Did You Know These Amazing Facts About Poetry in Afghanistan?

No other nation has poetry flowing through its history and its soul quite as strongly as Afghanistan does. The rich tradition of poetry in Afghanistan dates back thousands of years, and historic and contemporary poems alike are cherished by just about every group in modern Afghan society. To learn more about the special place that this unique art form occupies in the hearts of Afghans, read on for a look at some fascinating facts about poets and poetry in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has produced countless famous and passionate poets.

Poetry has existed in the region that we now know as Afghanistan for more than 3,000 years. It’s therefore hardly surprising that, over the centuries, the region has produced some of the world’s most famous and passionate poets, many of whom are enjoying a newfound popularity with contemporary audiences. These poets include:

Rumi—The 13thcentury Sufi poet and mystic Jalal al-Din Rumi, better known simply as Rumi, is the most widely celebrated Persian language poet in the world. Born in Balkh in 1207, Rumi lived for much of his life in present-day Turkey, but is still claimed by Afghans as their own beloved poet. His thousands of poems, many of which were inspired by his friendship with the mystic and religious seeker Shams of Tabriz, are known for combining religious themes and imagery, and for exploring spiritual love and transcendence. Rumi’s most important work is the Mathnawi or Masnavi, a six-book spiritual epic that attempts to teach followers of the religious tradition of Sufism to become one with God.

Jami—Two centuries after Rumi, the Persian-language scholar, mystic, and poet Jami was born and spent his life in Herat, which was a noted literary and scholarly center for many centuries. His work explores complex questions of ethics and philosophy using what has been described as a fresh, graceful, and simple style. Many Islamic rulers of the time offered patronage to Jami, but he refused most of these proposals, preferring to live simply as a mystic and scholar rather than as a court poet.

Khushal Khan Khattak—Often referred to as the national poet of Afghanistan, as well as the father of Pashto literature, the 17th century Pashto poet Khushal Khan Khattak was both a poet and a warrior. A renowned military fighter who first served the Mughal empire and later turned against it, Khushal Khan Khattak spent the last years of his life promoting the cause of Pashtun nationalism through his poetry. It is estimated that he wrote some 45,000 poems in total, primarily on subjects such as honor, war, unity, and love.

Poetry readings are a common pastime.

In present-day Afghanistan, poetry is considered one of the highest forms of self-expression, so it’s not surprising that gathering to read and share poems, both old and new, is a popular pastime among Afghans.

In Herat, for example, members of the Herat Literary Association meet weekly to share and discuss their latest works. While these poets come from all walks of life, many are young people looking for an outlet to express their views on life in contemporary Afghanistan. Poems shared at the Herat Literary Association deal not only with weighty subjects such as war and peace, but also with love, friendship, and the realities, both positive and negative, of daily life.

In Afghanistan, poetry can be competitive.

Have you ever thought of poetry as a competitive sport? One of Afghanistan’s most intriguing poetic traditions is “sher jangi,” which translates as “poetry fighting” or “poem battle.” In this game, which is a common form of entertainment in Afghanistan, one person kicks off the contest by composing a verse. The challenger must then reply with a new verse or line which not only responds thematically to the previous verse, but also begins with the same letter as the last word of the previous verse.

The contest continues back and forth until one poet fails to come up with a coherent response. The tradition of sher jangi is at least a thousand years old: once performed by master poets at court, poetry fighting is now popular among adults at parties and gatherings, and as a game for younger boys and girls.

The Kabul Public Library was established by poets.

Of the handful of public libraries that exist in Afghanistan, the Kabul Public Library is the country’s only state-owned public library. It therefore seems entirely fitting that this library was established in 1966 by members of the Association of Poets. An organization that brought scholars, playwrights, teachers, and poets together from all across Afghanistan, the Association of Poets gave Afghan literary artists a sense of support and camaraderie that few had experienced before. The four founding members of the library transformed this wonderful poetic energy into a small but important literary hub that, today, is home to thousands of poetry books, among other resources.

Spotlight on the Unique Traditional Instruments of Afghanistan

New York City might not be the first place you’d think of in connection with Afghan music, but surprisingly enough, the city’s famous Metropolitan Museum of Art is home to one of the finest collections of traditional Afghan instruments in the world. Comprised of 29 different instruments, the collection was donated to the Met in 2015 by Mark Slobin, a former professor of music and American studies at Wesleyan University.

