Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Memorials and Patrons: How northern Afghan elites try to own history

S Reza Kazemi 14 min

Elites in Mazar-e Sharif, the capital of Balkh province and most important city in the north, have, in recent years, supported the building of new memorials and re-naming of the city’s streets and intersections. They are also sponsoring intellectuals and their literary and artistic output. These are politically driven cultural projects, attempts by the leading politicians to build images of their greatness, partly by placing themselves in the context of Balkh’s long history and rich artistic tradition. In this way, argues AAN’s guest author Said Reza Kazemi*, the elites try to portray their power as eternal. 

The "Monument of the Sages of Balkh" was built in 2006, ordered by Governor Atta Mohammad Nur. His image has been carved in stone right in the centre of the monument, between historical figures from the region such as Zoroaster (Zarathustra) or the19th-century Islamic reformer Sayyed Jamaluddin Afghani. The man portrayed in the picture is Yama, an ancient king of the region. Photo: Reza Kazemi

It took the author, who had not been in Mazar-e Sharif for some years, only a short walk around the city to notice that something had happened: the face of the city has changed. To its inhabitants and visitors, Mazar-e Sharif, as its name – ‘The Holy Mausoleum’ – suggests, stands for one thing: rauza-ye sharif, the shrine where Ali ibn Abi Taleb, the fourth caliph of Sunni Muslims and the first imam (leader) of Shia Muslims, is believed to have been buried. (1) Located at the very centre of the city, the major streets start from here, leading in the directions of the four points of the compass. This is the centre of Mazar, the place that the whole city is architecturally organised around. When a newcomer or even a resident wants to find some street, alley or place in the city, an easy way is to start explaining their location to him/her from the position of the shrine.

The four memorials around the shrine

Over the past eight years or so, four memorials have been built on the four streets leading away from the four gates of the shrine. Strategically located, these memorials hint at how politics and culture have been developing and mixing in the province since 2001. They are dedicated to four outstanding figures born in the region (ie, the northern half of Afghanistan) between the 10th and the 20th centuries.

The oldest of the four to be commemorated is Rabe’a Balkhi, who lived in the 10th century and is considered one of the first women to compose poetry in Dari. More important for many who visit her shrine in Balkh, the capital of the district that gave its name to the province, is her story: as the tradition goes, she fell in love with a slave, Baktash, only to be discovered and punished by her brother Hares; he had her wrist cut and left her to bleed to death. With her blood, she wrote her last poem, thereby becoming a symbol of deep, helpless and hopeless love.

The second memorial is to Hakim Naser Khosraw-ye Balkhi, another famous poet, traveller and philosopher who lived in the 11th century and is known for his Safarnama (Travelogue) – a record of his journey from Central Asia to the Mediterranean coast, Egypt, Arabia and back. (2) The third memorial is dedicated to Mawlana Jalaluddin Mohammad Balkhi, the world-famous 13th century Sufi poet known as the Mawlana (the highest term of respect for a religious teacher) in Afghanistan and Rumi in the west. He was born in Balkh and it gave him his surname, Balkhi. At the time, Balkh, one of the oldest cities in the world, was known as the ‘mother of cities’. Mawlana/Rumi is best known for his magnum opus Masnavi-ye Ma’navi (The Spiritual Couplets). (3)

The fourth location for a memorial was given to a far more recent figure: Ahmad Shah Massud (1953-2001), one of the leading figures of the mujahedin who was killed by al-Qaeda assassins two days before the 11 September 2001 attacks. In 2002, he was officially promoted to qahraman-e melli or national hero, which is how he is described on the memorial. (4) As such, memorials to him have been put up in many of Afghanistan’s cities.

Three of the four who have been memorialised bear the surname ‘Balkhi’, meaning they originated in Afghanistan’s present-day Balkh province. Such a designation is, however, disputed in at least one case, that of Rumi: Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan all claim him as their own. Rabe’a Balkhi’s local origin is undisputed, while Naser Khosraw’s is lesser known. (2)

It actually seems fairly pointless to try to tie literary and historical figures to modern countries when they lived before the emergence of the modern state system. Afghanistan, as such, did not exist at the time of these three literary greats; it was part of various empires, whether at their centre or periphery. In this sense, Rumi, Rabe’a Balkhi and Naser Khosraw are part of the common heritage of a wider region that covers various contemporary states – Afghanistan, Iran to the west and, to a lesser extent, Central Asia to the north, to say the least (read AAN’s latest paper Central Asia and its relationship with Afghanistan here). Nevertheless, politically, portraying great people as the ‘nation’s own’ or the ‘province’s own’ makes sense.

