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.

pottery
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.

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.

5 Charities Seeking to Improve Lives in Afghanistan

Of the numerous charitable organizations working in Afghanistan, many are helping to support a broad range of large-scale initiatives and development goals. Other charities are taking a different approach. Rather than offering wide-ranging development support, these organizations are focusing their efforts on tackling and solving highly targeted problems: issues that may not seem as big or as impressive as reforming the educational system or improving access to health care, but which are still vital to a functional and prosperous Afghan society. Read on to learn about five international organizations that are helping Afghanistan to deal with very specific challenges:

1. Dutch Committee for Afghanistan Livestock Programs

Specific mission: Improving the health and production of Afghan livestock.

The livestock programs of the Dutch Committee for Afghanistan (DCA-VET) are intended to support the roughly 24 million Afghans who live in the countryside and depend on livestock and agriculture for their livelihood. Most rural families keep at least some livestock—cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys, and poultry are the most common animals—but local farmers are often prevented from making the most of their livestock due to rampant animal diseases, an insufficient knowledge of animal husbandry and nutrition, and a lack of good market opportunities for their livestock products. DCA helps farmers to overcome these issues by developing quality veterinary services throughout rural Afghanistan, offering comprehensive extension and outreach programs on animal health, and creating value chains for livestock product processing and trading.

Livestock

2. The HALO Trust

Specific mission: Landmine clearance and mine risk education.

Afghanistan is one of the most mined countries in the world. An estimated 640,000 land mines have been laid out in Afghanistan since 1979, and the country is littered with unexploded ordnance. As a result, the subsistence of rural communities is threatened in areas where there is a risk of landmine contamination because land cannot be safely used to grow crops or graze animals. In order to address this deadly issue, The HALO Trust has been working in Afghanistan since 1988 on landmine clearance and mine risk education programs. Over the course of the last 30 years, the organization, which employs 2,500 Afghans, has destroyed close to 700,000 emplaced and stockpiled mines, and has helped to clear almost 80% of recorded mine and unexploded ordnance land in Afghanistan.

3. Group for the Environment, Renewable Energy and Solidarity (GERES)

Specific mission: Disseminating energy-efficient techniques.

As a development NGO specializing in sustainable energy and environmental protection, GERES has been working internationally to improve community living conditions while preserving natural resources for more than four decades. In Afghanistan, GERES’ work focuses on facilitating the adoption of energy-efficient techniques in public buildings and income-generating agricultural activities. A large portion of Afghanistan’s population is affected by energy poverty. Only about 6% of Afghans have access to electricity, even intermittently. Consequently, schools are closed for much of the year due to a lack of heating, and hospitals are hampered in their operations by high energy costs. Introducing energy-efficient techniques to these institutions is therefore an important first step in helping them to make the most of the energy that they can access.

4. Terra Institute

Specific mission: Securing equitable access to land.

Based in the United States, Terra Institute is a nonprofit focused on issues related to land tenure, land administration and management, and land policy reform. Throughout its four decades of work all around the world, the organization has strived to help people improve their lives by empowering them to deal with land issues. Such issues are prevalent in Afghanistan, given its large rural population and heavy economic reliance on land-intensive activities such as agriculture and livestock. As part of its work in Afghanistan, Terra Institute has collaborated with a number of partners to design and pilot a community-based method for achieving community consensus around the legitimate users of rangeland and appropriately documenting them.

Sheep grazing

5. PARSA

Specific mission: Supporting Afghan community leaders.

PARSA believes that it takes dedicated and passionate Afghan community leaders to create a better Afghan society. This is why PARSA is still operating as a grassroots organization after working for more than 20 years in Afghanistan. Unlike many other development organizations, PARSA is directly engaged with the communities that it supports, and it takes cues from community leaders as to what interventions and resources will work best for each community. These inspired leaders then leverage PARSA’s support and guidance to implement programs that will spark positive change for their families and neighbors, and that can evolve organically over time as community needs change. Since PARSA itself receives support from a wide community of small donors, it is able to be highly creative and flexible in its program development without being hampered by the rigid limitations that are often attached to large-scale government and institutional funding.