Slobin gathered the instruments between 1967 and 1972. During this five-year period, he traveled repeatedly to northern Afghanistan in order to conduct extensive research into Afghan music, culture, language, and general society. This fieldwork, along with the instruments themselves, would eventually prove to be more valuable than anyone anticipated.

Just a few short years later, the Soviet invasion of 1979 initiated a decades-long period of civil conflict in Afghanistan. During these challenging years, music became widely banned. Many musicians (and their instruments) either fled the country or were driven underground, and Afghanistan’s rich musical heritage fell into decline.

Slobin’s instrument collection—along with his in-depth research, which includes folk music recordings, films, and hundreds of music-related images—therefore stands as an important and rare glimpse into an aspect of Afghanistan’s culture that has been all but lost. As a result of Slobin’s work, the fascinating traditional Afghan instruments that visitors to the Met can see and learn about include:

The Qobuz

A type of fiddle widely used in northern Afghanistan, the qobuz is an ancient instrument of Turkic origin. The instrument is mentioned in the first comprehensive dictionary of Turkic languages, which was compiled in the 11th century. Shaped like a deep, curved ladle, the qobuz has a belly covered with camel or goat skin and two horsehair strings; a horsehair bow is used for playing, which generates a sound rich in overtones.

Believed to be a sacred instrument traditionally owned by shamans, the qobuz was popular during the 15th and 16th centuries for musical entertainment at Afghanistan’s royal courts. The qobuz featured in the Slobin collection at the Met was custom made for the popular Afghan folk musician Baba Naim.

The Dambura

Another traditional Afghan instrument of Turkic origin is the dambura (sometimes known as the dombra or dombyra). A type of lute typically made from a single block of wood, the dambura features a long, thin neck; a deep, oblong bowl; and two playing strings.

It is played either by plucking or strumming the strings. In some regions, musicians will also bang or strike the instrument while playing in order to produce a strong percussive sound.

The Waj

More formally known as a Kafir harp, the waj is a traditional arched harp, typically with either four or five strings, used by the Kafir people of northeastern Afghanistan’s Nuristan province. Interestingly, although similar harps were historically widespread throughout Central Asia and India, the waj is not found anywhere else in Afghanistan today.

The instrument features two main components: the soundbox, made from a hollow piece of wood covered with a thick, stretched animal skin; and the stringholder, which is a curved branch positioned on top of the soundbox. Traditionally, the waj is played at social gatherings, usually as an accompaniment to epic storytelling or heroic songs.

The Nai

One of the few wind instruments used in Afghan music, the nai (or ney) is an end-blown flute of Persian origin. The instrument is little more than a hollow tube, usually made from a piece of hollow cane or a large reed, with five or six finger holes and one thumb hole (some nai also feature decorative painting or carving). Given the nai’s basic, simple design, it’s hardly surprising to learn that the instrument is one of the oldest still in use. It has been played continually for roughly 5,000 years.

The Ghichak

A very popular instrument in Afghanistan’s central and northern regions, the ghichak is a type of two-stringed fiddle that is played with a kaman (a horsehair bow). Distinct from many other traditional Afghan instruments which are made of wood or natural materials, the body of the ghichak is made from a large metal tin, which gives the instrument its characteristic sound.

Looking Ahead: The Future of Afghan Music.

Happily, although Afghanistan’s musical heritage suffered greatly during the country’s conflict years, traditional music is once again on the rise in Afghanistan. In recent years, a number of local and international organizations have launched programs aimed at reviving Afghanistan’s musical traditions and bringing back the use of traditional instruments.

For example, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s Master-Apprentice Music Training Program sees hundreds of students learning to play traditional instruments under the tutelage of master musicians in Kabul and Herat. Likewise, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, founded in 2010 by musicologist Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, provides children and young teens with training in general academics and music, with a particular focus on traditional Afghan music.

Featured Image courtesy US Embassy Kabul Afghanistan

A Look at the National Museum of Afghanistan and Its Many Treasures

Located in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, the National Museum of Afghanistan was established in 1919. Originally housed in Bagh-i-Bala Palace, the museum housed weapons, miniatures, manuscripts, and works of art belonging to the Afghan royal families.

