8 Facts about One of the Most Amazing Art Forms in Afghanistan

From music to woodworking, traditional arts and crafts in Afghanistan are currently enjoying a much-needed revival. During Afghanistan’s conflict years, many of these traditions were discouraged or actively suppressed, and some came close to being lost altogether. Fortunately, increased local and international interest in traditional art forms, along with the support of organizations such as Turquoise Mountain, have led to a recent resurgence of these arts and crafts and a renewed respect for their practitioners.

While many of these traditional art forms hold an almost legendary status in Afghan culture and history, few are more fabled than carpet weaving. Beautiful rugs have been handmade in Afghanistan using the same patterns and techniques for thousands of years. With such a history, it’s little wonder that Afghan carpets are viewed as the heart and soul of Afghan art and craftsmanship. Read on to learn more fascinating facts about the amazing art of Afghan carpet weaving.

1. There are two main categories of Afghan carpets.

Stunning in their diversity, Afghan carpets come in a huge range of patterns, designs, and colors. However, most Afghan carpets fall into one of two broad categories: the Turkoman (or Turkmen) carpet and the Beloutch (or Baluchi) carpet. Turkoman carpets are woven in Northern Afghanistan using wool that is renowned for its luster and hard-wearing qualities. Beloutch carpets come from Western Afghanistan and feature a variety of weaves, designs, and types of wool.

2. Afghan carpets were originally made by nomadic tribes.

Afghan carpets are so diverse because they were originally made by Afghanistan’s many nomadic tribes. Each tribe had patterns and designs that were unique to their group and had been passed down from generation to generation. Up until around the 19th century, it was possible to tell where a carpet originated simply by looking at its design and how it was produced.

3. Afghan tribal rugs are not woven for sale.

Another intriguing fact about the carpets made by Afghanistan’s nomadic tribes is that, historically, they were never produced specifically to be sold. Rather, they were made for use within the community—as coverings for the floors and walls of tents to provide warmth and decoration, as prayer rugs, as seating for mealtimes, and as wedding gifts for a bride’s dowry. Carpets were only taken to market when an older rug fulfilling one of these functions was replaced with a newer rug; the older one would then be sold or traded.

4. Making an Afghan carpet takes time.

Traditional Afghan carpets are made by hand, with weavers meticulously knotting wool threads on horizontal looms. As you can imagine, such a detail-oriented process takes time—a single weaver can usually produce about 1 square meter (roughly 10 square feet) of carpet every month. At this rate, many Afghan carpets can take anywhere from six to nine months to complete, even longer for larger or more specialized pieces.

5. Traditional Afghan carpets are made of all-natural materials.

Wool is the primary material used to make Afghan carpets. Traditionally, nomadic tribes would use the wool of their own sheep, with activities such as shearing the sheep and brushing and spinning the wool considered part of the process of making the carpets.

Silk and cotton may sometimes be used, but most carpet connoisseurs hold that true Afghan carpets are made entirely of wool. Also, in traditional Afghan carpet-making, the dyes used to color the wool come from natural sources such as flowers, fruits, vegetables, and minerals. Many say that the colors provided by these natural pigments only get better with time.

6. Afghan carpet weavers work from memory.

Incredibly, traditional Afghan carpet weavers don’t use diagrams or drawings to create their pieces. Instead, they work from memory, replicating centuries-old patterns that they have learned from previous generations of artisans.

7. Afghanistan’s conflict years inspired artisans to create “war rugs.”

Beginning in the 1980s, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a new type of Afghan carpet began to appear. These rugs were woven in the traditional Afghan style, but instead of geometric designs and patterns, they featured images of war such as weapons, maps, and soldiers. Today, these fascinating carpets are considered important art objects that offer a glimpse of a profound time in history through the eyes of the artisans who lived it.

8. The carpet-weaving industry in Afghanistan is changing.

In this age of globalization, it’s difficult for traditional forms of arts and crafts to compete with their mass-produced counterparts. Today, many Afghan carpets are produced not by weavers in their traditional villages but at factories where weavers may simply knot carpets without playing any role in the design. However, some organizations are working to find a balance between traditional craftsmanship and contemporary demands. Turquoise Mountain, for example, not only helps operate several weaving centers that offer stable employment and good working conditions to carpet artisans, but it also works to find international partners and buyers for the finished carpets.

