Charles Edward Yate.

Northern Afghanistan; or, Letters from the Afghan boundary commission online

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ground beyond was comparatively hard and good going.
The sturdy sepoys of the 20th Panjab Infantry started at
1 A.M., and did the march at the rate of three miles an hour
including halts, and thought nothing of it, despite the fact


that they had been fasting for nearly a month previously
during the Eamadzan.

The Oxus at Kilif passes through some rocky ridges run-
ning down from the Koh-i-Tan mountain in Bokhara, and
its bed is consequently very much narrowed there : the
average breadth is only about half a mile, while at the ferry,
from point to point of the rocks, the distance is only 540
yards. Kilif itself stands on the Bokhara side, and consists
of a small picturesque-looking fort on a rocky mound just
at the water's edge, with a bazaar and village behind it.
On the Afghan side there is no village or cultivation of any
kind, nothing but the huts of the few boatmen built out on
the projecting spit of rock behind which their three boats
are sheltered. Two bluffs, some 400 yards apart, overhang
the river, each of which apparently was fortified in olden
days ; but the western bluff has nothing on it now but a
ziarat, while the fortifications on the eastern one are all in
ruins : so apparently the little fort opposite was too much
for them.

The ferry is the chief attraction of the place, and great
was the interest taken in it both by us and all our men.
We were all sitting at breakfast, I remember, under the little
clump of trees on the water's edge, when the cry went round,
" The boat is coming." The cook left his pots and pans and
all the servants scuttled out, and even we, phlegmatic Britons
as we are, left our breakfast to get cold and went out to look
at the novel sight of a boat being drawn across a swift and
deep river by a couple of horses, as if it was a waggon on
wheels. Nowhere else have I ever heard of such a ferry,
and yet the arrangement seems wonderfully simple and easy.
This first boat that we saw contained a light load of pas-
sengers only, and was drawn by a couple of horses fastened
to the bow. The next boat that came across was full of
camels, and this had three horses harnessed to it two at
the bows and one at the side. Another boat, that was


brought out for Captain Griesbach to photograph, had four
horses attached to it, and I presume that is the maximum.
The boats are very heavy, being made of logs rather than of
planks, and about 35 feet in length by 12 or so in breadth.
The arrangement for harnessing the horses seems very
simple, nothing in fact but a band round the body, by which
the animal is suspended to a peg on any part of the boat
that may be necessary. His weight is supported by the
boat, and all that he has to do is to strike out for the op-
posite shore ; but for all that, the poor beasts puff and blow
tremendously, and I should say the work must be very ex-
hausting. The men in the boat use their sticks freely, and
I fancy the poor ferry-boat horse has decidedly a rough time
of it. The boat is naturally swept a good distance down-
stream in crossing, but when land is reached, it is towed
up by the horses along the bank to the regular ferry station.

From Kilif our road led round the rocky bluffs and then
southwards across the desert strip to join the main Balkh and
Akchah road. Owing to the heat of the sun in the day we
had to do all our marching at night, and jolly cool and
pleasant I must say the nights were. Hot weather as we
know it in India is unknown here. During June and July,
apparently, the sun in the daytime is terribly hot; but then
the breeze, when there is one, is generally cool, and in a
good house I don't believe the heat would be anything so
great. It is only in tents that one feels it so much.

Starting from Kilif, Colonel MacLean and myself deter-
mined to try the effect of dividing the distance, and so,
starting about 6 P.M. in advance of the rest, we rode till
dark, then halted and had dinner, after which we lay down
and slept till dawn, and then rode on quietly into camp at
Chilik, arriving just about the same time as the camp colour-
party, which had started shortly after midnight. The belt of
low sandhills which we passed through for the first 1 miles
or so, is thickly covered with a stunted small-leaved bush


standing some four or five feet in height, which burns beau-
tifully even in its greenest state. The supply of firewood,
therefore, in this strip of desert is practically unlimited.
Beyond the sand we gradually got on harder ground, and
then into a plain covered with camel-thorn and low scrub
as far as the eye could reach, till eventually we struck the
outskirts of cultivation at Sardabah, a small collection of
Turkoman huts. Chilik is a bare uninviting place, with no
trees or gardens and few inhabitants. We passed lots of
spill-water running to waste over the plain, and population
is the only thing required to bring huge tracts of this arable
land under cultivation.

