Spotlight on the First National Park in Afghanistan

Although natural conservation hasn’t been a top priority for Afghanistan over the last few decades, now that the country is enjoying greater stability and prosperity, that has begun to change. The Afghan government is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of safeguarding the country’s natural heritage. With the support of a variety of international NGOs, it has taken some significant steps in recent years to protect and preserve key natural areas.

A major victory came in 2009, when Afghanistan celebrated the creation of its first ever national park. The Band-e-Amir lakes in the central Afghan province of Bamiyan have long been recognized as an area of natural beauty. Now that they have been designated as a national park, it will be easier for the country to manage sustainable tourism more effectively, preserve and protect at-risk species, and work to reverse environmental damage already done in the area.

Visitors agree that Band-e-Amir is so breathtaking that it has to be seen to be believed, but you can still get a feel for the park with these five facts:


  1. Band-e-Amir is one of the world’s most spectacular travertine systems.

Located in a desert area high up in the Hindu Kush mountain range, the six stunning, sapphire-blue lakes of Band-e-Amir were formed by mineral-rich water gradually seeping out of faults and cracks in the surrounding mountains. Over time, the water deposited layer upon layer of travertine, or hardened mineral, at different points on the lake bed. These layers eventually grew into the massive natural dams that now contain the lake water.

Interestingly, local lore gives an alternative explanation for how these mineral dams came into existence. Legend says that the dams that hold the lakes in place were thrown into their positions by the prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, Hazrat Ali. The high mineral content of the water is also responsible for the incredible colors of the lakes, which can range from light turquoise to a deep, icy blue.

Band-e-Amir Lakes | Image by Johannes Zielcke | Flickr

  1. The dams of Band-e-Amir’s lakes all have names.

All of the five dams that contain Band-e-Amir’s six lakes have names. There is the Groom’s Dam, the Mint Dam, the Dam of the Slaves, and the somewhat puzzlingly named Dam of Cheese. The most famous and most visited dam, however, is Band-i-Haibat, or the Dam of Awe. This dam is 1,500 feet wide and two miles long, and its waters are believed to have healing properties (that is, if you can withstand their icy temperatures!).


  1. Band-e-Amir has long been a popular tourist destination.

These beautiful lakes have been a popular destination for travelers ever since the 1950s. The area experienced a peak in visitor numbers during the 1970s. Naturally, tourism was virtually non-existent during the conflicts of the 1980s and 90s. However, more and more people, domestic and foreign tourists alike, have been visiting Band-e-Amir in recent years. People are drawn to the region not only by the lakes, but also by nearby tourist magnets like the valley of Bamiyan.

The national park designation proved to be a significant boost for tourism. At present, the park can receive as many as 5,000 visitors a day in the high season. While there are some facilities currently in place for tourists, including restrooms and recreational paddle boats that can be rented for use on the lakes, the Afghan government hopes to establish more extensive amenities in the future, including guesthouses and shops.


Band-e-Amir | Image by Afghanistan Matters| Flickr

  1. Band-e-Amir is home to plenty of wildlife.

Although habitat destruction and poaching have certainly taken their toll on the flora and fauna of Band-e-Amir, the park is still home to an impressive array of wildlife. More than 150 species of birds have been recorded – including the Afghan snow finch, which is thought to be the only bird found exclusively in Afghanistan – leading to the designation of Band-e-Amir as an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International.

Additionally, wild goats known as Ibex and wild sheep known as urials as well as wolves, foxes, and fish are all common sights within the park. But perhaps most remarkable is the fact that Band-e-Amir is home to more species of wildcat than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, including some extremely rare examples. In 2015, a sensor-activated camera captured a photograph of a Persian leopard, which was long believed to be extinct in the region.


  1. The Wildlife Conservation Society is supporting Afghanistan in managing the park.

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has played an important role in helping Afghanistan successfully implement and manage its first-ever national park. WCS staff members have provided support with tasks like delineating the boundaries of the park, conducting preliminary wildlife surveys, developing a park management plan, and hiring and training local rangers.

As for the rangers themselves, a big part of their responsibilities involves working with local communities and the provincial government to mitigate the impact of park residents on the fragile natural habitat. For example, 500 fuel-efficient stoves have been distributed to families living in and near the park area, which greatly reduces their need to chop down park trees for firewood.

