Restoring Afghanistan’s Heritage, One Artifact at a Time

Of the news coming out of Afghanistan in recent years, the rediscovery of national treasures once thought to be destroyed is some of the most exciting. During decades of war, and even in the aftermath, looters and pillagers stole antiquities and treasures from ancient sites, museums, and other places of note. These rarities have either been destroyed, smuggled out of the country, or sold to black market dealers.

Thankfully, the diligent work of archaeologists, historians, and police to recover key pieces of Afghanistan’s history has restored a sense of national pride and awareness to the Afghan people.

Afghanistan’s Heritage

art

Image by Ninara | Flickr

As a key point in the famed Silk Road, Afghanistan has a long, rich heritage of cultural and historical significance. Along the international roadway, ancient cultures and religions crisscrossed the Middle East, leaving artifacts and traditions behind. Influences from Greece, Rome, Egypt, India, and China can be seen in the artifacts found within the nation, providing a tangible history that demonstrates both the importance and the longevity of Afghanistan’s culture.

The Bactrian Hoard

More than 20,000 artifacts from the ancient nation of Bactria, once located along the Silk Road, were thought lost during the years of war and turmoil following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. In late 2003, however, Afghan officials discovered the entire collection hidden in boxes below the Presidential Palace in Kabul. The restoration of these pieces to the Afghan people was one of the first glimmers of hope for the eventual rebuilding of the nation.

The Heathrow Collection

Over the years, priceless artifacts from the oft-looted National Museum of Afghanistan have been slowly accumulating at Heathrow Airport, evidence of the booming black market for antiquities. Fortunately, airport and museum officials have worked together to return the items to the National Museum, recovering 3.4 tons of antiquities over six years. Arranging the delivery took nearly a year and required the cooperation of dozens of people around the world. Officials catalogued more than 1,500 pieces, some dating back 8,000 years.

The Recovery

Much of the museum’s extensive collection was hidden from looters during the years of war, but nearly 70,000 pieces were stolen from the reserve inventory. The museum director, Omara Khan Masoudi, began a recovery mission that spanned the globe and at many times resembled an adventure story brought to life.

British diplomats flying in to Kabul notified Masoudi of the pile-up of confiscated artifacts at Heathrow. Using museum catalogs, he compared the recovered pieces to the lists of stolen items and discovered that none of them were a match. After much research, it was discovered that the Heathrow collection was comprised of pieces that had been illegally excavated and were being exported without permits. Due to the illegal excavation, most of the recovered pieces lost their identity markers, making them unverifiable for museum display.

Continued Recovery

The recovery effort and multi-national network of cooperation persists even today. Artifacts continue to be recovered at Heathrow Airport, a heavily used gateway for objects being smuggled out of the Middle East. Working with antiquities experts from Afghanistan, custom officials at the airport have compiled a “Red List” detailing thousands of artifacts that have been lost or stolen during the decades of war. Officials perform random searches of passengers, finding artifacts tucked into hidden compartments or checked into carryon luggage. They also find objects on customs forms incorrectly declared or valued in an effort to downplay their importance.

Continued Looting

Even as the nation rebuilds, individuals continue to pillage ancient sites and smuggle artifacts out of the country. Due to the nation’s economic instability, villagers are forced to loot and resell these objects as a source of income. Archaeologists and historians, working in conjunction with law enforcement officials, are establishing protocols to quell the tide of artifacts leaving the country, but they have been unsuccessful thus far.

More Than Artifacts

While the recovery of artifacts and historical objects is important to the cultural history of Afghanistan, it is important on another level that may not be immediately obvious. To people that have been traumatized by war, fighting, and oppressive rule, the re-emergence of pieces of their history restores a sense of identity and pride. An entire generation of Afghans can learn about the country’s rich heritage, which had been feared forever lost. Combined efforts of government officials, non-governmental organizations, and determined citizens are helping to rebuild Afghanistan, preparing for a future beyond the years of war.

What You Need to Know about Afghan Food

Located along the historic trade routes between India, China, the Middle East and Europe, Afghanistan has a rich history of residing at the crossroad of cultures. The food of Afghanistan is a wonderful representation of the varied cultural influences. Today, after decades of conflict, the tradition of providing guests with hospitality and heaping servings of delicious food continues. Understanding the importance of the traditions and food in a culture can lead to a greater capacity for seeing the similarities between people around the world.