Our march to Chahar Bagh was mostly done in the dark ;
but, so far as I could see, for the first two-thirds of the way
we passed through another level camel-thorn-covered plain,
all similarly run to waste for want of population. Just as
dawn broke, however, we were astonished to find ourselves
in the midst of acres and acres of old mud-ruins, and not at
all the ordinary class of mud-ruins, but the walls of large
high houses, perforated with double rows of arched windows.
Each of these houses apparently formerly stood in its own
garden, as they were mostly surrounded by the long parallel
mounds, marking the site of former vineyards. Now the
place is entirely deserted, and nothing but the name Un-
paikal remains. How or when it was destroyed I did not
ascertain. Another curious feature in the landscape was
the unusually large number of tepes or artificial mounds in
sight. Ten or a dozen of these were continually in sight at
the same time ; and not small mounds either, but many of
them of large size. Ages must have passed, I suppose,
since each of these was a flourishing village or castle, or
whatever it was, but their presence shows what a thick
population the land must have supported in olden days. In
fact, the more one sees of this Turkistan plain the more
fertile does the land seem to be. The soil is good, and we


passed through enormous crops of ripe wheat standing ready
for the sickle. Wherever I asked I was always told that the
supply of water was far in excess of present requirements, and
that cultivators were the only things wanting. The Balkh
river, or, as it is here more generally known, the Band-i-Amir
river, which emerges out on to the plains through the gorge
in the Alburz range, some 15 miles south of Balkh, flows
northwest to Akchah, and there expends immense volumes
of spill-water in the desert beyond, all of which might be
utilised were there only people to utilise it. But the people
have all apparently been killed off. Three or four miles
beyond Chahar Bagh, on the highroad to Balkh, we passed
the ruined walls of Nimlik, or Minglik, as it is variously
pronounced, which twenty years ago was a flourishing Usbeg
town under a Mir of its own. It was twice, I believe,
sacked by the Afghans ; once in the time of Akhbar Khan,
and finally, after an obstinate defence, by the troops return-
ing from the siege of Maimanah under the then Sirdar Abdul
Eahman Khan, when, so I was told, something like 1500
Afghans fell in the attack, and double or treble that number
of Usbegs in the defence. Many other similar ruins dot
the country, and we can hardly wonder, therefore, at the
smallness of the population. A certain portion of the waste
land has been taken up by Afghan immigrants from Kabul,
who seem to be rapidly extending their gardens and orchards
and to be good cultivators ; but all along the road from Chahar
Bagh to Balkh the cultivation is limited to a line of villages
near the foot of the hills on the south, and the plain to the
north remains a camel- thorn-covered waste.

Balkh is nothing but a vast ruin. The present popula-
tion does not exceed some 500 houses, mostly of Afghan
settlers, who cultivate a succession of gardens and orchards
along the southern portion of the old city. The bazaar is
simply a covered street with a few shops in it, running-
through the village. There are very few Usbegs in the


place, but a considerable colony of Jews, who have a separate
quarter of the village to themselves, and appeared, so far as
we could judge, to be fair-looking men with most unmistak-
ably Jewish features. I also noticed a Hindu shopkeeper
in the bazaar, who smiled and salaamed with great gusto as
we passed.

To describe the old city of Balkh I cannot do better than
give a rough sketch of the place, merely premising that in-
stead of a populated city it is now one vast ruin. The walls,
some six miles and a half in circumference, are all in ruins.
Nothing is left of them but a long line of dried mud, worn
by the weather into all manner of desolate and fantastic

The southern and south-eastern portions, from the Burj-i-
Azaran to the Mazar gate, stand high on the top of a large
earthen rampart, something like the walls of Herat ; but all
the remaining portion, with the exception of the old fort and
citadel, are low, and not more than 10 feet thick. The fort
is an entirely separate building, standing a considerable height
above the level of the country around, and the citadel, in its
south-west corner, stands some 5 feet or more higher still ;
the whole being surrounded by a separate moat, rather nar-
row towards the city, but with steeply scarped sides. Taking
one's stand on the top of the citadel, a capital bird's-eye view
of the whole city is obtained. To the north lies the fort
an empty bare place, surrounded by high walls and ruined
bastions, with no signs of habitations in it except the ruins
of a lot of low brick buildings at its southern end. I saw
no water in it, nor could I see whence its supply had been
obtained. The citadel is nothing but a mound, with half
of a glazed pillar, and a few low, plastered walls, remaining
standing on the top of it. The walls have all been levelled
and destroyed.

