I’ll be honest – I’m a sucker for monuments and ruins. Indiana Jones was and still is one of my favorite movie series growing up and there’s just something about seeing some big, ruined, monumental thing left behind from some ancient civilization – their way of saying “We were here and we kicked ass” – that just calls out to me as a traveler.
These towers speak to empires long past, sultans long dead, and civilizations that have experienced centuries of toil. And one of the most incredible things is, for as fantastic as these towers are, not many people know about them.
So get your bucket lists ready, because in no particular order, here are 15 of the most incredible towers of the Islamic World.
1. The Minaret of Jam
In a remote and nearly inaccessible part of Afghanistan stands a lone tower, covered with intricate inscriptions and calligraphy, proclaiming the victories of a long-dead empire and the glory of Islam. This tower stands 62 meters tall and though battered by floods and earthquakes, and ravaged by more than 1,000 years, it still recalls the pride of the the Ghurid Empire and their capital of Firozkoh, which translates as “Turquoise Mountain”. This tower is all that remains of what was one of the greatest cities on earth at the time, after the Mongols sacked it in the early 1200’s.
2. Kalan Minaret – the Tower of Death – Bukhara, Uzbekistan
This impressive minaret has a very dark history. Though it was built in 1127 as the tower from which the Muslim call to prayer could be made, it also served as the city’s method of execution. This 150 foot tall tower, which was one of the only buildings spared by Genghis Khan when he ravaged the city, was the point from which the condemned were hurtled to their deaths. Until the early 20th century, the Kalan minaret served as the city’s executioner.
3. Maiden’s tower – Istanbul, Turkey
This famous tower guards the entrance to the Bosporus and has at times been customs station, watchtower, quarantine station, lighthouse, and (presently) a cafe. It dates back to ancient Greek times, though the island tower has undergone many different modifications and reconstructions since then. Legend has it that it was here that a loving Sultan kept his daughter until her 18th birthday, fearing a prophesy made by a witch that she would be killed by a snakebite by her 18th. And here she died, as the sultan brought her a basket of exotic fruits to celebrate her making it to her 18th, when an asp that had hidden in the basket suddenly leapt out to strike her dead.
4. Maiden’s Tower – Baku, Azerbaijan
This ancient tower in Azerbaijan is one of the country’s national monuments and a UNESCO heritage site. It dates back to the 12th century and has several legends surrounding its name. One is that the ruler’s sister (some sources say daughter), who was herself a lovely maiden, cast herself from this tower and into the Caspian Sea to her death in order to escape the cruel incarceration imposed on her by her brother (or father, depending on the myth). Another legend has it that the name comes from the fact that the tower has never been taken by force. For a 900 year old fortress, that’s pretty impressive.
5. Qutb Minar – New Delhi, India
This massive minaret took nearly two hundred years to complete. It was started in 1192 and not complete until 1368. The tower was started by Qutb-ud-din Aibak, first Sultan of Delhi, who desired to construct a tower that would exceed the height of the great Minaret of Jam. The tower stands 72.5 meters tall and is decorated with Arabic inscriptions. His two-hundred-year pissing match was completed by Firoz Shah Tughlaq, who was the 15th Sultan of Delhi (and from a completely different dynasty) after Qutb-ud-din Aibak.
6. Burana Tower – Kyrgyzstan
This tower dates back to the 9th century and is one of the last remnants of the great city of Balasagun. Balasagun was a great city of the Soghdian people, who themselves faded into obscurity and near oblivion over the centuries — their last remnants being the few thousand members of the Yaghnobi people of Tajikistan. The tower now serves as a shattered reminder of their great past, which was sacked by the Mongols in the thirteenth century and fell into utter ruin over the following hundred years.
7. Gonbad-e Qabus – Iran
It was a photograph of this gigantic tower that motivated the famed British travel writer Robert Byron, author of The Road to Oxiana, to visit Persia. The tower is more than 1,000 years old and stands a monumental 72 meters tall (236 feet) including the elevated base. The conical roof forms the golden ratio Phi, and monumental structure is a UNESCO world heritage site. Legend has it that one of the Ziyarid rulers who constructed the tower was buried here in a crystal coffin suspended from the roof of the tower.