Among the four, Massud is the odd one out, a man who was not ‘Balkhi’, but most definitely from the Panjshir valley. He was probably the most widely known mujahedin leader during the Soviet-Afghan and civil wars (1979-2001), a different sort of figure from the three men and women of letters. Nevertheless, in modern-day Mazar, he has been put on a par with, or indeed, above them. Constructed on a grander scale in terms of size, decoration and upkeep, Massud’s memorial symbolises the current political status quo, showing where the political allegiance of a major – the Tajik – part of the current elites and particularly of its undisputed leading figure in northern Afghanistan, Balkh’s governor, Atta Mohammad Nur, lies.

Atta versus Dostum? Two more memorials

There are in addition two other monuments, in downtown Mazar-e Sharif, not far from the four just described, which are equally important, also because they display the names of their sponsors prominently. One was built on the occasion of Nawruz 1389 – the Persian New Year’s Day of 21 March 2010 – in remembrance of the poet and scholar Ali Sher Nawa’i (1441-1501), through, as the monument reads, ‘the material and spiritual co-operation’ of Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Afghan-Uzbek commander-turned-politician, currently the first running mate to presidential hopeful Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. Nawa’i was, says the monument’s inscription

a great poet, scholar, thinker and politician … one of the multi-dimensional personalities in the history of humankind … a great defender of peace and of the people … who played an instrumental and decisive role in turning the ancient Herat [where he lived and is buried, and, by extension, Afghanistan] into the brilliant centre of runesans-e sharqi (Eastern Renaissance).

Apart from his poetic works, Nawa’i supervised, among other things, the construction of the shrine for Hazrat Ali in Mazar-e Sharif, which, says the inscription, was repaired and expanded ‘by Dostum and the city’s inhabitants in 1995’.

As such, the Nawa’i memorial is also a tribute to Dostum. It commemorates the time when, in the midst of the Afghan civil war, he was at the peak of his power in northern Afghanistan, surviving, for a while, even the onslaught of the Taleban and making Mazar and much of the north a safe haven for those who opposed the Taleban, both among the elites and the ordinary people. That Dostum chose Nawa’i is unsurprising: they share Turkic origins.

To whom Nawa’i belongs is, however, also contested. He wrote his literature in Chagatai Turkish and is also claimed by the intellectuals and state elites of both neighbouring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, who had to implement projects of nation-building after their unexpected and involuntary independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in the early 1990s. They were also looking for ‘national’ heroes and figures of identification. In particular, Uzbek President Islam Karimov has, said Adeeb Khalid, a Central Asia scholar based in the US, “laid claim to the entire cultural heritage of Transoxiana”, [the region north of the Oxus River, today known as the Amu Darya], including the personality and work of Nawa’i.(5)

The second monument is even more fascinating: an expansive selection of ancient and contemporary literary, religious and political figures in what is called Abeda-ye Farhikhtagan-e Balkh – ‘The Monument of the Sages of Balkh’. (6) This monument was built in 2006 by Governor Atta, indicating obliquely intra-elite competition between him and Dostum over cultural prestige. Atta is described by many Mazaris in words suggesting a status far higher than a provincial governor; many simply call him padshah or ‘king’. Atta’s image has been carved in stone right in the centre of the monument, between historical figures from the region, ranging between Zoroaster and the major 19th-century Islamic reformer and intellectual, Sayyed Jamaluddin Afghani (his origins are also disputed between Afghanistan and Iran). That Atta added himself to this illustrious row of people, some of whom ruled vast imperial territories stretching far beyond Balkh, deserves pause and reflection. The plaque on the monument reads, quoting the donor himself in first person singular:

I, as one of the sons and enthusiasts of the ancient Balkh and the beloved Afghanistan, have boundless love for my nation’s history and culture and I have established the Monument of the Sages of Balkh that reflects a summary of biographies of some of the countless sages of this ancient land in order to fulfil some of the numerous rights that these great personalities have upon us. [Author’s translation from Dari]

By having these monuments constructed, Dostum and Atta are sending clear signals on how they want to be viewed, understood and, ultimately, respected by others, in the north and elsewhere. The monuments also demonstrate subtle, culturally charged, intra-elite competition for prestige in Balkh and the wider Afghan north. The fact that Atta has recently been behind establishing more monuments than Dostum indicates the tilt in the balance of power in the province. However, the ‘memorialising’ also shows the shift in the wider political climate post 2001, with rivals such as Atta and Dostum no longer fighting each other for (man or military) power, but looking for patronage, political power and prestige. (7) The monuments show the elite’s instrumentalisation and even manipulation of the region’s ancient and eventful history and rich culture for contemporary political ends. (8) However, erecting monuments is not the only way we see this happening in Mazar.

