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.

Spotlight on the Most Important Holidays That Afghans Celebrate

Afghans enjoy celebrating their national holidays. For people across the country—and, indeed, for members of the Afghan diaspora around the world—traditional holidays are observed with great enthusiasm, bringing together family, friends, neighbors, and entire communities in joyous celebration. Read on for a closer look at some of Afghanistan’s most important holidays and festivals.

 

Nowruz

Perhaps the most popular and lavishly celebrated holiday in Afghanistan is Nowruz. Literally translated as “new day,” Nowruz is the Persian New Year, a day of rebirth and renewal which originated from the Zoroastrian tradition. Zoroastrianism is a Persian religion which was prevalent long before the rise of Islam. Due to this connection, Nowruz was officially banned in Afghanistan during its years of fundamentalist rule, although many Afghans continued to hold secret celebrations.

 

Nowruz

Image by alisamii | Flickr

 

Nowruz, which occurs on March 21, the vernal equinox, is celebrated across the Middle East and Central Asia with music, dancing, and, above all, feasting. Some of the special traditional dishes prepared for Nowruz include samanak, a sweet dessert paste made of wheat and sugar that can take two days to prepare, and haft-mehwah, a dish comprised of seven dried fruits and nuts—almonds, pistachios, walnuts, red and green raisins, apricots, and the Afghan fruit called sanjit—that symbolize the coming of spring. Given that community is at the heart of Nowruz celebrations, Afghans always cook more food than usual for this holiday so that they are able to offer hospitality to unexpected guests.

 

Eid al-Fitr

Eid al-Fitr is the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. One of Islam’s most sacred traditions, Ramadan is a month of ritual fasting associated with the lunar calendar during which most Muslims (except for children, the elderly, the sick, and pregnant women) do not eat from dawn till dusk. In addition, many businesses, particularly restaurants, are closed during the month-long observance. It’s not hard to imagine, therefore, that an event marking the end of this period would be quite the party, and that is indeed the case. The celebration of Eid al-Fitr lasts for about three days, and involves congregational prayers in mosques, visits to friends and relatives, games, gifts of new clothes (especially for children), and of course, plenty of feasting. Since it is based on the lunar calendar, the timing of Eid al-Fitr, and indeed of Ramadan itself, varies by about 11 or 12 days every year.

 

Eid-e-Qurban or Eid al-Adha

Another important Muslim holiday in Afghanistan is Eid-e-Qurban or Eid al-Adha. Celebrated during the 12th month of the Muslim (lunar) calendar, Eid-e-Qurban marks the preparation for the hajj, the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca that all observant Muslims with the necessary physical and financial ability are obliged to make at least once in their lifetime. During the feast of Eid-e-Qurban, animals such as sheep, goats, and sometimes camels are sacrificed in commemoration of Abraham’s sacrifice of a sheep, instead of his son Isaac, according to Allah’s command. One-third of the sacrificed animal is used by the family, one-third is given to relatives, and the remainder is given to those in need. Friends also give and receive presents during Eid-e-Qurban.

 

Mawlud-un Nabi

The holiday is a celebration of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad (note, however, that not all denominations of Islam observe this day). For those denominations that do observe it, Mawlud-un Nabi is celebrated with prayer, stories of the Prophet’s birth, life, teachings, and wisdom, and the decoration of mosques and buildings with colorful pennants and bright lights. In addition, Mawlud-un Nabi is an important time for charity, with affluent Muslims making generous charitable donations.

 

Ashura

The Islamic month of Muharram is a period of mourning in memory of the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, around the year 680 AD. Ashura, which is held on the 10th day of the month of Muharram, is a day of fasting that marks the climax of the mourning period.

 

Ashura

Image by Ninara | Flickr

 

Jeshyn-Afghan Day or Independence Day

Held annually on August 19, Afghanistan’s Independence Day commemorates the signing of the Anglo-Afghan Treaty of 1919, which restored full independence to Afghanistan after its years as a British protectorate. The day is a source of great pride for Afghans and an opportunity to remember a time when Afghans fought for independence with a shared vision of unity and prosperity. Many people celebrate the holiday by visiting galleries, attending poetry readings, or taking part in other activities that celebrate Afghanistan’s culture and heritage.

 

Labor Day

Celebrated on May 1 along with many other countries around the world, Labor Day is a holdover from the Soviet era in Afghanistan. Many Afghans consider it a valuable occasion to draw attention to the plight of unemployed Afghans and to advocate for better and safer working conditions for the country’s laborers.

