Spotlight on the National Museum of Afghanistan

Once the home of one of the most important collections in Central Asia, the National Museum of Afghanistan was particularly hard-hit by the effects of years of civil conflict. Today, however, the National Museum is one again assuming a proudly central role in the preservation of Afghanistan’s rich cultural and archaeological heritage. Read on to learn more about this fascinating institution.

History of the National Museum

National Museum in Kabul

Image by Ninara | Flickr

The original National Museum of Afghanistan was founded in 1919 in Kabul’s Bagh-i-Bala palace. The collection at that time consisted of a variety of objects—including weapons, manuscripts, miniatures, and art pieces—which had belonged to the nation’s former royal families. After a temporary move to the king’s palace in Kabul’s city center some years later, the National Museum was established in its present home, a former municipal building, in 1931.

These early years also brought about a dramatic enrichment of the National Museum’s collection. In 1922, the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA) was created at the request of the Afghan government to spearhead archaeological research and excavations at historic sites throughout Afghanistan. Finds and artefacts unearthed by this delegation, as well as by other delegations in the years that followed, were gradually added to the National Museum’s collection until it comprised an estimated 100,000 pieces covering a historical period of many millennia.

Despite being looted and damaged by fighting during the many years of conflict, the National Museum of Afghanistan saved many thousands of artefacts by concealing them in secret hiding places. Today, those collections are being restored and once again made available to the public. In recent years, the National Museum has also been undergoing a major expansion, and has been working with international partners to coordinate the return of looted artefacts to their home country.

Collections and exhibitions

The National Museum of Afghanistan’s collections and exhibitions cover a broad range of historical, cultural, and artistic periods and styles. Some of the National Museum’s recent exhibitions include:

The Bamiyan-Borobudur photo exhibition

Exploring the cultural links and shared heritage of Afghanistan and Indonesia, the Bamiyan-Borobudur photo exhibition examines the two UNESCO World Heritage sites of the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan and the Borobudur Temple compound in Indonesia, both of which are widely recognized as masterpieces of the Buddhist faith. These sites play an important role in the Buddhist legacy of the two countries; a central aim of the exhibition is not only to introduce museum visitors to these two unique sites, but also to foster important cross-cultural dialogue between Afghanistan and Indonesia. The establishment of the exhibition at the National Museum was carried out in close cooperation with Indonesia’s embassy in Kabul.

Aynak Copper exhibition

Located in an area about 40 kilometers south of Kabul, close to the historic “silk route” to India, the Mes Aynak copper mine is one of the most important sites ever to be discovered in Afghanistan, with archaeological deposits stretching over thousands of hectares. Excavations began in 1963, and so far, three key areas have been excavated: Gol Hamid, which revealed the Pa Buddhist temple; Kafiriat Tepe, the site of a second monastic complex; and the Baba Wali mountain, where copper ore is located. The architecture and artefacts that have so far been revealed date back as far as the second century AD, and span the period between that time and the emergence of Islam in the eighth century AD. Coins, ceramics, unbaked clay sculptures, stone reliefs, and wall paintings have all been part of this rich find.

Bactria (Thousand Cities) exhibition

Present-day northern Afghanistan was once home to the region of Bactria, famed among classical historians for its “thousand cities,” its wealth, and its natural beauty. Excavations carried out in this region have yielded an incredible glimpse of life over many thousands of years. Archaeological sites from the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom (around the time of Alexander the Great), and the Kushan and later periods have all been established in this region.

The National Museum on tour

One of the main objectives of the National Museum of Afghanistan has been introducing not only Afghans, but also the wider world to the country’s impressive cultural heritage. With that aim in mind, an international tour called “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul” took place between 2008 and 2011. Visiting some of the biggest museums in the world—including the British Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York—the “Hidden Treasures” exhibition showed the world some of Afghanistan’s most important artefacts, including a Bronze Age set of gold bowls from the ancient city of Fullol, objects from the Greek city of Ai Khanum in what is now northern Afghanistan, and examples of Bactrian gold discovered in the graves of Tillya Tepe, a huge earthen barrow that was created as the burial site for a first-century prince.

