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

5 Fascinating Facts about Afghanistan’s Official Languages

Did you know that Afghanistan has not one but two official languages? After coexisting on an informal basis for centuries, both Pashto and Dari (the Afghan term for the language which is also known as Farsi or Persian) were recognized in Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution as the two official languages of the state.

Read on for a look at some fascinating facts about the history, usage, and relationship between these two different but equally important tongues.

The proportional balance between Dari and Pashto speakers is fairly close.

According to recent estimates, roughly 50 percent of all Afghans speak some version of Dari, while over 40 percent speak Pashto.

Dari—the first language of ethnic groups such as the Tajiks, Hazaras, and Aimaqs—is generally viewed as the lingua franca in Afghanistan and has long been used for business and government transactions. Pashto, on the other hand, is the first language of the Pashtuns, who comprise Afghanistan’s largest ethnic minority. It’s also interesting to note that bilingualism and multilingualism are fairly common across the country. For example, many Pashtuns in urban areas also speak Dari, while Dari-speaking Afghans with higher levels of education often have a good command of Pashto as well.

Dari and Pashto are both written using the Arabic alphabet.

Although Arabic is linguistically quite different from Afghanistan’s official languages, it is the Arabic alphabet that is primarily used for both Dari and Pashto, with a few modifications. For example, the modern Dari alphabet includes three extra characters that represent sounds that do not occur in traditional Arabic. Pashto goes even further, using all the Arabic letters, the additional Dari letters, and a number of other special Pashto letters for sounds that are not found in either of the other two languages (in total, the Pashto alphabet has 44 letters, while standard Arabic has 28).

school children

Not everyone is in favor of the term Dari.

Although Dari is the official Afghan word for the Persian language, not everyone agrees on using it. Some Persian-speaking Afghans object to the use of the word on the grounds that it makes the language seem like a separate dialect (that is, the Afghan dialect of Farsi), when in fact, Farsi and Dari are simply two different words for the same language. (This is certainly not to say that there are not distinct accents and variations when it comes to vocabulary and usage, as indeed there are throughout the country, only that these are not enough to constitute a completely different dialect.)

Other Persian speakers believe that calling their language Dari makes them feel too separated from the cultural, linguistic, and historical ties that they share with the rest of the Persian-speaking world, including countries such as Iran and Tajikistan. As a compromise, some linguistic activists in Afghanistan refer to the Persian language as Farsi-Dari.

Some of Afghanistan’s best-known poetry is written in Dari.

Over the course of the last two millennia, during which a series of Persian dynasties spread Farsi throughout significant areas of Central Asia, the language developed a deep, rich, textual presence. Today, scholars can draw on a wealth of historical Persian volumes on philosophy, science, and statecraft to trace the evolution of the Persian language over the course of centuries. Part of this extensive literature includes many works of poetry, including those by Afghanistan’s best-known and most beloved poet Rumi.

A 13th-century poet and theologian, Rumi was known for mixing sensual and religious themes and imagery together in his work. His most famous work, known as the Mathanvi or the Masnavi, is a six-book spiritual epic that attempts to teach Sufi Muslims how to become one with God. Originally written in Dari, Rumi’s poetry has been translated into many different languages and is widely read all over the world.

Unlike Dari, Pashto was a primarily spoken language.

Although the last few centuries have seen an important expansion in the body of writing and literature in Pashto, this language, in contrast to Dari, was long a primarily spoken language. (This is partly to do with the relatively restricted location of Pashto speakers, who have been largely isolated in the mountains of the Hindu Kush.)

As a result, the richness of the Pashto oral tradition is remarkable. For example, in addition to long-form oral poetry and stories, a special genre of short Pashto folk poems called landays has developed. Composed by women and typically sung aloud to the beat of a drum, these poems describe the everyday trials, tribulations, and joys of life for Afghan women. Today, alongside this oral tradition, Pashto writing and literature are more widely recognized due in part to the acclaim given to poets such as Khushal Khan Khattak, a 17th-century warrior and poet whose works touch on subjects such as unity, honor, war, and love.

