Ancient nine-domed mosque bears witness to Afghanistan’s Islamic past

An Afghan laborer works at the ninth-century Noh Gonbad mosque in Balkh province. (File/AFP)
An Afghan laborer works at the ninth-century Noh Gonbad mosque in Balkh province. (File/AFP)
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Updated 30 July 2023
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Ancient nine-domed mosque bears witness to Afghanistan’s Islamic past

An Afghan laborer works at the ninth-century Noh Gonbad mosque in Balkh province. (File/AFP)
  • Noh Gonbad or Hajj Piyada Mosque is located 3 km from Balkh city
  • Its style is reminiscent of early decades of the Abbasid Caliphate

KABUL: A small baked-brick structure in northwestern Afghanistan has for decades perplexed archaeologists, with some dating its origins to the 9th century and others even a hundred years earlier — making it one of the oldest monuments of Islam. 

Known as Noh Gonbad, after nine domes that used to cover it, the structure is located 3 km from the modern city of Balkh. A mihrab found at the site — a niche indicating the direction of the Kaaba — is evidence that it had served as a mosque.  

The distinctive stucco ornamentation of its columns combines motifs reminiscent of the styles dominant in the early decades of the Abbasid Caliphate and of the Samanid Empire.  

“This mosque is one of the most beautiful and elegant examples of Samanid-era settlements,” Saleh Mohammad Khaliq, historian and former provincial culture director of Balkh, told Arab News.

“It was built completely in the style of the common architecture of the region, which was influenced by Sasanian, Buddhist and Gandhara art.” Measuring only 20 by 20 m, it stands alone.

The nine vaults collapsed long ago, with folk stories blaming their destruction on the Mongol invasion of Balkh in 1220.

Time and earthquakes dealt their blows too. Archaeologists first researched the mosque in the 1960s but little was done during the next four decades because of civil unrest and then war in Afghanistan.

In 2006, excavations began and conservation work in the past few years helped to stabilize the structure. 

The mosque comprises a columned prayer hall and forecourt aligned with the direction of the Kaaba on its northeast-southwest axis.  

Decoration on the columns and arches consists of vine leaves and geometrical figures, which have been compared with those used in Samarra, Iraq.

But other styles are present too, meaning that parts of the building were constructed or existed in different periods. 

“It is the oldest remaining mosque from the first centuries of the Islamic era in Balkh and in Afghanistan, and the beauty of this building makes it special too,” Khaliq said.  

“Ibn Battuta, the well-known traveler, compared the structure of the Balkh mosque with the Alhambra mosque in Granada, Spain, and the size of the columns with the mosques of Rabat in the Maghreb, but considered it more beautiful than them.”   

Named after the nine domes that existed at the time of its glory, it is also known as the Hajj Piyada Mosque. The word “piyada” means “on foot.” 

“On the day of Eid Al-Adha, in the early centuries of Islam, those who could not go for Hajj would come on foot to this mosque from far and near parts of Balkh. They came and prayed, paid alms and worshiped, and believed that they had received the reward of Hajj,” Khaliq said.  

“After the destruction of this mosque, the tradition continued, and continues until now.” 

For Balkh residents such as Hasibullah Hazim, 35, the mosque is a reminder of the region’s lost luster. “This mosque is special to all, this mosque was built in the 8th century, the kings of the time used this mosque,” he said. 

“The Hajj Piyada Mosque is not only for the citizens of Balkh, but for everyone. This mosque was built during the Abbassid Caliphate, it is a historical place.” 

Yaseen Wakilzada, 60, remembered how he would visit the site in childhood and how crowds of tourists from Balkh and other provinces would come to see the ruins too. 

“Everything you see (there) is history,” he said. “It’s a special pride for Balkhi residents, recognized in the whole Muslim world.” 


G7 ‘ready to take measures’ over destabilization by Iran

G7 ‘ready to take measures’ over destabilization by Iran
Updated 34 sec ago
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G7 ‘ready to take measures’ over destabilization by Iran

G7 ‘ready to take measures’ over destabilization by Iran
  • Going forward we will reflect on additional sanctions against Iran in close cooperation with our partners: Ursula von der Leyen