A Journey through 10 of the Most Beautiful Cities in Afghanistan

Standing for millennia at the crossroads of multiple peoples and cultures, Afghanistan has a unique cultural heritage that is as rich and diverse as it is ancient. In an area smaller than the US state of Texas, hundreds upon hundreds of spectacular monuments, remarkable archaeological sites, and stunning architectural creations are testimony to an extraordinary civilization. And there’s no better way to experience this wide array of cultural treasures than by exploring Afghanistan’s most beautiful cities, many of which are so full of history and heritage that they serve as living museums. Here are 10 you’ll want to learn more about.


  1. Kabul

Afghanistan’s largest city and its national capital, Kabul has existed for more than 3,500 years. It’s therefore hardly surprising that the city is home to some of the country’s most notable historic sites, including the legendary Babur’s Gardens. But don’t think that Kabul is entirely focused on the past: the city has recently embarked on a number of new architectural projects, like the Abdul Rahman Mosque, which was designed in the traditional Islamic style but was just built in 2012.

  1. Balkh

Often called “the mother of cities,” Balkh is considered by many to be one of the oldest cities in the world. Located in northern Afghanistan at the crossroads between the Middle East and eastern Asia, Balkh has a history of strong Buddhist influence, which is visible in the ruins of many Buddhist fortifications and constructions that still stand in the city today.


  1. Kandahar

The second-largest city in Afghanistan, Kandahar rests on the site of another city that Alexander the Great founded nearly 2,500 years ago. Today, Kandahar plays an important role in Afghanistan’s spiritual life: the city’s Friday Mosque, a deeply holy Islamic place of worship, is often called “the heart of Afghanistan.”


  1. Mazar-i-Sharif

Mazar-i-Sharif is home to the Blue Mosque, an absolutely stunning structure that was built in its present form more than five centuries ago. Frequently described as “an oasis for peace,” the mosque is so extraordinary that it’s not surprising to learn that it originated in a dream: according to legend, a Middle Eastern scholar dreamed that the bones of a cousin of the prophet Muhammad were resting in northwestern Afghanistan. Fascinated by this story, the sultan at the time built a shrine to honor this cousin, and the city of Mazar-i-Sharif gradually grew up around it.


  1. Herat

Located in western Afghanistan, Herat was one of the country’s most impressive ancient cities, and its legacy is all the more exceptional given that it has been destroyed and rebuilt several times during its history. Today, the Old City of Herat is home to a spectacular collection of medieval Islamic buildings, including the Great Mosque complex, which includes a craftsmen’s shop, where visitors can see artisans at work creating the tiles and mosaics used in the restoration and upkeep of the structure.


  1. Bamiyan

Another city whose development was strongly impacted by Buddhist expansion, Bamiyan is a rich archaeological mix of Persian, Greek, Turkish, Indian, and Chinese influence. At present, the city is best known as the former home of the famous Buddhas of Bamiyan—giant Buddha statues that were unfortunately destroyed in 2001. Since that time, another giant statue has been discovered, along with cave paintings from the 5th and 9th centuries.


  1. Bagram

Located north of Kabul, the town of Bagram may be small, but in ancient times it was an important stop for merchants traveling along the Silk Road from India. The town was originally a Persian settlement, but its development was later influenced by Greek styles of city planning and by Arab rulers; as a result, the art and architecture of the community reflect the typical Central Asian mix of styles that has been dubbed “Greco-Buddhist.”


  1. Samangan

This small town in northern Afghanistan was once a medieval caravan stop. Samangan is best known for its weekly market, an ancient tradition that continues to be extremely popular. The market specializes in traditional Afghan musical instruments built by local artisans.

  1. Jalalabad

This eastern city played an important role in the establishment of modern Afghanistan as it was used as a military campaign base by Ahmad Shah Durrani, the 18th-century ruler whom most regard as the founder of the contemporary Afghan state. Somewhat unusually for Afghanistan, Jalalabad boasts large green areas and surrounding water, which are an important element of the city’s unique beauty. There is also a great deal of striking architecture in Jalalabad, including the Mausoleum of King Amanullah Khan and the more modern Nangarhar University.