History of Food in Afghanistan

spicesWhile Afghan foods have a style all their own, there are distinct influences from surrounding nations that have merged with native dishes to provide a unique flavor. Traders from India brought spices such as saffron, chilies, and garam masala (a mixture of nutmeg, cloves, cumin, cardamom, and cinnamon). Iran’s contribution was the use of coriander and mint, as well as spinach. Mongolia shared its fondness for noodles and dumplings. These new flavors, combined with the meat-rich diet necessary for this landscape of harsh winters, provide a palate of delicious, varied foods.

Main Dishes

Afghan diets are based on rich, fatty meats and oils. Chunks of meat served on skewers could be identified as the nation’s “fast food” and can be found in nearly every street market. Long metal skewers are laced through lamb, cooked over charcoal, and served with naan. Meat dishes may also include ribs, lamb chops, or a variety of meatballs. Korma, a popular dish, consists of a base of onion and garlic, with vegetables, meat, and spices added to make a delicious stew.

Side Dishes

Rice, which is a staple of the Afghan diet, is regarded by some as the best part of a meal. Several varieties of rice-based dishes may be served at each meal, and formal occasions such as weddings may feature sweet and savory recipes. A popular dish, Kabuli pilao, consists of a dome of rice seasoned with cardamom, raisins and nuts, and slow-cooked meat. Other dishes may include fluffy, white rice or a creamy rice pudding.

Due to Mongolian influences, dumplings are often served in Afghan homes, but are generally reserved for private meals due to the extensive amount of time that it takes to prepare them. Ashak, a vegetable filled tortellini-like pasta, is served with a garlic yogurt sauce and spicy meat. Meat-filled pockets known as mantoo are covered in a tomato sauce and served along with rice.

Dairy Products

Considering Afghanistan’s agricultural lifestyle, dairy products play an important role in meals in the country. Nearly every meal includes some form of dairy. Yogurt is served as a sauce for meats, as an accompaniment to rice dishes, and as a dessert with dried fruit and nuts. Curds may be dried into small balls for cooking, and boiled curd is often served for breakfast.

Beverages

green teaTea, which is the beverage of choice in Afghanistan, is served with every meal. Depending on the occasion, tea may be served spiced, or with milk or cream. More formal occasions call for sugared tea to be served to honor guests, while informal meals may feature strong black tea. Tea time, which is another important Afghan ritual, consists of a midday snack of dried fruits, sweets, and pastries served with black or green tea.

Dining Customs

Similar to mealtime around the world, Afghanistan has its own set of customs and rituals that define a typical meal. Meals in Afghanistan are typically eaten with the right hand. Instead of utensils, diners use bread as a scoop. There are two types of bread commonly used. They include a naan bread, which is deeply grooved and which has sesame or nigella seeds sprinkled on top, or a large, flat bread.

One of the most important parts of any meal in Afghanistan is the dastarkhan, which consists of a tablecloth laden with the offerings of the meal placed on the floor. Diners are seated around the dastarkhan. Members of the dining party may have certain duties, such as tea pourer, and guests are often seated near the best dishes. Customs may vary based on region and tradition, but every meal in Afghanistan is centered around the tenet of hospitality and sharing. According to traditional lore, no one was ever turned away from a meal, even if the individual was a virtual stranger to the family.

For the people of Afghanistan, there is comfort in maintaining the traditions of centuries that focus on hospitality and shared meals. For the global community attempting to find common ground with a group of people who have largely been unknown, there is a sense of camaraderie around the table, whether it is a traditional dining room table or a dastarkhan. Learning about the customs, including the food of Afghanistan, can go a long way toward building bridges that unite—rather than divide—the world.

 

Is There a Future for the Kuchi Nomads of Afghanistan?

Centuries of tradition have woven the story of the Kuchi tribe into Afghanistan’s rich tapestry of history. This year, as the seasons once again begin to change, the nomadic tribe should be making its way toward its winter home. In recent years, however, the tribe has undergone a dramatic decline, almost to the point of disappearing. As a result, few families remain to make the journey across the desert, and even fewer herds will be making the trek to secure quarters. What caused this group of people to be put at risk? Are there ways to save them from extinction? In order to have a clear understanding of the future, it is imperative to understand the history of this group.