The whole of the northern half of the old city is nothing
but a mass of brick and debris, and utterly waste. Entering


by the Akchah gate, one passes three lofty arches, said to
mark the remains of the Jumma Masjid, and at the cross-
roads there are the foundations of what was once evidently a
fine dome, said to have been the chaharsu of the city bazaar.
A little to the east of it are the remains of two lofty gate-
ways ; and taking into consideration the remains of an old
wall, that seems once to have run all the way from the Burj-
i-Azaran to the south-west angle of the fort, it would look as
if the city at first had only extended so far, and that these
were the main city gates, the western portion of the city
having been added subsequently. The most ancient Balkh
of all is said to have stood to the east of the present city
altogether. A mass of mounds and bricks on the road to
Mazar mark the site of some old city, and in addition to
these there is still standing a considerable portion of the old
walls. An old Afghan with me described these ruins on the
east as the Shahr-i-Hinduan, which he declared was de-
stroyed by Changiz Khan, and the new city afterwards built.
Whether these old walls, which now stand out in the plain
a great thick mass of hardened earth, some 30 feet or more
in height, and extending perhaps 200 yards on the eastern,
and 600 yards on the northern face, were ever joined on to
the present citadel, it was impossible to say.

The present town is nothing but a collection of the ordi-
nary mud, flat-roofed huts, and the only garrison in the place
consists of a few Khasadars. The regular troops are all
stationed at Mazar-i-Sharif and at Takht-i-Pul, a sort of
walled cantonment, about half-way between Balkh and

The only two buildings of any note that I could find the
remains of in Balkh, were the Masjid-i-Sabz and the Madra-
sah. The former consists of a handsome dome, ornamented
with green tiles, and marks, I believe, the grave of the saint
Khwajah Abul Narsi Parsar. I did not go into it, but I
asked some bystanders if there was any inscription in it, and



I was amused to be told in reply that formerly there was
one, but that the English had carried it away. When I
asked if any Englishman had come to Balkh and carried it
off, they said, " Oh no ! but they got a Eessaldar at Peshawar
to give a man a thousand rupees to go and fetch it " ! The
Madrasah or college is all in ruins, and nothing but the lofty
arched entrance remains. I was told it was called Madrasah-
i-Syad Subhan Kuli Khan, after a descendant of the Amir
Taimur, who built it, in which case it was of no very great
date. The walls were all knocked down, and the materials
carried away by the late Amir Sher Ali's governor, Naib Alam
Khan, to build a new college at Mazar, and nothing but the
d&ris remains.

In a garden in the south-east portion of the city there is
a house known as the Haramserai, built also by Naib Alam
Khan, and used for the accommodation of travellers of rank.
All of us who have visited Balkh have been put up there ;
and I myself spent a pleasant day there, very glad to have a
roof over my head instead of a canvas tent. The house is
of the usual structure, consisting of a lot of rooms in a long
row, with wooden shutters instead of windows, and the walls
and floors mostly unplastered ; but it also boasts of a fine
hamam, and the garden possesses some magnificent chenar-

To the south of the city lie two most curious structures,
known respectively as the Tope-i-Eustam and Takht-i-
Eustam. My old Afghan gave it as his opinion that they
were relics of ancient fire-worship, but it seems equally prob-
able that they are of Buddhist origin. The Tope-i-Eustam
is a circular building, some 50 yards in diameter at the
base, and about 50 feet in height, much weather-worn and
damaged by rain, and looking in the distance like a tall
mud mound. On getting close, one finds that the base of it
is built of large unburnt bricks, some two feet in length and
four or five inches thick, and that the tope on the top of this


