10 Things You Might Not Know about Afghanistan

In this article, we look at 10 interesting facts about Afghanistan, its culture, and its people—from the country’s love of poetry to the national sport of buzkashi.

1. Afghanistan’s capital city is Kabul.

Kabul, Afghanistan’s largest city, is located in the country’s eastern section. The only city in Afghanistan with a population of more than 1 million, Kabul is home to around 4.114 million people.

Nestled in a valley of the expansive Hindu Kush mountains, Kabul’s elevation of approximately 1,790 meters makes the city one of the world’s highest capitals. First mentioned around the era of the Achaemenid Empire, the city of Kabul is said to date back more than 3,500 years.

2. The national sport of Afghanistan is buzkashi.

Afghans have petitioned for buzkashi, known as the world’s wildest sport, to be recognized as an Olympic sport.

buzkashi

Buzkashi, or goat-grabbing, involves horseback riders grabbing at a goat carcass, galloping clear of their rivals, and dropping it within a chalked circle. The game has been played on the northern steppe for centuries, and was once the sport of rich rival warlords. Today, it is largely funded by mobile telecoms companies and private airlines.

3. Alexander the Great’s wife, Roxana, was born in Afghanistan.

She was described as one of the most beautiful women in the whole of Asia. Roxana’s Afghan name, Roshanak, means “little star” in Persian.

Although Alexander the Great’s marriage to Roxana was politically motivated, it is widely noted that she was his greatest weakness. Married in 327 BC, Alexander was so charmed by Roxana’s beauty and wisdom that the couple were inseparable, much to the annoyance of some of his soldiers.

Following Alexander the Great’s death in 323 BC, Roxana gave birth to Alexander IV. She was murdered in Macedonia in 320 BC by Alexander’s former ally.

4. Approximately 90 percent of the Afghan population has mobile coverage.

After the Karzai administration gained office in 2001, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology rapidly expanded the country’s wireless, internet, radio, and television industries.

tower

In 2006, the Afghan government signed an agreement with ZTE of China, striking a deal worth a reported $64.5 million. Under the agreement, ZTE would lay the country’s optical fiber cable, improving telephone, internet, radio, and television services throughout Afghanistan.

By 2014, approximately 90 percent of Afghans had access to communication services.  Today, Afghan Wireless keeps Afghanistan connected, providing unparalleled speed, freedom, and reliability.

5. Poetry is an integral part of Afghan culture.

Afghans have been telling tales in verse for more than a millennium. In the western city of Herat, locals celebrate “poetry night” every Thursday, with men, women, and children gathering together to share both modern and ancient verse, enjoying traditional Herati music, and indulging in pastries and sweet tea well into the evening.

6. Afghanistan is a landlocked South Asian nation.

The country is bordered by Iran to the west; India and China to the east; Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan to the north; and Pakistan to the south. The terrain is dominated by rugged mountains, with flat plains in the north and southwest.

7. The country is twice the size of the UK, but has half its population.

Afghanistan’s current population is estimated at almost 39 million. The majority of Afghans live in rural locations within tribal and kinship groups. Approximately 10 percent of Afghans live in Kabul. The nation’s second largest city is Kandahar, with just under 400,000 residents.

8. Afghanistan is semi-arid, with hot summers and cold winters.

shepherd

Afghanistan has a dry continental climate, comprising all four seasons. In Afghanistan’s lowlands, temperatures can peak at 50⁰C in the height of summer, dropping to around 20⁰C in the wintertime. In mountain regions, winter temperatures often fall as low as -25⁰C, with some isolated areas dropping considerably lower than this.

9. Afghans celebrate the new year on March 21.

The Afghan new year is marked by celebrations lasting around 2 weeks, culminating in Nauruz, or Farmer’s Day, which is celebrated on March 21.

In the city of Mazar-i-Shar, the Red Flower Festival forms an integral part of the new year festivities, celebrating the blaze of red tulips growing on plains surrounding the city.

In Mazar, up to 200,000 Afghans gather for Jahenda Bala on the first day of the new year. High ranking officials gather for a religious ceremony at the Blue Mosque, the site of the tomb of the 4th Calif of Islam, Ali ibn Abi Talib.

10. Agriculture is big business in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is self-sufficient in terms of around 95 percent of its rye and wheat supply. The country’s agricultural sector more than meets the country’s needs for potatoes and rice. Agriculture accounts for around 23 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP and 44 percent of the country’s labor force.

Afghanistan produces around 1.5 million tons of fresh fruit every year, and experts predict this sector could expand significantly in years to come. The country is gaining a reputation for producing some of the world’s finest grapes, cherries, apricots, melons, peaches, and figs.

