Michael's Dispatches

The Mysterious Well: Part II of II

Farah-Well-Fort-14-web1000Axe Handle Cam

Events from Farah Province, Afghanistan
Published 24 April 2011

The previous dispatch ended with Kris LeBoutillier lowering his camera into the mysterious well at Kafir Qala, which is believed to be more than 2,000 years old.

The depth and contents of the ancient well were unknown – that was a big part of the mystery.  So Kris brought 1,000 feet of steel fishing leader.  He secured the camera and a flashlight to an axe handle using tape, thus making the Axe Handle Cam.

They wondered what surprises were in store.  Snakes, bats, animal or people bones, maybe even treasures – consisting of anything from the helmets of Alexander’s men to Bactrian Gold – no one knew but there was much anticipation.  Anything that could fit into the well might be there.  If something of interest were found, the next step would be to send a man.

Matthew Goldthwaite, who accompanied Kris, would write to me:

“…the site is rife with folklore, among which, that the fort was under siege for 50 years and the large boulders at the base were thrown down at the invading army from the citadel.  According to the legend, the well was dug during the siege as a combo source of water and escape route.  Furthermore, the legend says that the king left his treasure, (this is why the Afghan Minister of Cultural Affairs and Antiquities sent a rep, just in case we found something).  When you look at the well, if you look up to the top, you will see a level at the very top of the mountain.  This was alleged to be where the kings lived...”

Farah-Well-Fort-10-web1000Photo by Kris LeBoutillier

As Matt unreeled the steel fishing leader, the Axe Handle Cam oscillated and twisted in the darkness, challenging the autofocus to keep pace.  The video sensor captured clues to the construction.  Ancient architects of the Citadel were highly skilled, and so nothing was random, including the shape and dimensions.  This was not a haphazard hole shoveled without foresight, but a plan chiseled through stone.

Screen-shot-2011-04-23-at-11.49.21-AM-web1000From Axe Handle Cam: Ribbing inside the well

Around the walls there is ribbing, which could have been used to hold planks for working platforms, or merely for climbing.  A series of single bamboo poles lodged diagonally from corner to corner, with the bottom of each pole lodged on a rib, could make for easy climbing and workspace.  The ribbing may look small, but to a skilled climber, those ribs are huge.  In a culture where a father’s, father’s, father probably was digging wells or karez, a skinny barefooted kid could climb up and down that shaft like a spider.

The deepest known hand-dug well in the world is nearly a quarter-mile deep. An account of the construction of the Woodingdean Well mentions tiny platforms cut into the side:

“Winchmen stood on tiny platforms cut into the side of the shaft, passing spoil up and bricks down as the shaft continued forever downwards. One winchman actually plunged to his death.”


And so lowered the Axe Handle Cam, twisting, swaying, trying to keep focus:

vlcsnap-2010-11-23-17h40m59s179-web1000The camera reached bottom at about 200’

vlcsnap-2010-11-23-17h38m52s219web1000No bones or treasures on the surface of the bottom of the well.

The find was a little disappointing.  But it’s not surprising that nothing noteworthy was found on the surface at the bottom.  Afghanistan is rife with skilled tunnel and well diggers, and it’s possible that many people have ventured to the bottom to have a look, especially given the legend of treasures.

At the end of the day, the mystery remained.  The legend of a king under siege, hiding his treasures down the well, remains a real possibility.  A people who were smart and skilled enough to build Kak Kohzad would not just toss treasures down a well, knowing that they, themselves could enter and exit the shaft as if it were a staircase.  No security is purchased by tossing a king’s treasures into an unlocked basement.

Had they intended to use the well for temporary security, they may have chosen to   excavate side shafts, with tiny entrances. At least one shaft might be a decoy, containing sacrificial treasure, only a few hundred feet down. The real treasure cache would be secured closer to the bottom.  Then you would refill the well to buy time and to avoid casual thievery.

It’s possible that buried down there, far below the 200’ reached by Axe Cam, are hidden tunnels and chambers.  Legends of tunnels and underground cities -- and real tunnels and underground cities -- are in abundance around the world. Cappadocia, in Turkey, is a classic example.

Afghanistan is abundant with mystery, much of it staring you right in the face.  Time, peace and prosperity – and trained scholars – are key to answering many questions that remain.

End of Part II of II


Addendum with unused photos, and notes.

MVI_6871-web1000Men love to toss object into wells

Kris and Matt had lowered the camera in November 2010.  In March 2011, as I set up the GigaPan robot on the tripod, Afghan Police who accompanied us occupied themselves throwing several large stones into the well.  Each time they prepared to toss, they smiled broadly, made sure everyone was watching and listening, then tossed and acted like they had just swallowed happy pills.  The only thing man likes to toss into wells more than stones, is other people.

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