was also apparently built of the same unburnt brick, but
with a facing of burnt brick, now much defaced. There are
no signs of mortar in the building, but the bricks are all of
the same large size. Climbing up to the top, I found the
summit flat, and nearly 3 yards in diameter, with four cir-
cular vaults inside, exposed to view owing to the domed roofs
having fallen in. These four, vaults or cells are not in the
centre of the building, and consequently there may be others
in it still intact. The base of the tope is pierced by four
shafts, apparently meeting in the centre ; but whether these
passages were part of the original building, or whether they
were run through afterwards, it is difficult to tell. If part
of the original building, there may have been some internal
communication with the cells above ; but in such a case one
would naturally suppose that the passages would have been
properly arched and the sides made smooth, whereas, as it is,
the side walls are rough and uneven, and the top of the pas-
sages is simply formed of the rough edges of the broken ends
of the unburnt bricks, all laid horizontally without the slightest
attempt at arching, and so rough that it looks most probable
as if they had been subsequently cut through. The passages
themselves are now so much filled up that one can only creep
in for a few yards.

The Takht-i-Eustam is about the same height, but is
wedge-shaped not circular, like the tope. I saw no traces
of bricks in it, and it seems to have been built of hardened
mud, with straight perpendicular sides, say some 100 yards
in length north and south, and 60 yards in breadth at the
western and 20 yards at the eastern end. The top is per-
fectly flat, and full of rain-holes, but whether the rain runs
down into cells inside or not I do not know. There were no
inside chambers or entrances visible at any rate.

A road runs through various gardens from these old mounds
to the Darwazah-i-Baba Koh, the southern gate of the city, so
named from the Ziarat-i-Baba Koh, situated under some huge


chenar-trees just outside. The ancient names of the city
gates, given by Ebn Haukel and other old Arabian geogra-
phers, seem to have been entirely lost, and I could get no
trace of where they were. However, further research might
lead to their identification, though whether we shall have
the opportunity for it or not remains to be seen. Appa-
rently there are several Buddhist remains in the vicinity.
Another tope, or something very like one, was clearly visible
to the west of the city ; and on our way out to Dehdadi,
on the south - east, we passed between two other curious
structures of a like nature, called respectively Chihal Dukh-
teran and Asiah Kuhnah. Both are built of the same large
unburnt bricks ; and while the former is lower and more
irregular shaped, looking as if it had a vaulted chamber in-
side it, the latter is a simple solid cone, some 50 feet in
height, and between 20 and 30 yards in diameter. The top
seemed flat; but we could not stop to climb up to it, and
there were no signs of any opening at the bottom, though,
as there is a small village built close around it, it was not
easy to examine it closely.

Our last march up to Shadian led, for the first 10 miles,
across the bare open dasht or plain, at the foot of the hills, to
a curious narrow rocky gorge, so narrow that it was spanned
by an arch, and flanked on each side by tall precipitous cliffs :
a more impossible place to force one can hardly conceive.
Over the archway were rooms and loopholed walls, though
now considerably out of repair. The road led through this
gorge for some distance, till it opened out into the valley
behind, and then gradually ascended for about six miles more
to the village where we are.




CAMP SHADIAN, llth August 1886.

SIR WEST EIDGEWAY, with Captain Drummond, Nawab
Mirza Hasan Ali Khan, and Kazi Muhammad Aslam Khan,
arrived here from Khamiab on the 6th, and the whole
party are already the better for the rest up here in the cool.
The heat and hard work down below had told heavily on
them, and all were unwell and much in need of the change.
The office work, too, had been unusually heavy of late, and
Messrs Clarke and Chapman were equally in need of a rest.
Writing all day with the thermometer 110 in the tent is
apt to undermine the strongest constitution.

Much delay was caused owing to the dilatoriness and
procrastination of the Eussians in the preparation of the
protocols recording the proceedings of the last few meetings
of the Commission ; but these were at last completed and
signed, and now they have all been sent off with the final
despatch detailing the history of the Khojah Salih case, and
consequently there remains little else to be done except
await the orders from home. Whether the new Ministry
will order us to return to India at once, or to remain here
and await the result of the negotiations between the two
Governments, will probably be settled before this letter
reaches you. In case of our return, there is nothing, I
fancy, to prevent our starting next month and being back


at Peshawar in October, as the distance from here vid
Ghorband and Charikar is not believed to be more than
some 450 miles, which we shall do easily in 30 marches. If
we are ordered to await the termination of the negotiations,
there is no saying how long we may be kept, and in that
case it is to be hoped that Government will arrange to
relieve our present escort. Two years' service in this
country away from their homes is a great strain on our
men, who have little employment and less excitement, and
no interest whatever in the boundary, and, considering that
so many of them are not even our own subjects, it would
be hardly fair to keep them here a third year. The conduct
of all has been extraordinarily good throughout, despite all
the restrictions they are necessarily subject to under the
circumstances of our sojourn here, and they fully deserve
every consideration and the most thorough and hearty
recognition of their services.

