What You Need to Know About Afghanistan’s Newest National Park

Over the last 10 years, Afghanistan has been making an impressive commitment to environmental conservation. The government of Afghanistan is increasingly aware that protecting its natural resources and safeguarding its wild places is not a luxury, but an essential element of reconstruction and sustainable prosperity. As a result, the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) has worked hard to ensure that key natural areas receive the protection they need for a healthy future.

While the creation of national parks has been a dream in Afghanistan for decades, it wasn’t until 2009 that the country finally established its first-ever national park in the spectacular region of the Band-e-Amir lakes. The initiative was successful, bringing attention, tourists, and jobs to Band-e-Amir’s communities while simultaneously establishing important safeguards for the area’s fragile natural habitat. On the heels of this success, five years later, in 2014, the country created its second national park in a remote but stunning corner of northeastern Afghanistan.

Home to soaring mountains, grassy alpine plains, and unique wildlife, Wakhan National Park has been called “one of the last truly wild places on the planet” by the director-general of NEPA. For a glimpse of this exceptional area that few people in the world get to see, here are four fascinating facts about Afghanistan’s newest national park.

 

The park is huge.

Wakhan National Park covers a remarkable 1 million hectares, or 4,200 square miles. That’s roughly 25 percent larger than Yellowstone National Park in the USA. Naturally, given this impressive size, the geography and landscapes found in Wakhan National Park are very diverse, ranging from jagged mountain peaks to rough meadows, and from dry, desert-like areas to the headwaters of the Amu Darya River.

To make the most of the park’s vast area, the long-term management plan is to divide the park into different zones for different uses. For example, some zones will be exclusive reserves for wildlife, while others will permit multiple uses, including grazing.

 

 

The park is extremely remote.

Wakhan National Park is located in the area of Afghanistan known as the Wakhan Corridor, a narrow strip of land that protrudes from Afghanistan’s northeastern tip and is bordered by several other countries, including China and Tajikistan. The meeting place of the Pamir Mountains and the Hindu Kush range, the district is a very isolated, cold, and high-altitude mountain valley bordered on both sides by formidable mountain peaks.

Accessing the area is no easy feat. An overland trip from Kabul takes a week, and it can actually be easier to enter the park via Tajikistan, its northern neighbor. As a consequence, it’s not entirely surprising that Wakhan National Park receives just 100 to 300 international visitors a year.

 

The park is home to a diverse range of wildlife.

Although Wakhan’s isolation might be a barrier for human visitors and inhabitants, it’s a major advantage for the many different species of animals that inhabit the region. According to a deputy director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) – a US non-profit that has worked with NEPA on the creation and management of both of Afghanistan’s national parks – an “astonishingly diverse” array of wildlife calls Wakhan National Park home.

Nine species of wild cats can be found in the park, which is (believe it or not) the same number found in all of sub-Saharan Africa. In addition to these feral felines, the park’s residents include wolves, brown bears, stone martens, red foxes, and ibex, as well as the unique Marco Polo sheep. The largest wild sheep in the world, it sports horns than stretch nearly six feet from tip to tip.

In terms of wildlife protection, one of Wakhan’s biggest success stories to date has been the elusive snow leopard. Listed as an endangered species by the World Wildlife Fund, the snow leopard population has declined in recent years as a result of trophy hunters targeting them for their beautiful pelts as well as from farmers killing them in order to protect their livestock. However, the creation of Wakhan National Park, as well as regional conservation programs dating back to 2009, have brought the snow leopard’s numbers back up to around 140, which WCS experts say is a sustainable number.

 

The park protects people as well as nature.

It’s not just animals who are being helped by the creation of Wakhan National Park. The Wakhan District’s resident population of about 15,000 people, most of whom are ethnic Wakhi or Kyrgyz, are also seeing benefits.

Under an agreement with the government of Afghanistan, the local population will serve as co-managers of the park, together with the Afghan government. They will be able to continue to use the land for their livelihood (many Wakhan locals survive by herding livestock), and can also get jobs as rangers, managers, and other park personnel.

Fascinating Facts About Afghanistan’s Most Famous Poet You Need to Know

Of all the threads that make up the tapestry of Afghanistan’s rich culture, poetry is one of the most important. The history of poetry in Afghanistan dates back thousands of years; even today, Afghans live and breathe poetry in a way that few other people do.