Who are the Kuchi?

Kuchi migrants

Image courtesy Tracy Hunter | Flickr

The Kuchi began centuries ago, when a group of Pashtun herders from eastern and southern Afghanistan banded together to maintain their livestock. They would migrate across the country, following the pasturelands to ensure that their herds always had the best areas in which to graze. Eventually, the group became a tribe of sorts not based on ethnic ties, but on social characteristics.

How are the Kuchi organized?

Within the Kuchi, tribes form based on family groupings. Each clan is led by a Khan, the patriarch of the family who governs his core family, as well as any other associated offspring or families. The Khan is responsible for governing his family, ensuring that their basic necessities are met and representing the family in interactions with outsiders.

There are three distinct types of Kuchi: nomadic, semi-sedentary, and traders. The nomadic Kuchi have no designated home. They rely on their herds for sustenance and leverage their ability to trade with others for the things they need. Forced to keep moving in search of better fields and more abundant water supplies, the nomads are always on the move.

The semi-sedentary Kuchi tribes typically spend the winter in the same area, allowing them the opportunity to settle down and form roots. In recent years, more semi-sedentary Kuchis are transitioning to becoming permanent residents, as they are feeling the effects of a lifetime of constant movement.

Kuchi traders, the smallest portion of the Kuchi tribe, are largely responsible for transporting goods between cities and villages.

Life as a Kuchi

Kuchi tribesman

Image courtesy ResoluteSupportMedia | Flickr

Growing up as a Kuchi was hard. Similar to traditional Afghanistan customs, the strict division of labor along gender lines is adhered to by the Kuchi. Men are responsible for providing income for their family, generally through the growth, sales, and distribution of livestock. Women are in charge of the upkeep of the home, which is made particularly challenging due to the migratory nature of their lifestyle. They were responsible for child-rearing, collecting water, preparing food, and making tents and clothes.

Kuchis of the Past

During the early 1900s, the Kuchis were the predominant traders in the Middle East, connecting the Middle East with South Asia. Nearly 30 percent of all the livestock (sheep, goats, and camels) of the nation were owned by Kuchi herdsmen, and they would be traded for tea, sugar, or vegetables. In addition, they were money lenders who offered transportation services and served as a source of labor during the harvest. As migratory people, they were able to move to where the work was located.

The Demise of the Kuchi

During the 1950s and ‘60s, economic progress led to the development of a national road system. As a result, fleets of trucking companies were formed, crisscrossing the countryside quickly and delivering food, produce, and other products faster than the Kuchi were able to manage. The Kuchis were dealt a further blow during the ‘70s, when war and drought reduced the once numerous herds. The late ‘90s saw another downturn for the Kuchis, as tribe members were forced to sell off many of their herds in order to make enough money to survive.

Mission to Kuchi Village

Image courtesy ReoluteSupportMedia | Flickr

Without herds, the necessity for migration became obsolete. Many nomadic Kuchis have given up the historic movement across the nation, settling down in various parts of the country to become farmers. However, trying to assimilate members of this group back into society has proven difficult. Children are often uneducated due to a dearth of school facilities. In addition, a lack of political representation has caused them to be overlooked as citizens of the country. In addition, insufficient funding has made it difficult to purchase a place to live. Some cities have populations of Kuchis living in tents near abandoned factories, in desert areas, or in other unsafe parts of the country in an attempt by the men to find work.

Increasing clashes between the Kuchi and other residents over land rights have caused other problems for the nomadic tribes. Economic resources earmarked for humanitarian initiatives often overlook the Kuchis, who need long-term assistance in rebuilding their flocks and in developing an established homeland. Today, most Kuchis lack homes and jobs, a situation that does not bode well for the future of this once proud people. As the nation attempts to hold on to the traditions of the past, the Kuchis must find a way to regroup and once again regain the prominence they enjoyed in the past.

Visiting Afghanistan: A Guide to the Culture of the Nation

Dating back to 4000 BC, Afghanistan’s culture has transcended the effects of time and modern living, focusing on the traditional development of the family and community. Perhaps due to their limited contact with the outside world as a result of geographical constraints, Afghanistan has remained largely unchanged in recent years. For visitors to the country, the towering relics are symbolic of a history dominated by their belief structure. To understand what the future may look like requires careful consideration of the past.