4 Facts about Islamic Calligraphy That Will Amaze You

Turqoise MountainTraditional arts and crafts suffered greatly during Afghanistan’s long years of civil conflict, but over the last decade, the country has seen a renaissance of traditional art forms and the launch of a brand-new generation of artisans. One group spearheading this remarkable revival is the nonprofit, nongovernmental organization Turquoise Mountain, an international association founded in 2006 that is dedicated to revitalizing historic areas in Afghanistan and to spurring the development and growth of the Afghan arts and crafts industry.

One of Turquoise Mountain’s most important initiatives is the Turquoise Mountain Institute. As the premier arts vocational training institution in Afghanistan, the Institute is where the country’s future master artisans get their start. Around 15 students are accepted every year via a highly competitive application process, and successful candidates then receive three years of intensive training in their particular craft from some of the world’s most distinguished artisans (both Afghan and international faculty teach at the Institute).

In addition to offering world-class training in disciplines like woodworking, ceramics, and jewelry-making and gem-cutting, the Institute serves as the home of the Alwaleed Philanthropies School of Calligraphy and Miniature Painting. Calligraphy is a highly revered art form throughout Afghanistan and the rest of the Islamic world, and it has a rich and captivating history that few Westerners are familiar with. Read on for some fascinating facts about the beautiful art of Islamic calligraphy.

 

Islamic calligraphy is a sacred art form.

Islamic calligraphy began as the practice of handwriting text directly from, or based on the contents of, the Quran, the sacred book of Islam. Early calligraphers drew inspiration from significant parts of the Quran and particular sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, such as the statement “God is beautiful and loves beauty,” and they took these messages to heart in developing writing styles that would enhance and formalize the text of the Quran as people began to write it down on parchment. Because these artists regarded the words of the Quran as the verbal manifestation of divine truth, they viewed their work as an act of worship. Indeed, experts describe devoted Islamic calligraphers as adopting a meditative and almost mystical approach to penmanship, attempting to craft an inscription that is as pleasing to the eye and as rewarding to the spirit as the harmonious rhythm that emerges from recited verses of the Quran.

 

 

Islamic calligraphy exists in a surprising number of places.

While Islamic calligraphy began as the act of inscribing the Quran onto parchment, the art form quickly expanded to other materials. Over the centuries, people have applied calligraphy to ceramics, tile, metal, stone, glass, textiles, carpets, wood, leather, and ivory. In an exhibit of Islamic art, for example, calligraphy exists on almost every precious object, from a carved jewelry box to an inlaid pen case to a decorative water pitcher. But perhaps the most striking place to view Islamic calligraphy is in architecture: Muslim structures all over the world are adorned with beautifully crafted, flowing script running throughout the building. Some of the most famous examples include the Alhambra Palace in Spain, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, and the Taj Mahal in India.

 

The instrument that people use to write calligraphy is called a qalam.

The tool that Islamic calligraphers use to create their art is called a qalam. Made from a dried bamboo stem or sometimes a dried reed, the qalam is treated and carved to hold different-colored inks. It’s important to understand, however, that the qalam is much more than just a pen—it is a spiritual tool. In fact, Muslim literature states that the first thing that God created was the qalam, which had the sacred duty to record everything that happened in a person’s life. In addition, because a calligrapher spends so much time using the qalam, it essentially becomes an extension of the hand and a repository for the calligrapher’s ideas and feelings.

For all these reasons, the qalam is treated with a particular reverence, and there’s perhaps no better illustration of this than the ritual of the qalam shavings. According to a custom long respected by calligraphers, all the shavings a calligrapher produces whenever he or she cuts and sharpens his or her qalam must be kept, from the calligrapher’s first day of learning to the day he or she dies. After the death of a calligrapher, the family performs the ritual of collecting the shavings and burning them in the fire that heats the water that will be used to wash the calligrapher’s body. In this way, the calligrapher and his or her qalam both disappear from the material world together.

 

Image by Doctor Yuri | Flickr

 

There are a number of different script styles in Islamic calligraphy.

While “Islamic calligraphy” is referred to as a single discipline or art form, there are several different script styles that calligraphers use depending on what they are writing and where they are writing it. For example, the Kufic style, which was popular during the 7th through the 10th centuries, is one of the oldest script forms and the source for other major styles that emerged later, while the Thuluth script style, which developed in the 9th century, was often used for architectural inscriptions because of its larger size and high visibility.