The Mazar literature club and the re-naming of streets

At the core of Balkh’s Tajik provincial political elites are former military commanders. They are surrounded – and surround themselves with – what appears to be a small and politically connected halqa-ye roshanfekran (circle of intellectuals). (There is also currently a smaller and less influential Uzbek circle of intellectuals, connected to Uzbek elites organised around Dostum.) Almost all of the main Balkh circle’s intellectuals are ethno-nationalist Tajiks who favour a revitalisation of what they regard as ‘authentic’ Tajik civilisation and culture in Afghanistan, with connections to the broader region, most relevantly the northern Central Asian neighbourhood (particularly Tajikistan). However, they are also fairly secular and liberal when it comes to matters of religiosity. This enables them to also relate to what they call shaikhha-ye roshanfekr (intellectual clerics), both Sunni and Shia. Such clerics, for example, have resisted calls by their more hard-line colleagues for banning what they consider un-Islamic cultural practices, such as Nawruz festivities (on the religious versus secular controversy surrounding Nawruz, read a previous AAN dispatch here).

The almost exclusively Tajik intellectual circle membership includes figures like Fayyaz Mehra’in, the head of the office of the provincial governor; Saleh Mohammad Khaliq, the head of the provincial department of information and culture; Ustad Farzad, the head of the state printing press and others who are government employees in the area of information and culture, along with historians, writers and poets.  (9) They have been meeting on and off for discussions and readings in the public library and the privately-run Aria University, which teaches social sciences to students from Mazar-e Sharif and elsewhere and also hires teachers from Iran and Tajikistan for this purpose.

Several members of the intellectual circle are regarded as personalities in their own right with higher education in history, literature and arts and with publications in these fields. Unlike other local, informal and unstructured literary associations that are barely noticed and face numerous hardships to make ends meet, this circle is better connected, politically and economically. Both Tajik and Uzbek intellectuals largely meet with their co-ethnic political elites, on ethno-nationalist topics. The intellectuals are dependent on the support of the political elites to survive socio-economically (ie, they mostly depend on the elites for government jobs) and, in return, the elites get a literary outpouring in their favour.

Elites and their co-ethnic intellectuals have also had an impact on how Mazar names itself. Most streets and squares have been re-named, since 2001, largely after persons who are regarded as ethnic Tajiks. Some have been re-named after figures of other ethnic origins, mainly to avoid potential criticism and resistance, as some of the intellectuals told AAN. Drivers, passengers and people seeking and giving directions and particularly newcomers are still confused over the old and new names of streets and intersections. (The same thing, by the way, has happened to people in almost all Central Asian capitals to the north of Amu Darya where people continue to use the old Soviet, instead of the new post-independence, names.)

The old names largely stood for elders who had contributed to the development of the respective city parts in the first place. The re-naming process has been influenced by financial and political considerations. Governor Atta has himself made several business companies pay for the reconstruction of city intersections, re-naming them after these companies in exchange. Some examples are the Alokozai Intersection that was previously known as Seddiqyar Intersection (built by Alokozai group of companies, most famous for its tea) and Moheb Intersection previously known as Hajji Mohammad Ayub Intersection (the Moheb company is involved in various businesses from making water tanks to the import and export of oil, metal and cement from and to neighbouring countries including Central Asia) and new intersections such as the Kamgar Intersection (named after the Kamgar group of companies founded by the prominent Afghan businessman Zmarai Kamgar, which, among other businesses, owns the airline Kam Air).

Some city streets, however, have been re-named after contemporary and historical Afghan leaders, such as Shahid Mazari Street (named after Hazara mujahedin leader Abdul Ali Mazari, who was killed by the Taleban) which actually lies in a Tajik-inhabited area or Abdul Rahman Khan Street in an Hazara-inhabited area (named after Afghan King Abdul Rahman Khan – not very sensitively so, as Abdul Rahman, the ‘Iron Amir’, carried out a brutal campaign to subjugate the previously quasi-independent Hazarajat). Numerous other streets have been re-named after the ‘sages of Balkh’ who appear on Atta’s monument.