Everything You Need to Know about Afghanistan’s Textiles Industry

The Afghan government is currently implementing initiatives to revive the country’s textile industry. In this article, we look at the history of cotton, silk, and cashmere production in Afghanistan and potential future growth in the textile sector.

Afghan Cotton

Afghanistan produces more than 59,000 tons of cottons per year. Despite this, the country’s lack of processing factories presents significant challenges. In the past, Afghanistan boasted several major textile factories in Balkh, Kabul, Baghlan, Kandahar, and Parwan provinces employing around 30,000 people, but the industry declined over the last few decades.

cotton

Currently, only 6 percent of Afghan land is being cultivated. Afghanistan is a rugged, mountainous country. Just 12 percent of the nation is composed of arable land. Despite this, more than 80 percent of Afghans rely on agriculture to make a living.

As Afghan Finance Ministry spokesman, Ajmal Hamid Abdul Rahimzai explained to the Fashion Network website, industrialists have recently campaigned to have their recommendations to revive Afghanistan’s textile industry discussed by the high economic council. Revitalizing this valuable economic sector could create economic growth throughout Afghanistan.

Afghanistan and India entered into a Memorandum of Understanding regarding textiles production. As per the memorandum, both countries have pledged their commitment to cooperating, developing closer economic relations, and strengthening bilateral ties in the production of textiles, cotton, clothing, handlooms, and man-made fiber.

Afghan Silk

located on the Silk Road, the Afghan city of Herat has a long history of silk production. After years of decline, Afghanistan’s silk industry is currently experiencing a revival. Silk thread is produced by silkworms. The creature is indigenous to Herat, thanks to the abundance of mulberry bushes found there. These plants provide the insects with a plentiful supply of food.

Silkworms use the silk thread they produce to build a cocoon around themselves. When unraveled, the silk fiber from just one cocoon can measure up to a mile in length. Just 8 kilograms of silkworms can produce up to 48 kilograms of cocoons. Silk collectors earn up to $140 biannually from collecting cocoons. This is a significant income in Afghanistan.

Spinners purchase silk cocoons from gatherers, using the fibers to spin silk thread. Historically, this was performed by hand. Since the process is somewhat protracted, this significantly limited a spinner’s income. Nevertheless, the advent of modern technology has led to largescale mechanization in the trade. A spinner with more than 30 years’ experience, Azatullah Amidi, explained to the Guardian that he was able to double his production thanks to the implementation of mechanized spinning equipment.

Once the thread is transferred onto bobbins, it is transported to other regions of Afghanistan, such as Mazar, Afghanistan’s fourth-largest city. Another celebrated stop on the ancient Silk Route, Mazar remains an important commercial trading center.

Afghan Cashmere

The cashmere goat is one of many native animals in Afghanistan, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Mongolia, and China. It takes a single goat up to 12 months to produce enough wool to make just one cashmere scarf. For hundreds of years, farmers in Herat have collected the thick undercoat shed by the goat every spring, throwing it on the fires used to cook food and heat their homes. It is only relatively recently that some isolated Afghan communities have learned that this fluff could be refined and spun to make a luxury product.

Cashmere

The discovery was life-changing for Mohammad Amin, a goat herder with a flock of 120. Every springtime, after his nanny goats have kids, they shed cashmere in huge handfuls. As Amin explained to AP News, buyers travel from far and wide to buy premium quality cashmere. He sells the surplus at market. With each animal yielding up to 250 grams, Mohammad Amin can earn more than $1,100 each season. This represents a sizeable income in a country where the national average is under $700 annually.

According to statistics published by the World Bank working in collaboration with the US Agency for International Development, despite the fact that 95 percent of Afghanistan’s 7 million cashmere goats could be used in cashmere production, as few as 30 percent are currently being combed for cashmere in this way. The majority of raw Afghan cashmere is purchased by Chinese intermediaries supplying low-cost clothing manufacturers.

Afghanistan ranks third in the world in terms of cashmere production. Mongolia comes second, producing 15 percent of the world’s cashmere, lagging far behind China, at 70 percent. In recognition of this lucrative market, the Afghan government recently unveiled a Cashmere Action Plan targeting the high end of the cashmere market, where just one sweater can cost anywhere up to $1,000. The strategy forms part of broader efforts enacted by the Afghan government designed to breathe new life in the country’s textile industry.

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.

pottery
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.