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

Afghan Art on the World Stage at the “Made in Afghanistan” Exhibit

When you think of Afghan art, you might call to mind some examples of delicate woodwork, exquisitely set gemstones, or intricate carpet weaving. But although Afghanistan is currently experiencing an important reconnection with these historic arts and crafts, there is more to the country’s evolving artistic and cultural landscape than these traditional forms.

Intriguingly, after decades of repression, Afghanistan is once again home to a small but vibrant contemporary art scene fueled by a community of exciting and talented artists who are committed to showing the world a different side of their homeland. And show the world they did at the recent “Made in Afghanistan” exhibition, held from November 2019 to January 2020 at Etihad Modern Art Gallery in the United Arab Emirates. Read on to learn more about the exhibit, the participating artists, and why this opportunity was important for contemporary art in Afghanistan.

What was the Made in Afghanistan exhibition all about?

Made in Afghanistan is the largest art exhibition focused entirely on Afghan artists that has ever been held in the UAE. Featuring over 50 artworks from 11 different artists working across a range of disciplines, both contemporary and traditional, Made in Afghanistan is a celebration of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage that also marks the 100th anniversary of the country’s independence. The aim of the exhibition—which included handcrafts, antiques, and agricultural products alongside a wonderful selection of modern artworks—was to introduce visitors to Afghanistan’s unique artistic and cultural scene, which is often overlooked next to stories of the country’s conflicts and challenges. The exhibition also sought to deliver a special message of peace and hope from contemporary Afghan artists.

Who organized the exhibit?

A number of different partners, both in Afghanistan and in the UAE, worked together to make Made in Afghanistan possible. These players included:

The Etihad Modern Art Gallery (EMAG)—A multi-purpose art space and café in the heart of Abu Dhabi, EMAG has been providing a vital showcase for local and international artists since it was established in 2013. With the goals of advancing Abu Dhabi’s art scene, promoting Emirati culture and arts to a wider audience, and providing emerging and established artists alike with a platform for their passion, EMAG offers a regular program of art shows and events at home and internationally in partnership with respected galleries and institutions.

Berang Arts—A co-curator of Made in Afghanistan, Berang Arts is a Kabul-based group that works to develop and support contemporary arts in Afghanistan. For the past decade, the peer-run organization has been an important resource for both new and established artists trying to negotiate the challenging balance between Afghanistan’s traditional values and their own contemporary aesthetic.

The Afghan Embassy—The Embassy of Afghanistan in Abu Dhabi, one of the world’s largest Afghan embassies, played an important supporting role in organizing the Made in Afghanistan exhibit, working with both EMAG and Berang Arts to bring the artworks for display from Afghanistan to the UAE.

Which artists participated in the exhibit?

Some of the most exciting artists currently working in Afghanistan were featured in the Made in Afghanistan exhibition, including:

Mohammad Shahab Eslami—An active member of Berang Arts and a founder of the Kabul photography group Induction, Mohammad Shahab Eslami is an experimental filmmaker and photographer. A self-taught artist, Eslami explores different genres of photography to capture the form and content of contemporary human life. Six of his pieces were shown at Made in Afghanistan.

Shamsia Hassani—A co-founder of Berang Arts, Shamsia Hassani is believed to be the first female graffiti artist in Afghanistan. Her work, which features vivid imagery that symbolizes the issues faced in modern Afghanistan, can be found on walls and buildings around Kabul.

Robaba Mohammadi—At just 19 years of age, Robaba Mohammadi has overcome tremendous obstacles in order to make a name for herself as an artist. Unable to walk or use her hands due to a condition she’s had since birth, Mohammadi found her passion for art during her lonely years of growing up without being able to attend school. Today, she paints and draws using her mouth, producing beautifully detailed portraits of Afghan streets and people. She is also a passionate advocate for the rights of people with disabilities in Afghanistan.

Why was the Made in Afghanistan exhibition important?

Made in Afghanistan offered a very valuable opportunity for these 11 young artists to show their work internationally, and in another Arab country at that. As explained by Nabila Horakhsh, a co-founder of Berang Arts and a co-curator of the exhibition, Afghan artists have few opportunities to exhibit inside Afghanistan while also struggling to access international galleries. This means that chances for their work to be seen by the public are rare. Everyone involved in the Made in Afghanistan exhibition hopes that this event will mark the beginning of a long-term relationship between Afghan and Emirati artists, with more exhibits and exchanges to come on both sides.