Spotlight on the Future of Afghan Cinema

The future of Afghan cinema is looking very bright indeed due to organizations such as the Afghan Film Project, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to supporting and building capacity in Afghanistan’s growing film industry. Read on to learn more about how the Afghan Film Project got started and where it’s headed next.

What is the Afghan Film Project?

afghanfilmprojectBased in Kabul and Los Angeles, the Afghan Film Project (AFP) is a nonprofit, non-governmental organization that aims to empower Afghan filmmakers to tell Afghan stories. AFP aims to connect local filmmakers with the resources, experience, and opportunities they need to help bring their unique stories to the screen. At the same time, AFP focuses on building local industry capacity by providing practical training and education to producers, directors, and crews (including positions such as grips, electricians, and cinematographers). Through workshops, skills development classes, and mentorship opportunities offered by AFP, the next generation of Afghan filmmakers will gain the vital tools they need to produce films of the highest standard for both domestic and international audiences. AFP also helps to connect filmmakers and film professionals with grants and other funding opportunities.

The team behind AFP is comprised of internationally recognized film professionals who are passionate about Afghanistan and dedicated to sharing their skills and knowledge with emerging filmmakers. Board members include the Afghan-Canadian filmmaker and visual artist Ariel Nasr, who has directed the award-winning documentaries Good Morning Kandahar and The Boxing Girls of Kabul; Academy and Emmy Award-nominated filmmaker and photographer Leslie Knott, whose films include Out of the Ashes; and Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Samuel French, whose work has been presented by a number of broadcast outlets including HBO, National Geographic, and Al Jazeera.

How did the Afghan Film Project start?

In 2008, AFP co-founder and board member Samuel French moved to Kabul. With almost no previous knowledge of Afghanistan and little idea of what to expect from his time in the country, French found himself in the middle of a culturally complex nation full of unique stories waiting to be told. Inspired by the fascinating people and places around him, French began to write the script for the short film Buzkashi Boys in collaboration with England-born, Los Angeles-based filmmaker Martin Roe. In order to facilitate the development and production process for the film, AFP was founded in 2009.

Buzkashi Boys

buzkashiboysAs the AFP’s inaugural project, Buzkashi Boys was an important step forward for Afghanistan’s burgeoning film industry and served to usher in a new era of Afghan cinema to the world stage. Filmed entirely on location in Kabul during the winter of 2011, the 30-minute narrative film tells the story of two best friends striving to forge their own future as they grow to manhood under challenging circumstances. An official selection at numerous international film festivals, Buzkashi Boys received extensive critical praise for its emotionally captivating portrait of life in contemporary Afghanistan and its stunning cinematography. In 2013, the film received an Academy Award nomination in the category of Live Action Short.

For the AFP, the international recognition that Buzkashi Boys received was a fitting conclusion to what had been a passionate and challenging experiment in cross-border collaborative filmmaking. Armed with a $200,000 grant from the US State Department, which comprised the majority of the funding for the film, AFP brought more than a dozen young Afghan filmmakers on board to work with the international crew that assembled to make Buzkashi Boys, giving many of them their first taste of the ins and outs of working on a high-caliber film. Due to the support and skills from these mentor-trainee relationships, these filmmakers have since gone on to make and produce their own projects, exactly as the AFP intended.

Upcoming and related projects

As a follow-up to Buzkashi Boys, AFP formed a partnership in 2012 with the Tiziano Project, an organization that helps to provide community members from developing regions that have been impacted by conflict with the tools and training they need to tell their stories and improve lives. The fruit of this partnership was Stories from: Kabul, a collaborative project between high school students in Kabul and Philadelphia. The students received training in video journalism skills and prepared reports on cultural, political, and economic themes to compare and contrast the concept of community and civic engagement in both cities. Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center was an additional partner on the project.

