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.

5 Delicious Things You Need to Know about Afghan Cuisine

Afghanistan’s rich and varied cuisine draws from a broad range of geographic influences and is steeped in a cultural tradition that is more than two thousand years old. Though it was relatively unknown outside the country’s borders until recently, more and more people around the world are now discovering the unique and flavorful charm that Afghan cuisine has to offer. If you’ve never encountered Afghan cuisine before, here are five delicious food facts to inspire you to give it a try.

Afghan cuisine reflects the country’s position as a cultural crossroads.

Landlocked Afghanistan has long been an important point of convergence for historic trade routes between Europe, India, China, and the Middle East, and centuries of varied travelers and traders passing through have had a strong influence on local food and ingredients.

India, Mongolia, and Persia (Iran) have made particularly important contributions to the evolution of Afghan cuisine. Key spices like saffron, chilies, pepper, and garam masala (a spice blend including cinnamon, cardamom, and cumin) came from India; Persia contributed strong herbs such as coriander and mint, as well as the practice of cooking with spinach and other green herbs; and the influence of Mongolian cooking helped shaped the Afghan appetite for dumplings and noodle dishes.

Consequently, contemporary Afghan cuisine is a fascinating and delicious fusion of Central Asian, South Asian, and Middle Eastern tastes and flavors. Many Western palates also appreciate the fact that, unlike some of their neighbors, Afghans do not like their food too spicy.

Rice is a key ingredient.

A staple element of Afghan cuisine, and often considered to be the best part of any meal, rice features heavily in a great many Afghan dishes. Basmati rice is the type used most often, in one of several variations. “Classic” basmati rice has been matured for up to two years in order to give it a more intense flavor and to produce a lighter and fluffier cooked grain. It’s this type of rice that is used to make chalau, a simple steamed rice dish which is often eaten with accompanying stews like korma.

“Sella” basmati rice, a slightly yellow-colored grain which has been first steamed and then dried to produce grains that are perfectly separate when cooked, is popular among Afghan cooks for making pulao (also known as palau or pilao). One of Afghanistan’s flagship dishes, pulao exists in dozens of different variations around the country, but its main components include slow-cooked meat, gently spiced rice, lentils, raisins, carrots, nuts, and spices like cardamom. Rice also features in many sweet dishes like the local rice pudding known as sheer berenj.

Lamb is one of the most common meats.

kofta

Image by Michelle DT | Flickr

Due to factors such as religious rules that prevent the eating of pork and a terrain that makes cattle farming difficult in many areas, lamb (as well as mutton, its more mature counterpart) has emerged as one of the most common meats in Afghan cuisine. To get supremely tender, flavorful meat, lamb or mutton will often be minced to make dishes like kofta, or meatballs, or marinated for many hours. One of the most popular ways to eat lamb is as a kebab, or kabob, a widely enjoyed street food in which chunks of meat and vegetables are threaded onto long skewers, grilled over charcoal, and served accompanied by naan bread. Some kebab variations take the form of shavings that come from a large cylinder of minced lamb.

Afghans are known for their use of dried fruit and nuts.

Dried fruit and nuts feature prominently in Afghan cuisine, whether as an ingredient in main dishes, offered after a meal as dessert, or simply eaten as a snack. In rural Afghanistan, for example, nuts and dried fruit are often eaten instead of a heavy midday meal. Green raisins and sultanas are usually a key part of rice dishes, and dried plums are frequently used in many dishes for their unique sweet, yet tart flavor. Some of the most popular nuts in Afghanistan are almonds, pistachios, walnuts, and pine nuts, all of which are used in both sweet and savory dishes. Dried fruits and nuts are also a staple of festive or celebratory meals: New Year celebrations, for example, feature a specialty called haft mewa, which is a dish composed of seven different dried fruits and nuts.

Food and hospitality are closely linked.

