What You Need to Know About Afghanistan’s Newest National Park

Over the last 10 years, Afghanistan has been making an impressive commitment to environmental conservation. The government of Afghanistan is increasingly aware that protecting its natural resources and safeguarding its wild places is not a luxury, but an essential element of reconstruction and sustainable prosperity. As a result, the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) has worked hard to ensure that key natural areas receive the protection they need for a healthy future.

While the creation of national parks has been a dream in Afghanistan for decades, it wasn’t until 2009 that the country finally established its first-ever national park in the spectacular region of the Band-e-Amir lakes. The initiative was successful, bringing attention, tourists, and jobs to Band-e-Amir’s communities while simultaneously establishing important safeguards for the area’s fragile natural habitat. On the heels of this success, five years later, in 2014, the country created its second national park in a remote but stunning corner of northeastern Afghanistan.

Home to soaring mountains, grassy alpine plains, and unique wildlife, Wakhan National Park has been called “one of the last truly wild places on the planet” by the director-general of NEPA. For a glimpse of this exceptional area that few people in the world get to see, here are four fascinating facts about Afghanistan’s newest national park.

 

The park is huge.

Wakhan National Park covers a remarkable 1 million hectares, or 4,200 square miles. That’s roughly 25 percent larger than Yellowstone National Park in the USA. Naturally, given this impressive size, the geography and landscapes found in Wakhan National Park are very diverse, ranging from jagged mountain peaks to rough meadows, and from dry, desert-like areas to the headwaters of the Amu Darya River.

To make the most of the park’s vast area, the long-term management plan is to divide the park into different zones for different uses. For example, some zones will be exclusive reserves for wildlife, while others will permit multiple uses, including grazing.

 

 

The park is extremely remote.

Wakhan National Park is located in the area of Afghanistan known as the Wakhan Corridor, a narrow strip of land that protrudes from Afghanistan’s northeastern tip and is bordered by several other countries, including China and Tajikistan. The meeting place of the Pamir Mountains and the Hindu Kush range, the district is a very isolated, cold, and high-altitude mountain valley bordered on both sides by formidable mountain peaks.

Accessing the area is no easy feat. An overland trip from Kabul takes a week, and it can actually be easier to enter the park via Tajikistan, its northern neighbor. As a consequence, it’s not entirely surprising that Wakhan National Park receives just 100 to 300 international visitors a year.

 

The park is home to a diverse range of wildlife.

Although Wakhan’s isolation might be a barrier for human visitors and inhabitants, it’s a major advantage for the many different species of animals that inhabit the region. According to a deputy director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) – a US non-profit that has worked with NEPA on the creation and management of both of Afghanistan’s national parks – an “astonishingly diverse” array of wildlife calls Wakhan National Park home.

Nine species of wild cats can be found in the park, which is (believe it or not) the same number found in all of sub-Saharan Africa. In addition to these feral felines, the park’s residents include wolves, brown bears, stone martens, red foxes, and ibex, as well as the unique Marco Polo sheep. The largest wild sheep in the world, it sports horns than stretch nearly six feet from tip to tip.

In terms of wildlife protection, one of Wakhan’s biggest success stories to date has been the elusive snow leopard. Listed as an endangered species by the World Wildlife Fund, the snow leopard population has declined in recent years as a result of trophy hunters targeting them for their beautiful pelts as well as from farmers killing them in order to protect their livestock. However, the creation of Wakhan National Park, as well as regional conservation programs dating back to 2009, have brought the snow leopard’s numbers back up to around 140, which WCS experts say is a sustainable number.

 

The park protects people as well as nature.

It’s not just animals who are being helped by the creation of Wakhan National Park. The Wakhan District’s resident population of about 15,000 people, most of whom are ethnic Wakhi or Kyrgyz, are also seeing benefits.

Under an agreement with the government of Afghanistan, the local population will serve as co-managers of the park, together with the Afghan government. They will be able to continue to use the land for their livelihood (many Wakhan locals survive by herding livestock), and can also get jobs as rangers, managers, and other park personnel.

Fascinating Facts About Afghanistan’s Most Famous Poet You Need to Know

Of all the threads that make up the tapestry of Afghanistan’s rich culture, poetry is one of the most important. The history of poetry in Afghanistan dates back thousands of years; even today, Afghans live and breathe poetry in a way that few other people do.

