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.

A Look at the Winning Design Ideas for the National Museum of Afghanistan

As it prepares to mark its 100th birthday this year, the National Museum of Afghanistan is celebrating the past with its eyes firmly on the future. Originally founded in 1919 as a collection of objects from Afghanistan’s historic royal families, the National Museum of Afghanistan has been in its current home (a former municipal building) since 1931. Over the decades, the National Museum has seen and withstood a great deal, including the dramatic expansion of its collections as a result of archaeological work undertaken by the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan. In addition, the museum has sustained serious damage from vandalism and looting during periods of unrest in the country.

Today, the National Museum of Afghanistan is planning for the development of a new facility: a modern building that will showcase Afghanistan’s rich history and complex contemporary identity in a 21st century context. As a first step toward this goal, the National Museum hosted the International Architectural Ideas Competition in 2012 to solicit bold ideas for the future facility, which will be located adjacent to the museum’s existing premises. The design brief was a somewhat unusual one. Based on the assumption that most of the participants in the competition would not be able to travel to Kabul in person, the design brief contained extremely detailed and comprehensive information about the building site, including images, drawings, diagrams, and descriptions. Submission criteria included a requirement for a visionary but culturally sensitive design, an emphasis on sustainability and the use of renewable energy, and careful attention to Kabul’s unique urban planning requirements.

A special jury—chaired by Afghanistan’s Minister of Information and Culture and composed of international architects, archaeologists, museum planners, and design professionals—considered a total of 72 design proposals from 31 countries, and announced the results at an awards ceremony in Kabul in September 2012. While considerable financing will still be needed to proceed with the construction of the new facility, the National Museum of Afghanistan and its partners (including major institutions such as UNESCO) are committed to this important project. Read on for a look at the winning design proposal, as well as the second and third prize entries and the honorable mentions.

First Prize: AV 62 Arquitectos (Spain)

According to the jury report, the Spanish design team of AV 62 Arquitectos achieved an excellent balance between form and function with its prize-winning entry, which is conceived as a deceptively simple shell arranged on a grid. The design’s distinctive, yet understated exterior appearance works in harmony with the surrounding context, and the interior spatial forms are responsive to the type of materials that will be displayed within them, making the design an inviting and welcoming one that encourages circulation and interaction with both the interior and exterior displays. The jury further praised the practicality of the design (which would be affordable and relatively simple to construct using local materials and labor), as well as its simplicity, flexibility, and approachable scale. Some of the most unique aspects of this design concept include an internal courtyard and ceiling baffles, which make effective use of Kabul’s intense natural light; parallel brick vaults on the roof; and the use of traditional materials such as decorative ceramic tile. In addition, the jury felt that the additions proposed by this design were the best at connecting the existing museum with the new facility.

Second Prize: Mansilla + Tuñón Arquitectos (Spain).

“Demonstrative” and “monumental” were some of the adjectives that the jury used to describe the design from Mansilla + Tuñón Arquitectos, which was awarded second prize in the competition. Expressed as a series of spatial volumes arranged in a grid formation, the exterior profile of the design is larger and more sculptural than the first-place entry and is clearly visually responsive to the backdrop of the nearby mountains. While the jury appreciated this larger vision, they also felt that the construction costs for this design would be significantly higher. Furthermore, they felt that some aspects of the design, such as its relationship with the existing museum and the design references to historic Afghan architecture, could have been more fully developed.

Third Prize: fs-architekten, Paul Schröder Architekt (Germany)

The jury praised the strong, dramatic, and creative architectural statement of this free-form design, which earned third prize in the competition. The sculptural massings and volumes that comprise the design allude to the adjacent mountains and transform the building into a destination in its own right. The design idea demonstrates integrity when it comes to the collections to be housed. Strong, protective walls surround different exhibition rooms, while lighter, linear circulation spaces between high walls evoke the public routes of the region’s historic cities. From a practical perspective, however, potential problems with this design include its size, complexity, and monumentality, particularly the inclusion of a large glazed atrium space.

Honorable Mentions

Three honorable mentions, each of equal ranking, were awarded to IAN+ architecture & engineering (Italy), Lawrence and Long Architects (Ireland), and Luisa Ferro, Architect (Italy).

