trade is behind history, and this sequence should ever be remembered..

She ponders history, agriculture, architecture, religion, the British Empire,  and perhaps because she is getting older, the meaning of life and nearing death.

She had been ill for eight, as I had for three, years; we both knew the emancipated feeling of a world whose fountains had so nearly closed..A sense of fragility has been with me every since.

I am, unfortunately, accustomed to skimming, because I have so many books to read. But Freya Stark will have none of that. She trips me up if I rush and makes me re-read each sentence until it sinks in, or until I get the joke.

The bridge at the bottom had been psychologically built of solid stone for reassurance, unlike the usual cantilever that, when its time comes, likes to die with a lorry in its arms.

The group finally reach the Minaret of Djam, once the center of an enormous city. The minaret, now called Jam, has been named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and indeed should be one of the wonders of the world.


Detail of Minaret of Djam
Detail of Minaret of Djam

Its whole surface from top to bottom is covered with rectangles, lozenges, stars, knots and fancies of deep-cut tracery in the hard-baked earth which the Islamic art of the eleventh and twelfth centuries knew how to handle to such purpose…..Otherwise the whole slender structure stands as its builders saw it, eight centuries passing over it as over the Sleeping Beauty, with little except the rustle of the poplars and the voice of birds and water to disturb its sleep.

The Minaret dates to the 12th century, before Ghengis Kahn and the Mongols rode into this land.

Stark is regularly listed as one of the best travel writers. Several months ago we visited the coast of Turkey with her, she leading us with Herodotus Histories in her hand. In 2009, The London Times on Line picked Freya Stark’s A Winter in Arabia as one of the twenty best travel books of all times. See their list of best travel books and my reactions.

Disclaimers: Photos come from Wikiphotos. Click on them to read more about the Minaret of Jam.

The publishers gave me the book for review. If you would like to have it–subscribe to the blog and tell me in a comment that you have done so and why you want this book. I’ll draw a winner on April 2.(U.S. residents over 18 only.)


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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

10 thoughts on “In Search of a Treasure in Afghanistan

  1. I would love to for you to enter me in the drawing for this book. I’m trying to expand my literary travel reading.

    1. Good for you, Sharon, adding to your travel library! Are you a subscriber? If not, you need to subscribe in order to be eligible for this drawing. Either click the RSS button or subscribe by e-mail. (top of the column to the near right).

  2. I’ve heard this author’s name before, although I cannot remember in which context. She sounds like a fascinating and brilliant writer.

  3. You are the third person to recommend Freya Stark to me; guess I’d better investigate her writing! Sounds like she explores very exotic destinations.

  4. Very nice. My father reads Freya Stark.

    Another book on a woman visiting Afghanistan (in the 1950s) is Sylvia Matheson’s “TIME OFF TO DIG – Archaeology and Adventure in Remote Afghanistan” It is a fun read, but long out of print. -r

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