While Afghanistan has produced countless powerful and passionate poets over the centuries, none are more famous than Rumi. He was a 13th-century poet and theologian who continues to fascinate readers all over the world more than 700 years after his death.

There is some debate around which nation or country Rumi “belongs” to – his exact birthplace is not known, with some scholars saying it was in present-day Afghanistan and others claiming it was present-day Tajikistan. He also spent much of his life in in present-day Turkey. Regardless, Afghans have always held him in their hearts as their own beloved poet. Read on for fascinating facts about this legendary figure.

 

Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī

By İncelemeelemani – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32889117

 

He came from a long line of preachers.

Rumi’s father and grandfather were both well-known Muslim preachers and Sunni jurists. Baha Valad, Rumi’s father, often led prayers at the local mosque, and was very disciplined about following religious rules and regulations. He was also deeply influenced by Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam that Rumi himself strongly identified with in his later years (in addition to his poetry, Rumi wrote several works of Sufi philosophy).

 

He reportedly saw angels as a boy.

After the poet’s death in 1273, many stories about his childhood and early life began to emerge, including the report that he had visions of angels as a small boy. While these episodes agitated the young Rumi, his father reassured him by saying that the angels appeared to him in order to offer favors. Many scholars view stories like these as a valuable clue to the interest in religion, spirituality, and poetic imagination that Rumi would become known for.

 

 

He spent much of his life away from his homeland.

Around the year 1210, Rumi’s father made the decision to move the family away from the town where Rumi was born, likely in response to the imminent invasion of Genghis Khan’s armies. After this move, Rumi never saw his homeland again.

Instead, he spent much of his life as a migrant, moving with his family through Uzbekistan, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and finally Turkey, where he lived for the last 50 years of his life. This experience exposed Rumi to a wide variety of languages and religious traditions. It also contributed to his embrace of the impermanence of things, which is reflected in much of his poetry.

 

One of his most important relationships was with his great teacher Shams of Tabriz.

By the time he was in his late thirties, Rumi was settled in Konya, Turkey. Despite being known as a respected jurist, scholar, and preacher, he wasn’t wholly satisfied with his life. It is at this point that he met Shams of Tabriz, a mystic and a religious seeker.

The two fell immediately into philosophical conversation, and each recognized a kindred spirit in the other. Over the next three years, the two men pursued what scholars describe as an “electric friendship,” during which time Shams of Tabriz introduced Rumi to the idea of considering music and poetry spiritual practices.

 

Rumi’s poetry was sparked by Shams’ disappearance.

The friendship between Rumi and Shams of Tabriz was counter to the social norms of the time and was a source of great strain for Rumi’s family and community. After their period of closeness, Shams of Tabriz disappeared from Rumi’s life. Scholars are still uncertain whether Shams left of his own volition or whether he was killed, possibly by a jealous son of Rumi’s. Whatever the reason behind Shams’ disappearance, Rumi turned to poetry in order to cope with his grief and suffering.

 

Much of Rumi’s poetry is regarded as a fusion of the sensual and the devotional.

Perhaps not surprisingly given that they are rooted in the loss of a beloved friend and spiritual teacher, Rumi’s poems often mix sensual and religious themes and imagery. His most famous work, the Mathanvi (also known as the Masnavi), is a spiritual epic – a six-book mystical poem that attempts to teach followers of Sufism how to become one with God. His thousands of other poems (including ghazals, or lyrical rhymed poems, and robaiyat, or four-line rhyming poems) explore both earthly and spiritual passion.

 

Rumi is credited with creating the dance of the whirling dervishes.

The dance of the whirling dervishes is a unique form of religious ceremony in which Sufis aim to connect to God by listening to spiritual music and spinning in circles. According to legend, this practice can be traced back to Rumi, who heard the rhythmic sound of metalworkers striking their hammers as he walked through a marketplace one day. At the same time, the workers were chanting “La ilaha ilallah” (or “There is no god but Allah”), and Rumi was so overcome with joy that he reached out his arms and began spinning in a circle.

Spotlight on the Most Important Holidays That Afghans Celebrate

Afghans enjoy celebrating their national holidays. For people across the country—and, indeed, for members of the Afghan diaspora around the world—traditional holidays are observed with great enthusiasm, bringing together family, friends, neighbors, and entire communities in joyous celebration. Read on for a closer look at some of Afghanistan’s most important holidays and festivals.

