Afghanistan: A forgotten heritage

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Introduction/2001

‘Afghanistan: A forgotten heritage’ first appeared in the national English-language daily newspaper in Iran in 2001. Living in Tehran at the time, an American occupation took place in Afghanistan; following the ‘9/11’ aerial attack on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001. The same article in 2007 appeared as a chapter in ‘Fragrance of the Past: A Middle Eastern Itinerary’, published in New Delhi by India Research Press. At the close here is an abridged version of the original article.

Update/2021

A tumultuous trail of warfare has plagued Afghanistan for centuries. The ‘Graveyard of Empires’ aptly applies to the biggest colonial empire in the nineteenth century, a Super Power in the twentieth century and a Global Power in the twenty first century. Three Anglo-Afghan Wars resulted in Afghan victories. The Soviet Union withdrew. The United States is witnessing the rapid collapse of their twenty years of involvement and investment in men and machines, women and weapons – all to no avail – as the Taliban have stunned the world with the speed of their victory and the rapid retreat of the Americans. This is the aftermath of two decades that covered the presidencies of four men at America’s helm.

Cliches abound. No lessons were learnt. For a member of the post-World War II ‘Baby Boomer’ generation, the disturbing impressions emerging from the military debacle are powerful visual jolts to now iconic images of the five decades old American military defeat in Vietnam. Nudging one’s recollection of the Vietnam War; the searing scenes appearing on our screens today transfer and challenge one’s knowledge and memories. In the 1960s, the anti-Vietnam War movement was part of our global information. The vicious civil war between the North Vietnam’s Communist Vietcong guerillas led by Ho Chi Minh and the South Vietnam’s government supported by the Americans was material for daily headlines.

Our last travel prior to the onset of Covid 19 was to Vietnam. At the War Remnants Museum opening in 1975 in Ho Chi Minh city (earlier Saigon) are graphics and objects that vividly rekindle the past. Inhuman are the ‘tiger cages’ where prisoners were packed as human cargo. There is an image of a young Jane Fonda protesting the American involvement in Vietnam. She is still an activist; now in the climate change crisis. There is a black and white photograph of the current United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry who was wounded in the Vietnam War. The war veteran became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War upon his return to America. There is an image of now late Senator John McCain who was shot down in Hanoi but survived. And in the open front space of the Museum are abandoned US helicopters. Those very ones that form one of the most iconic images of the twentieth century American military debacle: of people hanging on to an aircraft. Similar scenes are on our screens today… half a century later.

The Economist in its praise of William Dalrymple’s book ‘Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan (1839-42) published in 2013 notes: ‘Mr. Dalrymple’s book is a timely reminder of the way that wars can begin with promise but end in disgrace.’ The first chapter title reads: ‘No Easy Place to Rule’. The last chapter title reads: ‘A War for No Wise Purpose.’

Afghanistan remains in agony. Afghanistan remains in quagmire. Yet there is so much more to Afghanistan.

Its Forgotten Heritage

“Kabul is a most bustling and populous city. Such is the noise in the afternoon that in the streets one cannot make an attendant hear... The great bazaar is an elegant arcade, nearly 600 feet long and 30 broad... There are few such bazaars in the East and one wonders at the silks, cloths and goods which are arranged under piazzas… In May one may purchase the grapes, pears, apples, quinces and even melons of the bygone season, then 10 months old... Kabul is famed for its kebabs or cooked meats... Few cook at home. ”Caravan journeys and Wanderings in Persia, Afghanistan, Turistan and Baloochistan by J.P. Ferrier, 1857.

In these times, everyone has seen a map of Afghanistan in the international media with the names Ghazni, Herat, Kabul, Kandahar… dotted on the map. Yet few know that these dots locate cities that can trace an artistic and cultural heritage that date centuries if not millennia. Afghanistan is a vast, deep mine of human history; buried beneath the surface of places that carry the names - Mazar-I-Sharif, Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, Ghazni, Balkh. Afghanistan’s history as a nation spans little more than two centuries; although in the past it has been part, or even the centre, of great empires. Zoroastrianism was introduced in the sixth century BC. Islam reached Afghanistan in the seventh century AD. Buddhism spread west from India to the Bamiyan valley where it remained strong till the tenth century AD. Local kings or invaders that have included Alexander, Mahmud of Ghazni, Ghurids, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Timurids, the Russians and the British have ruled the land over the span of history. In 1774, the Kingdom of Afghanistan was established. The monarchy was overthrown in 1973 in a military coup. The Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan from 1979 to 1992. Civil strife continued. In October 2001, what has been declared ‘The First War of the Twenty-first Century’ started in Afghanistan.