While Afghanistan has produced countless powerful and passionate poets over the centuries, none are more famous than Rumi. He was a 13th-century poet and theologian who continues to fascinate readers all over the world more than 700 years after his death.

There is some debate around which nation or country Rumi “belongs” to – his exact birthplace is not known, with some scholars saying it was in present-day Afghanistan and others claiming it was present-day Tajikistan. He also spent much of his life in in present-day Turkey. Regardless, Afghans have always held him in their hearts as their own beloved poet. Read on for fascinating facts about this legendary figure.

 

Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī

By İncelemeelemani – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32889117

 

He came from a long line of preachers.

Rumi’s father and grandfather were both well-known Muslim preachers and Sunni jurists. Baha Valad, Rumi’s father, often led prayers at the local mosque, and was very disciplined about following religious rules and regulations. He was also deeply influenced by Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam that Rumi himself strongly identified with in his later years (in addition to his poetry, Rumi wrote several works of Sufi philosophy).

 

He reportedly saw angels as a boy.

After the poet’s death in 1273, many stories about his childhood and early life began to emerge, including the report that he had visions of angels as a small boy. While these episodes agitated the young Rumi, his father reassured him by saying that the angels appeared to him in order to offer favors. Many scholars view stories like these as a valuable clue to the interest in religion, spirituality, and poetic imagination that Rumi would become known for.

 

 

He spent much of his life away from his homeland.

Around the year 1210, Rumi’s father made the decision to move the family away from the town where Rumi was born, likely in response to the imminent invasion of Genghis Khan’s armies. After this move, Rumi never saw his homeland again.

Instead, he spent much of his life as a migrant, moving with his family through Uzbekistan, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and finally Turkey, where he lived for the last 50 years of his life. This experience exposed Rumi to a wide variety of languages and religious traditions. It also contributed to his embrace of the impermanence of things, which is reflected in much of his poetry.

 

One of his most important relationships was with his great teacher Shams of Tabriz.

By the time he was in his late thirties, Rumi was settled in Konya, Turkey. Despite being known as a respected jurist, scholar, and preacher, he wasn’t wholly satisfied with his life. It is at this point that he met Shams of Tabriz, a mystic and a religious seeker.

The two fell immediately into philosophical conversation, and each recognized a kindred spirit in the other. Over the next three years, the two men pursued what scholars describe as an “electric friendship,” during which time Shams of Tabriz introduced Rumi to the idea of considering music and poetry spiritual practices.

 

Rumi’s poetry was sparked by Shams’ disappearance.

The friendship between Rumi and Shams of Tabriz was counter to the social norms of the time and was a source of great strain for Rumi’s family and community. After their period of closeness, Shams of Tabriz disappeared from Rumi’s life. Scholars are still uncertain whether Shams left of his own volition or whether he was killed, possibly by a jealous son of Rumi’s. Whatever the reason behind Shams’ disappearance, Rumi turned to poetry in order to cope with his grief and suffering.

 

Much of Rumi’s poetry is regarded as a fusion of the sensual and the devotional.

Perhaps not surprisingly given that they are rooted in the loss of a beloved friend and spiritual teacher, Rumi’s poems often mix sensual and religious themes and imagery. His most famous work, the Mathanvi (also known as the Masnavi), is a spiritual epic – a six-book mystical poem that attempts to teach followers of Sufism how to become one with God. His thousands of other poems (including ghazals, or lyrical rhymed poems, and robaiyat, or four-line rhyming poems) explore both earthly and spiritual passion.

 

Rumi is credited with creating the dance of the whirling dervishes.

The dance of the whirling dervishes is a unique form of religious ceremony in which Sufis aim to connect to God by listening to spiritual music and spinning in circles. According to legend, this practice can be traced back to Rumi, who heard the rhythmic sound of metalworkers striking their hammers as he walked through a marketplace one day. At the same time, the workers were chanting “La ilaha ilallah” (or “There is no god but Allah”), and Rumi was so overcome with joy that he reached out his arms and began spinning in a circle.

