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


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.

How One NGO is Making a Difference in Afghanistan

By focusing on the NGOs (non-governmental organizations) working within Afghanistan, one gets an idea of both how much is being done within the country and how much work there still is to do. ACTED (Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development) was formed in 1993 as a not-for-profit, private, and independent organization. Their mission is to address the specific needs of populations that have been affected by catastrophes, social crises, and war. Their vision is to ensure that all humans can live with dignity. ACTED invests in the potential of people and works for immediate change in the lives of people facing urgent needs. Specifically in Afghanistan, the organization operates in seven provinces and has expanded its influence and programs within the last few years in response to the growing needs of the population.

Emergency Assistance

displaced Afghans

Image by IOM | Flickr

Violence continues to affect communities in many areas of Afghanistan, and has led to the displacement of nearly 200,000 individuals. In addition, recurring natural disasters have increased the number of at-risk people within the country. Communities that are faced with urgent need for food, water, and shelter have been assisted by ACTED. The organization has provided money and vouchers, sanitation services, clean water, and shelter to people in need across seven Afghan provinces. The organization is currently involved in a 16-month project to improve water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure in many Northern Afghan provinces. This work includes constructing wells and latrines, as well as providing emergency hygiene kits to displaced families.

Natural Disaster Recovery

According to recent studies by the United Nations, over 250,000 persons are affected by natural disasters within Afghanistan, such as floods, droughts, and earthquakes. Food and non-food items, cash, and vouchers have been distributed to offer support as part of ACTED’s mission. In conjunction with meeting urgent needs, the organization is also committed to long-term plans to rebuild infrastructure, repair water systems, and replace temporary shelters. In April 2016, the organization responded to severe flooding in Baghlan and Balkh provinces by offering basic hygiene supplies.

Marginalized Populations

Women, youth, and farmers are among the most marginalized people in Afghanistan. ACTED works to support these groups through both formal and informal education programs. They provide literacy classes, small business development training, vocational education, and support groups to help people develop the skills they need to provide for themselves and their families. By facilitating access to training in agricultural techniques and working to develop sustainable economic opportunities, ACTED helps marginalized individuals become better able to support their family and communities.

Gender-based Violence Reduction

In cooperation with local women’s organizations, ACTED is addressing gender-based violence, focusing on women and young girls. They provide crisis shelters, counseling, case management, and more to women who have been victims of gender-based violence. In addition, women and girls are receiving holistic education that can include literacy, job training, and other vital services.

The Link between Emergency and Rehabilitation

ACTED has been working in Afghanistan to help people deal with the after-effects of war and break the cycle of poverty. According to ACTED, interventions that take place as a response to a crisis or natural disaster must have long-term, sustainable support in order to be effective. Rather than focusing on short-term needs, ACTED brings together local community organizations to provide ongoing support once the crisis has passed. These organizations are led by local people who have a deep understanding of the needs of their communities and the most culturally appropriate ways to provide assistance.

The Developmental Approach

Through a multidisciplinary approach, ACTED can offer both developmental and humanitarian support. Their adaptive approach is helping to break the cycle of poverty and encourage sustainable development. ACTED’s assistance involves a multi-phase process:

Phase 1 offers household-level support that promotes self-reliance, helps families generate an income, and increases food security. When people receive this kind of support for their family unit, they are more able to help meet broader community needs.

Phase 2 expands the household support into an “ecosystem approach” to agriculture. By utilizing sustainable, climate-friendly agricultural techniques, communities can obtain a more reliable source of food and economic growth opportunities.

Phase 3 continues the expansion into private sector development through small business enterprise support. Urban development and rebuilding can sustain the growth of new businesses, which in turn provide jobs and income.

This three-phase process represents a gradual approach to rebuilding that emphasizes self-sufficiency. This approach also helps ensure that any changes that have been implemented don’t simply vanish when the immediate crisis is over and the aid organization leaves.

