What You Need to Know about Afghanistan’s Amazing Minaret of Jam

Located in the remote and rugged province of Ghor in the west-central highlands of Afghanistan, the stunning Minaret of Jam is one of the country’s most important cultural treasures. But given its isolated location and the risks it currently faces, the monument is one that few people, Afghans or visitors, may ever have the opportunity to see up close. Read on to learn more about this architectural marvel, designated since 2002 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

What is the Minaret of Jam?

One of Afghanistan’s best-preserved examples of ancient architecture—and indeed the country’s first historic monument, according to some conservation experts—the breathtaking Minaret of Jam is the second-tallest brick minaret in the world. Built entirely of fired bricks, the structure resembles a fully extended telescope, with four staged columns of decreasing diameter sitting one inside the other. The minaret rests on an octagonal base roughly 9 meters in diameter, and rises to a total height of 65 meters (213 feet).

The outside of the monument is completely covered with highly detailed geometric designs in raised relief. A Kufic inscription inlaid in turquoise tiles adds a striking touch of color. Inside the minaret, a surprise awaits: a pair of staircases entwined in a double-helix pattern that echoes the form of a DNA molecule (a design that predates by hundreds of years the constructions that became popular in European towers during the Renaissance). This remarkable combination of beauty and practicality makes the Minaret of Jam one of the finest examples of both the artistic creativity and the structural engineering skill of its time.

How old is the monument?

Minaret of Jam

Image courtesy Afghanistan Matters | Flickr

The Minaret of Jam is all the more astonishing in view of the fact that it is more than 800 years old. The monument was built in 1194 by Ghurid Sultan Ghiyas-od-din (1153-1203). Today, the minaret is the only remaining monument from the Ghurids, a civilization that dominated the region during the 12th century, ruling an empire that extended from Bengal to Iran. The capital of the Ghurid dynasty was the legendary city of Firozkoh, also called the Turquoise Mountain, which was described as the world’s most splendid city before it was destroyed by a descendant of Genghis Khan. The present-day site of Firozkoh has never been located, but some experts speculate that it may have been in the region around the minaret. Other remains in the area include vestiges of towers and castles from Ghurid settlements east of the minaret and on the banks of the Hari-rud River, and a group of 11th- and 12th-century stones with Hebrew inscriptions located on the Kushkak hill.

The Minaret of Jam was vital to the dissemination of innovative Islamic architecture and ornamentation, and it played a very important role in the development of art and architecture in Central Asia during the period following its construction. The Qutb Minar minaret, a red sandstone tower built just south of Delhi in the early 1300s, is a clear example of the Minaret of Jam’s influence.

According to some accounts, the minaret was forgotten about until its long shadow was spotted by a British aircraft flying over the Hari River gorge in the late 1950s. Archeologists first surveyed and recorded the site in 1957, and the minaret later enjoyed a period of time as a popular destination for intrepid international tourists, including British writers Peter Levi and Bruce Chatwin.

What risks is the monument facing?

In addition to illicit excavations and other potential conflict-related damage, the Minaret of Jam faces a number of serious environmental threats. Given its proximity to the Hari and Jam rivers, erosion and flooding remain constant dangers, as do the earthquakes that strike the region fairly frequently.

In 2013, the Minaret of Jam was placed on the list of “World Heritage Sites in Danger,” and reports from 2014 stated that the minaret was in serious danger of collapsing. For many years, the monument has been precariously tilting at an angle of about 3.47 degrees. For some context, the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa once tilted at an angle of 5.5 degrees, which was later reduced to 3.99 degrees after $25 million worth of emergency work. However, although the tilt of the Minaret of Jam is not as severe as that of its Italian cousin, the structure is 30 feet taller than the Tower of Pisa, built of far less sturdy material (fired bricks) than Pisa’s quarried stone, and positioned on a much less stable foundation. The top of the minaret is currently leaning more than 10 feet from vertical.

Despite concern from cultural preservation groups within and beyond Afghanistan, the future of the Minaret of Jam is not altogether certain. UNESCO has carried out some basic stabilization work over the years, including the construction of a new supporting wall, but the location and political climate of the area make it difficult to conduct the full extent of work necessary to preserve the minaret and the surrounding site. Activists hope that more donors will be found to boost conservation efforts by UNESCO and the government and ensure that this important reminder of Afghanistan’s cultural legacy is preserved for many future generations.