Today, fueled by the success of its early endeavors, AFP continues to move ahead with a variety of initiatives designed to support its goal of empowering Afghan filmmakers. Plans are underway for an ongoing workshop series to teach filmmaking basics to emerging Afghan artists and storytellers. In addition, Development Pictures, a production company established by AFP co-founder Samuel French, is working to locate distribution opportunities for a number of new Afghan-made projects, including the television series Kabul at Work, which examines the extraordinary lives of ordinary Afghans.

How Afghanistan’s Heritage Is Being Restored

Preserving the cultural heritage of Afghanistan is becoming more important as the nation rebuilds after decades of war. Years of turmoil and fighting have ruined artifacts, destroyed historical sites, and resulted in the loss of important treasures and traditions. It wasn’t until recently that archaeologists and historians have been able to begin the process of analyzing and cataloging the nation’s artifacts in an attempt to preserve what remains.

The Written Word

Perhaps most discouraging for many generations of Afghans is the loss of written texts and historical accounts. Many documents have been lost or destroyed, including works of literature and history, newspaper archives, and other priceless written materials that are important to Afghan culture, heritage, and history. Several generations of children have passed through school without access to books and written resources beyond what is covered in their curriculum. In the last several years, historians have taken steps to ensure future generations do not suffer the same fate.

Working in conjunction with Afghanistan’s Minister of Information and Culture, the United States Library of Congress has digitized its extensive collection of materials related to Afghanistan. This collection includes books, maps, photographs, newspapers, manuscripts, and more, all created in Afghanistan or written about Afghanistan, in Dari, Pashto, Persian, and other languages. Most of the documents are copies of historical texts that no longer exist in Afghanistan, having been destroyed by war and time. Some of the items can’t be found anywhere else, making their preservation and return to the people of Afghanistan—a process known as “virtual repatriation”—all the more meaningful.

With material dating from the early 1300s all the way through the 1900s, the collection includes the equivalent of more than 160,000 pages of text. Many of the materials in the collection were gathered from sources around the world, in a process that took more than three years. With six field offices spread throughout the world, the Library of Congress was able to collect historical documents concerning Afghanistan from other nations as well.

A nation’s history typically intersects with that of other countries and cultures, resulting in writings that communicate a variety of perspectives and insights about the nation in question. In the US, for example, the writings of visiting French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville provide a fascinating view of the young United States in the 1830s. In the case of Afghanistan, as traders and explorers travelled through the country, maps, journals, and other written documentation was kept by foreigners, and is now being used to give Afghans another look at their own history.

The documents have been presented to Afghanistan’s Minister of Information and Culture on several hard drives containing a total of seven terabytes of information, for disbursement to various schools and museums throughout the country. Ten institutions will receive copies of the materials: the National Archive of Afghanistan, the National Library of Afghanistan, and several universities. In addition, the material is in “raw data” format, meaning the institutions can not only make the material available in digitized form, but they can download it, incorporate it into their existing databases, or print it.

In addition, the documents are available to anyone with an Internet connection via the World Digital Library.

Cultural Artifacts

In addition to the written documents being returned to Afghanistan, much work has been done to preserve physical artifacts that remain in the country. An international team of archaeologists has been mapping the country’s known historic sites and monuments, inputting the information into a geographic information system (GIS).

Many of the sites have been looted, the result of war and turmoil that have stripped gold mines and destroyed historic monuments. Despite those challenges, the team continues to create a database of the remaining sites to help direct historians, local communities, universities, and others who are looking to preserve the nation’s history.

The lack of such a database has resulted in homes being built over excavated sites near Kabul, while people working in fields have dug up and destroyed artifacts, and looters and antiquities dealers have robbed the Afghan people of many treasures. The database is particularly important as the country begins issuing mining permits and as the infrastructure of the country is being rebuilt.

