This Afghan Village Is Famous for Its Amazing Pottery

The small Afghan village of Istalif lies about an hour’s drive north of Kabul. It is perched in the foothills of the Hindu Kush, whose tree-covered slopes rise sharply from the river below.

Istalif is not only a site of incredible natural beauty, it’s also home to a distinctive tradition of pottery-making that stretches back hundreds of years. Read on for a rare glimpse of the unique village of Istalif and its traditional ceramics.

Istalif was once an emperor’s favorite picnic spot.

With its blossoming trees, ancient gardens, and winding river, the village of Istalif has never been short of admirers. Perhaps the most famous of these was the great Mughal emperor Babur, a descendent of Genghis Khan, who captured Kabul in 1504 and ruled the region for decades afterward.

A man who spent much of his life on long and difficult campaigns, Babur was captivated by the peace and tranquility of Istalif. He bought a garden, the Bagh-i-Kalan, on the slopes above the river. This garden became his favorite place to come to recover from fighting and campaigning with picnicking and drinking parties. Later in life, Babur wrote of Istalif, “when the trees blossom, no place in the world equals it.”

According to legend, the potter’s community in Istalif was founded over 300 years ago.

While the history of pottery in Istalif has never been formally documented, local oral tradition has it that the village’s pottery tradition began more than 300 years ago. The founder of Istalifi pottery is said to be Sayed Mir Kolal. This potter from Bukhara (in present-day Uzbekistan) traveled to Afghanistan with his four sons in order to escape political upheaval.

When they reached Istalif and saw its rich clay deposits, abundance of water, beautiful surroundings, and easy proximity to the markets of Kabul, they knew they had found their new home. Today, Istalifi potters still believe that they are each descended from one of Mir Kolal’s four sons.

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Image by egerstner | Flickr

Pottery in Istalif is a family affair.

Given the story of its founding, it’s hardly surprising that the pottery tradition in Istalif is very much a family affair. The secrets of this art form have been passed down from father to son through many generations. From a young age, a family’s sons become potter’s apprentices, training daily with their fathers and uncles.

Every son is automatically considered part of the pottery clan. Even those that never master the art of throwing pots are still involved in the business (acting as salesmen for the family, for example), and are still considered to be “potters.”

The women of the family also take part, applying the glaze and engraving the intricate patterns on the shaped pieces. Today, there are around 50 or 60 families of potters in Istalif. For each of them, pottery is much more than just a profession: it is their very identity.

Istalifi ceramics are known for their distinctive glaze.

The most unique feature of Istalifi ceramics is the special turquoise glaze that is applied to the finished pieces. Made from ishkar, a type of mountain plant only found in certain provinces in northern Afghanistan, this glaze was central to the development of Istalif’s distinctive ceramic tradition.

To produce the glaze, the root of the ishkar plant is burned and the ash is ground into powder. This is then mixed with water and combined with quartz and copper oxide (both of which are easily sourced from the area around Istalif). The resulting mixture, a striking, sea-green glaze, is then used to cover the ceramics after firing.

Istalif was almost destroyed in the late 1990s.

Istalif’s status as a renowned center for ceramics is all the more incredible given the village’s tumultuous past. Istalif was destroyed (for the third time in its history) as a result of the conflict in the late 1990s.

The village itself was burned to the ground, and the residents were forced to flee. Before they left, however, many families secretly buried their pottery tools in the hopes that they would one day return to their homes and businesses.

The village is rebuilding itself and its arts and crafts traditions.

Happily, the renaissance that these exiled Istalifis hoped and planned for has indeed come to pass. Over the past 15 years, potters and their families have been slowly returning to Istalif and taking up their tools once more.

These resilient people have been helped in their efforts to rebuild their artisanal community by organizations like Turquoise Mountain. One of the most important NGOs focused on traditional arts and crafts in Afghanistan, Turquoise Mountain has worked closely with Istalifi potters to revive the village’s ceramic traditions, and to find new markets for its work.

Today, ceramics instruction is one of the main subjects at the Turquoise Mountain Institute. Faculty include Istalifi potters like Abdul Matin Malekzadah and Ustad Abdul Matin.

Spotlight on Turquoise Mountain – 5 Important Achievements

Turqoise MountainIn 2006, the nonprofit organization Turquoise Mountain was founded in Afghanistan with the mission of preserving and regenerating important historical and cultural areas, as well as reviving and revitalizing the practice of traditional arts and crafts. Today, just over a decade later, the organization has made remarkable progress on its mission, transforming the lives of thousands of Afghans in the process. The following are some of Turquoise Mountain’s most important achievements to date.

