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.

Spotlight on the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan

With its thousands of years of history, Afghanistan is home to a remarkable treasure trove of archaeological wealth. Within the country’s borders, incredible examples of protohistoric, Greek, Buddhist, and Islamic sites can all be found, reflecting the rich and complex legacy of Afghanistan’s many peoples and influences.

For nearly a century, the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan (DAFA) has been one of the most important organizations working on the ground to preserve and protect Afghanistan’s exceptional archaeological heritage. In a recent article from CNRS News, DAFA’s director Julio Bendezu-Sarmiento gives readers a unique glimpse into DAFA’s history and current projects in Afghanistan.

Some of the most important takeaways from the article include:

 

DAFA is the only foreign archaeological team to have a permanent presence in Afghanistan.

Many scientific organizations have left Kabul in recent years due to the instability that continues to affect the city. The fact that DAFA has remained is a reflection of its long history and close ties with Afghanistan.

DAFA was established in 1922 at the request of the Afghan head of state at the time, King Amanullah. Under the original agreement between the French and Afghan governments, DAFA was granted exclusive rights to carry out archaeological excavations in Afghanistan. This changed in the 1960s, when other organizations were permitted to conduct excavations.

DAFA was forced to leave the country during the Soviet occupation and ensuing civil conflict. The organization returned in 2003 and has continued its work ever since. Today, the DAFA headquarters in Kabul are home to offices, a research center, a library of 20,000 books, storerooms, and restoration and photo laboratories.

 

archaeology

Image courtesy Jerome Starkey | Flickr

 

DAFA’s most important current project is the creation of a comprehensive inventory and map of Afghanistan’s archaeological heritage.

In 2014, the government of Afghanistan entrusted DAFA with the mission to produce a comprehensive archaeological map of the country. This document would serve as a detailed inventory of all of Afghanistan’s ancient sites. The goal of this project is to ensure that the Afghan government is able to make fully-informed decisions about prospective development projects—including road construction, urban planning initiatives, and mining—that may impact sites of archaeological importance.

The decision to launch this project was prompted in part by a decade-old controversy. In 2007, the news broke that a Chinese company had acquired the mining and extraction rites to Mes Aynak. This site is roughly 25 miles southeast of Kabul and is home to both the remains of an ancient Buddhist city and one of the world’s largest untapped copper deposits.

The future of the Mes Aynak archaeological site remains uncertain. Fortunately, historical preservationists all around the world have been working hard to save it. Going forward, DAFA’s inventory and mapping project is intended to help prevent similar situations from arising in the future.

 

DAFA currently relies on remote detection to conduct the majority of its survey work.

There are extensive logistical challenges involved in accessing Afghanistan’s archaeological sites. These include security concerns, extreme weather conditions, and the remote nature of many of the locations. As a result, it’s not feasible for DAFA team members to conduct systemic excavation campaigns in the field.

For this reason, DAFA is assembling its map of archaeological sites with the aid of thousands of drone and aerial photos. These are drawn from a variety of sources, including declassified NATO satellite images and aerial survey photographs taken by Airbus around mining concessions.

It’s a painstaking process. Because ancient Afghan buildings were typically made of mud, their remains are fragile and difficult to spot. In addition, many archaeological sites have been broken into and damaged by looters over the years, making them even more challenging to identify. This means that each photograph must be carefully examined by a trained professional who knows precisely what to look for.

 

The DAFA inventory has made considerable progress in recent years.

Hundreds of hours of effort have been made by the project’s 20 dedicated team members, most of whom are Afghan researchers and technicians. As a result, DAFA has made considerable progress on the mapping and inventory project over the last few years.

About 1,300 sites had already been discovered and published by the time of the Soviet invasion, when DAFA was forced to leave Afghanistan. Since the current mapping and inventory project was launched in 2014, DAFA has brought to light nearly 5,000 additional sites. The organization emphasizes that the survey is far from complete.

On the map, the sites are color-coded by category. Sites marked in yellow have already been excavated, those marked in blue have been identified but not excavated, and those in red have been only recently discovered and still need to be identified. Eventually, DAFA aims to produce a detailed geographic information system (GIS), in which a database of available site information can be accessed from each point on the map.

Featured Image courtesy Jerome Starkey | Flickr