7 of the Most Important AKTC Restoration Projects in Afghanistan

AKDNlogoAs one of the most important philanthropic organizations currently operating in Afghanistan, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) supports, implements, and executes projects across a broad range of focus areas, including cultural development. Through the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), one of its affiliate agencies, the AKDN works to conserve and restore Afghanistan’s cultural heritage in order to preserve the country’s rich historic legacy, stimulate local economies, and improve the quality of life for local residents.

Over the last 16 years, AKTC has implemented restoration projects in three of Afghanistan’s major cities. Read on to learn more details about seven of the most important projects.

 

Kabul

AKTC has been working to restore and rehabilitate significant historic buildings and public spaces in Kabul since 2002. Specific initiatives have ranged from urban regeneration efforts to community development programs, all of which have had a significant impact on Kabul neighborhoods that have been damaged by the ongoing conflict. AKTC rehabilitation projects in Kabul include the following:

  1. Bagh-e Babur restoration—Home to the tomb of Babur, the first Mughal emperor, this 16th-century Islamic garden was once one of the most important spaces in Kabul before it fell into decline. Today, thanks to significant restoration work spearheaded by AKTC, the 11-hectare site has a fully re-established historic character—complete with the water channels, planted terraces, and pavilions that are the hallmarks of a traditional Islamic garden—and serves once again as a public gathering space for Kabul residents.
  2. Conservation of Timur Shah Mausoleum—This 18th-century historic landmark is located in one of central Kabul’s busiest commercial areas. The restoration of the monument has not only helped preserve a unique piece of the city’s cultural heritage, it has also provided an important training ground for Afghan craftsmen and artisans. In addition, a sizable garden around the monument, which had been taken over by informal traders in recent years, has been reclaimed as a public park stretching down to the Kabul River.
  3. Stor Palace restoration—A fabled example of 19th-century architecture, the Stor Palace (also known as the Qasre Storay) underwent a comprehensive restoration process that was completed in July 2016. As part of the project, workers not only fully restored the building’s traditional decorative elements, but they also upgraded the plumbing, heating, and electrical services. A fruitful collaboration between AKTC, the government of Afghanistan, and the government of India, the conservation project employed over 300 Afghan craftsmen and provided 282,000 days of employment.

Herat

For millennia, Herat has been a center of strategic, commercial, and cultural significance. Throughout its history, it has been repeatedly ravaged by war, but incredibly, many significant Islamic monuments and buildings have survived. Since 2005, AKTC has been working hard to safeguard this heritage. Specific projects include the following:

  1. Herat Old City rehabilitation initiative—The surviving residential and commercial quarters of the Old City of Herat follow a distinctive rectilinear plan, which makes the area unique in the region. Since 2002, however, uncontrolled construction has dramatically transformed the neighborhood’s character. To combat this, AKTC supported the activities of an Old City Commission, which worked to map all property in the Old City of Herat, formulate appropriate planning directives for key neighborhoods, and conserve important historic houses and public buildings.
  2. Gozargah Shrine Complex conservation—Abdullah Ansari, a 12th-century Sufi poet and scholar, is buried in the courtyard of an important shrine complex in Gozargah, which is one of the region’s most important religious sites and a beloved place for prayer and contemplation. AKTC helped spearhead work to protect the complex’s distinctive decoration and to upgrade the complex for modern visitors. In addition, workers documented and interpreted the decorations and dedications on the historic graves in the shrine.

 

Balkh

Often referred to as “the mother of cities,” the northern Afghan city of Balkh is considered to be one of the world’s oldest cities. Because of its location at the crossroads of the Middle East and eastern Asia, the city and its surrounding region are home to a diverse range of monuments and buildings, from Islamic structures to Buddhist architecture. AKTC has carried out restoration work on the following:

  1. Khwaja Parsha Shrine Complex—AKTC identified this 16th-century shrine complex, located in a park in the city’s center, as being in urgent need of conservation and landscaping efforts. The project, supported by AKTC and the German Federal Foreign office, included the restoration of the shrine and the reconstruction of an adjacent historic mosque, rehabilitation of the public park housing the complex, and the consolidation of two other important historic structures inside the park.
  2. Noh Gumbad Mosque—Dating from the 9th century, the Noh Gumbad Mosque is believed to be Afghanistan’s oldest and most important building from the early Islamic era. It is currently on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but it is at high risk for core structural failure. AKTC has worked to stabilize the damaged columns supporting the site and to protect some of the unique interior plaster decoration.