8 Facts about One of the Most Amazing Art Forms in Afghanistan

From music to woodworking, traditional arts and crafts in Afghanistan are currently enjoying a much-needed revival. During Afghanistan’s conflict years, many of these traditions were discouraged or actively suppressed, and some came close to being lost altogether. Fortunately, increased local and international interest in traditional art forms, along with the support of organizations such as Turquoise Mountain, have led to a recent resurgence of these arts and crafts and a renewed respect for their practitioners.

While many of these traditional art forms hold an almost legendary status in Afghan culture and history, few are more fabled than carpet weaving. Beautiful rugs have been handmade in Afghanistan using the same patterns and techniques for thousands of years. With such a history, it’s little wonder that Afghan carpets are viewed as the heart and soul of Afghan art and craftsmanship. Read on to learn more fascinating facts about the amazing art of Afghan carpet weaving.

1. There are two main categories of Afghan carpets.

Stunning in their diversity, Afghan carpets come in a huge range of patterns, designs, and colors. However, most Afghan carpets fall into one of two broad categories: the Turkoman (or Turkmen) carpet and the Beloutch (or Baluchi) carpet. Turkoman carpets are woven in Northern Afghanistan using wool that is renowned for its luster and hard-wearing qualities. Beloutch carpets come from Western Afghanistan and feature a variety of weaves, designs, and types of wool.

2. Afghan carpets were originally made by nomadic tribes.

Afghan carpets are so diverse because they were originally made by Afghanistan’s many nomadic tribes. Each tribe had patterns and designs that were unique to their group and had been passed down from generation to generation. Up until around the 19th century, it was possible to tell where a carpet originated simply by looking at its design and how it was produced.

3. Afghan tribal rugs are not woven for sale.

Another intriguing fact about the carpets made by Afghanistan’s nomadic tribes is that, historically, they were never produced specifically to be sold. Rather, they were made for use within the community—as coverings for the floors and walls of tents to provide warmth and decoration, as prayer rugs, as seating for mealtimes, and as wedding gifts for a bride’s dowry. Carpets were only taken to market when an older rug fulfilling one of these functions was replaced with a newer rug; the older one would then be sold or traded.

4. Making an Afghan carpet takes time.

Traditional Afghan carpets are made by hand, with weavers meticulously knotting wool threads on horizontal looms. As you can imagine, such a detail-oriented process takes time—a single weaver can usually produce about 1 square meter (roughly 10 square feet) of carpet every month. At this rate, many Afghan carpets can take anywhere from six to nine months to complete, even longer for larger or more specialized pieces.

5. Traditional Afghan carpets are made of all-natural materials.

Wool is the primary material used to make Afghan carpets. Traditionally, nomadic tribes would use the wool of their own sheep, with activities such as shearing the sheep and brushing and spinning the wool considered part of the process of making the carpets.

Silk and cotton may sometimes be used, but most carpet connoisseurs hold that true Afghan carpets are made entirely of wool. Also, in traditional Afghan carpet-making, the dyes used to color the wool come from natural sources such as flowers, fruits, vegetables, and minerals. Many say that the colors provided by these natural pigments only get better with time.

6. Afghan carpet weavers work from memory.

Incredibly, traditional Afghan carpet weavers don’t use diagrams or drawings to create their pieces. Instead, they work from memory, replicating centuries-old patterns that they have learned from previous generations of artisans.

7. Afghanistan’s conflict years inspired artisans to create “war rugs.”

Beginning in the 1980s, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a new type of Afghan carpet began to appear. These rugs were woven in the traditional Afghan style, but instead of geometric designs and patterns, they featured images of war such as weapons, maps, and soldiers. Today, these fascinating carpets are considered important art objects that offer a glimpse of a profound time in history through the eyes of the artisans who lived it.

8. The carpet-weaving industry in Afghanistan is changing.

In this age of globalization, it’s difficult for traditional forms of arts and crafts to compete with their mass-produced counterparts. Today, many Afghan carpets are produced not by weavers in their traditional villages but at factories where weavers may simply knot carpets without playing any role in the design. However, some organizations are working to find a balance between traditional craftsmanship and contemporary demands. Turquoise Mountain, for example, not only helps operate several weaving centers that offer stable employment and good working conditions to carpet artisans, but it also works to find international partners and buyers for the finished carpets.