ROME: G7 leaders offered their full support for Israel on Sunday following an attack by Iran, and said they were ready to “take further measures” in response to “further destabilising initiatives.”
In a statement following a video meeting, the leaders of the Group of Seven powers said they “unequivocally condemn in the strongest terms Iran’s direct and unprecedented attack against Israel.”
“We express our full solidarity and support to Israel and its people and reaffirm our commitment toward its security,” they said, in the statement published by the Italian G7 presidency.
“With its actions, Iran has further stepped toward the destabilization of the region and risks provoking an uncontrollable regional escalation. This must be avoided.
“We will continue to work to stabilize the situation and avoid further escalation.
“In this spirit, we demand that Iran and its proxies cease their attacks, and we stand ready to take further measures now and in response to further destabilising initiatives.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a separate statement: “Going forward we will reflect on additional sanctions against Iran in close cooperation with our partners. Specifically on its drone and missile programs.”
Iran launched the attack, its first ever to directly target Israeli territory, in retaliation for a deadly air strike widely blamed on Israel that destroyed its consular building in Syria’s capital early this month.
The attack came as the Israel-Hamas war raged in besieged Gaza.
The G7 — which groups the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Canada — also said Sunday they would step up efforts to end that crisis.
“We will also strengthen our cooperation to end the crisis in Gaza, including by continuing to work toward an immediate and sustainable ceasefire and the release of hostages by Hamas, and deliver increased humanitarian assistance to Palestinians in need,” they said.
The Israel-Hamas war began with an unprecedented October 7 attack by the militant group against Israel, resulting in the deaths of 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 33,729 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the territory’s Hamas-run health ministry.


Heavy rain and flash floods kill 33 in Afghanistan

Heavy rain and flash floods kill 33 in Afghanistan
Updated 14 April 2024
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Heavy rain and flash floods kill 33 in Afghanistan

Heavy rain and flash floods kill 33 in Afghanistan
  • Most casualties were from roof collapses while some 600 houses were damaged or destroyed
  • Some 20 of the nation’s 34 provinces were lashed by heavy rains after an unusually dry winter

KABUL: At least 33 people have been killed over three days of heavy rains and flash flooding in Afghanistan, the government’s disaster management department said Sunday.
“From Friday onward, because of the rains there were flash floods which caused high human and financial losses,” department spokesman Janan Sayeq said.
“The primary information shows that, unfortunately, in the floods, 33 people were martyred and 27 people got injured.”
Most casualties were from roof collapses while some 600 houses were damaged or destroyed, nearly 600 kilometers (370 miles) of road demolished, and around 2,000 acres of farmland “flooded away,” Sayeq said.
Some 20 of the nation’s 34 provinces were lashed by the heavy rains, which have followed an unusually dry winter season which has parched terrain and forced farmers to delay planting.
Since the Taliban returned to power in 2021 the flow of foreign aid into the impoverished country has drastically diminished, hindering relief responses to natural disasters.
At least 25 people were killed in a landslide after massive snowfall in eastern Afghanistan in February, whilst around 60 were killed in a three-week spate of precipitation ending in March.
The United Nations last year warned “Afghanistan is experiencing major swings in extreme weather conditions.”
Scientists say harsh weather patterns are being spurred by climate change and after being ravaged by four decades of war Afghanistan ranks among the nations least prepared to face the phenomenon.


Pope warns against ‘spiral of violence’ after Iran attack

Pope warns against ‘spiral of violence’ after Iran attack
Updated 14 April 2024
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Pope warns against ‘spiral of violence’ after Iran attack

Pope warns against ‘spiral of violence’ after Iran attack
  • The Pope once again repeated earlier calls for a ceasefire in Gaza and negotiation

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis on Sunday made a “pressing appeal” against a “spiral of violence” after Iran’s unprecedented missile and drone attack on Israel, warning of a potential regional conflagration.
“I make a pressing appeal for an end to any action which could fuel a spiral of violence that risks dragging the Middle East into an even greater conflict,” the Argentinian pontiff declared following his traditional Sunday prayer in Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican.
“I am praying and following with concern, but also pain, the news that has come in recent hours about the worsening situation in Israel due to Iran’s intervention,” the pope told worshippers.
“No one should threaten the existence of others. All countries must, however, side with peace and help Israelis and Palestinians to live in two states, side by side and in security,” he said.
“That is their right,” Francis insisted as he once again repeated earlier calls for a ceasefire in Gaza and “negotiation.”
The pontiff futhermore demanded the world “help the population facing a humanitarian crisis” in Gaza and urged the “immediate release of the hostages kidnapped months ago” by Hamas, setting in train the latest chapter of violence in the region.


India’s Modi vows to boost social spending, make country into a manufacturing hub ahead of election

India’s Modi vows to boost social spending, make country into a manufacturing hub ahead of election
Updated 14 April 2024
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India’s Modi vows to boost social spending, make country into a manufacturing hub ahead of election

India’s Modi vows to boost social spending, make country into a manufacturing hub ahead of election
  • Modi has been campaigning extensively across the country, promising to expand India’s economy to $5 trillion by 2027 from around $3.7 trillion

NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday vowed to boost social spending, develop infrastructure and make India into a global manufacturing hub as companies shift away from China, as he unveiled his Hindu nationalist party’s election strategy.
Modi hopes to return to power for a third five-year term. He and other leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party unveiled their promises in the world’s largest democracy days before the start of a multi-phase general election.
Modi promised to expand social programs introduced during his party’s 10-year rule, including millions of free homes for the poor, along with healthcare, cooking gas and free grain. His government has been paying 6,000 rupees ($73) a year to poor farmers.
He said his government’s policies have pulled 250 million people out of poverty since he came to power in 2014. India is the world’s most populous country with over 1.4 billion people. The BJP’s president, J.P. Nadda, said less than 1 percent of Indian people now live in extreme poverty.