To historians, the nation of Afghanistan is an open-air museum, with centuries of history and archaeological treasures spread across the landscape. There is a wealth of sites that must be identified and documented in order to be preserved. Knowing where potential historical sites may be located can prevent further loss and damage.

The rebuilding of Afghanistan is important for its future, but the preservation of its past is equally as important. By reacquiring and cataloging written texts and other artifacts, the nation will be able to preserve and honor its past. With access to this historical record, future generations will be able to learn about the importance of Afghanistan in the world’s history.

How NGOs are Providing Help and Hope to Afghanistan

Within the nation of Afghanistan, the total number of people who have been affected by conflict and war is difficult to ascertain. It is evident, however, that there are an increasing number of needs that must be met in order for the nation to move forward.

Many citizens are members of at-risk demographics. Some are among the poorest in the world and are facing uncertain futures unless they receive assistance from outside sources.

The Role of Non-Governmental Organizations

Some of the issues surrounding the rebuilding and redevelopment of Afghanistan stem from citizens’ distrust of government and daily insecurity. In these situations, the complexity of delivering needed services while attempting to build infrastructure and community is fraught with difficulty.

To bridge the gap between the government and populations that are at-risk, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) often provide both short- and long-term relief. In Afghanistan, the government has partnered with local grassroots organizations to handle reconstruction and redevelopment, as well as reaching some of the world’s most vulnerable groups.

Afghanistan National Solidarity Program

One of Afghanistan’s most successful programs has been the Community Development Council (CDC). Throughout the nation, there have been 35,000 new community councils established under the direction of the Afghanistan National Solidarity Program. In addition, it has funded nearly 90,000 projects within the country.

Not surprisingly, the National Solidarity Program is one of the largest of its kind in the world. The strength of this program is seen in the way that citizens are empowered to make decisions and participate in their own governance.

Rather than view the individuals being served as beneficiaries, the NSP considers them participants.

Another strength of the program is the sense of ownership that participants feel. While thousands of schools have been burned down across the nation, only one school located where a community development program exists was destroyed. According to the NSP, this points to the success of the program and the power of community.

NSP Projects

A sampling of some of the projects undertaken by NSP within Afghanistan are an indicator of the scope of its dealings with the people. Its projects are dual-purposed, designed to give both immediate and long-term assistance in core areas of life.

  1. Road repairs in the Kabul district provide safe, reliable transportation for locals and travelers.
  1. A hydropower station has been built in the district of Kama, providing jobs and a reliable power supply for the villagers. A local villager was so supportive of this project that he donated the land for the hydropower station to be built on.
  1. Disease in the Nangarhar province was the side effect of an inefficient and polluted water supply. An innovative system was developed and implemented to provide clean, safe drinking water.
  1. To combat a pervasive lack of safe drinking water, the Parwan Province built and maintains a water tower, providing water for over 700 families.
  1. The Jafarak Village overcame environmental issues to establish a fish farm, providing both jobs and resources for the surrounding community.
  1. A health clinic that will service 25 villages is being built in the Tontonzar Orati village. Constructed and supported by the residents of this village, it is a much needed source of medical care.
  1. Construction of roads that connect villages not only makes travel safer, but also provides reliable access to other services. Within many regions in Afghanistan, roads are being constructed and maintained using funding from the NSP.
  1. Schools servicing over 1,000 students have been built in local communities. They often run in two shifts to accommodate the number of students, and they are vitally important to encourage the rebuilding of Afghanistan.
  1. Community meeting halls are being built, giving residents a location for meeting and working together to improve the conditions of their districts.

These projects are simply a highlight of the work being done by NSP in Afghanistan. By working with the nation’s residents, it is able to provide training and direction that will sustain the nation in the future.

Not only does this NGO provide education, healthcare and jobs, it also provides a new way of life for many in Afghanistan. It has established a proven method of reaching people who are at-risk and helping them not only survive, but thrive. Much remains to be done, but because of groups such as these, the future is bright.