Some local people have staged protests over this top-down re-naming project, about which they were not consulted, but so far in vain. In the clash between the intellectual circle and elites and the ordinary people, the former have come out as winners, at least for the time being. Many ordinary people do not care, though, and continue to use the old names, although some fear that the old names might gradually disappear from memory. (10)

Using the love for poetry

Balkh’s provincial elites, headed by Governor Atta, have also spent a part of their accumulated wealth on supporting intellectuals and their literary output. Atta and his men have been funding associations of writers, poets and other artists. The governor in particular has paid for the printing of books on the history of Balkh, including its journalism, its literature, etc, implicitly glorifying the development of the province and the literary accomplishments of its young and rising poets. (11) This has been positive in a country where most people love and recite poetry and many young people write poetry. (12) Most of these books carry a specific page acknowledging the support provided by the governor. In a symbolic act, Atta invited a group of these poets and intellectuals to a shab-e she’r (poetry night) ceremony for his guests, including some ministers from Kabul. This starts to look not so much like a purely literary event, but the behaviour of a burgeoning court.

As far as the poetry is concerned, there are only rare examples of publicly performed panegyrics for the elites, including Atta, in the pattern of traditional court poetry. The poetry is instead largely focussed on entertainment, rather than eulogy due to patronage. Most of the young Mazari poets (and potentially poets elsewhere in the country) are concerned with love and other emotional states, as reflected in the traditional styles of poetry they use, including ghazal, du-beyti, ruba’i, nima’i and safid/sapid. These poetry forms deal more with the sentimental than the spiritual.

Culture, politics, power, future

Strengthened by their consolidated political and economic power, Balkh’s provincial elites have started employing cultural means to demonstrate their wealth and strength and attempt to eternalise their power by celebrating the great historical figures they associate themselves with. Their attempts have so far taken at least three forms: establishing new memorials and carving their images and/or names on them; re-naming roads and squares in Mazar-e Sharif after personalities they prefer from history; and patronising a circle of intellectuals and their output. This recent trend to politicise culture or ‘culturalise’ politics actually continues a tradition of Balkh – an area with a long and eventful history and rich tradition of interwoven politics and culture.

Curiously, Atta did not seek to remove Dostum’s memorial when the balance of power has clearly tilted in his favour. Atta’s memorial might also stay even if he falls out of grace due to the vagaries of time. This is due to the difficulty of completely removing any faction from the Afghan political arena because of politics being qawm-based (based on the solidarity to a certain group) or ethnically-oriented. This allows every faction to retain some power, even if in a minority, at least for some time. It is also because culture is a sphere where a subtler and more durable rivalry can play out between competing political forces. Whether or not the memorials and the names of their sponsors, the re-named streets and intersections and the literary outpouring in favour of the elites will remain in the longer run is, however, an open question, particularly in Balkh, the ‘mother of cities’, which has witnessed the rise, fall and oblivion of far greater human beings, time and time again.

* Said Reza Kazemi carried out field research in Mazar-e Sharif in mid-2013 and March/April 2014 as part of his PhD (2013-2016) at the University of Heidelberg’s Cluster ‘Asia and Europe in a Global Context’. He focusses on the impact of global migration on the Afghan family in local and transnational contexts. This is part of a larger study at the university on the demographic turn in the junction of cultures. He has previously worked as a researcher for the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN).


(1) This is controversial, however. Majority opinion believes Ali was buried in Najaf, Iraq, which is a major pilgrimage site for all Shia Muslims. A dazzling shrine has been built at the site of the burial there (see the shrine’s official website here). Mazar-e Sharif, though, also receives many pilgrims, not only from Afghanistan.

(2) Although Naser Khosraw is generally more closely associated with Badakhshan in popular perception (and this makes sense in terms of his lasting influence there) where his tomb is also located and widely called La’l-e Badakhshan (Ruby of Badakhshan) (read here), he was in fact born in Qubadiyan, a town between Merv (in today’s Turkmenistan) and Balkh – although there is sometimes confusion whether it was located on the northern or southern bank of the Oxus river. Under the Saljuqs, it was in Balkh, administratively. For further reading on Naser Khosraw in English, see Alice C. Hunsberger (2003) Nasir Khusraw, the Ruby of Badakhshan: A Portrait of the Persian Poet, Traveller and Philosopher, Vol. 4 of Ismaili Heritage, IB Tauris: London.

(3) For further reading in English, see, for instance, Coleman Barks (2010) The Essential Rumi, Harper Collins: London.

(4) For his wife’s account of who Ahmad Shah Massud was, see  Sediqa Massoud (2005) Pour l’amour de Massoud, la Grand livre du mois. This book has been translated into Farsi: Afsar Afshari (1388 [2009/10]), Ahmad Shah Massud: Revayat-e Sediqa Massud (Ahmad Shah Massud: The Narration of Sediqa Massud), Nashr-e Markaz: Tehran.

(5) Adeeb Khalid (2003) “A Secular Islam: Nation, State, and Religion in Uzbekistan”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 35, No. 4, pp. 573-598 (p. 579).