4 Things You Need to Know about Afghan Culture

Afghanistan is home to a rich and diverse culture that has been shaped by various factors. These include the ethnic make-up of the country as well as the dominant religion, Islam.

Afghanistan’s central position along historic trade routes also played a role in shaping its culture by exposing the Afghan people to influences from western Asia, eastern Asia, and Europe. More recently, other Western cultures have affected its culture, but this influence is mostly felt among those living in larger cities.

Despite these various influences, Afghan culture is unique. It is built on ancient local traditions that are still alive and well throughout the country. Take a look at these four things you need to know about Afghan culture:

1. Afghan people go out of their way for guests.

Anyone who has ever spent time in Afghanistan has no doubt been exposed to the incredible level of hospitality that locals extend to their guests. As an essential aspect of Afghan culture, hospitality is instilled in Afghan people at an early age. Proverbs and stories highlight the formal and informal cultural expectations related to how one should treat family, friends, and strangers.

Afghan people will go out of their way to ensure that everyone who visits their home feels welcome and comfortable. Regardless of who they’ve invited over, an Afghan host will not let their guest leave without feeling full of food, tea, and good conversation.

A typical meal consists of several courses, and guests’ plates are usually refilled as soon as they are emptied. After the meal, guests are treated to tea and more food, typically dried fruit and sweets such as cake and cookies.  

This type of sharing and hospitality is referred to in Afghanistan as “the right of salt,” and it’s generally viewed as a religious obligation to treat others with kindness and respect. For those visiting the country, it’s important to honor a host’s generosity by showing gratitude and graciousness while in their home.

2. Afghan food is fabulous.

While on the topic of Afghan food and hospitality, it’s important to take a moment to address how delicious the cuisine of Afghanistan is. Many people focus on the kebabs and rice, but Afghan cuisine is much more sophisticated than these staple dishes would indicate.

Afghanistan’s position at the crossroads of several major civilizations has exposed the country to the flavors of Indian, Middle Eastern, and Asian cuisines. Afghan food, however, is in a category all its own. In Afghanistan, recipes are passed down through the generations. Food provides much more than sustenance. It also brings families together and helps them stay connected with their ancestors. 

Some favorite traditional dishes include mantu, a meat-filled dumpling, and aashak, a scallion-filled pasta. Both dishes are traditionally topped with a tomato-based sauce and served with a side of yogurt and mint. These traditional dishes and others such as borani banjan, kabuli pulao, and korme kofta are a major part of Afghan culture. They play a large role in celebrations and special occasions.

3. Afghan people love sports.

Many people do not know that Afghanistan is a country full of sports fans. One traditional sport associated with Afghans is buzkashi. This polo-like game is played on horseback; a goat carcass is used instead of a ball.

While buzkashi is the country’s national sport, more conventional sports also enjoy a significant following throughout Afghanistan. Football (soccer) and cricket are by far the most popular. In addition, many Afghans are taking up activities such as martial arts and boxing.

It may come as a surprise that bodybuilding, weightlifting, and powerlifting have a long history in the country. In fact, these activities have been popular among Afghan men for decades. According to the Afghan National Bodybuilding Federation, which was founded in the mid-1960s, there are now more than 1,000 weightlifting gyms spread out across Kabul and other towns and cities across the country.

4. Afghanistan is a society of poets.

traditional garb

Although the literacy rate in Afghanistan hovers just above 30 percent, poetry has been part of the heart and soul of Afghan culture for millennia. During the early days of Afghan civilization, kingdoms and castles throughout the region had an official poet. These poets were selected through poetry contests, which are still popular among children and adults in modern Afghanistan.  

Today, the majority of Afghans are raised on a steady diet of poetry fed to them by recitation from teachers and parents, who learned verse from their parents before them. Because of this tradition, everyone from taxi drivers and shopkeepers to Afghan mullahs and other local leaders shares a love for poets and their work.

While some of the country’s monuments and other historical treasures have been damaged or destroyed during recent conflicts, the poetry of Afghanistan still thrives. It appears in news columns and is heard on street corners throughout the country. It is even used to tell Afghan history and make a point during arguments. Perhaps most importantly, poetry is the common thread that binds all Afghans regardless of age, ethnicity, and social status.