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The city of Balkh comprises a large urban site of some 11 square kilometres, lying west of the modern regional capital of northern Afghanistan, Mazar i Sharif, and about 46 miles south of the Amu Darya (Oxus) river whose course ran close to the city in antiquity. The foundation of the city of Paktra, later known as Bactria is ascribed to Kaiomars, and at an early date it was said to have rivaled urban centres such as Babylon. For a long period Bactria was the spiritual centre for the Zoroastrian religion, as well as having a rich temple to the goddess Anahita. Accounts of visitors in the 7th century AD indicate the existence of a significant number of Buddhist monasteries, stupas and other monuments in the city. Subsequent accounts from the 10th century AD indicate that the city was ringed with earthen walls, with six gates, within which was a fine citadel and a mosque. The city became a centre for education, and in 980 AD the philosopher-scientist Ibn Sina was born in Balkh, as was the poet Ferdowsi. Its reputation as a place of learning persisted, judging by accounts of travellers in the 12th century AD, who describe a range of educational establishments, as well as its importance as a trading centre for the region, with links to India and China. Despite the fact that the city was sacked by Jenghiz Khan in 1220, when the inhabitants were said to have been slaughtered and all buildings leveled, and again by Timur in the 14th century, the traveler Marco Polo described Balkh a century later as a “noble city and great”.
Today, the traces of Balkh’s earthen walls can still be seen over a length of some 10 kilometres, to the north of which lies a secondary fortified area, the Balu Hisar. Remains that survive within this walled enclosure include Tepe Zargaran, an artificial mound with levels dating from at least the 2nd century AD, the tiled Timurid shrine of Khwaja Abu Nasr Parsa, which dates from 1460/1 and the 17th century Madrasa of Sayyid Sudhan Quli Khan, of which one iwan with tiled decoration survives. Outside of the walled city enclosure, buildings of the Buddhist period seem to have proved more durable than those of the Islamic era, with the remains of Tahkti-Rustam, the ruins of a Buddhist monastery of Nau Bahar and the associated stupa of Tepe Rustam, of which an earth-brick base of some 40 metres in diameter survives. To the north-east lie traces of extensive gardens, in which there was a large caravanserai. Some 3 kilometres to the south lies the mosque of Haji Piyada, a Samanid-style building dating from the second half of the 9th century. The remains of the building show a small structure of nine equal bays, each of which had a brick dome, all of which have collapsed. The piers and springing of the arches that once supported the domes, retain fine decorated brick and stucco work, which is stylistically similar to Abbasid decorative work found in Mesopotamia.