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Afghanistan, often called the crossroads of Central Asia,
has a long history of turbulence.

Emergence of Afghanistan

Based on archaeological evidence, urban civilization began in the region between 3000 and 2000 BC. The first historical documents date from the early part of the Iranian Achaemenian Dynasty, which controlled the area from 550 BC until 331 BC.

Between 331 and 327 BC, Alexander the Great defeated the Achaemenian emperor Darius III and squashed local resistance. Alexander and his successors, the Seleucids, brought Greek cultural influences to the region. Shortly thereafter, the Mauryan Empire of India gained control of southern Afghanistan, bringing with it Buddhism. In the mid-third century BC, nomadic Kushans established an empire that became a cultural and commercial center (60s–375 AD). From the end of the Kushan Empire in the third century AD until the seventh century, the region was fragmented and under the general protection of the Iranian Sassanian Empire.

In 642 AD, Arabs invaded the entire region and introduced Islam. Arab rule gave way to the Persians, who controlled the area until conquered by the Turkic Ghaznavids in 998. Following Mahmud’s short-lived dynasty, various princes attempted to rule sections of the country until the Mongol invasion of 1219, led by Genghis Khan. Following Genghis Khan’s death in 1227, a succession of petty chiefs and princes struggled for supremacy until late in the 14th century, when one of his descendants, Tamerlane, incorporated Afghanistan into his own vast Asian empire.

Modern Afghanistan

In 1747, Ahmad Shah Durrani unified the Pashtun tribes and created the Durrani Empire, which is considered the beginning of modern Afghanistan. In the late 19th century, Afghanistan became a buffer state buffer between the British Indian Empire and the Russian Empire. On August 19, 1919, following the third Anglo-Afghan war, the country regained full independence from the United Kingdom.

From the 1930s to the 1970s, Afghanistan had the essence of a national government and Kabul was known as the “Paris of Central Asia.” A brief foray into democracy ended in a 1973 coup and a 1978 Communist counter-coup. The Soviet Union invaded in 1979 to support the frail Afghan Communist regime, sparking a long and destructive war. The USSR withdrew in 1989 under relentless pressure from internationally supported anti-Communist mujahedin rebels. After a subsequent series of civil wars, in 1996 Kabul fell to the Taliban, a hard-line Pakistani-sponsored movement that emerged in 1994 to end the country’s civil war and anarchy. Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a US, Allied, and anti-Taliban Northern Alliance military action toppled the Taliban for sheltering Osama Bin Laden. The UN-sponsored Bonn Conference in 2001 established a process for political reconstruction that included the adoption of a new constitution.

Arts and Culture

Artistic activity in Afghanistan can be traced back as early as 18,000 BC. For centuries Afghanistan linked the civilizations of Iran, India, and China. In the Islamic Era, the Ghaznavid rulers of the 10th to 12th centuries and the Ghorids fostered artistic development. Continuing through the Timurid dynasty, Afghanistan’s cultural life prospered and flourished through the rulers’ high regard for men of learning and artists. The descendants of Timur turned the city of Herat into a center of cultural activity enticing artists such as Abdul Rahman Jami, Abdulhay, and Kamal al-Din Bihzad to create finely illustrated books and exquisite buildings.

Afghan Literature

Folklore and legends told through song and storytelling are a centuries-old tradition in Afghanistan and continue to thrive today. Afghanistan has a rich literary tradition as well. During the medieval period, literature was written in Dari, Pashto, Turkic, and Arabic. The royal courts of regional empires such as the Samanids, the Ghaznavids, the Timurids, and the Mughals, were great patrons of Persian literature supporting literary geniuses like Rumi, Rudaki, Abdullah Ansari, Ferdowsi, and Jami.

One of the most important works of this period was the Dari epic poem Shah Nameh (The Book of Kings), completed in 1010 by Firdawsi and comprising 60,000 rhyming couplets. Another famous poet, Jalaluddin Rumi Balkhi (1207-1273, also known as Rumi) from Balkhi, is considered one of the greatest Sufi poets. Much of his writings have been translated from Farsi into English.