5 Things You Need to Know about the Abu’l Fazl Shrine

If you walk through the bustling bazaar in the recently restored Kabul neighborhood of Murad Khani—whether in person or online via the amazing Preserving Afghan Heritage platform on Google Arts & Culture—you’ll soon spot a distinctive blue minaret rising above the other buildings. This is the Abu’l Fazl Shrine, a beloved Murad Khani landmark and an important place of worship for Shia Muslims. Read on for a look at five fascinating facts about this unique site.

1. The shrine is named for a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

The shrine takes its name from Abbas Abu’l Fazl, an important historical figure who was the son of Ali, the fourth Muslim caliph. A cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, Ali became caliph in 656 and reigned until his assassination in 661. This period, one of the most tumultuous in Muslim history, eventually led to the splitting of Islam into two main sects: Sunnis and Shias. Shia Muslims, who were known as the “party of Ali” in early Islamic history, believed that Ali and his descendants were the rightful leaders of the Islamic community. However, after Ali’s assassination, his main rival, Muawiya, became caliph. When Muawiya’s son Yazid succeeded his father in 680, Ali’s sons, including Hussein, refused to accept the legitimacy of the new caliph, thus creating a division between the two factions.

2. The shrine commemorates a critical event in Muslim history.

The struggle between Ali’s sons and the supporters of Yazid over the question of who should hold leadership in the Islamic community eventually led to one of the most pivotal events in Muslim history: the massacre at Karbala, which took place in 680, the same year that Yazid became caliph. Stories about the event vary, but most accounts agree that Hussein, who was on his way to a city in what is now modern-day Iraq with a fairly small retinue, was set upon near the city of Karbala by Yazid’s much larger army. This army massacred Hussein’s entire party, including his half-brother Abu’l Fazl, and publicly executed Hussein—the shrine of Abu’l Fazl was built in commemoration of the brothers’ deaths. This devastating event permanently cemented the split between Sunni and Shia Muslims and gave rise to the longstanding feelings of betrayal and martyrdom that still persist in the Shia community. (Today, about 15 percent of the global Muslim population is comprised of Shia Muslims.)

3. Many pilgrims visit the shrine during the religious festival of Ashura.

While people worship at the Abu’l Fazl shrine all year round, the shrine sees the largest number of visiting pilgrims during the religious festival of Ashura. An important day for all Muslims, but especially for Shia Muslims, Ashura takes place on the 10th day of Muharram, which is the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar.

For Shia Muslims, Ashura is a commemoration of the massacre at Karbala, and of the martyrdom of Hussein, in particular. The day itself is marked by prayers, fasting, and many mourning rituals, processions, and passion plays that re-enact Hussein’s death. Some Shias emulate Hussein’s suffering through acts of self-flagellation or bloodletting, although this is increasingly discouraged by some contemporary Shia leaders, who instead urge worshippers to donate blood in recognition of Hussein’s sacrifice.

4. The shrine is important to the Murad Khani community for other reasons.

In addition to being the most sacred site of worship for Shia Muslims in Kabul, the Abu’l Fazl shrine plays an important role in the everyday lives of the residents of Murad Khani. Many people who live in the neighborhood believe that their residence there is intrinsically linked to the continuing health of the shrine and that their lives receive the blessing of the shrine’s power. On a more practical level, the shrine has given rise over the years to a thriving local economy—after the construction of the shrine, a sprawling bazaar sprang up to take advantage of the business brought to the area by the large numbers of visiting pilgrims.

5. The shrine was once saved from destruction by a dream.

The importance of the Abu’l Fazl shrine hasn’t always been recognized, however. According to a local anecdote as described in the 2015 book Religion and Urbanism: Reconceptualizing Sustainable Cities for South Asia, during the 1933-1973 reign of King Zahir Shah, urban planners wanted to destroy the shrine to accommodate a paved road directly through the Murad Khani neighborhood. Fortunately, the king changed his mind after a holy man visited him in his dreams and warned him not to demolish the shrine. The very next morning, the king visited the site and told workers to leave the shrine alone. Community elders often tell this story to illustrate the power the shrine is believed to have, as well the blessings it is said to bring to the neighborhood.