Vestiges of past civilisations are testament to this ancient and eclectic heritage; ruins that struggle to remain and often jolt us into recalling a glorious past. The half-minaret of Masud III (1099-1115) in Ghazni is all that is left of the elaborate mosque complex that once stood there. Somewhere in the distant past the top half of the cylindrical and fluted shaft had fallen off. The mosque of Bahram Shah in Ghazni was built in the late eleventh or early twelfth century. Here too only the brick minaret, star-shaped in plan, remains of the original mosque. The Ghaznavids, a dynasty of Turkish origin, ruled the region from 962 to 1001 and established the city of Ghazni as their capital.

Herat was an ancient Silk Road oasis at the crossroads between Persia, India and China, a stopover on the world’s oldest highway for travellers as they crossed steppes and deserts. In an inaccessible mountain valley and standing in isolation in a narrow gorge is the surviving minaret of what was once the Great Mosque of Jam constructed in the late twelfth century. This construction took place during the rule of the Ghurids (1148-1215) whose capital was Herat. The Qutb minaret in Delhi is said to have been inspired by the minaret at Jam. The surviving brick structure soars four storeys, some seventy metres high, gradually tapering. The outer surface is extensively decorated with terracotta plaques and Kufic inscriptions from the Holy Quran. Turquoise glazed bricks create an illusion of fragile filigree work. Turquoise was the first and most popular colour used for decorative glazing in Islamic architecture.

One account for the legacy of surviving minarets is provided in Islamic Art and Patronage: Treasures from Kuwait. “Dozens of stone and baked-brick minarets survive in Afghanistan, Soviet Central Asia, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, sometimes independent of any adjacent building. Their inscriptions reflect a wide range of patronage, indicating that to all classes a minaret gave good value for the money… For all classes of patrons, minarets were gratifyingly visible and not as expensive as a new mosque or other building. This argument seems highly plausible; the minarets received considerable recognition without incurring extensive expense. The Masjid-i-Jami, the Friday Mosque, in Herat “is one of the finest Islamic buildings in the world, certainly the finest in Afghanistan” states the Lonely Planet Guide to the Middle East. Repeatedly destroyed by different waves of armies at the crossroads of a land; the current mosque was built in 1498. It has been in a long and slow process of restoration since 1943, interspersed with repeated bouts of destruction by modern warfare.

One of the brilliant masterpieces of Islamic art is known in artistic circles as the ‘Herat Bucket.’ The artist Masud ibn Ahmad created it in 1163 in the eastern province of Khorasan whose once great cities are now divided between Iran, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. At the time, Herat was part of the Persian Empire. Today, Herat is one of the major cities of Afghanistan. David Talbot Rice in Islamic Art has described the ‘Herat Bucket’: “It remains unsurpassed in the story of Islamic metalwork.” It was ordered by one named individual for presentation to another, ‘the pride of merchants’, apparently in connection with the pilgrimage to Mecca,” notes Barbara Brend, lecturer at the British Museum and British Library in Islamic Art. It today forms part of the Hermitage collection in St.  Petersburg, Russia.

At the close of the fifteenth century, Herat was still producing huge vessels, like cauldrons in shape but intended to contain water in mosques. Azizallah Shaykh Vali, a master craftsman, made a brass jug covered in gold with silver inlay in Herat in 1494. An inscription around the neck refers to the days of the reign of Sultan Husayn Bayqara who is effusively referred to as the Sultan of the Turks, Arabs and Persians. This magnificent object of art was sold at Sotheby’s, London, in 1989. A tenth century copper bowl found in Iran has engraved on it in Arabic Kufic script ‘He who talks much, errs much.’ A magnificent masterpiece of a ‘Rug with Overall Pattern’ made in Afghanistan in the sixteenth century is featured in Islamic art and Patronage: Treasures from Kuwait. “Identified with the city of Herat, a center of artistic activities under the Timurids, Herat became renowned for the high quality and intricate floral designs of its rugs during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries."

In the years 1414-1416, the ruler of the day, Shah Rukh, had his dynastic pride set into the ancient citadel of Herat in the form of inscriptions “which celebrates the pure lineage of the Timurids, praising Shah Rukh and his five sons with all the poetical resources of the fifteenth century,” declares Barbara Brend in Islamic Art. Also in Herat, the architect Qavan ak-Dub built Shah Rukh’s queen, Gauhar Shad, a madrasah and a mosque in the 1420s. Both the ruler and his consort were eventually buried under the dome chamber of the madrasah. In more recent times, the Russians blew up parts of the mosque as a defensive measure, a common fall-back in warfare. A Women’s Garden that once surrounded the fifteenth century tomb as a sanctuary and cool retreat is today a field of mud.