Spotlight on the Upcoming Bayat Foundation Innovation Hub

The Bayat Foundation has spent a great deal of time in recent months focusing on COVID-19 relief efforts. However, it has not lost sight of its other ambitious projects planned for the post-pandemic future. Among these is the Bayat Foundation Innovation Hub, an exciting new initiative that aims to advance science and technology education in Afghanistan. Read on to learn more.

What is the Bayat Foundation Innovation Hub?

The Bayat Foundation Innovation Hub is a classroom for the 21st century located on the grounds of Michelle Bayat High School in Kabul. Currently under construction—the project was launched at a special groundbreaking ceremony on October 10, 2020—the Hub will serve as a state-of-the-art education center that will provide students with an inventive, practical, and accessible learning environment.

What will be the focus of the Bayat Foundation Innovation Hub?

The Bayat Foundation Innovation Hub will offer a curriculum focusing on STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, and math. The broad goal of the Hub’s educational programs is to help students understand and maximize the potential of today’s technology and—at the same time—to think creatively about the role that technology can play in solving the problems of the future. In order to encourage critical thinking, inventiveness, and leadership development, the Hub will immerse students in the curriculum using the latest app-based learning initiatives. For example, coding skills will be taught via robotic balls, drones, and physical and virtual coding blocks.

Why is STEM education important?

We are currently living in an age of constant scientific discovery and technological transformation. In order for people and countries alike to keep up with the pace of change, stay competitive in a global economy, make valuable contributions to the future of society, and address our planet’s most pressing challenges, STEM literacy is absolutely essential. Through a STEM education, young people can develop vital skills such as critical and creative thinking, gathering and evaluating evidence, and information-based problem solving and decision-making that will help them—as well as the organizations and countries that they will eventually represent—to succeed in a complex world.

How does the Hub advance the Bayat Foundation’s mission?

Education has always been one of the central pillars of the Bayat Foundation’s mission, which is to nourish the lives of all Afghans. Throughout Afghanistan’s history, a significant portion of the population has lacked access to any kind of formal education. This not only impacts individuals and families, many of whom have difficulty improving their circumstances due to a lack of education, but also the country itself, which has been deprived of societal, business, and government leaders.

In response to this challenging education gap, the Bayat Foundation has worked hard to develop, implement, and support initiatives that aim to provide Afghans with valuable learning opportunities. The foundation’s efforts in this area focus on two important groups: vulnerable and at-risk Afghans, such as orphaned children and refugees who lack literacy skills; and post-secondary students, who need an enhanced standard of learning in order to help Afghanistan to compete on the world stage. In recent years, the Bayat Foundation has been involved with the launch of the Faryab Orphanage and Learning Center in Maimana Province and has provided support for the reconstruction of the American University of Afghanistan.

What other organizations are involved in developing the Hub?

The following organizations are partnering with the Bayat Foundation on the construction and operation of the Bayat Foundation Innovation Hub:

The Afghan Red Crescent Society—The Michelle Bayat High School, which will house the new Bayat Foundation Innovation Hub, is located in Kabul on the grounds of the Afghan Red Crescent Society (the acting managing director and the secretary general of the society both participated in the October 10 groundbreaking ceremony for the Bayat Foundation Innovation Hub alongside the Bayat Foundation’s chairman, Ehsan Bayat). The Afghan affiliate of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the Afghan Red Crescent Society has conducted wide-ranging humanitarian and relief work throughout Afghanistan since the 1930s.

MATTER—A global nonprofit organization, MATTER envisions a world in which every person is able to lead a full and healthy life. A movement of people, businesses, and organizations, MATTER is dedicated to overcoming one of our biggest contemporary challenges: a lack of access to healthcare, education, and other resources that are necessary to enable people to lead healthy and fulfilled lives.

Teach for Afghanistan—For many years, one of the main barriers to improving education in Afghanistan has been a lack of qualified teachers. Teach for Afghanistan works to address this problem by placing the country’s most promising university graduates in two-year teaching positions at Afghan schools. To date, over 200 university graduates—who teach at 69 schools—have helped more than 60,000 young students.

