What is so Amazing about Afghanistan?

New eBook: Amazing Wonders of Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s diverse and ancient cultural heritage is well known and has led many authors to refer to the country as ‘The Crossroads of Asia’, ‘The Crossroads of Civilizations, ‘The Heart of Asia’ and so on.  ‘Crossroads’ of course could be applied to many countries which, like Afghanistan, straddle ancient trade and invasion routes. What makes Afghanistan’s cultural heritage particularly special, however, is the sheer diversity of the country’s cultural history and archaeology and the fact that it encompasses such a huge breadth of human history. It is a history which begins with some of the earliest known human activity in the Late Palaeolithic era of the Stone Age (c. 30,000 BCE).

Afghanistan’s cultural heritage reflects millennia of interaction with the cultures, philosophies and peoples of northern India, Inner Asia, China, Persia, the Near East and even Graeco-Roman Europe. These influences are due to a variety of factors. Commerce along Eurasia’s network of trade routes known, misleadingly, as ‘The Silk Road’ (there were many ‘routes’ and silk was came late in the story of Eurasian trade) was a major spur to both cultural and ideological interchange from at least the early Bronze Age. Voluntary and involuntary migration has also contributed to making Afghanistan something of an ethnic melting pot. Invasion and colonization by external powers have also been major factors promoting cultural interaction whilst new philosophies were also brought to the country by religious refugees, missionaries and pilgrims. Over the millennia Kabul, Ghazni, Herat, Kandahar, Bamiyan, Bagram, Firoz Koh (near Chaghcharan in Ghur) and Balkh, to mention the most important, were all at one time capitals of major empires. These varieties of cultural influences are today reflected in the great variety of cultural heritage as well as in the multi-ethnic composition of Afghanistan’s society and the fact that over fifty different languages are spoken in the country.

Yet unlike Egypt, the ‘Fertile Cresent’ or the Tirgis-Euphrates region, Afghanistan is still regarded by archaeologists as very much terra incognito (‘unknown land’). The Bamiyan Buddhas, for example, though mentioned by Chinese pilgrim in the seventh century BCE, were not sketched by European explorers until the 1830s. The Minaret of Jam remained undocumented until 1957, whilst excavations at Ai Khanum, the famous Hellenistic city on the Amu Darya, only began in 1964. Indeed, one of the things that first attracted me to Afghanistan as an undergraduate was the fact that so little was known about the country and its cultural heritage.

Afghanistan still continues to produce remarkable discoveries, discoveries which often force scholars to rewrite the history of whole eras. They include the earliest known Buddhist religious texts; a cache (or genizah) of early mediaeval Hebrew manuscripts; the Tela (Tellya) Tepe treasure; the Rabatak Bactrian inscription; the monumental Sasanid rock carving outside Pul-i Khumri, and excavations by French archaeologists at Chashma-yi Shafa, south of Balkh, at a site which is more than likely the location of the ancient city of Bactra. Many areas of the country remain unsurveyed and will probably be so for the foreseeable future.

This present work gives an introduction to a selection of Afghanistan’s most remarkable architectural and archaeological heritage. The selection of subjects has been far from easy and inevitably there have had to be omissions. Thus there is no mention of the Gandharan heritage of Begram or Hadda, nor of Noh Gunbad, Afghanistan’s earliest mosque near Balkh or the many ancient monuments which are scattered throughout the Sistan, or the Ghaznavid ruins at Bost.

The criteria for choosing the twenty sites which appear in this book is based on a desire to represent as wide a variety of cultural and artistic influences as possible and to span a period from the early historic era to late medieval Islamic one. The choice also reflects the cultural heritage from all regions of Afghanistan. Two chapters deal with national cultural traditions, buzkashi and the New Year’s Festival known as Gul-i Surkh, which today are very much part of Afghanistan’s identity.

Another reason for writing this book is to highlight the crisis facing Afghanistan’s material culture and at least one chapter, the Minars of the Logar Valley, is a valedictory, a memorial to a series of unique and little documented monuments which are now lost forever. One of the inescapable themes which occur in almost every chapter is the threat facing the country’s cultural heritage. It is a silent and mostly unpublicised disaster but one of unprecedented proportions which, were it happening in any European or North American nation, would lead to popular demands for immediate and urgent government action.

Over the last thirty years war damage, both direct and indirect, has had a devastating effect on Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. And whilst the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas is the most well-known act of war-related vandalism, many other monuments have suffered greatly and are now on the ‘at risk’ list and in need of immediate consolidation work. Hand-in-hand with decades of civil unrest has been a loss of ‘ownership’, or understanding of the intrinsic cultural and social value of the nation’s cultural heritage. For some this heritage is seen purely in monetary terms, a world view which has led to the widespread pillaging of archaeological sites and the on-sale of undocumented artefacts to foreign dealers and private collectors overseas.

The influx of millions of dollars into the economy by foreign donors and military since 2002 has led to an unprecedented boom in major construction projects, urban redevelopment and expansion. In the process of this unprecedented drive for modernization, historic structures have been torn down and many archaeological sites have been bulldozed, including what is probably the site of the ancient city of Bactra. This is not to argue against ‘progress’, but rather that the rules which donor countries uphold within their own nations and which require proper documentation and preservation of sites of major cultural significance, ought to be equally applied to work carried out in Afghanistan too.

Author Dr. Jonathan Lee

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