Astonishing Ways Cell Phones Are Changing the World

cell phoneAs the number of at-risk people in Afghanistan continues to climb, so too does the need for aid from relief organizations. Despite the challenges of working in a war-torn nation, many non-government organizations (NGOs) have managed to maintain their presence within Afghanistan, finding innovative ways to meet the rapidly changing needs of the people. Mercy Corps, a humanitarian organization that began in 1979, has responded to almost every global emergency in the last 20 years. They have been working within Afghanistan to provide resources and aid to underserved and at-risk groups. Through their efforts, they have provided emergency relief to thousands of women and children. They promote community-based initiatives such as vocational training, small business support, and infrastructure development. Perhaps most compelling, however, is their use of technology to bring stability and support to the people.

Technology’s Impact

The global acceptance of smartphone technology is astounding. To put it into perspective, it took over 100 years for the number of landline telephone users to exceed 1 billion, but the number of mobile users exceeded 1 billion in just 20. According to a recent study, one of the fastest growing markets for smartphones is Northeast Africa and the Middle East. The introduction of cellphones to developing countries has revolutionized their communication. There is no need to run telephone lines because users are not dependent on fixed lines, which reduces costs and eliminates the need to provide maintenance and security for the equipment. Basic cellphones are available for less than $20, making one affordable enough for nearly every family. Particularly important for people living in Afghanistan, cell phones can offer a means of communication from anywhere, regardless of one’s physical location.

Refugees with Cell Phones

Technology has become one of the most important tools in the continuing struggle for the security and safety of the displaced people within Afghanistan. Historically, individuals and families that had been forced from their homes would find themselves alone, with no means of contacting family members. In contrast, today’s refugees are using cellphone technology to stay connected, stay safe, and stay informed. Among refugees seeking asylum in surrounding nations, humanitarian workers report that nearly every group has at least one smartphone. After reaching safety, one of the first requests refugees have is for Wi-Fi access. In contrast to parts of the world where cellphones are used for shopping and chatting, in Afghanistan and places like it, cellphones are used to save lives.

Refugees and other displaced persons use cellphones to access GPS services such as directions and guidance to safety. They can easily send coordinates to rescuers and other humanitarian groups for assistance. Users can take pictures of important phone numbers, provide information on safe routes, and give updates about dangerous conditions or where to find aid. For many in Afghanistan, a cellphone provides a lifeline they desperately need.

NGOs and Cellphones

Humanitarian organizations are finding new ways to connect their services with people in need through cellphone technology. Free apps such as Facebook, MAPS.ME, and WhatsApp offer a ways for users to stay in contact with friends, family members, and aid organizations. Developers are currently working on apps that provide navigation routes as well as real-time information about the safety of roads, the presence of dangerous individuals, and the location of secure buildings.

Working in collaboration with other humanitarian organizations, Google and Mercy Corps developed a multilingual website designed specifically for refugees. The site is filled with information such as currency details, where to find lodging, current asylum process, and emergency information. By hosting hotspots throughout Afghanistan and other regions, displaced people can quickly and easily connect to the refugee site and access the information they need. Using GPS location services, the site can detect the user’s location and provide real-time information about shifting conditions, movement restrictions, and other updates.

Many NGOs are adopting a cashless system, where recipients are provided a debit card loaded with funds that can be used to secure food, lodging, and supplies. Refillable cards make it easy to provide tangible assistance without having to worry about currency, loss, or theft.

Translation apps make it possible for aid workers to speak to individuals in their native tongue, quickly finding out critical information and offering support. Weather apps help farmers with updates and market information. Internet access is also vital for individuals who need to access financial information. For instance, mobile banking helps families start savings accounts and access emergency funds. Social media and video technology allows families to stay in touch, providing comfort and stability during a crisis.

Offering mobile technology to at-risk groups is a meaningful, low-cost way to reach individuals with the help they need. For many Afghans, wireless technology and cellphones are some of the most important tools being used today.