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.

Behind the Scenes: Spotlight on the Bayat Foundation’s Recent Activities

It’s been a busy winter for the Bayat Foundation. Over the last few months, Afghanistan’s largest private philanthropic organization has been hard at work on a number of different projects.

All the projects seek to fulfill the Foundation’s mission to deliver hope and support to some of the country’s most vulnerable people. These recent activities include:

A New Partnership with Plasticos Foundation

In December 2018, the Bayat Foundation announced that it had entered talks with Plasticos Foundation about future surgical training and treatment missions in Afghanistan. A non-profit, volunteer-run organization, Plasticos Foundation is dedicated to improving lives all around the world through reconstructive plastic surgery.

Plasticos Foundation provides free reconstructive surgery to people (primarily children) affected by burns, traumatic injuries, and congenital deformities. The Foundation also offers medical training and specialized education to doctors in developing nations, thus building local capacity for surgical intervention.

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Initial discussions between the Bayat Foundation and Plasticos Foundation focused on the development of an integrated training program for Afghan medical staff. Programs would potentially be available for doctors, nurses, and other professionals.

The goal of this training would be to enhance Afghanistan’s ability to treat severe burns and physical injuries internally. This would be accomplished by improving Afghan medical professionals’ restorative and reconstructive surgical skills.

In addition to holding initial talks about how best to develop such a program, senior officials from the Bayat Foundation and Plasticos Foundation conducted an intensive three-day assessment of Afghan hospitals. Members of the assessment team included Dr. Sami Rahimi, the Bayat Foundation’s director of health initiatives; two VPs from the Bayat Group; Dr. Larry Nichter, the founder of Plasticos Foundation; and two other Plasticos Foundation doctors.

The assessment team toured the pediatric burn unit at Indira Gandhi Hospital in Kabul. There, team members were given detailed briefings from senior medical staff on treatment procedures. Additionally, the team toured the adult burn unit at Istaqal Hospital, also in Kabul.

The team was then received at the Afghan Ministry of Health. Extensive talks on the state of the Afghan health system were held with Afghan Minister of Health H.E. Ferozuddin Feroz.

Interviewed after the hospital assessment process, Dr. Larry Nichter described the experience as both informative and emotionally moving. He talked about the clear role that Plasticos Foundation could play in helping build Afghanistan’s surgical capabilities. He said he was looking forward to the first training and treatment mission.

At the conclusion of the visit, Plasticos provided the two Kabul hospitals with access to the Digital Medical Library from the Global HELP organization. This free, open access medical library is focused on children’s health. It works to connect underserved communities with the relevant healthcare information they need to help themselves.

A New Business Networking and Acceleration Program for Afghan Entrepreneurs

One of the most critical elements that will help ensure a stable and prosperous economic future for Afghanistan is a thriving private sector. However, the business environment in the country is still somewhat precarious. As a result, many aspiring entrepreneurs need a bit of extra support to get their ideas off the ground.

This is where the Bright Future Business Accelerator comes in. It is Afghanistan’s first networking and business development program geared towards young Afghan entrepreneurs.

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The Business Accelerator is an initiative of Bright Future Afghanistan. This is a consortium of four leading non-profits working in Afghanistan, including the Bayat Foundation and the Dutch humanitarian organization Cordaid.

The mission of the Business Accelerator program is to provide business education, skills training, and support to Afghan entrepreneurs, and to bring business owners together with potential investors, Afghan government representatives, and Afghanistan-based NGOs.

Ultimately, the program aims to help develop and sustain a vibrant network of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). This will help create millions of jobs in Afghanistan and accelerate the country’s economic development.

The Bright Future Business Accelerator was launched at a special event in Kabul in December 2018. It was attended by the owners of 20 Afghan SMEs, as well as microfinance executives, Afghan government officials, and NGO leaders.

The event featured a welcome address from Cordaid representative Jaap Van Hierden, networking sessions, and information panels on financing programs and Afghan government licensing procedures. The event was praised by attendees as a critical first step in helping set Afghan entrepreneurs on the path to success.

The 2019 Winter Aid Program

In January 2019, the Bayat Foundation marked the successful completion of its 12th annual Winter Aid program. An important part of the Foundation’s family assistance activities, the Winter Aid program provides emergency food and desperately needed winter clothing to thousands of vulnerable Afghans in Kabul and surrounding regions.