A Look at the Unique Plant Life in Afghanistan

Although Afghanistan is a dry country that primarily encompasses arid desert and rugged mountain ranges, it is home to an incredibly diverse array of plant life. In fact, according to some botanists, when it comes to plants and vegetation, Afghanistan is one of the world’s most important centers of biodiversity. Read on to learn some fascinating facts about Afghanistan’s surprisingly rich and unique plant life.

Afghanistan has more species of flowering plants than Central Europe.

It would be easy to assume that a region like central Europe, with its damp climate so favorable to plant growth, would have a wider variety of flowering plants than arid Afghanistan. Interestingly, however, the opposite is true. Afghanistan has far more species and sub-species of flowering plants than central Europe. Approximately 4,500 distinct flowering plants have been identified in Afghanistan, and botanists believe that there are many more still to be found and named. Afghan flowering plants encompass more than 600 species within the legume/pea family; 500 species in the daisy family, including nearly 150 different types of thistle; and 205 species in the mint family.

Nearly one-third of Afghanistan’s flowering plants are not found anywhere else.

Afghanistan’s flowering plant life is not only exceptionally diverse, but it’s also unique. Approximately 30% of all of the country’s flowering plants are endemic to Afghanistan, meaning that they don’t grow anywhere else in the world. (In contrast, the UK—another region with a damp climate that is ideally suited to plant growth—only has about 1,700 species of flowering plants, and a mere handful of these are endemic.)

Afghanistan’s valleys helped to shape its floral biodiversity.

Afghanistan’s extraordinary floral biodiversity owes a great deal to the country’s distinctive landscape, particularly the fertile valleys that lie in between its soaring mountains. Over the course of millions of years, these valleys served as a refuge for plants, helping to preserve and protect floral life through a series of global ice ages that wrought destruction elsewhere (to take the UK as an example once again, that region was wiped relatively clean of species with each successive Ice Age due to the area’s fairly flat topography). Furthermore, because the valleys are isolated from one another, many new species were able to evolve in the different areas, each specially adapted to the highly specific local conditions.

Foraging for plants plays an important role in rural Afghanistan.

Given the rich diversity of plants found in Afghanistan, it’s hardly surprising that plant foraging is an important activity in the country, particularly in rural and remote areas. For many Afghans living in rural communities, foraged plants can provide an important source of food, medicine, and sometimes income (foragers often sell their finds by the roadside or from carts in urban areas). The following are some commonly foraged plants:

Rhubarb—Known as chukri or rawash in Afghanistan, wild rhubarb is the Afghan forage plant that is most recognizable to people in the west, particularly northern Europeans. In Afghanistan, wild rhubarb is a springtime delight that is usually an ingredient in salads, or simply sprinkled with salt and eaten raw. Since rhubarb is rich in key nutrients (such as calcium, manganese, potassium, and vitamins C and K), it is an important type of food for rural Afghans, particularly during drought years when other crops are more scarce.

Liquorice root—A member of the legume/pea family, liquorice is known for its pale purple flowers and sharp, distinctive flavor. Foragers dig up liquorice roots and boil them to make a tea, a common treatment for stomachaches. Dried liquorice roots are also an important Afghan export typically destined for markets in India and the Emirates.

Caraway—Zira-ye Kohi, as it is known in Afghanistan, is a delicious spice that is from the carrot family. It is frequently used in Afghan cuisine, especially as an addition to rice dishes.

Afghanistan is one of eight regions in the world where crops were first grown.

The richness and diversity of Afghanistan’s wild plants is also closely related to the country’s history of plant domestication. According to scholars, Afghanistan is part of the “Vavilov Centers,” a term used to describe the regions of the world—eight in total—where humans began domesticating plant crops. In order for this process of domestication to be successful, it is important for early growers to have ready access to each crop’s wild relatives. The fact that wild plants such as wheat, peas, and lentils existed so plentifully in Afghanistan thousands of years ago is what allowed their eventual domestication to take place.

A groundbreaking book on Afghanistan’s plants was recently published.

For those interested in the native plants of Afghanistan, more information can be found in the groundbreaking 2010 book Field Guide Afghanistan: Flora and Vegetation. The culmination of decades of work by a team of Afghan, German, and British biologists and scholars, the book is highly detailed, but easily accessible to non-specialists. Written in Dari and English, the book is used at many schools, universities, and research institutes throughout Afghanistan.