In this article, we look at the history of the museum, its collections, and the important artefacts housed there.

The original Afghan National Museum opened during the reign of King Amanullah Khan.

Originally known as a “Cabinet of Curiosities,” the collection was moved to its present location in 1931. In 1964, historian Nancy Dupree cowrote A Guide to the Kabul Museum.

During the 1990s, the site served as a military base. Curators sealed items in metal boxes and removed them for safekeeping, storing many artefacts in vaults throughout Kabul, while others were looted and found as far afield as Europe.

Between 2003 and 2006, the museum carried out extensive structural refurbishments, at a cost of around $350,000. Museum officials recovered precious objects, adding them to inventories and placing them back on display.

Since 2007, Interpol and UNESCO have helped recover more than 8,000 artefacts belonging to the National Museum of Afghanistan. In July 2012, the British Museum returned 843 artefacts, including the priceless first-century Begram Ivories.

The Begram Ivories consist of more than a thousand figures and plaques.

Dating back to the first and second centuries CE, these ivory and bone carvings are widely regarded as some of the finest examples of Kushan art. Rediscovered in the 1930s in Bagram, Afghanistan, these carved panels were likely originally attached to wooden furniture.

The carvings attest to the cosmopolitan tastes of the local elite, the skills and sophistication of local craftsmen, and the prolific ancient trade in luxury goods.

The ancient city of Kapisi, located near modern Bagram, formed the capital of the Kushan Empire, an ancient civilization that spanned northwest India to northern Afghanistan. Dominating two passes of the Hindu Kush mountains, Kapisi was a strategically important city. Early Kushans are well known for their arts, producing sculptures, paintings, and friezes between the first and fourth centuries CE.

The Begram Ivories include intricate, decorative plaques that depict male and female courtiers, musicians, and dancers. They also feature mythological creatures, such as griffins, as well as elephants, lions, birds, flowers, and architectural backdrops. Color pigments recovered during analysis reveal they were originally painted red, black, blue, and indigo.

The Bactria Exhibition

The historic region of Bactria in Central Asia encompassed what is now Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. It was home to a number of civilizations over the millennia, including the Persian Achaemenid Empire, the Greek Seleucid Empire, and the Greco-Bactrian Empire. Bactria was famous for its wealth, thousand cities, and the outstanding fertility of its lands.

Balkh, Bactria’s capital, formed the cultural and political center of the Aspa, Cyanides, and Pishdadian dynasties. Balkh was an important trade center, effectively serving as a crossroads between Western and Eastern cultures throughout the Achaemenid period and later.

Both Buddhism and Zoroastrianism were practiced in Bactria until the sacred religion of Islam began to flourish throughout the region and the majority of the population became Muslim.

Over the course of the last century, archaeological sites across the region have yielded precious artefacts, many of which are exhibited by the museum today, including examples from the Stone Age and Bronze Age as well as the Aryan, Achaemenid, Greco-Bactrian Scythian, and Kushan periods.

The museum features displays of Paleolithic and Mesolithic tools, as well as intricate examples of Bronze Age jewelry inlaid with lapis lazuli. There are also pieces dating back to Alexander the Great’s expedition across the region, with ivory pieces serving as important examples of Hellenistic (Greek) art.

The Ghazni Exhibition

The word Ghazni comes from the Persian word for jewel.

In 2013, Ghazni was named the Islamic Capital of Culture by the Islamic Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (ISESCO). Situated 150 kilometers southwest of Kabul, Ghazni formed the center of the province of Arakuzia in ancient times. Once the Islamic empire’s largest city, the city lies on the road between Kabul and Kandahar.

The National Museum of Afghanistan houses an extensive collection of marble stones recovered from Ghazni over the last decade, dating back to the 11th century CE.

UNESCO has supported the museum in its refurbishment program.

Working together with UNESCO, as well as a host of other cultural development organizations, the museum has rehabilitated its buildings and grounds, invested in its staff, and revamped displays of its priceless collections.

The museum has also implemented advocacy, project design, and funding and awareness strategies, making a great deal of progress over the last few years. As a result, the National Museum of Afghanistan has established a global reputation as one of the finest collections of Afghan and Central Asian art and archaeology