In Afghanistan, food is as much about hospitality as it is about nourishment. Afghans have a deep respect for guests and take pride in serving them the best food possible as a sign of their esteem. Tea is a particularly important expression of hospitality, with strong traditional rituals defining how tea should be served. This focus on presentation is important when it comes to food as well: during meals in a family home, for example, the best dishes will always be placed nearest the guests.

What You Need to Know about the Brussels Conference on Afghanistan

brussels conference on afghanistanHeld in early October 2016, the Brussels Conference on Afghanistan was a significant opportunity for the international community to review and discuss Afghanistan’s recent progress, and to renew its commitment to ongoing aid and development support for the country. Hosted by the Afghan government and the European Union and attended by delegates from more than 70 countries and 25 international organizations, the two-day conference concluded with international leaders pledging $15.2 billion for Afghanistan’s development over the next four years. The Brussels Conference was an important follow up to a similar meeting held in Tokyo in 2012, at which the international community committed to 4 billion euros per year in civilian aid for Afghanistan through the end of 2016.

One major highlight of the Brussels Conference was a presentation from representatives of the Afghan government on the many achievements and accomplishments that international support has made possible in Afghanistan over the last few years. Thanks to strong financial aid contributions from international sources, Afghanistan has made significant progress in a number of critical areas. Key achievements include:

Health care and education

It is impossible to improve what has not been measured. Recognizing this, Afghanistan recently conducted its first ever national Demographic and Health Survey. This comprehensive review provided new baseline information on a range of health issues, including maternal and child health, fertility, vaccination rates, and rates of diseases like malaria and HIV.

In 2015, approximately 58 million health care visits were provided to citizens, an increase of roughly 3 million over the previous year. Care for mothers and babies was a particular focus, with health workers attending about 1.2 million antenatal services and 7 million birth delivery services.

In 2015, nearly 1 million new students enrolled in Afghan schools. A total of 9.4 million students are currently enrolled in primary and secondary education; furthermore, nearly 40% of these students are girls and young women.

Public services

Herat, AfghanistanTo help address some of the bureaucratic obstacles that make it difficult for Afghans to access basic public services, Afghanistan signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Republic of Azerbaijan to launch a new initiative called Asan Khedmat. The idea behind Asan Khedmat is to create centers that can deliver both government services and auxiliary services from the private sector in an efficient, responsive, and transparent manner. The first Asan Khedmat center recently opened in Kabul. Residents of the city now have access to 21 services—including driver’s licenses, vehicle registrations, wedding certificates, and national ID cards—under one roof.

Irregular and unpermitted urban settlements are common in Afghanistan’s major cities, often leading to contentious property disputes, stress, and fear for residents. Afghanistan is seeking to resolve these issues through a recently launched, nationwide program that aims to survey, register, and provide occupancy certificates to properties located in these areas. Around 6,000 properties in cities like Herat, Kandahar, and Kabul have already been mapped and are currently undergoing the registration process.

Securing livelihoods

A government jobs creation program known as Jobs for Peace was rolled out last year in several Afghan provinces. With the goal of improving short-term food security for families, the initiative disbursed more than $70 million to people in more than 5,000 communities, creating at least 2.6 million days of labor. Jobs within the program included maintenance work on rural area development projects and cleaning work in urban centers.

Given that many Afghans earn their livelihood through agricultural activities, support for farmers is a crucial part of Afghanistan’s overall economic health. Some of the achievements that have helped farmers in recent years include the Agricultural Development Fund loans program, which has disbursed $61 million to more than 31,000 farmers; the rehabilitation of nearly 2,000 kilometers of irrigation infrastructure, which has improved water access for close to 500,000 hectares of agricultural land; and the recovery of 6,000 hectares of illegally seized land by the Land and Water Administration, which is working to provide farmers with land tenure security and protect them from seizure.

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.