 

Nowruz

Perhaps the most popular and lavishly celebrated holiday in Afghanistan is Nowruz. Literally translated as “new day,” Nowruz is the Persian New Year, a day of rebirth and renewal which originated from the Zoroastrian tradition. Zoroastrianism is a Persian religion which was prevalent long before the rise of Islam. Due to this connection, Nowruz was officially banned in Afghanistan during its years of fundamentalist rule, although many Afghans continued to hold secret celebrations.

 

Nowruz

Image by alisamii | Flickr

 

Nowruz, which occurs on March 21, the vernal equinox, is celebrated across the Middle East and Central Asia with music, dancing, and, above all, feasting. Some of the special traditional dishes prepared for Nowruz include samanak, a sweet dessert paste made of wheat and sugar that can take two days to prepare, and haft-mehwah, a dish comprised of seven dried fruits and nuts—almonds, pistachios, walnuts, red and green raisins, apricots, and the Afghan fruit called sanjit—that symbolize the coming of spring. Given that community is at the heart of Nowruz celebrations, Afghans always cook more food than usual for this holiday so that they are able to offer hospitality to unexpected guests.

 

Eid al-Fitr

Eid al-Fitr is the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. One of Islam’s most sacred traditions, Ramadan is a month of ritual fasting associated with the lunar calendar during which most Muslims (except for children, the elderly, the sick, and pregnant women) do not eat from dawn till dusk. In addition, many businesses, particularly restaurants, are closed during the month-long observance. It’s not hard to imagine, therefore, that an event marking the end of this period would be quite the party, and that is indeed the case. The celebration of Eid al-Fitr lasts for about three days, and involves congregational prayers in mosques, visits to friends and relatives, games, gifts of new clothes (especially for children), and of course, plenty of feasting. Since it is based on the lunar calendar, the timing of Eid al-Fitr, and indeed of Ramadan itself, varies by about 11 or 12 days every year.

 

Eid-e-Qurban or Eid al-Adha

Another important Muslim holiday in Afghanistan is Eid-e-Qurban or Eid al-Adha. Celebrated during the 12th month of the Muslim (lunar) calendar, Eid-e-Qurban marks the preparation for the hajj, the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca that all observant Muslims with the necessary physical and financial ability are obliged to make at least once in their lifetime. During the feast of Eid-e-Qurban, animals such as sheep, goats, and sometimes camels are sacrificed in commemoration of Abraham’s sacrifice of a sheep, instead of his son Isaac, according to Allah’s command. One-third of the sacrificed animal is used by the family, one-third is given to relatives, and the remainder is given to those in need. Friends also give and receive presents during Eid-e-Qurban.

 

Mawlud-un Nabi

The holiday is a celebration of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad (note, however, that not all denominations of Islam observe this day). For those denominations that do observe it, Mawlud-un Nabi is celebrated with prayer, stories of the Prophet’s birth, life, teachings, and wisdom, and the decoration of mosques and buildings with colorful pennants and bright lights. In addition, Mawlud-un Nabi is an important time for charity, with affluent Muslims making generous charitable donations.

 

Ashura

The Islamic month of Muharram is a period of mourning in memory of the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, around the year 680 AD. Ashura, which is held on the 10th day of the month of Muharram, is a day of fasting that marks the climax of the mourning period.

 

Ashura

Image by Ninara | Flickr

 

Jeshyn-Afghan Day or Independence Day

Held annually on August 19, Afghanistan’s Independence Day commemorates the signing of the Anglo-Afghan Treaty of 1919, which restored full independence to Afghanistan after its years as a British protectorate. The day is a source of great pride for Afghans and an opportunity to remember a time when Afghans fought for independence with a shared vision of unity and prosperity. Many people celebrate the holiday by visiting galleries, attending poetry readings, or taking part in other activities that celebrate Afghanistan’s culture and heritage.

 

Labor Day

Celebrated on May 1 along with many other countries around the world, Labor Day is a holdover from the Soviet era in Afghanistan. Many Afghans consider it a valuable occasion to draw attention to the plight of unemployed Afghans and to advocate for better and safer working conditions for the country’s laborers.