The only work now remaining on hand is the completion
of the compilation and copying of the maps, and these are
expected to be ready for the Commissioners' signatures in
another fortnight or so. Major Holdich and Captain Gore,
with sub-surveyors Yusuf Sharif, Heera Singh, and Imam
Sharif, are hard at work on them at Khamiab ; but the
great heat there in the tents makes the work much slower
than it would have been could it have been done in a more
temperate climate. Sir West Eidgeway will probably re-
turn to Khamiab in a fortnight or so as soon as the
maps are near completion and in the meantime Major
Durand, Assistant Commissioner, remains in charge of the
camp there, with Captain Peacocke, Mr Merk, Sirdar
Muhammad Aslam Khan, Sirdar Sher Ahmed Khan, and
Munshi Allah Baksh, the Eussian Commission being still
encamped in the garden some two miles off on the Bokharan
side of the border.

The Eussian claims as presented by Colonel Kuhlberg


have been so far modified, that instead of extending the
claim, as was first supposed, up to the old graveyard known
as the Ziarat-i-Khwajah Salar, he only extends it to the site
of a former ferry across the Oxus, between the villages of
Islam on the Afghan and Chahar Shangah on the Bokharan
bank, situated some 1 2 miles up the river from the recognised
frontier at Khamiab. This ferry, it appears, was formerly
known as the Khwajah Salar ferry, owing to the district on
the Afghan side, both above and below it so the Bokharan
witnesses aver being known as Khwajah Salar ; but it did
not pay, and was finally closed some eighteen years ago,
when the boats were moved up to Kilif. Even at its best
it was only used when robbers, or some such cause, made
the Kilif ferry unsafe. For a few years after 1868 one
boat used to be brought down for two or three months in
the cold weather for local use ; but there seems to be little
doubt that the ferry, as a ferry, had been quite abolished
before the agreement of 1873 was recorded. However,
even supposing that this ferry was the one referred to, still
there seems to be no reason why all local considerations are
to be left out of consideration in the interpretation of that
agreement, and that the lands belonging to and below the
ferry must be surrendered to Eussia any more than those
above it. The Eussian Commissioner claims up to the site
of the actual ferry itself, according to the letter of the agree-
ment as he reads it ; but, according to the spirit of the
agreement, no such reading need be taken, as it is clear
from the context that it was never intended to deprive
Afghanistan of any lands then in the Amir's full possession.
There can be no doubt that the Bokharan authorities
correctly interpreted the agreement when they demarcated
the frontier between their village of Bosagha and Khami-
ab in 18*74; and considering that possession is generally
considered to be nine points of the law, and that Afghanistan
is proved to have held continued possession of these 12


miles of now disputed territory for the last thirty -seven
years, one would naturally conclude that the Kussians had
not a leg to stand upon. Curiously enough, too, the present
boundary between Bosagha and Khamiab has been hither-
to acknowledged by the Eussians, and the frontier was
correctly laid down some two miles to the north-east of Dev
Kilah, as it at present stands, in their maps published so
late as 1881. Consequently the idea of contesting it is
apparently only of recent date.

The survey of the country under dispute between the
Murghab and the Oxus was carried out conjointly between
the members of the two Commissions. Colonel Kuhlberg,
on his part, undertook the survey, with his staff of topo-
graphers, from Maruchak to Daulatabad ; while Sir West
Eidgeway agreed that our survey officers should carry it
on from the latter place to the Oxus. The whole of the
triangulation on which the survey of the boundary was

Online LibraryCharles Edward YateNorthern Afghanistan; or, Letters from the Afghan boundary commission → online text (page 21 of 38)