A Look at the National Museum of Afghanistan and Its Many Treasures

Located in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, the National Museum of Afghanistan was established in 1919. Originally housed in Bagh-i-Bala Palace, the museum housed weapons, miniatures, manuscripts, and works of art belonging to the Afghan royal families.

In this article, we look at the history of the museum, its collections, and the important artefacts housed there.

The original Afghan National Museum opened during the reign of King Amanullah Khan.

Originally known as a “Cabinet of Curiosities,” the collection was moved to its present location in 1931. In 1964, historian Nancy Dupree cowrote A Guide to the Kabul Museum.

During the 1990s, the site served as a military base. Curators sealed items in metal boxes and removed them for safekeeping, storing many artefacts in vaults throughout Kabul, while others were looted and found as far afield as Europe.

Between 2003 and 2006, the museum carried out extensive structural refurbishments, at a cost of around $350,000. Museum officials recovered precious objects, adding them to inventories and placing them back on display.

Since 2007, Interpol and UNESCO have helped recover more than 8,000 artefacts belonging to the National Museum of Afghanistan. In July 2012, the British Museum returned 843 artefacts, including the priceless first-century Begram Ivories.

The Begram Ivories consist of more than a thousand figures and plaques.

Dating back to the first and second centuries CE, these ivory and bone carvings are widely regarded as some of the finest examples of Kushan art. Rediscovered in the 1930s in Bagram, Afghanistan, these carved panels were likely originally attached to wooden furniture.

The carvings attest to the cosmopolitan tastes of the local elite, the skills and sophistication of local craftsmen, and the prolific ancient trade in luxury goods.

The ancient city of Kapisi, located near modern Bagram, formed the capital of the Kushan Empire, an ancient civilization that spanned northwest India to northern Afghanistan. Dominating two passes of the Hindu Kush mountains, Kapisi was a strategically important city. Early Kushans are well known for their arts, producing sculptures, paintings, and friezes between the first and fourth centuries CE.

The Begram Ivories include intricate, decorative plaques that depict male and female courtiers, musicians, and dancers. They also feature mythological creatures, such as griffins, as well as elephants, lions, birds, flowers, and architectural backdrops. Color pigments recovered during analysis reveal they were originally painted red, black, blue, and indigo.

The Bactria Exhibition

The historic region of Bactria in Central Asia encompassed what is now Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. It was home to a number of civilizations over the millennia, including the Persian Achaemenid Empire, the Greek Seleucid Empire, and the Greco-Bactrian Empire. Bactria was famous for its wealth, thousand cities, and the outstanding fertility of its lands.

Balkh, Bactria’s capital, formed the cultural and political center of the Aspa, Cyanides, and Pishdadian dynasties. Balkh was an important trade center, effectively serving as a crossroads between Western and Eastern cultures throughout the Achaemenid period and later.

Both Buddhism and Zoroastrianism were practiced in Bactria until the sacred religion of Islam began to flourish throughout the region and the majority of the population became Muslim.

Over the course of the last century, archaeological sites across the region have yielded precious artefacts, many of which are exhibited by the museum today, including examples from the Stone Age and Bronze Age as well as the Aryan, Achaemenid, Greco-Bactrian Scythian, and Kushan periods.

The museum features displays of Paleolithic and Mesolithic tools, as well as intricate examples of Bronze Age jewelry inlaid with lapis lazuli. There are also pieces dating back to Alexander the Great’s expedition across the region, with ivory pieces serving as important examples of Hellenistic (Greek) art.

The Ghazni Exhibition

The word Ghazni comes from the Persian word for jewel.

In 2013, Ghazni was named the Islamic Capital of Culture by the Islamic Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (ISESCO). Situated 150 kilometers southwest of Kabul, Ghazni formed the center of the province of Arakuzia in ancient times. Once the Islamic empire’s largest city, the city lies on the road between Kabul and Kandahar.

The National Museum of Afghanistan houses an extensive collection of marble stones recovered from Ghazni over the last decade, dating back to the 11th century CE.

UNESCO has supported the museum in its refurbishment program.

Working together with UNESCO, as well as a host of other cultural development organizations, the museum has rehabilitated its buildings and grounds, invested in its staff, and revamped displays of its priceless collections.

The museum has also implemented advocacy, project design, and funding and awareness strategies, making a great deal of progress over the last few years. As a result, the National Museum of Afghanistan has established a global reputation as one of the finest collections of Afghan and Central Asian art and archaeology

9 of the Best Afghan Dishes

With its delicate flavor combinations, bold colors, and Persian, Chinese, Indian, and Mediterranean influences, Afghan cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the United States. Read on to learn more about some of Afghanistan’s most celebrated dishes.