Post-Soviet Tajikistan has settled on Ismail Samani (or Ismoil Somoni, in the Tajik version of spelling), who ruled over Transoxiana and Khorasan, including Balkh, from 893 to 907 and had denounced Zoroastrianism in favour of Islam. Samani also appears in Atta’s monument. On post-Soviet Tajikistan’s nationalising project, see, for instance, Helge Blakkisrud and Shahnoza Nozimova (2010) “History writing and nation building in post-independence Tajikistan,” Nationalities Papers: The Journal of Nationalism and Ethnicity, pp. 173-189.

(6) The figures include from left to right (descriptions summarised in brief from the monument; author’s additions within brackets):

  • Yama: an ancient king of Balkh
  • Andani Balkhi: a woman regarded as an ancient poet of Balkh
  • Keiqobad: an ancient king of Balkh
  • Zoroaster/Zarathustra: founder of Zoroastrianism
  • Pruchita-ye Balkhi: a daughter of Zoroaster/Zarathustra who was a scholar and poet
  • Kanishka: the great Kushani king
  • Abu Muslim: the great leader and ruler of Khorasan
  • Khaled Barmaki: a wise vizier/wazir during the Barmaki rule of Balkh
  • Ismail Samani (Ismoil Somoni in Tajik; he is the ‘state saint’ of post-Soviet Tajikistan): the great ruler of Samanid Balkh
  • Shaqiq Balkhi: a classic mystic and poet of Balkh
  • Fatema Balkhi: a woman philanthropist who spent her wealth on helping the poor and the destitute
  • Abu Ma’shar Balkhi: a scholar and astrologer
  • Shahid Balkhi: a sage, scholar and Dari poet
  • Abu Shakur Balkhi: a famous poet of Samanid Balkh
  • Rabe’a Balkhi: one of the first women to compose poetry in Dari literature
  • Daqiqi Balkhi: a great poet of Samanid Balkh
  • Ibn-e Sina-ye Balkhi: a philosopher, physician, writer, poet and sage [known as Avicenna in the West]
  • Onsori-ye Balkhi: a great Dari poet of the Ghaznavid period
  • Hakim Naser Khosraw Balkhi, a famous traveller and writer
  • Watwat-e Balkhi: an intellectual and poet
  • Mawlana Jalaluddin Balkhi: the world’s greatest mystic, scholar and poet [known as Rumi in the West]
  • Amir Khosraw-e Balkhi: a famous Dari poet [at the court of the Sultans of Delhi]
  • Khwaja Abu Nasr Parsa: a great mystic and poet
  • Amirulkalam Ali Shir Nawa’i: a famous administrator, patron of literature and art, discoverer and developer of Hazrat Ali’s shrine in Mazar-e Sharif
  • Sayyed Jamaluddin Afghan: a well-known Islamic scholar of the East
  • Allama Sayyed Ismail Balkhi: a Shia poet and political campaigner in [post-World War II] Afghanistan

(7) The Atta-Dostum relationship is best characterised by its changing nature: from comrades – Atta was Dostum’s deputy in 1992 – to enemies, to uneasy allies against the Taleban, to largely political rivals after 2001.

(8) On the history of Balkh, see, for example, Elhameh Meftah (1386 [2007]) Joqrafia-ye Tarikhi-ye Balkh (The Historical Geography of Balkh), Tehran: Institute for Humanities and Cultural Studies (especially pp. 13-25); and Jonathan L. Lee (1996) The “Ancient Supremacy”: Bukhara, Afghanistan and the Battle for Balkh, 1731-1901, New York: E. J. Brill (especially pp. 1-61).

(9) Source: author’s interviews with intellectuals and government employees who requested not to be named, Mazar-e Sharif, March/April 2014.

(10) In Italy, for example, after renaming, both the old and the new names often feature on the street plaques.

(11) Some examples are: Roshan Roshna (1391 [2012/13]) Balkh wa Nawruz (Balkh and Nawruz), Suratgar Printing Press: Mazar- Sharif; Habibullah Behmanesh (1392 [2013/14]), Nawruznama-ye Balkh: Gozida-ye She’r (A Nawruz Letter of Balkh: An Anthology of Poerty), Paimana Paiman: Balkh; Saleh Mohammad Khaliq (1387 [2008]), Tarikh-e Adabiat-e Balkh (The History of Balkh Literature), Afghan Professional Printing Press: Kabul; Saleh Mohammad Khaliq (1389 [2011]) Tarikh-e Ruznamanegari-ye Balkh (The History of Balkh Journalism), Association of Balkh Writers: Tehran.

(12) One young poet told this author how important this patronage has been for him to grow as a poet.


Balkh Culture intellectuals Mazar-e-Sharif Poetry political power