Featured Image by Ninara | Flickr

Afghan Program Supports Creativity and Cultural Diversity

UNESCOlogoIn recent years, Afghanistan has begun to recognize the important role that cultural heritage can play in developing a unified national identity that connects citizens beyond their perceived differences. For this reason, the government of Afghanistan created the National Program for Culture and Creative Economy (NPCE) with the support of the UNESCO office in Kabul. A broad initiative funded by a variety of donors, the NPCE covers eight vital thematic areas that are closely tied both to UNESCO’s areas of action in Afghanistan. In addition, they focus on the country’s needs and priorities as outlined in the government’s National Peace and Development Framework. Read on to learn more about these cultural and creative themes.

 

The Right to Culture

This thematic area focuses on the right to enjoy culture and creativity in conditions of equality and dignity without a fear of discrimination. Projects and initiatives in this category will focus on facilitating the right of all Afghans to access culture. Examples include supporting access to libraries, workshops, community and cultural centers, and other creative hubs; using cultural activities to help integrate returnees and refugees; and encouraging private sector partnerships to provide financial and other support to Afghanistan’s cultural sector.

 

Improved Higher Education for Culture and Creative Industries

While there is a national movement to re-center culture in Afghan society and to ensure that cultural heritage and creative industries are able to grow and thrive over the long term, this desire is hampered by the country’s lack of national cultural experts. Systemic and structured investments that target specific competencies are needed to fill these gaps. For instance, this thematic area could oversee the creation of new institutions such as schools of design or university departments for heritage conservation and management.

 

The Afghanistan Translation Movement

The goal of this thematic area is to launch a comprehensive knowledge movement in Afghanistan. Taking its name from the Islamic Golden Age—during which scholars gathered to translate the world’s classical knowledge into the Arabic and Persian languages—the Translation Movement aims to make the sources of today’s universal knowledge accessible to Afghan citizens in their own language. At a time when it is rare to find Dari or Pashto translations of university textbooks, for example, this thematic category strongly supports the right to culture and improvement in higher education.

 

Legal Framework and Policies for Culture

In order for Afghanistan’s creative and cultural industries to thrive—and for its vital cultural heritage to be protected and preserved—there must be streamlined and relevant policies and regulations in place under Afghan law. Through advocacy efforts and expert consultation, the NPCE is working to support the Afghan government through a full review and revision of existing cultural heritage laws.

 

Safeguarding the Cultural Heritage of Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s “built heritage”—its monuments, mosques, and ancient cities—are an important asset and testament to the country’s thousands of years of history. However, due to their isolation and dispersal, far too many cultural sites are not perceived as integral to the fabric of Afghanistan’s rapidly changing society. This thematic area aims to foster a new attitude toward built heritage by supporting and implementing projects (such as rehabilitation works in historical urban contexts) that benefit the community and, in doing so, demonstrate that cultural preservation can enhance development.

 

Architecture for Public Spaces

After decades of political and social upheaval that have affected all levels of society, Afghanistan is in the midst of a period of explosive growth: displaced people are returning to the country in large numbers, and more Afghans are transitioning from a rural to urban existence. This has taken a toll on Afghanistan’s cities, which are struggling to accommodate these sweeping changes without destroying built heritage. This thematic area of the NPCE works to support state and local urban planning authorities to preserve existing heritage on the one hand, and to promote better contemporary architecture on the other.

 

The Afghanistan Cultural Centers Network

Through this thematic category, UNESCO and the NPCE aim to use a networking strategy to resolve the disconnect that can arise over cultural development work at the policy and the project levels. Often, significant policy changes do not “trickle down” effectively to the local level, where they would be of most immediate benefit. Likewise, the short-term effects of project-level initiatives often do not make it past the local sphere to the policy level, where the lessons learned could be put to broader use. This thematic area aims to open up channels of information across local cultural centers in order to provide greater opportunities to better exchange ideas and influence policy creation.

 

The Afghanistan Creative Cities Network

In 2015, Bamiyan became the first city in Central Asia to join the UNESCO Creative Cities Network, an association of 116 international member cities committed to investing in creative industries and the creative economy. This thematic area aims to pave the way for more Afghan cities to join the network and benefit from its worldwide cooperation, intercultural dialogue, and support.