The present-day city of Balkh, located north of Afghanistan, has been identified as the city of Bactra, ancient capital of Bactria, founded in around 2500 BC.

This prosperous commercial city, located at the intersection of several major routes from China and India, was in particular an important junction point on the ancient Silk Roads. The city entered into legend following its conquest by Alexander the Great in 329 BC.

As attested in a large number of early texts, Bactra was the birthplace of Zoroaster or Zarathustra, founder of Zoroastrianism, prior to being ravaged by the Mongols led by Genghis Khan, at the beginning of the 13th century AD. About 50 years later, Marco Polo described it in his Book of the Marvels of the World as a dead city: only a few marble columns were still standing. However, Timur proclaimed himself emperor at Bactra during the 14th century, which reflects the continuity of the city’s influence.

Despite having been lost for centuries, the ancient city was never forgotten: it is mentioned in many texts from China, India and Iran. It was Alfred Foucher, founder of the French Archaeological Delegation of Afghanistan, who launched the first campaign of archaeological excavations from 1924-1925 at the location of the citadel – that is to say, the highest part of the site – which was surrounded by 11 kilometres of walls.

But it was only in 2002 that the chance discovery of Greek columns in an Afghan village provided concrete evidence of the real existence of the legendary city, nicknamed “Umm Al-Belaad” (“mother of cites”) in Arabic, due to its great age. The archaeological site of Balkh is now on UNESCO’s World Heritage Tentative List.


Like many other ancient Afghan cities, the city of Bactra possesses a balahissar; an upper town which is 60 to 80 metres high and has a radius of one kilometre. This was surrounded by a wall of unbaked brick which enclosed an area of a dozen kilometres but which has been little studied to date. The archaeological phasing remains almost unknown, although Hellenistic, Kushan and more recent Islamic phases are known. In certain areas, this wall has even disappeared, because the soil composing it has been used by local inhabitants as a building material, particularly for the erection of walls and mud brick enclosures. In other places, houses have even been built against the walls. In addition to this, very few remains of the stone buildings described by Marco Polo have been recovered.

ICONEM contributed to the implementation of a mission intended to create an accurate plan of the upper town as well as the elevation of the walls over their whole length. Some stratigraphic surveys have previously been undertaken. Longitudinal mapping was carried out, and the results of the two operations compared. Mapping the walls enables an assessment to be made of the state of conservation and thus the development of deterioration to be anticipated for the years to come. This extensive work has been financed by the DAFA and led by its director, Philippe Marquis.