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.

6 Things You Might Not Know about Bamiyan

In a country bursting with historic landmarks and cultural riches, the Bamiyan Valley stands out as one of Afghanistan’s most important and impressive heritage sites. Despite its relatively remote location in Central Afghanistan, the city of Bamiyan and the surrounding area is known today as a vibrant hub of Afghan culture and creativity from both past and present. Read on for a look at some fascinating facts you might not know about this amazing site.

1. Bamiyan is the former home of the Buddhas of Bamiyan.

Bamiyan Afghanistan
Image courtesy Carlos Ugarte | Flickr

Bamiyan’s original claim to fame is the historic Buddhas of Bamiyan—two monumental Buddha statues that were carved directly into the sandstone cliffs of the valley roughly 1,500 years ago. An awe-inspiring example of Afghanistan’s ancient Buddhist heritage, which had all but disappeared from the country by the 10th century, the giant sculptures were unfortunately destroyed in 2001 as a result of Afghanistan’s internal conflict. However, in response to this cultural tragedy, scholars and experts around the world have been working ever since to preserve the other significant archaeological material in the area, and to one day perhaps rebuild the Buddhas.

2. The world’s first oil paintings can be found at Bamiyan.

If you think that oil painting was first developed during the European Renaissance, it’s time to think again. In addition to the Buddha statues, the Bamiyan Valley boasts an incredible system of more than 1,000 caves that were once used as Buddhist monasteries, chapels, and sanctuaries. Inside these caves, the remains of striking wall paintings created using the world’s first oil paints can be found, along with other decorative features and small carved figures.

3. Bamiyan was an important stopping point on the Silk Road.

Although the location of Bamiyan seems somewhat isolated and remote today, the area was once a globalized and cosmopolitan center along the fabled Silk Road trading route. Linking ancient Rome with China and India, the Silk Road saw not only goods but also philosophies, religions, and ideas passed back and forth between East and West. Afghanistan, particularly Bamiyan, was at the very heart of the route. In addition, Alexander the Great himself is recorded as having passed through Bamiyan, while Mani, the mystic and philosopher who founded the Manicheans, is believed to have lived and studied there.

4. Bamiyan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The cultural landscape and archaeological remains of the Bamiyan Valley constitute one of the two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Afghanistan (the other is the famous Minaret of Jam).

Bamiyan was added to the World Heritage list in 2003 in recognition of its outstanding universal cultural value, particularly as an example of Afghanistan’s Buddhist heritage, and of Western Buddhism in general. At the same time, the site was also included on the List of World Heritage in Danger, which identifies and monitors important cultural heritage sites whose ongoing existence may be threatened by factors such as environmental damage or security risks. (In recent years, Afghanistan has been working closely with the Japanese government to fulfill the conditions necessary for removing Bamiyan from the Danger list.)

5. Bamiyan is a member of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

In 2004 UNESCO launched its Creative Cities Network (UCCN), an initiative developed to foster cooperation and support among global cities that prioritize creativity as part of their sustainable urban development efforts. In 2015 Bamiyan became the first urban center from Afghanistan—and all of Central Asia—to join the network.

This membership is not only a reflection of Bamiyan’s rich cultural past but also of the investments the area is making in the present-day areas of crafts and folk art (one of the seven categories of creativity covered by the UCCN). For example, Afghanistan’s Department of Rural Rehabilitation and Development has conducted local carpet weaving projects that employ some of the region’s most vulnerable people.

7. Bamiyan has been suggested as the site of the Garden of Eden.

For centuries, people have speculated about which real-world places might have been the site of the Garden of Eden, and interestingly enough, Bamiyan has been proposed as a possibility. In 1799, Captain Francis Wilford, a somewhat eccentric scholar, suggested in the journal Asiatic Researches that because four rivers flow out of the Bamiyan Valley, the site could be the location of the biblical garden.

Whether or not you believe this claim, there seems to be little question that Bamiyan is beautiful enough to be considered an earthly paradise. Poised just below the spectacular ranges of the Hindu Kush, the Bamiyan Valley is lush and fertile, full of orchards, pastures, and flowers, and its isolated location (by present-day standards) has helped protect it from much of the conflict that has troubled other parts of Afghanistan. It’s therefore perhaps not surprising to learn that Bamiyan can be translated as “land of shining light.”

Everything You Need to Know about Traditional Afghan Cuisine

Largely based on seasonal produce, dry goods such as wheat, rice, barley, and maize, and dairy products such as milk, whey, and yogurt, Afghan cuisine is often described as a fusion between Indian and Middle Eastern cookery. In this article, we look at a selection of revered Afghan dishes and their place in Afghan history.

