The Road to Ruins

The Road to Ruins

There aren’t many blank spots left on the map that run half a degree of latitude wide, even in Afghanistan. Nimroz Province, a Tennessee-sized chunk of prairie and desert that’s home to 149,000 Afghans, is one such area.

I set out with a photographer friend, John Murphy, to satisfy a craving to see the massive centuries-old ruins of Shahr-i-Gholghola, a city that must once have covered the same area as Manhattan. An American traveling from Kandahar to Nimroz had seen them from his car and e-mailed me his photos; they bore out the description of Nancy Hatch Dupree, the dean of Afghan archaeology, as “the greatest assemblage of 15th-century A.D. architecture anywhere in the Middle East.” Abandoned around 1407 to the ravages of summer sandstorms and winter flash flooding from the nearby Helmand River, the site has not been explored since a Smithsonian Institution expedition left in 1976.

As soon as we arrived in Nimroz (Persian for “midday”), the province’s minister of culture warned us in decent English that we would have to walk for hours because the sand is impassable for cars. The first paved road outside Zaranj, Nimroz’s capital, is under construction; you drive, on sand or steppe or dry riverbed, in as sturdy an SUV as you can find. Besides, he said, there is not much to see anyway. He concluded smugly, “If you go, I guarantee you will not forget this trip.”

He was right about that, at least.

There were no villages or farms, and not one tree. The earth was parched, cracked in some places, with clumps of coarse short grass here and there; the sky was huge above us, its piercing blue unbroken by clouds. Luckily, the sand was firm enough to drive on. Our Land Cruiser ascended and descended three-foot-high mud irrigation berms, and I was soon preoccupied with protecting my head from smashing against the roof every 30 or 40 yards. Bits and pieces of the vehicle began to break off, though our driver remained tranquil.

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Three hours out of Zaranj, the first large set of remains of Shahr-i-Gholghola rose abruptly before us. Shahr-i-Gholghola means “City of Screams,” a name awarded in hindsight, but with good reason. The city was sacked by Genghis Khan in the early 13th century and by Amir Timur in 1383. Less than three decades later, Timur’s grandson destroyed the irrigation channels to punish a revolt, and the city was forsaken altogether.

The first group of melted mud-brick walls and arches was the sort you see throughout Afghanistan, but what was staggering was the amount of pottery on the steppe. We saw pieces the size of our palms and larger, mainly earth-colored or blue, with an impossible diversity of patterns and motifs; the most memorable was a stylized eye, used in central Asian cultures to this day to ward off envy. I didn’t see two pieces of pottery alike. The kilns remain, too. Some still have foot-long yellow-glazed bricks stacked beside them; others stand next to globs of glassy misfired clay as big as basketballs, eerily misshapen. The scale of production argues that this was a great city indeed, but all was abandoned suddenly, as if for a lunch break lasting 600 years.

Continuing, we faced the badly eroded ruins of three concentric rings of immense battlements 50 to 60 feet high, with 50 to 100 yards of open ground between each. Because sand now shrouds the lower 30 or 40 feet, at some points you could walk up a steep slope nearly to the top and then descend, half sliding, to the next area of flat ground. In the center was a fantastic honeycomb of arches and domes, battlements and stairs, with smashed pottery everywhere. It was so big John and I could not even see each other as we split up to take photos in the remaining hours of daylight.

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