Set in the foothills above Herat at Gazur, Gah is the shrine of the eleventh century mystic Khwajeh Abdullah Ansari. The main building was constructed at the command of Shah Rukh. Late in the fifteenth century, the ruler Husayn Bayqara built the royal burial grounds within the shrine complex. Certain features used in its construction and embellishment, such as the use of portal bays and the arched ivan as a screen, would be transferred to Mughal architecture in India. The finest manifestation of Mughal architecture, with its origins in Central Asia, is the resplendent Taj Mahal at Agra.

The Islamic art of the book peaked and reached exquisite heights in the fourteenth century. There was deep reverence for the pen and the written word. There were men of pen and men of sword, the former being a highly esteemed class of secular and literate men distinct from theologians and those well versed in religion. Ibrahim ash Shaybani eloquently stated the many virtues of the art of writing “...the language of the hand, the idiom of the mind, the ambassador of intellect, and the trustee of thought, the weapon of knowledge and the companion of brethren in the time of separation.”

The art of cursive epigraphy is a master skill as much appreciated then as now. Few would argue with the remark by Qadi Ahmad who, aware that most of his compatriots were illiterate, wrote, “If someone, whether he can read or not, sees good, writing, he likes to enjoy the sight of it.” A finely detailed inlaid brass pen box from Syria or Turkey, dating to the early thirteenth century, has engraved on the lid: ‘Do not write with your hand except that which will delight you to see on Judgment Day.’ And who can disagree with the sentiment expressed by the seventeenth century Sindhi writer Tahir ibn Hasan: “Everyone, who lives through the Water of Life of the pen, will not die, but remain alive as long as life exists.”

The art of the book included bookbinding (which included gilded leather book covers), illustration, illumination and calligraphy. It was through the medium of calligraphy that the sacred words of the Holy Quran were copied and handed down from generation to generation, Different forms of calligraphy developed over time: Ghobar, Kufic, Naskh, Nastaliq and Thulth. The Herat school of calligraphy is credited with the formation of the Esfahan school that prospered under Shah Abbas I. The Reza Abbasi Museum in Tehran hosts an extensive collection of calligraphic works by masters of the twelfth to fifteenth centuries. In Calligraphy and Islamic Culture, Annemarie Schimmel, a German authority on Islamic calligraphy notes: “The Timurid masters in Samarqand and Herat and the Safavid architects in Isfahan and elsewhere invented delightful ornaments consisting of the names of God, His Prophet, and the First Imam Ali or of pious formulas, which were inserted in colorful tiles in the overall pattern of vaults, entrances, and domes... Cursive epigraphy reached its apex in the inscriptions on mosques and minarets. The use of tiles enabled the artists to produce highly intricate, radiant inscriptions of flawless beauty; here, Timurids and Safavids found unsurpassable solutions.” Having seen sublimely beautiful mosques in Esfahan and Yazd in Iran, Sarmarkhand in Uzbekistan, the Hanifah mosque in Baghdad and mosque complexes in Cairo, Damascus and Istanbul one would have to concur with Schimmel.

The art of illumination of books is the art of ornamental painting using gold. Early Qurans were plain in format and, over time, were illuminated till they reached heights of perfection. Many manuscripts have splendidly illuminated margins representing animals, birds and floral scrolls. Various geometric patterns, sometimes interlaced, were devised. The format could be vertical, horizontal, circular or star-like in format. Favourite colours were gold, red and blue. Tinted paper in pale pink, pale gold and deep cream added to the enchantment of the page. A magnificent illuminated manuscript, made in Herat in 1494-1495, is ranked as “the most perfect pages of Persian illumination since it balances complexity with clarity" (Brend in Islamic Art). It is part of the Nizami collection and is to be found at the British Library in London. Another miniature masterpiece, also painted in Herat and dated 1495, depicts Sufis discoursing in a garden. It is taken from the Mir Ali Shir Navali collection. Today, it is to be found at the Bodleian library in Oxford.

At an auction in Paris by Drouot Richelieu in 1998 of the personal Ottoman art collection of a grandson of Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909), one of the outstanding items out of a collection worthy of the finest museum was a “very rare Persian manuscript, 297 folios, unedited, illustrated with 33 miniatures. A precious document, splendid for its content and for the originality of the illustrations,” stated the auction catalogue. Another precious item on auction was The ‘Chronicles Tawarikh of Tabari’ dating from the late fifteenth century, probably from Herat in the Khorasan province of present-day Iran. This masterpiece was leather-bound in the Ottoman style of the sixteenth century. It must have fetched a price far beyond the conservative estimate of $20,000 to $25,000. At the same auction, a ceramic water pitcher from Bamiyan, in today’s Afghanistan, of turquoise blue transparency and dated the eleventh century, was estimated at $3500 to $5000.