In the 16th-18th centuries, many literary figures originated from Afghanistan but due to the partition of the region between Safavid Persia and the Mughal Empire, famous poets moved to literary centers. Khushal Khan Khattak, a 17th Century Pashtun poet, and warrior, lived in the Hindu Kush foothills. He used verse to express the tribal code. By the late 19th century Pashto sung poetry had been formalized at the royal court into the classical genre known as ghazal, in recognition of the fact that music can be a powerful way to deliver great poetry.

Whenever I have said a word
To any single friend
Immediately the secret’s spread
Till all the world has known.
When the black partridge lifts its voice
From the lush meadowland
He is soon stripped of his regal plumes
By falcon or by hawk.
I’ve many quite devoted friends
The prize of passing years
But to their thousands there’s not one
To call a confident.

– by Khushal Khan Khattak

While Afghan literature can be split into Persian, Turkic, and Pashto, there is a shared tradition and heritage that unites the consciousness of all Afghans and is reflected in the literature. For example, a tradition of military prowess and invincibility presents itself in the literature, whether it is a product of Khyber Pass Pashtuns, Uzbek Central Asians, or Tajik mountain ghazis.

In the 20th century, Kabul became the center of publishing. Mahmud Tarzi (1865-1933), a reformer and editor of Kabul’s first literary publication, Seraj ul-Akhbar, was instrumental in developing a modern literary community. Afghanistan has produced several literary figures including Khalillulah Khalili (1907-1987) and Sayed Buhaniddin Majruh. A neo-classicist poet, prose writer, poet laureate, and ambassador, Khalili defined the Afghan Renaissance man.

Historical Sites

Ancient and modern architecture in Afghanistan combines elements from Iran, India, and Byzantium. Afghanistan is filled with architectural gems. Mosques, fortresses, and minarets reveal the artistic glory of past empires. The best sites to view architectural masterpieces are Herat, Bamiyan, Mazar-e Sharif, Balkh, Ghazni; however, architectural sites are spread throughout the country.

Efforts are currently being made to preserve Afghanistan’s many historical sites. Tragically, some of Afghanistan’s greatest cultural treasures, such as the Bamiyan giant Buddha statues, were destroyed by the Taliban. Other cultural heritage sites, such as the Heart mosque with its intricate ceramic tile designs, the hauntingly hidden Minaret of Jam, and the imposing Mazar-i-Sharif mosque have been preserved.

The Kabul Museum is also undergoing extensive renovation. The museum, which once housed the most comprehensive record of Central Asian history, was bombed numerous times throughout the nineties, causing extensive damage to the collection. Despite efforts by the United Nations and devoted museum staff to protect the remaining collection, thousands of antiquities were plundered for the illegal antiquities trade. Today, many of these items are being recovered, as efforts to restore and preserve Afghanistan’s rich cultural heritage continue.

Afghan Food

Afghan cuisine is an appetizing cross between the flavors of the Mediterranean, Middle East, Iran, and India. It contains several rice dishes that are often served with an assortment of thick, curried sauces cooked with lamb, beef and chicken. Spinach and eggplants constitute two commonly eaten vegetables. Traditional Afghan fare is rich in spices like as cardamom, which lends a sweet, aromatic quality to drinks and dishes.

A quintessential Afghan dish, Qabili Palao consists of raisins, carrots, and lamb with browned rice. Variations in the dish include the addition of sliced almonds or pistachios. Another important savory dish is Aushak – a leek-stuffed dumpling that is served over a garlic yogurt sauce and layered with a thick ground-beef tomato sauce with dried mint and crushed red pepper sprinkled on top. Appealing to their meat-centric gastronomy, Afghans also enjoy kabobs, which are skewers of meat heavily marinated in a delectable concoction of herbs and spices.

Afghan desserts are robust in flavor, often drawing upon fragrant ingredients, such as rosewater and cardamom. A popular treat is a creamy, custard-like dessert similar to the Italian Pannacotta with a crushed pistachio topping.

With its mélange of flavors, Afghan cuisine offers food to appease even the most demanding palate.