HIGHLIGHT

Voting for the country’s parliament will begin on April 19 and run until June 1, and results will be announced on June 4.

India holds its elections on different days in different parts of the country, stretching over weeks. Voting for the country’s parliament will begin on April 19 and run until June 1, and results will be announced on June 4.
Most polls have predicted a victory for Modi and the BJP. But the opposition Congress Party argues that Modi has undermined India’s democracy and favored the interests of the rich.
Modi has been campaigning extensively across the country, promising to expand India’s economy to $5 trillion by 2027 from around $3.7 trillion. He also promises to put India on track to become a developed country by 2047, when the country celebrates 100 years of independence from British colonialists.
On Sunday, he said his party would develop India as a hub for the pharmaceutical, energy, semiconductor and tourism industries. He also said India will modernize its infrastructure, including its railways, airways, and waterways. And he said he will seek to increase jobs for young people and access to cheap loans for young entrepreneurs.
Modi is broadly popular in India, where he’s considered a champion of the country’s Hindu majority and has overseen rapid economic growth.
But critics say another term for the BJP could undermine India’s status as a secular, democratic nation, saying its 10 years in power have brought attacks by Hindu nationalists against the country’s minorities, particularly Muslims, and a shrinking space for dissent and free media.

 


MI5 sued by Manchester Arena bomb survivors

MI5 sued by Manchester Arena bomb survivors
Updated 14 April 2024
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MI5 sued by Manchester Arena bomb survivors

MI5 sued by Manchester Arena bomb survivors
  • Relatives of victims say failure to stop Salman Abedi before attack violated Human Rights Act
  • 22 people were murdered and hundreds injured at Ariana Grande concert in 2017

London: UK intelligence agency MI5 is being sued by hundreds of survivors of the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing.

Twenty-two people were killed at an Ariana Grande concert in May that year when Salman Abedi, 22, detonated a homemade device loaded with nuts and bolts in the venue’s foyer, leaving hundreds more injured.

An inquiry into the attack subsequently found “there was a realistic possibility that actionable intelligence could have been obtained which might have led to actions preventing the attack.”

Sir John Saunders, the presiding judge in the inquiry, added that an MI5 officer had missed a “significant” opportunity to act and that there was a lack of communication between the intelligence agency and counterterrorism police.

A group of 250 survivors and relatives of those who died say MI5 could have prevented the attack, and that negligence in failing to do so breaches the “right to life” enshrined in the UK’s Human Rights Act.

MI5 will be required to present all evidence about how preventable the situation was at a hearing likely to happen in early 2025.

The inquiry found that MI5 had received information on Abedi in the months before the attack, but an official, identified as Witness J, said it had been treated as a criminal matter, and not related to terrorism. On questioning, Saunders found that other MI5 officials had held concerns at the time that this was a mistake, and that in any event, MI5 had kept the information it received about Abedi secret.

Saunders said that had it been treated differently and action taken, Abedi might conceivably have been detained on May 18, 2017 when he arrived at Manchester Airport from Libya with, it is believed, items related to bomb-making.

In 2023 MI5 Director General Ken McCallum issued an apology on behalf of the agency, saying that it was “profoundly sorry” for what had happened.

A spokesperson for three law firms representing the complainants — Hudgell Solicitors, Slater and Gordon and Broudie Jackson Canter — said: “Legal teams representing injured survivors of the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017 can confirm that they have collectively submitted a group claim on behalf of more than 250 clients to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. As it is an ongoing legal matter, we are unable or provide any further details, or comment further, at this stage.”

A legal source told The Times: “This legal action is not about money or compensation, it’s about holding MI5 to account for failing to prevent 22 people dying and many hundreds more being seriously injured.”

Legal action against intelligence services in the UK, which goes through the Investigatory Powers Tribunal rather than the UK court system, is rare but not unprecedented.

In 2016 Prime Minister Theresa May was forced to issue an apology for the role played by MI6 in the rendition, detention and torture of Abdul Hakim BelHajj by the US in 2004. BelHajj’s wife, who was detained alongside him and was pregnant at the time, received £500,000 ($622,850) in compensation.

Joseph Kotrie-Monson, whose law firm represented a former British intelligence officer suing the UK government over post-traumatic stress resulting from his work, told The Times: “There is always the challenge of proving causation in any case where a public body has been accused of a failure in its duties, particularly when it comes to the security services.

“Disclosure of evidence is also often a terminal problem for any legal action, and typically the domestic courts will err on the side of caution when it comes to government bodies protecting confidential information.

“However, this particular forum, and the human rights claim, may be well suited to dealing with the challenges of a complaint against a clandestine organization like MI5.”