But when we finally get to Ghazni, we remember why we came. Despite its repeated sackings and pillagings, the town is a historical treasure-house. According to a popular Afghan folktale, a Sufi (Muslim mystic) master once sent one of his pupils on a pilgrimage to Ghazni. The young man returned in a foul mood: “Why did you send me to that accursed place?” he demanded. “There were so many mosques, shrines and tombs of saints everywhere, I couldn’t find a place to relieve myself. I nearly burst!”
We have come specifically to see a pair of towering brick minarets, each nearly 80 feet high, erected in the 12th century as part of a now long-gone mosque and madrassa (religious school) complex. But like that long-ago Sufi pilgrim with the bursting bladder, we find ourselves surrounded by historical wonders everywhere we turn. After checking into the “best” hotel, a gas station/teahouse/truckers’ stop where rooms rent for 120,000 afghanis (about $2) a night, we explore the town. The old city walls are still intact, dating back 1,300 years to the Buddhist era. The Citadel, where the British and Afghans fought a series of bloody battles between 1838 and 1842, remains imposing; its high walls still look as though they could repel an attacking army.
Once, the city’s two great minarets were each surmounted by a slim tower two times as high as the present structures. But even in their truncated state, they are impressive, standing isolated amid a wasteland of dry brush and dust. And though the road that leads to them skirts an incongruous junkyard of rusting tanks, trucks and machinery left over from the Soviet invasion, the minarets themselves remain much as Byron described them more than 70 years ago, constructed “of rich toffee brick tinged with red [and] adorned with carved terra-cotta.” Despite their size, they are as intricately detailed as a Persian carpet.
That night, back at the hotel, I am kept awake by the town crier, who patrols the main road out front. Recalcitrant Taliban types have been lobbing rockets into Ghazni at night and sneaking into the city to rob people. The crier walks up and down, toting an AK-47 assault rifle and letting loose an earsplitting whistle every 30 seconds or so. I decide that the whistle means “All is well! It’s safe for you to try to go back to sleep!” I suspect it is also a not-so-subtle rebuke: if I have to stay up all night, so should you.
On the way out of Ghazni we stop to visit another of the city’s monuments, Mahmud’s Tomb. Unlike the minarets, this site has been renovated and is the center of a busy scene. Schoolboys shrilly chant lessons beneath the giant trees; itinerant mullahs read aloud from the Koran, and farmers peddle fruit and vegetables from pushcarts. Even in these troubled times, Afghan pilgrims stream in and out of the mausoleum photographing everything in sight. They seem pleased when Beth takes pictures of the ornate tomb.