What You Need to Know about Afghanistan’s Blue Mosque

Of the many incredible historic sites and monuments found all over Afghanistan, the Blue Mosque is perhaps the most breathtaking. Located in the beautiful city of Mazar-i-Sharif, the Blue Mosque was built in its present form more than five centuries ago, and is often described as an “oasis of peace” by visitors and locals alike. Here’s what you need to know about this stunning example of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage.


It’s a huge complex.

Although its name might lead you to imagine a single building, the Blue Mosque is really a large and rather elaborate complex that covers roughly 22,000 square feet in the center of Mazar-i-Sharif. Surrounded by an extensive park, the Blue Mosque encompasses a courtyard, a small museum, and a number of holy tombs in addition to the large prayer hall. Experts often cite the Blue Mosque as one of the most exquisite examples of classical Islamic architecture in the world.



It’s an important shrine.

The Blue Mosque is an important place of pilgrimage because it’s believed to house the remains of Ali bin Abi Talib, a son-in-law and cousin of the prophet Muhammad. According to legend, a local mullah in the 12th century had a dream in which Ali revealed that he had been secretly buried in what is now northwestern Afghanistan, near the ancient city of Balkh. The Sultan of the Seljuq Empire, who was the ruler of the region at that time, was so captivated by this story that he ordered a shrine to be built on the site revealed in the dream; he also created the city of Mazar-i-Sharif around the shrine.

Although this original shrine lasted barely a century (it was unfortunately destroyed by Genghis Khan during the westward movement of his Mongol armies), it was rebuilt in 1481 by Sultan Husayn Mizra in the form of the Blue Mosque. Today, the shrine of Ali is the largest part of the complex.


It has a resident population of doves.

One of the first things that visitors notice upon entering the park surrounding the Blue Mosque are thousands of snow-white doves soaring overhead and pecking at the ground along the park paths lined with rose bushes. The reason why the doves seem so at home here is because they are: these doves are official residents of the complex. Raised by the Blue Mosque’s attendants ever since the original shrine was built, the doves live in the pigeon house located to one side of the mosque: year-round, this large, low, small-windowed concrete structure is where the doves nest, breed, and receive food. Today, they are one of the Blue Mosque’s most famous symbols, with local legend recounting that the doves are pure white because of the mosque’s holiness.


Calls to prayer now take place over a loudspeaker system.

Although the Blue Mosque dates from the 15th century, this doesn’t mean that every part of it is old. Today, when the muezzin chants the traditional call to prayer, he does so over a loudspeaker system that broadcasts the call across the city. This is quite different than the way things worked a generation ago, when four muezzins would stand at the top of the mosque’s minaret, each facing a different direction, and chant the call to prayer in perfect unison. However, the effect is largely the same: then, just as now, worshippers all across the city could hear the call.



Image courtesy Wikipedia


Thousands of intricate tiles cover the mosque’s exterior.

The Blue Mosque gets its name from the thousands upon thousands of stunning tiles that cover virtually every inch of the structure. Each tile is about the size of a hand, and together they form large mosaic patterns that are exquisitely detailed and produce incredible visual effects. For example, the tiles are arranged in such a way that, when looking at the mosque from farther away, it appears to be floating. This is a classic trick of Islamic architecture: the idea is to use the colors and designs of the tiles to distract viewers so that they forget to notice the solidity of the building. Instead, the mosque appears miraculously weightless—a visual representation of its sanctity.


A tile workshop is located just outside the mosque complex.

Not surprisingly, the intricate tilework of the Blue Mosque requires constant upkeep. Exposure to the elements gradually wears away at the tiles. Visiting worshipers also do damage by stealing small pieces of tile to take home as a treasured memento of their pilgrimage. Fortunately, the Blue Mosque maintains its very own staff of resident tile makers, who practice their craft in a small workshop just outside the mosque complex. The workshop and its artisans produce roughly six square meters of tile every month.