Spotlight on The Asia Foundation – Supporting Education for Afghans

As part of its mission to improve lives across the diverse regions of a dynamic and rapidly developing Asia, The Asia Foundation works hard to improve the quality of local education and expand access to educational opportunities in all areas where it operates. In Afghanistan, The Asia Foundation works closely with local NGO partners, as well as all levels of the formal education system, to strengthen all areas of Afghanistan’s education system, including student enrolment and achievement, teaching quality, curriculum development, and school infrastructure.

The educational programs supported by The Asia Foundation—all of which are carefully aligned with the strategies and priorities of Afghanistan’s ministries of Education and Higher Education—focus on boosting primary school literacy, improving teacher training, facilitating civil society and government agency participation in the educational sector, as well as developing employment-oriented educational initiatives. Read on to learn more about some of The Asia Foundation’s most recent work in the world of Afghan education.

Programs to enhance numeracy and literacy skills

school childrenBooks for Asia—Established nearly 15 years ago, the foundation’s Books for Asia program has delivered millions of books and educational materials to provincial schools, universities, public libraries, NGOs, and government ministries in all 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces. One of the Books for Asia program’s biggest achievements in Afghanistan has been the distribution of a special collection of traditional Afghan folktales to schools across the country. Published by Hoopee Books, the collection was written in English, Pashto, and Dari. Since 2012, more than 1.2 million of these books have been donated to nearly 600 schools.

Primary school programs—Children who learn literacy and numeracy skills at a young age are much more likely to go on to pursue higher education. This is the reason why The Asia Foundation supports a number of local organizations, such as the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University (ACKU) and the IT company Liwal, Ltd., in building a strong culture of reading for primary school children in Afghanistan. Through initiatives such as increased library access and the publication of easy-to-read books, these partners are working to make reading easy and fun for young Afghan students, as well as their parents and adult family members. Liwal, Ltd. is also developing an innovative new mobile app for primary school literacy in collaboration with The Asia Foundation. The app, which will initially be available to 2,000 Kabul children from grades one to three, will help them to read books in Dari and Pashto.

Libraries—The Afghanistan Center at Kabul University (ACKU), the only library in Afghanistan to house a comprehensive collection of research materials, has been visited by over 61,000 users since 2015. In addition to providing technical support and fiduciary oversight to ACKU, The Asia Foundation supports the Center’s Afghanistan Box Library Extension program (ABLE). Created in an effort to help provide remote communities with much-needed educational materials, ABLE creates new “box libraries” (which are basically conveniently located depositories of books) in isolated areas, and expands the collections of existing libraries. In the past year alone, 17 new box libraries have been created and more than 20,000 books and learning materials have been sent to libraries.

Programs for curriculum development

Given the significant percentage of students who do not pass the math and science sections of Afghanistan’s national public university entrance exam, known as the Kankor exam, it is clear that the math and science curriculum in Afghanistan’s public school system is in need of improvement. To this end, The Asia Foundation has formed a close partnership with the General Directorate of Science and Education Technology, the Ministry of Education department that oversees both curriculum development and teacher training.

Together with the Directorate, The Asia Foundation is supporting the training of 900 math and science teachers, as well as 65 lab technicians, in Badakhshan, Kandahar, and Khost. The goal is not only to create a more relevant and comprehensive curriculum, but to ensure that the teachers themselves are more comfortable with the material and thus better able to support their students. Up-to-date equipment can also make a big difference in students’ learning experience. The Asia Foundation has helped to distribute 300 pieces of laboratory equipment to 54 of those schools involved in the curriculum development program.

Programs for organizational capacity building

While Afghan-led programming makes the most sense for an effective Afghan school system, many educational organizations that would normally take the lead in this area lack the capacity, resources, or organizational governance to do so. To help address this discrepancy, The Asia Foundation conducts an organizational capacity development assessment—a participatory tool that provides a complete overview of an organization—for each of its local education partners in order to evaluate organizational stability and sustainability. When deficiencies or challenges are identified, the foundation provides training sessions to help the organization bridge the gap. Sessions can cover topics such as human resources, financial sustainability, strategic planning, and finance and administration. The overall goal is to help local organizations build their own effective governance structures and reduce dependence on funding from international donors.