  1. Faizabad

The northeastern city of Faizabad has historically been cut off from the rest of Afghanistan due to poor road connections. As a result, the local culture is remarkably well preserved. Today, there are still two functioning bazaars in Faizabad, where residents trade diverse items from cloth and cutlery to tea and sugar.

5 Things You Need to Know about the Miraculous Love Kids

Although the situation has improved in recent years, the sight of kids on the street is still all too common in Afghanistan’s major cities. Some of these street children are orphans, living on the street because they have no other home, while others have taken to the streets to beg or sell food or trinkets in order to help support their families. Unfortunately, living on the street makes these children particularly vulnerable: according to UN figures, 923 Afghan children were killed in attacks in 2016. In addition, when children are working on the street, they are not attending school, which means they will face even greater barriers to a better future.

This is where charities like the Miraculous Love Kids come in. Perhaps the most hopefully-named charity in Afghanistan, the Miraculous Love Kids is one of a growing number of organizations dedicated to helping the nation’s street children. The Miraculous Love Kids is a music school founded by guitarist Lanny Cordola that offers guitar classes to street kids in Kabul, and for many of the young students, the experience has been life-changing. Here are five things you need to know about this special organization:

  1. The school was inspired by a tragic event.

Lanny Cordola, the Miraculous Love Kids’ founder, got his first taste of music’s power to help and heal people in need in 2010, when he was invited by a friend to collaborate with Central Asian musicians as part of a relief campaign for catastrophic flooding that was affecting the area. In his travels to visit various flood camps, Cordola witnessed the joy that these displaced people undergoing tremendous hardship experienced when they had the opportunity to hear and play music.

Cordola returned to California determined to work on making music that would give a voice to people in need, like those he’d met in the camps. And it was in this frame of mind that, in 2012, he heard about two young sisters who had been killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan as they sold trinkets on the street. Cordola was deeply moved by the story and reached out to contacts from his previous trip to see if he could get in touch with the girls’ family. Upon discovering that their mother and younger sisters were living in poverty with few resources, he was determined to do what he could to help. After repeated visits to Afghanistan, during which he raised enough money to move the family into a better home, Cordola noticed how interested the girls were in his guitar. The realization that music could help heal these young lives provided the initial spark for what is now the Miraculous Love Kids.

  1. Around 60 children attend the school.

Today, Lanny Cordola and other musicians teach roughly 60 children at the Miraculous Love Kids school. As part of the program, the children receive an allowance of between 50 and 100 Afghanis every time they come; this means that the kids (and their families) don’t lose out financially because the youngsters are in class rather than selling or begging on the street. In addition to studying guitar, the school’s students learn English and receive support for additional schooling.

  1. The school is a US-registered nonprofit.

The Miraculous Love Kids is formally registered as a 501(c)(3) organization in the US. Its main sources of financial support are private donations—many of which are made via the organization’s GoFundMe page. However, it also raises money by performing benefit concerts.

  1. Students have collaborated with one of the biggest legends in music.

The young musicians at the Miraculous Love Kids have a dedicated supporter that most Western artists could only dream about: Brian Wilson. The legendary Beach Boys front man is an old friend of Lanny Cordola, and when he learned about Cordola’s work with some of Afghanistan’s most vulnerable children, he reached out to see how he could help the group. The result is the Miraculous Love Kids’ first-ever professional collaboration: Brian Wilson sent voice and music tracks for his song “Love and Mercy” to the school to be mixed with the students’ own playing and singing. Proceeds from the sales of the song will go to support the school. In addition, Wilson has invited some of the students to visit and work with him in the US.

  1. The school’s founder, Lanny Cordola, is a former arena rock guitarist.

There are few people better equipped than Lanny Cordola to introduce Western rock music to Afghan street children. A guitarist from Southern California, Cordola has played with musicians in some of the most important rock groups in music history, including the Beach Boys and Guns N’ Roses. As a result of his work with the Miraculous Love Kids, Cordola has also been collaborating more and more with Afghan musicians like Wahid Qasimi. Cordola now lives full-time in Kabul.