A Look at the New Afghan Fashion Label Putting Style in the Spotlight

LamanLogoAfghanistan might not be the first place that comes to mind when thinking of global fashion hotspots, but that’s going to change if the new clothing label Laman has anything to say about it. The label was launched by a group of young Kabul-based entrepreneurs in 2015. Ever since, it’s been making headlines at home and abroad for its bold interpretations of Afghan fashion. Here’s what you need to know about this stylish startup.


It taps into Kabul’s history as a fashion capital.

From the 1920s to the 1970s, Kabul enjoyed an international reputation as a hub of fashion and style. The era was reflected in the chic outfits and hairstyles of its citizens, and the world took notice of unique examples of Afghan fashion like the goat-skin coat.

In December 1969, Vogue even ran a cover story titled “Afghan Adventure” that featured some of the country’s young style icons. And although decades of conflict have all but erased the vibrancy of Afghanistan’s fashion traditions, it’s precisely this spirit of style – a throwback to the country’s golden age of fashion – that Laman hopes to revive.


It’s headed by a sibling duo.

Laman is currently helmed by the brother-sister team of Haseeb and Rahiba Rahimi. As president, the self-taught Rahiba is the company’s lead designer. Ever since she was a child seeing her mother wearing dresses and scarves with traditional Afghan embroidery, she has wanted to have her own design company that would claim and celebrate her country’s cultural heritage.

Her brother Haseeb serves as the label’s CEO, supporting the company through his experience in business, economics, and finance. The two siblings launched the label with fellow co-founder Khalid Wardak, a designer and graduate of a fashion school in London, but he has since left the company to pursue other projects.

Together, the team has done pioneering work in advancing the business of fashion in Afghanistan. Because there was no pre-existing business model, the founders had to start completely from scratch: getting proper government authorizations, researching suppliers, establishing a production line, and taking care of the all-important marketing aspect of launching a new brand.


It blends traditional and contemporary styles.

Laman has become known for its innovative approach to fashion, which presents traditional Afghan designs and styles with a modern twist. The label has focused especially on reviving Afghanistan’s rich tradition of embroidery. These elaborate and detailed designs vary depending on the region and community. Bright colors and patterns are beautifully showcased in Laman’s dresses and suits, which are made of lighter fabrics that are more suitable for modern lifestyles.

Laman has also taken care to ensure that its women’s clothing is acceptable for everyday wear in Afghan society. To this end, the label produces two women’s collections. One features garments that are long and loose enough to be appropriate for public wear. The other features somewhat more fashion-forward designs that are meant to be worn privately in the home.



It has a diverse clientele.

When Laman first launched, its target market was middle- and upper-class Afghans, both men looking for professional clothes for work and women seeking dressier options for weddings and other formal events. Its clothing ranges in cost from $29, or 2000 Afghanis, for a simple dress, up to $200 for more intricately-embroidered pieces. Today, the label enjoys a diverse clientele, including foreign customers (both within and beyond Afghanistan), government officials, and young girls and boys.


Its designs have been seen on television.

An important early breakthrough for Laman came shortly after the label’s launch. The team was asked to design clothing for some of the judges and participants on “Afghan Star,” a hugely-popular reality television show structured like “American Idol.” This early exposure was critical in helping build brand recognition and demand for the label’s unique and trendy designs.


It promotes economic empowerment.

Small businesses like Laman play an incredibly important role in Afghanistan’s economic development. From its original three co-founders, Laman has grown to employ more than 30 people. Many of its employees work from home, sewing and embroidering the pieces. This allows people who might not otherwise have economic opportunities to earn an income and help support their families.

In big-picture terms, Afghanistan’s textiles sector is still very under-developed despite high consumer demand. In 2015, for example, Afghanistan spent more than $200 million importing textiles and clothes from countries like China and the United Arab Emirates. If even some of those items could be produced domestically, by companies like Laman, that could be a major contribution to Afghanistan’s economy.