 

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.

Spotlight on the Future of Afghan Cinema

The future of Afghan cinema is looking very bright indeed due to organizations such as the Afghan Film Project, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to supporting and building capacity in Afghanistan’s growing film industry. Read on to learn more about how the Afghan Film Project got started and where it’s headed next.

What is the Afghan Film Project?

afghanfilmprojectBased in Kabul and Los Angeles, the Afghan Film Project (AFP) is a nonprofit, non-governmental organization that aims to empower Afghan filmmakers to tell Afghan stories. AFP aims to connect local filmmakers with the resources, experience, and opportunities they need to help bring their unique stories to the screen. At the same time, AFP focuses on building local industry capacity by providing practical training and education to producers, directors, and crews (including positions such as grips, electricians, and cinematographers). Through workshops, skills development classes, and mentorship opportunities offered by AFP, the next generation of Afghan filmmakers will gain the vital tools they need to produce films of the highest standard for both domestic and international audiences. AFP also helps to connect filmmakers and film professionals with grants and other funding opportunities.

The team behind AFP is comprised of internationally recognized film professionals who are passionate about Afghanistan and dedicated to sharing their skills and knowledge with emerging filmmakers. Board members include the Afghan-Canadian filmmaker and visual artist Ariel Nasr, who has directed the award-winning documentaries Good Morning Kandahar and The Boxing Girls of Kabul; Academy and Emmy Award-nominated filmmaker and photographer Leslie Knott, whose films include Out of the Ashes; and Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Samuel French, whose work has been presented by a number of broadcast outlets including HBO, National Geographic, and Al Jazeera.

How did the Afghan Film Project start?

In 2008, AFP co-founder and board member Samuel French moved to Kabul. With almost no previous knowledge of Afghanistan and little idea of what to expect from his time in the country, French found himself in the middle of a culturally complex nation full of unique stories waiting to be told. Inspired by the fascinating people and places around him, French began to write the script for the short film Buzkashi Boys in collaboration with England-born, Los Angeles-based filmmaker Martin Roe. In order to facilitate the development and production process for the film, AFP was founded in 2009.

Buzkashi Boys

buzkashiboysAs the AFP’s inaugural project, Buzkashi Boys was an important step forward for Afghanistan’s burgeoning film industry and served to usher in a new era of Afghan cinema to the world stage. Filmed entirely on location in Kabul during the winter of 2011, the 30-minute narrative film tells the story of two best friends striving to forge their own future as they grow to manhood under challenging circumstances. An official selection at numerous international film festivals, Buzkashi Boys received extensive critical praise for its emotionally captivating portrait of life in contemporary Afghanistan and its stunning cinematography. In 2013, the film received an Academy Award nomination in the category of Live Action Short.

For the AFP, the international recognition that Buzkashi Boys received was a fitting conclusion to what had been a passionate and challenging experiment in cross-border collaborative filmmaking. Armed with a $200,000 grant from the US State Department, which comprised the majority of the funding for the film, AFP brought more than a dozen young Afghan filmmakers on board to work with the international crew that assembled to make Buzkashi Boys, giving many of them their first taste of the ins and outs of working on a high-caliber film. Due to the support and skills from these mentor-trainee relationships, these filmmakers have since gone on to make and produce their own projects, exactly as the AFP intended.

Upcoming and related projects

As a follow-up to Buzkashi Boys, AFP formed a partnership in 2012 with the Tiziano Project, an organization that helps to provide community members from developing regions that have been impacted by conflict with the tools and training they need to tell their stories and improve lives. The fruit of this partnership was Stories from: Kabul, a collaborative project between high school students in Kabul and Philadelphia. The students received training in video journalism skills and prepared reports on cultural, political, and economic themes to compare and contrast the concept of community and civic engagement in both cities. Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center was an additional partner on the project.

Today, fueled by the success of its early endeavors, AFP continues to move ahead with a variety of initiatives designed to support its goal of empowering Afghan filmmakers. Plans are underway for an ongoing workshop series to teach filmmaking basics to emerging Afghan artists and storytellers. In addition, Development Pictures, a production company established by AFP co-founder Samuel French, is working to locate distribution opportunities for a number of new Afghan-made projects, including the television series Kabul at Work, which examines the extraordinary lives of ordinary Afghans.