A Look at Afghanistan’s Rich Tradition of Dance

It is easy to forget that, after decades of war and conflict that have battered Afghanistan’s landscape, part of the country’s rebuilding efforts is a return to normalcy. The people of Afghanistan are not only struggling to rebuild their physical infrastructure, housing, and farms, they are also attempting to rebuild culturally as well. An entire generation of Afghans has had little opportunity to discover and explore their rich heritage and ancient customs. To preserve a sense of national identity, parents are again teaching their children the importance of culture. One aspect of Afghan heritage that has been obscured during the long conflict is dance.

Dance has been an integral part of Afghan life for centuries—it is an art form practiced by all of the ethnic groups in the country. The largest of these groups include the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks. Traditional dances can vary in style, music, and costume across different ethnic groups and geographic regions.

Traditional Attitudes Toward Dance

Traditionally, women do not participate in dances, unless the dance is being conducted within a private home or as part of a family celebration with other women. In traditional Afghan culture, it is considered unacceptable for a woman to perform as a dancer in public, so professional dancers were traditionally men until recently. Influences from nearby India have begun to change the perception of women as dancers, and within the Kabul region, it is becoming more acceptable for women to perform.

The Atan

Considered by many to be the national dance of Afghanistan, the Atan is a circle dance that includes ten or more people. Accompanied by drums, the dancers form a circle and begin a slow turn around the dance floor. As the drum beat builds, the dancers move more quickly, snapping, singing, and clapping as they whirl around the circle. This dance can last for hours, and is characterized by the quick spinning and movements of the body. Men may carry handkerchiefs, scarves, swords, or guns to use during the dance. On rare occasions, the dance may be performed by a mixed group of men and women, during which the dance is accompanied by singing. The men sing love songs, which are answered by the women. The actions of the dancers help to define the dialogue, making this a fun, energetic dance for all.

Herati Atan

Another form of the Atan dance is known as the Herati Atan. Performed by groups of men, this processional style dance is performed with a leader, who guides the dancers through the motions while being accompanied by several musical instruments. The men line up and face each other, performing mimicking actions to the beat of the music. Dancers make small, concentric circles, while clapping their hands over their heads and waving scarves. The leaders instruct the dancers in the number of claps, the direction to turn, or the speed of the dance. The dance is fascinating to watch, as the dancers move in and out, resembling the opening and closing of a flower.

Shalangi

The shalangi dance is primarily a dance of two women, although on some occasions, two men may perform it. The dancers start in opposite corners of the room, facing each other. As the music begins to play, they begin to move toward each other, clapping in a rhythmic beat over their heads. They approach each other, using a shuffling step, “squaring off” in the center of the dance floor. During the dance, the two women may mimic each other’s movements, but may also make alternate movements in an attempt to confuse the other dancer. Other dance techniques, such as facial movements, the use of scarves, or the accompaniment of lyrics make this a fun dance to observe.

Logari

The traditional dance of Logar, a province south of Kabul, is generally performed by skilled performers. The musicians try to “trick” the performers by suddenly stopping during the dance, forcing the dancers to freeze in position until the music starts again. The pause may last as long as a minute in a good-natured attempt to defeat the dancers. This “stop dance” can be exciting and noisy, as the musicians play quickly and loudly, and the dancers call out to each other and the musicians as they banter back and forth.

Ozbaki

Ozbaki dance styles are predominantly performed by people in the northern regions of Afghanistan. With a focus on footwork, the dancers move in a series of motions that mimic running, stepping, and hopping. As the music shifts in tempo, from fast to slow, the dancers move in time, shifting their bodies left and right. Dancers generally keep their hands at their sides, to call the audience’s attention to their quick steps and footwork instead. Musicians playing along with these dances are talented and inventive, often changing the style of music quickly to keep the dance interesting.

The Afghan people’s celebration of their cultural roots is an important part of the rebuilding process, as well as a way to strengthen their heritage. As people celebrate holidays and mark the seasons and events with dance, communities share these rituals with younger generations.

Featured Image by Presidio of Monterey | Flickr