This year, in addition to warm jackets and other cold weather essentials, the program distributed more than 150,000 pre-packaged, easily-prepared meals to Afghan families in need. To ensure that the assistance reached as many people as possible, the Bayat Foundation’s chairman Dr. Ehsan Bayat led a dedicated distribution team. The team consisted of Bayat Foundation staff members and volunteers from local mosques and community organizations.

Spotlight on the Art of Traditional Afghan Construction

Buildings in Afghanistan have been constructed using traditional methods for many centuries. Developed in response to Afghanistan’s unique building challenges—including extreme climate and weather conditions, frequent earthquakes, and varying availability of natural resources—these traditional techniques have withstood the test of time. Except for the incorporation of a few modern adaptations like plumbing and electricity, many Afghan buildings today are constructed in the same way that they have been for hundreds of years.

One excellent recent example of the use of traditional building methods on a large scale is the restoration of Kabul’s historic Murad Khani neighborhood by the nonprofit organization Turquoise Mountain. To bring the neglected buildings of this area back to their former glory, hundreds of artisans and community members used traditional construction techniques to restore and refurbish—and in some cases reconstruct— homes and other structures more than two centuries old.

The new Preserving Afghan Heritage platform, now available on Google Arts & Culture, offers visitors an absorbing look at the Murad Khani restoration, including a fascinating online exhibit on the traditional methods used during the project. As described in the exhibit, the steps involved in traditional Afghan building include the following:

The foundation

Creating a strong foundation is the first step in the traditional building process. Foundations, which are often dug out by hand, must be able to support the planned building. This means that taller buildings will require deeper foundations. Once the excavation is complete, the pit is filled in with stone and rubble, and then topped with another layer of stone. Roughly 40-60 centimeters high, this final layer ensures that the earth walls are elevated above ground level, which helps to protect them against the weakening effects of rain and snow.

The exterior walls

The main skeleton of the building is constructed using a technique known as senj, in which bricks are placed inside a timber frame. The timber skeleton is constructed first: vertical wooden poles are placed around the perimeter of the building about 60-70 centimeters apart and are then secured to the horizontal wooden beams of the floor and ceiling. Next, the spaces between the poles are filled with bricks. With the senj technique, the bricks are laid diagonally between the poles; after seven to 10 layers have been completed, the bricks are then laid in the opposite diagonal direction. These alternating directional layers help strengthen the walls of the building and improve its resistance to earthquakes.

Image by Jim Kelly | Flickr

The roof

To increase the stability of the roof, builders place layers of woven bamboo and willow branches onto the roof beams and secure them in place. Ghora gel, a mud mixture, is then applied to the branches to stabilize them and seal the roof. Note that the roofs and ceilings of traditional Afghan buildings are low to help keep interior rooms warmer during the cold winter months.

The interior walls

In a traditional Afghan building, the interior walls are built with the same senj technique used for the exterior walls. Vertical poles are placed to define the perimeter of the rooms and are then filled with diagonal layers of bricks.

Interior finishes

Once the electrical wiring has been installed, the interior walls are covered with a plaster made from mud, straw, and water. This plaster is left for a day to dry, after which the seemgel is added. Seemgel is a type of interior finish composed of screened mud, water, and lokh (a traditional Afghan construction material made of a mixture of clay and the downy fluff of reeds). Seemgel is applied to the interior walls in layers, with a drying time of two days required between layers. It is mainly used for buildings where the intention is to decorate the interior walls.

Windows and doors

Because it was challenging in the past to construct fixed windows with hinges, many traditional Afghan buildings use patayi screens instead. These are horizontal windows stacked on top of each other, which can be raised separately in order to control and direct air circulation in the room. In the summer, for example, the patayi screens are typically raised to maximize airflow and keep the interior cool. As for the door frames, these are deliberately kept very low so that visitors must bow when they enter, thereby showing respect for the house’s owners.

Decorative touches

Depending on the means of the owners, there are many different decorative touches that can adorn the finished interiors of traditional Afghan buildings. For example, the ceiling may be covered with carved wooden panels fixed directly to the roof beams; not just visually appealing, this has the practical benefit of preventing dust or dirt from the roof from falling into the rooms. It’s also common to set hand-framed, plaster niches into the interior walls so that ornaments and pictures may be displayed. Sensibly, there are usually two different heights of niches—the higher ones, out of the reach of children, are where more fragile items are kept.