1. Ashak

Ashak is a type of dumpling stuffed with leeks and served with a meat, yogurt, or garlic-mint sauce. However, each region, and often family, has its own variation of the dish, leading to a huge variety of types.

Typically served for family gatherings and holidays or on a Friday to mark the end of the week, ashak is regarded as a celebratory dish.

ashak
Image by jypsygen | Flickr

2. Jalebi

This sweet snack, popular throughout South Asia and the Middle East, is made from a batter of maida flour, which is fashioned in circular or pretzel shapes before being deep-fried and then soaked in sugar syrup.

Jalebi has a chewy consistency, with a crystallized sugar coating. Lime juice, citric acid, or rosewater are sometimes added for flavor.

3. Shorwa

This hearty dish translates from Persian to English simply as “soup.” A humble, slow-cooked dish, shorwa is perfect for a winter’s night. Its main ingredients are potatoes, beans, and meat, such as lamb, chicken, or beef.

Shorwa is a traditional dish that is eaten throughout Afghanistan. It is often flavored with tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and turmeric, and it is usually served with bread.

Shorwa
Image by Jeff Kubina | Flickr

4. Qabili palau

A great deal of thought and effort goes into Afghanistan’s national dish, qabili palau. Its origins lie in the upper echelons of Kabul society, since it was accessible only to those families that could afford nuts, raisins, and carrots to flavor their rice. Over time, more people in Afghanistan became wealthier, and the dish became mainstream.

Known as the crown of Afghan cuisine, qabili palau is a meat and rice dish made with lamb, chicken, or beef. Chefs flavor the dish with a fusion of spices, including cinnamon, cloves, cumin, cardamom, and turmeric.

The word qabili comes from the Dari word qabil, meaning “well accomplished.” The inference is that only a skilled chef can make a good qabili palau, as one must carefully balance the ingredients to create the perfect blend of delicate flavors.

5. Bolani

Bolani is an Afghan flatbread stuffed with a vegetable filling, then baked or fried.

Bolani can incorporate a variety of fillings, including potatoes, pumpkin, lentils, and leeks. Accompaniments include plain or mint-flavored yogurt.

Bolani is popular on special occasions in Afghanistan, and it is commonly served in kebab restaurants throughout America today.

6. Mantu

Mantu is a type of meat dumpling that is incredibly popular in Afghanistan. It is usually made with lamb or beef and cooked in a multilayer steamer.

Afghans cook mantu on special occasions, but it is also sold by vendors in busy streets and markets. It can be an accompaniment or a main meal.

The dish dates back to the Mongols of Central Asia. Historians believe Mongol horsemen carried frozen mantu with them as they traveled during the cold winters, boiling them over campfires to eat for supper.

Mantu
Image by Lance Nishihira | Flickr

7. Qormah          

An onion- and tomato-based casserole or stew, qormah is often the main dish at gatherings.

To prepare the dish, first the onions are fried, and tomatoes are added later. Depending on the recipe, a variety of vegetables, fruits, and spices may be included, followed by the main ingredient, usually meat. It is usually served with chalau rice.

There are more than 100 variations of qormah, including Qormah e Sabzi, featuring lamb, spinach, and greens; Qormah e Alou-Bokhara wa Dalnakhod, which includes veal or chicken, onions, sour plums, lentils, and cardamom; and Qormah e Shalgham, featuring lamb, onions, turnip, and sugar.

8. Sheer khurma

Sheer khurma is a rich vermicelli pudding made from milk, dates, nuts, and sugar. The literal translation into English is “milk with dates.” It is popular during the Islamic festival of Eid across Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent.

Made with whole milk, the dessert dish is rich and creamy. It comprises a variety of dried nuts and fruits, including dates, raisins, almonds, cashews, and pistachios.

Sheer Khurma is delicately flavored with cardamom and rosewater. It can be enjoyed either hot or cold. Khoya, or dried milk solids, is optional but recommended, as it gives the dish a richer flavor.

9. Kofta

Kofta is a type of meatball that is popular in Afghanistan. It is also served across the Indian subcontinent, and forms an important part of Middle Eastern, Balkan, South Caucasian, and Central Asian cuisines.

Afghan koftas are usually made from beef or lamb, as well as onion, seasoning, and delicate spices. It is a versatile dish that is often adapted to incorporate regional ingredients and suit seasonal constraints. The dish has a rich history across the Middle East and Persia, where it is regarded as the ultimate comfort food.