The History of Afghanistan

A look at the historical documents of Afghanistan reveals a startling fact: war has played a large part in this nation’s history. Based on its earliest records, which date back to the days of the Greek and Persian empire, Afghanistan has been embroiled in a tug of war between the past and the future. A rich history is recorded in pre-historic cave drawings, religious monuments, and fascinating heritage sites. Even though many of the historic landmarks and archaeological documents have been ruined, enough of it remains to remind people of their heritage and the determination required to preserve their land.

Museums and other organizations have been collecting as many valuable artifacts as possible in an effort to preserve them for future generations. Although their holdings are small, they have begun amassing a comprehensive display of their country’s heritage.

The Culture

Afghan ratherAfghanistan’s culture is based on a tribal system, with different sections of the country ruled by the dominant tribe in that area. As a result, the nation has a multicultural feel and can have vastly different “rules” from one region to another. Heavy Persian and Turkish influences can be seen in much of the nation, along with the Pashtun ideologies of the south.

Archaeological digs in the country have uncovered important artifacts that provide clues to the region’s historical and cultural past. Statues of the Buddha have been discovered in Bamiyan, along with other relics of Buddhism, depicting a nation with a culture steeped in the Buddhist tradition. Other cultural artifacts, such as the Minaret of Jam, have been discovered, dating back centuries and giving credence to the idea that Afghanistan has roots in ancient history.

Another key element of Afghanistan’s culture is its people’s adherence to a conservative lifestyle. Much attention has been given to the traditional manner of dress and the cultural code that dominates the behaviors of the nation, but outsiders must remember that the nation is highly conservative. As such, the people have strict ideas about dress, social behavior, and interpersonal interaction.

Social conduct is centered around the nation’s philosophy of honor. All dealings with others require a sense of honor that transcends business principles. Traditional greetings involve hugging the people you meet, although Western influence has added the use of handshakes, as well. In some areas, rubbing noses with a person is considered an acceptable form of greeting, as well.

The Weather

afghan stormAfghanistan has four distinct seasons, with temperatures that range from a low of 30 degrees to a high of 120 degrees. The summer months are characterized by extremely high temperatures, particularly in the low-lying regions, where the temperature can exceed 100 degrees. Sandstorms are common during these months, making travel unpredictable and sometimes dangerous. The fall months from September through November have pleasant temperatures, and residents enjoy the harvest of native fruits. In the winter, the temperature drops to the other extreme, with some areas dropping below 30 degrees, and the snow making mountain roads impassable. The springtime (March through May), which marks a return to comfortable weather, is the preferred time to visit the country.

The Holidays

When planning a visit to Afghanistan, it is advisable to schedule it during either the spring or fall months, when the weather is pleasant. Another important factor to take into account is when the national holidays are.

Nowruz

The New Year celebration, which is held between January and March, is the most popular festival of the year. The holiday is marked by music and dancing, as farmers celebrate a successful harvest and people look forward to another year.

Mawlid un Nabi

A religious holiday, Mawlid un Nabi is designed to honor the birthday of Muslim prophet Muhammad. The day is marked by visits to mosques and special prayers.

Jeshyn-Afghan Day

Held on August 19, Jeshyn-Afghan Day celebrates the end of British control in Afghanistan. Considered by many to be Afghanistan’s Independence Day, it is a day of special festivities and celebration.

Ramadan

The month-long holiday is rooted in the Islamic faith. Most businesses and restaurants are closed during the month of Ramadan, and adherents to the faith observe a fast for the duration of the celebration. One of the most sacred Islamic traditions, it is celebrated during the fall season.

Eid al Fitr

Marking the end of the Ramadan celebration, Eid al Fitr closes the month of fasting with a special prayer service followed by a feast. Families and friends gather together to celebrate on this day.

Afghanistan has a rich heritage that is full of tradition and faith. Visitors to the nation often marvel at the tenacity of the people who have survived for centuries by clinging to the ideals of their faith and cultural philosophies. However, it is precisely these ideals that have enabled the country to endure, despite the adversities they have faced.

11 Little-Known Facts about Afghanistan

The nation of Afghanistan has sometimes been portrayed as a land of mystery to foreigners, especially people in the West. Here are a few facts that may surprise you and challenge what you think you know about the country.

1. Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual nation.

afghan childrenThe people of Afghanistan represent more than one dozen ethnic groups. The country’s mountainous, rugged geography ensured that, over the centuries, these groups were isolated from each other, which allowed each to develop its own particular culture and traditions. In addition, Afghanistan’s location along the ancient Silk Road meant that many outside cultures and empires have passed through and left their mark on the land. At different times in history, the Ancient Greeks, the Parthian Empire, the Sassanids, and the Mongols all ruled what is now Afghanistan. In many ways, Afghanistan has functioned as a melting pot of sorts in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Along with its many cultures, Afghanistan is also home to several different languages. Dari and Pashto are the two official and most widely spoken languages. Some linguists estimate that there are more than 40 other languages spoken in Afghanistan, comprising some 200 different dialects.

2. Sports are an important part of the nation’s culture.

In recent years, sports have returned to prominence in the country. As sports have gained national attention, people are participating in cricket, football, and other games. Afghanistan’s national football team—nicknamed the Lions—won FIFA’s 2013 Fair Play Award.

3. It snows in Afghanistan.

Images and pictures in the news lead many outsiders to believe that the climate of Afghanistan is uniformly hot, arid, and desert-like. While this is accurate for some of the country, the northern parts of Afghanistan receive large amounts of snow during the winter months. The Hindu Kush mountain range stretches across the country and reaches heights of more than 20,000 feet. Noshaq, the country’s highest peak, is an imposing, snow-capped giant that towers 24,580 feet above sea level.

4. There are multiple nations surrounding Afghanistan.

Six countries border the nation of Afghanistan: Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, and—perhaps surprisingly to some—China. The border with China in the far northeast is relatively short, at less than 100 kilometers long.

5. “Afghani” is not a person who lives in Afghanistan.

The currency of Afghanistan is the Afghani. Many Westerners erroneously refer to the people of Afghanistan as Afghanis, but they are using the term incorrectly. People who live in Afghanistan are known as Afghans.

6. Poetry has a prominent place in Afghan culture.

Poetry has a long, colorful history in Afghanistan. Used to express opinions on social issues or to recount historical events in the past, the country has a strong tradition of spoken poetry that has persisted for centuries. The famous 13th century Islamic poet Rumi may have been born in the city of Balkh, in northern Afghanistan.

7. The country is home to two UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Bamian Valley

Bamian valley | Image courtesy Johannes Zielcke | <http://flickr.com”>Flickr

The United Nations Educational, Cultural, and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) designates a select number of historic and cultural sites as World Heritage Sites. Afghanistan has two such sites. The first, the historic Bamiyan Valley, contains the archaeological remains of Buddhist sanctuaries built into caves decorated with paintings and inscriptions.

In the western part of the country, the Minaret of Jam is a tower that stands 203 feet high and dates back to 1190 CE. Constructed of baked bricks and decorated with stucco carvings and glazed tiles, the Minaret of Jam is one of the archaeological wonders of the Middle East.

8. The New Year starts in March.

Unlike in the West, December 31st does not signify the end of the year in Afghanistan. Instead, many people celebrate Nowruz, an ancient Persian spring festival observed widely across Central Asia every year in March. Thousands of Afghans travel to Mazar-e-Sharif, a city in northern Afghanistan, to celebrate the annual event. As part of their celebrations, a large banner—the janda bala—is raised. Should the banner go up smoothly, it heralds a good omen for the year.

9. Afghanistan celebrates Independence Day.

Afghanistan fought three wars against the British Empire during the 1800s and early 1900s, and eventually signed the Anglo-Afghan Treaty in August 1919. Afghans regard August 19th as the country’s official Independence Day, and celebrate it every year in commemoration of their freedom from British influence.

10. Goat grabbing is a sport.

One of the most dangerous and exciting sports in the world is played in Afghanistan: buzkashi, or goat grabbing. The game is played on horseback, with teams of riders attempting to grab a goat carcass and carry it to the “end zone” on the opponent’s side. Considered the national sport of Afghanistan, many have petitioned to have the game added to the Olympics.

11. Afghanistan has a new national anthem.

Recent changes in the country prompted the Afghan government to adopt a new national anthem. The new song, penned in 2006, contains affirmations of the country’s Islamic faith and names many of the tribes of Afghanistan.