8. Tomb of Askia – Mali
This is the tomb of Askia Mohammad I, who was one of the greatest rulers of the West African Sonhai Empire which dominated the trans-Saharan trade. Askia was a skilled general who, when his king passed away, decided he would be a better fit for the throne than the king’s son and heir. And so he seized the empire by force. While the design of the tomb-minaret is far different than many of the others on this list, it is an amazing example of the African mud building architectural style. What makes it even more incredible is that all of the mud and wood used to construct the tomb came from Mecca. Askia Mohammad was the first Muslim Songhai ruler and an incredibly devout one at that. When he made his pilgrimage to Mecca, he took an enormous caravan with him consisting of thousands of camels, which he used to bring the mud and the wood from Mecca home.
9. The Minaret of the Great Mosque of Kairouran – Tunisia
The Great Mosque of Kairouran is one of the oldest mosques in the entire Islamic world, having been constructed in 670 AD. The Gret Mosque of Kairouran underwent significant periods of growth and change over the first few centuries of its existence, and the Minaret in its present form dates to the early 800’s. It is the oldest Minaret in the Muslim world, and the oldest standing minaret in the world. This minaret served as the model for many minarets in the western Islamic world of the Magreb and Andalusia.
10. Timbuktu – Minaret of Sankore Mosque- Mali
Timbuktu is a place that we’ve all heard of, and in the popular imagination this city stands for the mysterious, the exotic, and the fabulously wealthy. For centuries – from about the 12th century until the 16th century – Timbuktu was a trade and intellectual center for the entire world. The city had grown wealthy from trading in gold, salt, and slaves, and the city’s madrassahs and its Islamic University made it the intellectual center of North Africa and the Maghreb. The central minaret of the city is easily recognizable, and immediately calls to mind impressions of this mysterious and distant place.
11. Kutlug Timur Minaret – Kunya-Urgench, Turkmenistan
Out in the northeastern edge of Turkmenistan lies the ruins of the capital of the Khwarezm, Kunya-Urgench, a city dating back to the Achaemenid Persian empire. Kunya-Urgench was a prosperous and important city in this area of Central Asia, and the monuments constructed here were influential in both the Mughal and Persian architectural styles. The city was sacked several times over its history, first by Genghis Khan, and then by Timurlane. Kunya-Urgench never recovered after Timurlane’s armies ravaged it, and gradually it faded until becoming completely abandoned around three centuries ago. Standing alone in the wasteland are several decaying mausoleums and the striking Kutlug-Timur Minaret. At more than 60 meters tall and a 1,000 years old, this impressive minaret towers above the ruins, recalling glorious times long past.
12. The Ksour of Mauritania
Four ruined towns fall under this listing, each of which has fallen into decay and exemplify ancient Mauritanian Islamic architecture. The towns are Ouadane, Chinguetti, Tichitt, and Oualata, and they are the only surviving places in Mauritania where habitation dates back to the Middle Ages or earlier. The towns originally sprang up to provide religious instruction to the trade caravans crossing the Sahara desert, and so the center of each was the mosque and its minaret. These four towns, with their minarets looking down over the ruins, represent life and settlement rising up in even the most extreme desert climates. Some people still make there homes among the ruins even to this day.
13. Al Qal’a of Beni Hammad – Algeria
The minaret of the Great Mosque of the Qal’a of Beni Hammad has been keeping watch over the ruins of the ancient capital of the Berber Hammadid dynasty for almost 1,000 years. The city was constructed in 1007 AD and abandoned in 1090 AD under the threat of invasion from the vicious Banu Hilal tribes. It’s an impressive and eerie sight, a giant lone tower in the middle of the Algerian mountains, surrounded by crumbling decay.
14. The towns of the M’Zab Valley – Algeria
Five ancient ksour (El-Atteuf, Bounoura, Melika, Ghardaïa and Beni-Isguen) populate the M’Zab Valley in Algeria and represent a stunning and incredible adaptation of humanity to the harsh desert environment. The entire valley and its towns are a UNESCO site, and their way of living and building has not changed much since the 11th century. The Ibadi faith dominates much of the way of life in this small, isolated valley, from it’s social strictures to the very construction of its buildings.
15. Minaret of the Great Mosque of Samarra – Iraq
This gigantic spiral of a minaret, known as the Malwiya Tower, was commissioned by the Abbasid Caliph Al-Muttawakil in 848 AD. This tower is all that remains of the Great Mosque of Samarra, which was for many years the largest mosque in the world. The mosque, along with much of Baghdad, was destroyed when Hulagu Khan sacked the city in 1278 AD. It stands 55 meters high, and 32 meters wide at the base, while the staircase languidly windsaround the enormous tower, recalling the ziggurat architectural style of the area’s past.