 

  1. Restoration of Kabul’s Old City

The stunning transformation of Kabul’s Old City, also known as Murad Khani, is perhaps Turquoise Mountain’s most impressive achievement so far. The historic district in central Kabul was once the heart of a vibrant community. However, as a result of years of unrest, it had fallen into significant disrepair. By the time Turquoise Mountain began its rehabilitation project, much of the area lay buried under many feet of accumulated garbage, and the entire district was ranked as one of the world’s most endangered sites on the World Monuments Fund Watch List.

Turquoise Mountain has slowly and painstakingly set to work to rehabilitate Murad Khani. Workers cleared mountains of garbage, lowering the street level by up to 2 meters and uncovering beautiful, though derelict, homes and buildings. Artisans then carefully restored 150 of these structures to their original glory using traditional skills and techniques like mud-plastering and architectural woodwork. Today, Murad Khani is once again home to a thriving community of residents, as well as to the Turquoise Mountain Institute, an artisanal and vocational training facility for traditional Afghan arts and crafts. In 2013, the restoration of Murad Khani was awarded the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Award of Distinction.

 

  1. Implementation of Community Development Projects

The Turquoise Mountain Institute is only one of a number of community facilities and development projects that call Murad Khani their home. In order to better serve and meet the needs of local residents, Turquoise Mountain also constructed a new medical clinic and primary school in the rehabilitated old city. Located on the banks of the Kabul river, the Feroz Koh Family Health Center was established in 2011 to provide high-quality family medicine to some of the city’s most vulnerable populations. Services offered at the center include pediatric and maternal services, radiology, psycho-social counseling, dentistry, and minor surgery. The staff estimates that the center serves more than 20,000 patients every year from cities as far away as Nuristan and Kandahar. The Murad Khani Primary School, which was established in 2012, serves more than 100 students. Subjects that are covered include English, Dari, mathematics, and peace education. Students also learn some traditional arts and crafts such as calligraphy and miniature painting. In order to accommodate even more young students, a new primary school with improved amenities is scheduled to open in 2019.

 

 

  1. International Exhibitions

Turquoise Mountain has sought to not only boost domestic interest in a revitalized Afghan arts and crafts sector, but to raise the profile of these traditional arts on the world stage. With this goal in mind, the organization has successfully arranged and executed a number of high-profile international exhibitions of Turquoise Mountain artisans. From March 2016 to October 2017, for example, the Freer and Sackler Galleries at the world-renowned Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, hosted an exhibition titled “Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan.” Featuring the work of some of Turquoise Mountain’s most dedicated craftsmen, the exhibition gave hundreds of thousands of visitors a new perspective on Afghanistan and its traditions. In addition, during the summer of 2018, the work of Turquoise Mountain artisans was displayed in the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace in London in honor of the 70th birthday of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales (HRH is one of the founders of Turquoise Mountain).

 

  1. Prestigious Commissions and Partnerships

For Turquoise Mountain, reviving traditional arts and crafts means enabling artisans to earn a living from their work. To this end, Turquoise Mountain aims to help its craftsmen secure prestigious commissions and partnerships that can bring their work to a wider international market. For example, the first major international commission received by Turquoise Mountain was for the celebrated Connaught Hotel in London’s exclusive Mayfair neighborhood. For this project, Nasser Mansoori, one of the finest woodcarvers in Afghanistan and a master at the Turquoise Mountain Institute, worked with London designer Guy Oliver to create beautifully detailed wood panels and carvings for one of the hotel’s principal suites.

 

  1. Expansion into Other Countries

Turquoise Mountain’s work in Afghanistan has been so successful that the organization has recently expanded the scope of its activities into other countries. As of late 2014, for example, Turquoise Mountain has been working in Myanmar to preserve and restore key historic buildings in downtown Yangon in partnership with the Yangon Heritage Trust. During the first restoration project (of a building at 491-501 Merchant Street), the organization undertook a comprehensive program of vocational training in traditional construction techniques, such as decorative lime plasterwork, alongside the renovation work.