Focusing on long-term solutions rather than what appears to be a “quick fix” does not negate the need for emergency responsiveness. Particularly in countries that have experienced war or other crisis situations, the need for both is stark. Fortunately, ACTED and other international and Afghan NGOs stand ready to assist.

Behind the Scenes at Afghanaid

Despite the improved conditions within Afghanistan in recent years, decades of turmoil have left the nation in disarray. In an effort to address needs and shortfalls within the nation, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have partnered with local organizations to provide assistance and much-needed services to the residents of Afghanistan.

As a result, the country has seen an improvement in the daily lives of many, but the situation is still far from ideal. Thousands of individuals are classified as “at-risk,” a designation that indicates the extreme levels of poverty that still exist.

The at-risk groups include women, children, widows, and other displaced groups of people who face an uncertain future. Fortunately, NGOs such as Afghanaid are working to provide hope and help.

The History of Afghanaid

afghanaidlogoAfghanaid began in 1983 as an outreach of the Afghanistan Support Committee work in London. After two years of working closely with Afghans, the charity became its own entity and went to work in earnest. Since its inception, it has worked in nearly every province within the country and provided services to over 1 million Afghans.

Crisis Response

The earliest years of Afghanaid’s existence were spent addressing war-relief efforts. As war escalated in the early 1990s, Afghanaid was on hand to offer support and assistance to survivors in the aftermath of conflict.

The loss of food production sites and a breakdown in distribution lines created a food shortage that left thousands hungry. Volunteers from Afghanaid entered the country, finding families and providing food for over 70,000 people during the famine.

In addition, the country’s damaged infrasture, ambulance and other rescue personnel had a difficult time navigating the streets to bring medical relief to injured and sick persons. Afghanaid worked to raise funds for supplies and other medical necessities that helped decrease the number of casualties. In a few short years, however, Afghanid transitioned from war relief to helping people rebuild their lives.

Vocational Training

Establishing vocational training programs, such as the tailoring project, provided sustainable work and training for displaced farmers who needed ways to provide for their families. As part of the tailoring project, participants were provided with training and equipment to establish businesses that made school uniforms for children.

Other vocational efforts included beekeeping, kitchen gardens, and more. Through training and mentorship, participants in the program learn business skills, develop group lending policies, and offer financial support to others in the program. Self-sustaining programs such as these are essential to the rebuilding of Afghanistan and allow individuals within the community to develop viable business skills.

Afghanaid Today

More than 20 years after its work began, Afghanaid is still a powerful source of support and resources to the people of Afghanistan. The programs that were initiated during the war have been expanded to encompass additional areas of concern and concentrate financial efforts in the areas most in need of help.

The organization identifies vulnerable households in need of financial assistance and support and provides them with a voice in their own development. In this way, it is giving Afghans inspiration to work towards a brighter future, and encouraging others to participate in the rebuilding process and work towards a brighter future.

It concentrates its aid programs on four primary areas of concern:

  1. Basic support
  2. Improving job security
  3. Emergency response
  4. Disaster relief

The organization’s goal is a peaceful, thriving Afghanistan, and it is working to ensure that all Afghans are able to enjoy the benefits that result from peace. To support that mission, it has an overreaching theme of gender rights and governance that are underscored in every aspect of aid it offers.


By supporting local governance, Afghanaid encourages all citizens of Afghanistan to get involved in local institutions and politics. It has introduced community-based concepts such as community monitoring, social audits, and assemblies.

These efforts help to develop links between the local community and district authorities. In addition, by strengthening individuals, family units become stronger, which in turn helps to build communities.

Strong communities lead to improved relationships with other communities, and the entire nation benefits. When seen as part of a larger whole, every individual who receives assistance from Afghanaid has a role to play – both today and in the future.

Groups like Afghanaid are essential to the future of Afghanistan. With its 30-year track record in the country, it has established itself as a reliable means of support and assistance, and is a trusted component of the rebuilding taking place in the nation.

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.

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 | <”>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.