Afghan Music

Afghanistan’s music tradition is expressed through three outlets: the art music specific to Kabul, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, and Kandahar, the modern genres of popular music on the radio, and a plethora of regional ‘folk music’ styles characteristics of various ethnic groups inhabiting different parts of the country.

The music of Afghanistan is connected to the music of India and other Central Asian countries, though Iranian influences are also evident. The diversity of peoples including Tajiks, Pashtuns, and Uzbeks has given Afghan music a very rich musical heritage. In some ways, Afghanistan is a microcosm of all the different kinds of music of Islamic Asia, the classical pieces of Transoxiana (modern-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan), the love and spiritual poetry of India and Pakistan, the folk music of Turkmenistan, and a host of other styles from other cultures.

Whether at a home, a teahouse, a horse race, or a wedding, the same instruments dominate Afghan music. Along with the dutar and zirbaghali, there are variations on the fiddle (ghichak), the flute (badakhshan), and cymbals. The rubab, a lute-like instrument, is sometimes considered the national instrument of Afghanistan and is called the “lion” of instruments. The most famous player of the rubab is Mohammed Omar, while modern performers include Essa Kassemi and Mohammed Rahim Khushnawaz. Uzbeks and Tajiks share a preference for the tambura, which is a long-necked, plucked lute. At home, women often play daireh, a drum. Of course, one of the most important instruments in Afghanistan is the human voice.

Afghan folk music is traditionally played at weddings, holidays such as the New Year celebration, and rarely for mourning. Wedding music plays a vital part in Afghan folk music. A traveling people known as Jat, related to Gypsies, sell instruments door-to-door and play their own variety of folk music. The Jats frequently play for weddings, circumcisions, and other celebrations as well. Afghan songs are typically about love and use symbols like the nightingale and rose, and refer to folklore like the Leyla and Majnoon story.

The classical musical form of Afghanistan is called klasik, which includes both instrumental (ragas, naghmehs) and vocal forms (ghazals). Many ustad, or professional musicians, are descended from Indian artists who emigrated to the royal court in Kabul in the 1860s.

Radio broadcasting was introduced to Afghanistan in 1940 and fostered the growth of popular music. Modern Afghan popular music used orchestras featuring both Afghan and Indian instruments, as well as European clarinets, guitars, and violins. Parwin became, in 1951, the first Afghan woman to broadcast on the air on Radio Afghanistan, while Ahmad Zahir, Mahwash, and Biltun found large audiences.

Politics in Afghanistan

Afghanistan has a history of power struggles, bloody coups, and instability. The country has been governed by nearly every system of government during the past century, including monarchy, republic, theocracy, and communist state. The constitution ratified by the 2003 Loya Jirga restructured the Afghan government into an Islamic republic consisting of three branches — executive, legislative, and judicial.

Movement Toward Democracy

In December 2004, Hamid Karzai became the first democratically elected president of Afghanistan. The National Assembly was inaugurated the following December. After winning a second term in 2009, Karzai’s presidency came to an end in 2014. The Afghanistan presidential election of 2014 was controversial, and despite UN supervision, there were many allegations of fraud. After the second round of voting, the two frontrunners, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, and Abdullah Abdullah came to a power-sharing agreement. Ghani serves as the president.

Despite gains toward building a stable central government, a resurgent Taliban and continuing provincial instability — particularly in the south and the east — remain serious challenges for the government of Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is currently led by President Ashraf Ghani, winner of the 2014 presidential elections. He succeeds President Hamid Karzai, who was elected in October 2004. The current parliament was elected in 2010. Among the elected officials were former mujahedeen, Taliban members, communists, reformists, and Islamic fundamentalists. Of elected delegates, 69 were women — slightly more than the 25% minimum required by the constitution-making Afghanistan, long known under the Taliban for its oppression of women, a leading country for female representation.

Afghanistan’s government is currently fighting an insurgency with the assistance of the United States and NATO. Afghanistan depends upon multi-billion dollar aid infusions from the United States. Canada, France, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Germany are also large donors.

Relations between Afghanistan and Iran are strong. The two nations share the same language and culture, and both countries are part of Greater Persia. Iran has consistently provided financial aid to Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s relationship with Pakistan is not as stalwart. The two nations are often in dispute and relations have deteriorated significantly in recent years. Most members of the Taliban come from Pakistan.