This Amazing Carpet Puts Afghan Craftsmanship in the Spotlight

Visitors to Washington, DC between March 2016 and October 2017 had the opportunity to experience a rare and special showcase of traditional Afghan craftsmanship. During this time, the Freer-Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution hosted a unique exhibit entitled “Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan.”

This truly special event marked one of the first times that Western audiences were able to get a glimpse of Afghanistan’s newly-revitalized arts and crafts scene. This sector has been steadily growing in recent years as a result of strong local and international support, and the hard work and dedication of Afghanistan’s many talented artisans.

The Smithsonian exhibit presented a stunning array of beautiful works across five artistic disciplines, from exquisite pieces of jewelry to boldly carved wooden panels. However, perhaps the most visually arresting component in the collection was the Afghan History Carpet.

Featuring 25 different colors twisting and winding in intricate patterns across a surface area of 17.5 square meters (nearly 190 square feet), the Afghan History Carpet is more than just a rug. As its name implies, it’s the story of Afghan carpet-weaving captured in textile form. Here’s what you need to know about this amazing work of art.

rug

Image courtesy Carl Montgomery | Flickr

 

It tells a story that’s thousands of years old.

The Afghan art of carpet-weaving is a practice as ancient as it is complex. For thousands of years, different tribes across the country have made intricate rugs by hand. Craftspeople follow an intensive, multi-step process, including raising and shearing sheep, preparing dyes from plants that only grow in or near Afghanistan, dyeing the wool, and finally, weaving the patterned carpets over a period of many months (or even years in some cases).

This process remained relatively unchanged until just a few decades ago. At that time, ongoing conflict and occupation decimated many traditional arts and crafts practices in Afghanistan, including carpet-weaving.

 

It uses a wide range of traditional and historic patterns.

One of the things that makes the Afghan History Carpet so special is that it incorporates an array of different traditional design motifs. Historically, each carpet-producing village or tribe in Afghanistan had its own distinctive way of constructing carpets and its own unique patterns.

The Afghan History Carpet captures these individual identities and traces the evolution of carpet-weaving in the country by incorporating 25 of these motifs. These include the central medallion of the Beshir tribe, the cross motif of the Ersari, and the Turkmen gul (another medallion-like design element).

But the design of the Afghan History Carpet is far from purely traditional. Instead, the rug is formed in a contemporary, loosely-striped background pattern that holds the design together while allowing the different design elements to shift in and out of the foreground. The result is a one-of-a-kind carpet that pays homage to Afghanistan’s rich history of carpet-making while looking toward the future simultaneously.

 

It was conceived by one of the world’s most exciting carpet designers.

The designer of the Afghan History Carpet is the artist Erbil Tezcan. This Turkish national and American resident is the founder and owner of the New Jersey-based rug design company Wool and Silk Carpets.

Tezcan was approached to be part of the Turquoise Mountain showcase at the Smithsonian by Tommy Wide, the organization’s director of exhibitions. At this point, Tezcan had already been working with Afghan carpet-makers for several years.

His work was strongly inspired by historical journeys along the Silk Road and the natural exchanges of ideas and designs that took place as a result. For the Turquoise Mountain showcase, Tezcan was tasked with an enormous mission: to create something truly special that told a story of Afghanistan. The result was the Afghan History Carpet.

 

It was made entirely in Afghanistan.

rug

Image courtesy A.Davey | Flickr

Today, many Afghan carpets are partially made in Afghanistan, but finished outside the country. For Erbil Tezcan and the other stakeholders involved in putting together the Turquoise Mountain exhibit, it was vital that the rugs on display, including the Afghan History Carpet, should be entirely made in Afghanistan.

After many research trips to the country, Tezcan developed the design for the Afghan History Carpet. The rug was then painstakingly created by a team of weavers in Dawlatabad over a period of several months. Finally, the rug was sent to Mazar-e-Sharif to be washed in September 2015. It was then shipped to the US for the Smithsonian exhibition.

 

It’s a stunning example of the high-quality work that Afghan artisans are producing today.

One of the main goals of the Turquoise Mountain showcase was to allow people outside the country to see a different side of contemporary Afghanistan. The story of Afghanistan today is not solely about conflict and poverty. It is about beauty, creativity, craftsmanship, and heritage.

By grouping together some of the most spectacular work from Afghan artisans, including the Afghan History Carpet, the Turquoise Mountain exhibit was an important step forward in building global interest in Afghanistan’s renewed cultural scene.

Featured Image courtesy hewy | Flickr