Rice Dishes

Rice is the most important cultural component of most Afghan meals, and a great deal of time and effort is expended in creating rice dishes. Wealthy Afghan families typically consume one rice dish each day. In times gone by, royal Afghan households committed much time to the invention and preparation of elaborate rice dishes, as evidenced by the plethora available in Afghanistan today. Family gatherings such as weddings and holiday celebrations typically incorporate several rice dishes, with the reputations of Afghan cooks made and broken by their skill with rice preparation.

There are several different types of Afghan rice recipes. Challow rice, for instance, is traditionally served with qormah, casseroles, and stews. Challow is white rice that is boiled in saltwater before being drained and baked in an oven.

rice

Kabuli palaw, Afghanistan’s national dish, is cooked in the same way as challow, but it is prepared with meat and stock and infused with herbs and spices before being baked. This result is an elaborate dish comprising a variety of flavors, colors, and aromas. Caramelized sugar is often incorporated into the rice, lending the dish a rich brown color. Created for upper-class families of Kabul, Kabuli palaw is topped with carrots, almonds, and raisins before serving.

To make zamarod palaw, spinach is added before the dish is baked, resulting in a rich emerald hue. Meanwhile, narenj palaw is a sweet, elaborate dish, made with chicken, saffron, almonds, pistachios, and orange peel.

Shola is a traditional Afghan dish that calls for sticky, short-grain rice. It is prepared in both sweet and savory versions, with the latter becoming increasingly popular in recent years. Savory shola often features split peas or mashed mung beans, as well as meats such as lamb or beef. The dish is particularly popular during the Afghan wintertime, when it is often served with quroot (a type of dried curd), a glass of plain yogurt, and a fresh vegetable salad. There are many different versions of shola available across Afghanistan today, and the dish is also popular throughout the Middle East, particularly in Iran, where various other ingredients are commonly incorporated in its preparation.

Mastawa, another rice dish traditionally prepared in the winter, incorporates short-grain rice and sun-dried mutton simmered in an aromatic broth infused with onions, garlic, mint, turmeric, and cilantro. Bitter orange peel and hot peppers are added near the end of cooking to make this sticky rice dish fragrant, hearty, and spicy.

Meat Dishes

Qormah is a popular dish throughout Afghanistan, with more than 100 different variations, including:

  • Qormah e nadroo: A lamb or veal dish served in an onion-based sauce, incorporating lotus roots, cilantro, and yogurt.
  • Qormah e lawand: A traditional dish prepared with lamb, chicken, or beef, and cooked with onions, turmeric, yogurt, and cilantro.
  • Qormah e gosht: Translated as “meat qormah,” this dish is a commonly served accompaniment to the palaw rice that is popular at gatherings.
  • Qormah e alou-bokhara wa dalnakhod: A fruitier take on qormah featuring chicken or veal and prepared with onions, lentils, cardamom, and sour plums.
  • Qormah e sabzi: A fusion of lamb and sautéed spinach and greens.
  • Qormah e shalgham: A sweet and sour recipe prepared with lamb, turnips, onions, and sugar.

Mantu is a highly popular native dumpling dish. Since it is time consuming to prepare, it is often reserved for special occasions and large gatherings such as weddings. Dumplings are filled with onions and ground beef or lamb before being steamed. The dish is sometimes served in a tomato sauce topped with a mixture of yogurt, split chickpeas, and garlic. Ashak is another traditional dumpling dish. Originating in Kabul, it is made with leeks, sautéed tomatoes, ground meat, a garlic-yogurt sauce, and red kidney beans.

Kebabs are popular from Europe to the Middle East to India. In Afghanistan, they are served by restaurants as well as street vendors. Every Afghan restaurant has its own unique take on the dish. Traditionally made of lamb, kebabs are often served with naan bread, or sometimes rice, and customers often sprinkle sumac on the dish. The quality of a kebab is said to hinge on the quality of meat it was made from, with pieces of fat from the tail of the sheep often added to lamb skewers to improve the flavor.

Afghan Desserts

Believed to have originated in India, firnee is a traditional dish that is made from cornstarch, milk, and sugar and flavored with rosewater and aromatic spices like cardamom and saffron.

Haft mewa is sweet Afghan soup made from dried fruit and nuts that is traditionally eaten during the Afghan New Year celebrations, when it is often enjoyed at breakfast time.