HERAT -- The minaret of Jam, a revered Afghan historical treasure, has been saved from imminent danger after hundreds of workers diverted surging floodwaters that were gnawing at the 12th-century tower, officials said on Monday (May 27).
Torrential rains last week sent churning water roaring down the narrow valley that is home to the minaret, a UNESCO World Heritage Site situated in a remote part of Ghor Province.
Video footage showed brown torrents of water crashing against the base of the brick minaret, which was built in about 1190 and is the pinnacle of a surrounding archaeological site.
The Afghan government hired a local crew who worked for three days to channel water away from the minaret, which stands in an area largely under Taliban control.
"The flow of water has been diverted, but the flood has destroyed some 15 metres (50 feet) of protection wall around the minaret," Abdulhai Khatibi, a spokesman for the governor of Ghor, told AFP.
A team of specialists is urgently needed to clean the base of the minaret and to construct proper defensive walls, Fakhruddin Ariapur, the Ghor province director of information and culture, said.
"There is no danger to it now, but if it rains and floods again, the minaret has become too exposed and vulnerable," he told AFP.
Taliban launch deadly attacks at site
Still, access to the site has been cut off after the Taliban on Monday stormed several security posts that provide protection to the minaret. Eighteen security personnel were killed, officials said Wednesday (May 29).
"The Taliban have captured some checkpoints around the minaret. We had to retreat because more fighting would cause damage to the minaret," Sayed Zia Hussaini, the deputy police chief of Ghor, told AFP.
Fifteen pro-government militiamen and three policemen were killed, said Khatibi.
"The Taliban have shut off telecommunication towers and have cut any access to the area," said Ariapur.
"The clean-up work [from the flood] has stopped, and we don't know what is happening there," he said.
Towering remnant of empire
The Jam minaret is the world's second tallest made of bricks, reaching a height of 65 metres.
It is situated on the frontier of Ghor and Herat provinces, at the heart of the former Ghorid empire that dominated Afghanistan and parts of India in the 12th and 13th centuries.
In 2002, the minaret and its archaeological remains became the first site in Afghanistan to be added to UNESCO's World Heritage List.
UNESCO said it has been unable to access the minaret.
"As soon as the conditions on site allow, a mission will be organised... in order for experts to properly assess the situation and the condition of the minaret," UNESCO said in a statement.
Built on an octagonal base, the minaret has a double staircase on the inside and is elaborately decorated.
Afghanistan's rich cultural heritage has faced decades of catastrophic neglect, mismanagement and looting, as well as deliberate destruction at the hands of the Taliban.
The government needs "to take more serious measures to prevent future threats to the minaret", Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah said in a cabinet meeting.