A Look at the Amazing Online Library Helping Afghan Teachers

The most important investment that can be made in Afghanistan’s future is in teaching and learning. That’s the philosophy behind Darakht-e Danesh: a free and accessible online library of resources for Afghan educators that was launched in 2013. Read on to learn more about this amazing educational initiative that is helping transform the work of teachers all across Afghanistan.


What is the Darakht-e Danesh library?

Darakht-e Danesh libraryIn Dari, one of Afghanistan’s official languages, “Darakht-e danesh” means “knowledge tree,” and that’s exactly what this project aims to be. The Darakht-e Danesh Online Library for Educators is a unique repository of open educational resources geared toward anyone involved in furthering and improving education in Afghanistan, from teachers and teacher trainers to administrative staff and literacy workers. All kinds of open-source resources and materials suitable for use in Afghan classrooms are available through the library, including lesson plans, pedagogical tools, workbooks and exercises, experiments, reading texts, and curricula. Furthermore, to make the library as accessible and useful as possible for the Afghans who need it most, resources are available in both Dari and Pashto, as well as English.


Why is the Darakht-e Danesh library needed?

There have been huge advances in education in Afghanistan since 2001. Millions of children are back in school, new teacher training colleges are opening, and a reformed curriculum has been implemented nationwide. All of this progress has occurred under the umbrella of the National Education Strategy for Afghanistan, which was created by the government of Afghanistan in collaboration with a number of development partners, and which outlines educational policy objectives and initiatives for strengthening Afghanistan’s schools.

But for all these improvements, significant challenges still remain, and one of the biggest is a discouraging lack of resources. Few schools have amenities like libraries or science labs, a majority of students don’t have access to (or can’t afford) textbooks, and there is little material provided to teachers to help them cover the curriculum. In addition, when quality educational resources are obtainable, they are rarely available in Dari, Pashto, or other local languages. As for the teachers themselves, many educators in Afghanistan have no formal teacher training, nor any post-secondary education, though many organizations are presently working to change this.

The idea behind the Darakht-e Danesh library, therefore, is to provide much-needed resources and support to teachers—after all, investing in teachers is one of the best ways to invest in students. The aim of Darakht-e Danesh is to increase access to quality resources in local languages for Afghan educators, through an easy to use, centralized system. Another important goal is to encourage teachers to explore and consult a wide variety of resources in their educational practice, adapt available tools to their own situations, and share their own resources with fellow teachers around the country.


How does the Darakht-e Danesh library work?

To use the Darakht-e Danesh library, you must first sign up via the library’s simple, online registration form. Once registered, all you need is an Internet connection to freely browse, download, and use any of the resources in the online collection. For example, teacher educators can download resources from the site to use in teacher training colleges, while teachers can browse and print out lesson plans for their classrooms or workbooks for their own professional development activities. All resources are fully open source, and can all be freely copied and distributed. In addition, as the Darakht-e Danesh library operates on the principle of sharing, users are strongly encouraged to add to the online repository by uploading their own tools and resources.

At present, the Darakht-e Danesh collection boasts resources across a broad range of categories. Teachers can find educational information on subjects such as applied sciences, life sciences, mathematics, and language arts.


How can I support the Darakht-e Danesh library?

There are a number of important ways for people within and beyond Afghanistan to support the Darakht-e Danesh online library. These include:

Sharing resources—As mentioned above, helping expand the collection of Darakht-e Danesh is one of the best ways to support the project. Afghan teachers are encouraged to share Dari or Pashto digitized resources that they use in their own classrooms: typed lesson plans, tests, activities, games, experiments, or any other teaching resources that have proved helpful are all good additions to the online repository. Original ideas or those learned from speaking to or watching other teachers are welcome! The idea behind such resource sharing is to multiply the impact by allowing the resources to be used in many different classrooms at the same time.

Translation—The more local languages that educational resources are available in, the more accessible and the more useful they will be to all Afghans. Bilingual educators or volunteers, particularly Pashto speakers, are eagerly sought by the Darakht-e Danesh team to grow the collection by translating existing materials.