An apparent stalemate between UNESCO and Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban-led government has left the Minaret of Jam unguarded and in immediate danger of collapse, according to locals and experts who recently visited the site.
The Minaret of Jam is one of Afghanistan’s most spectacular and unlikely cultural treasures. The tower was built in a remote valley 600 kilometers west of Kabul and was the world’s tallest brick minaret when it was built more than 800 years ago. The brick spire was effectively unknown outside Afghanistan until French archaeologists ventured to the isolated and lawless site in 1957.
The minaret sprang to attention in 2019 when surging floodwaters eating at the brickwork threatened to topple the 65-meter monument into the two rivers that meet at its base. Hundreds of laborers deployed by the Afghan government saved the structure, despite deadly Taliban attacks on security personnel sent to guard the emergency work teams.
In 2019, UNESCO received a $2 million grant to protect the site that was partly used to set up guards in a nearby building. The security teams were tasked with stopping rampant looting of archaeological sites in the mountains surrounding the minaret.
Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August, the teams stationed to protect the monument have melted away and it stands alone. The Taliban is notorious for destroying ancient monuments, but Muslim heritage sites such as the minaret are considered to be in less danger from the fundamentalist rulers of Afghanistan than some other relics.
In 2001, the Taliban shocked the world by blasting the Bamiyan Buddhas into rubble "in accordance with Islamic law," according to a Taliban spokesman.
Today, archaeologist Naik Mohammad Mustamand, who recently visited the Minaret of Jam, says weathering has created visible cracks in the staircase and, “more importantly, it has tipped slightly to the north.”
Mustamand called for “UNESCO and the current Afghan government to send a delegation to the area and take practical steps to restore the tower."
A Taliban spokesman told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi that the Taliban has called on UNESCO to repair the cracking tower but said “the budget promised by UNESCO has not been given to us,” adding that “it’s time to move on.”
The mountains of Ghor are notorious for heavy snowfall and locals told Radio Azadi they fear the minaret may not survive the winter unless urgent structural repairs are made.
It remains unclear how UNESCO will work with the new rulers of Afghanistan. Along with the international community, UNESCO has not recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government in Kabul.
As of writing, UNESCO had not responded to a request for comment on this story.