Afghanistan maintains excellent relations with its northern allies, including Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan as all four countries share a similar culture. Afghanistan also has good relations with Russia and India. Former president Hamid Karzai attended college in India, and the country is a leading investor in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has excellent relations with the rest of the Arab and Muslim world. However, Afghanistan has no relations with Israel and is a frequent critic of that country.

Afghanistan produces over 90% of the world’s non-pharmaceutical opium. Drug profits create a sustainable base for insecurity, funding everyone from warlords to drug barons to the Taliban. Afghanistan is also awash in weapons — the legacy of decades of near-constant warfare. According to Take the Guns Away, a report produced by the Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium, almost two-thirds of Afghans surveyed in 2004 believes that disarmament is the single most important factor to improve security in Afghanistan.

Notable Afghans Past and Present

Rumi (born in Balkh, Afghanistan)
13th Century poet, scholar, Sufi mystic, and theologian.

Hamid Karzai (born in Karz, Afghanistan)
Afghanistan’s first democratic president after the fall of the Taliban

Mezghan Hussainy (born in Kabul, Afghanistan)
Simon Cowell’s ex-girlfriend and renown make-up artist to the stars

Khaled Hosseini (born in Kabul, Afghanistan)
A physician and writer, best known for his award-winning novel “The Kite Runner”

Halima Rashid (born in Kabul, Afghanistan)
3rd wive of former Jackson 5 member, Jermaine Jackson

Nasser Jamal (born in Kandahar, Afghanistan)
Offensive lineman for Louisiana-Lafayette’s team the Ragin’ Cajun for five years before being drafted by Argos in 2011. Retired shortly thereafter, due to injury.

Ashraf Ghani (born in Logar Province, Afghanistan)
An anthropologist by training and current president of Afghanistan, elected in 2014.

Roya Sedat (born in Herat, Afghanistan)
First female film director in the post-Taliban era, best known for her award-winning film debut “Three Dots”


US Department of State; CIA World Factbook;
Embassy of Afghanistan, Washington DC: NationMaster. com;
World Bank, New York Times 2019
Embassy of Afghanistan, Washington D.C. All rights reserved. 2019
Razia’s Ray of Hope, moreinfo@raziasrayofhope.org

Photo credit from left to right:
‘Robert’s army on the march from Kabul to Kandahar: Battle of Kandahar on 1st September 1880 in the Second Afghan War’ picture by Orlando Norie

A group of men in Kabul, Afghanistan, during President Eisenhower’s visit during the 1950’s Image Credit: PPICRYL The World’s Largest public domain source

Two Afghan nobles of the Durrani tribe are depicted, fully armed, with their helmets decorated with peacock feathers. This lithograph was taken from the frontispiece of ‘Afghanistan‘ by Lieutenant James Rattray. Two Afghan nobles of the Durrani tribe are depicted, fully armed, with their helmets decorated with peacock feathers. Rattray wrote: “This costume of the Douranee warriors gives a fair idea of the style of armour worn by the Afghan noblesse, though it was not a common occurrence to meet with them so completely clothed in clinquant mail as they are represented in the frontispiece.” Image Credit:  Pinterest

Stuart Brown.2008.Oil on Canvas.Donated Courtesy of Richard J. Guggenhime and Donald Elster. First Sting depicts the turning point in the Afghan war with the first of many shoot-downs of Soviet helicopter gunships by Mujahedin fighters armed with Stinger missiles. Image Credit: PPICRYL The World’s Largest public domain source

Movement/Style: Islamic Miniature Country: Persia (modern-day Iran and Afghanistan) Years: c. 1450 – c. 1535 Kamal ud-din Behzad (کمال‌الدین بهزاد) is perhaps the most famous historical painter of Persian miniatures. Like most artists in the 1400s and 1500s, however, it’s important to remember that for much of his career he didn’t work alone but was the leader of a workshop (in this case a Persian scriptorium, a kitabkhāna) producing artworks under his stylistic direction.

Image of Ahmad Shah Durrani, founder of the Durrani Empire.