Tamerlane’s grandson Baysunghur established the most famous fifteenth century atelier in Herat. A progress report now preserved at the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul is a record of projects under the head of the atelier Jafar Tabrizi (1412-1431). The report addressed to Baysunghur mentions  “twenty-two projects that are underway - manuscript designs, architectural works, tents and other objects and includes the names of twenty three artists - painters, illuminators, calligraphers, binders,  and chest makers - who worked individually or in teams.”

Herat has always held its own regarding its strategic importance. “The position of Herat on the line of advance from Persia and Turkistan, towards the Indus, has made its possession essential to the success of any invasion of India from that quarter and we accordingly find that from the time of Darius to the present, its occupation has been a prelude to any attempts of the kind by successive conquerors...Herat is at the present time the asylum of all the fallen greatness of past centuries. Here is to be seen the descendants of Genghis Khan, of Tamerlane and Nadir Shah...There is not a position of more importance in a strategically and commercial point of view and the fertility of the soil is great...The great roads from all the principal countries of Asia meet. Persian, Turkestan, Afghanistan, India and Sistan merchants gathered here” declared J.P. Ferrier in 1857.

Herat remained a major cultural metropolis. Herat artisans were to be found in Shiraz and Tabriz in presently Iran and throughout the Ottoman Empire. Herat also attracted the cultural elite of the region; the Persian poet Nour Eddin Djami, the Herat-born poet Mir Alisher Noavoi and Behzad, the master Persian calligrapher and painter of miniatures. Djami was born in Djam and died in Herat. “His master of the Persian language and the riches of his style made him the last of a line of great Persian poets in the tradition of Saadi, Nezami and Hafez,’’ declares Yves Thoraval in Dictionnaire de Civilisation Musulmane. One of the cultural icons of Central Asia, Navoi was a master of ghazal love poems and a vizir minister of Husayn Bayqara. Behzad’s brilliant miniature drawings enriched the manuscripts of Boustan and Golestan of Saadi and the Khamseh of Nizami. The Safavid dynasty in Persia has its origins in Herat. In the sixteenth century, the Safavids under Shah Abbas established the most famous, innovative and grandiose urban complex at Esfahan, known in its day, as ‘Esfahan-e-Nesf-e-Jahan’ or ‘Esfahan is Half the World’. Shah Abbas’s father Tahmasp was a governor of Herat. Tahmasp then moved his capital to Qazvin-in modern-day Iran-in 1548. Esfahan, in the Persian heartland, was established in 1596.

Kandahar found itself a place on the world’s map as early as 550 BC. It was a part of the Persian Achaemenian Empire under Cyrus the Great and his successors. At its greatest extent, the Achaemenian Empire stretched from present-day Libya to the Indus Valley and to Turkey. There is some evidence of a remarkable culture that thrived around 2000 to 1900 BC. in the northern plain around the present-day town of Balkh.  Balkh was once known as the ‘Oumme el Belad’ (Mother of All Cities). According to a Chinese visitor in 663 AD, Balkh had three of the most beautiful buildings in the world. The city of Balkh can claim a mosque dating to the tenth century whose stout brick columns support rectangular capitals and arcades rich with elaborate carved stucco work. Balkh was part of the Abbasid Empire (750-940) whose capital was Baghdad. The Barmecides of Persian origin from the city of Balkh, dominated the upper echelons of the Abbasid administration, particularly during the reign of Harun-ur-Rashid. Some three generations of Barmecides served the empire as bursars, tax collectors, provincial governors, military commanders, tutors and ministers. The father of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, the Sufi poet and dervish,            emanated from Balkh and settled in Konya (in modern day Turkey). Interestingly, Bernard Lewis points out in The World of Islam, “…although it is true that not all Islamic mystics were Persians, it is also true that neither the Arabs, the Turks nor Indian Muslims produced mystics of the stature of the Persians: Sanai, Nizami, Jalaluddin Rumi, al-Ghazali, Farid ad-Din Attar and Hafiz.” Lewis argues that Shia’ism led naturally to mysticism and it was Persia that produced the most eminent of all Islamic mystical writers.

A once glorious city in Afghanistan, Furrah was built even before Alexander's expeditions. “Furrah is one example of the difficulty of stating anything certain about the geography of Central Asia; a place may today be the centre of a flourishing population, and in four-and-twenty hours a desert. The Afghans have become so used to sudden and forced displacements that they never attach themselves to the soil. Their tent is their country ...nothing there is certain; nothing is durable; everything is liable to impromptu changes - men as well as things,” observed J.P. Ferrier back in 1857. The 1994 edition of the Lonely Planet - Middle East, notes that it was not possible to visit the Kabul citadel known as Bala Hissar since it was used by the military. It was possible, however, “to walk the entire length of the often crumbling walls.. It took about five hours to walk the full length of the walls.” Today, all traces of so many epicentres of glorious origins are lost in the obscurity of the ages.

In a highly informative article ‘Afghanistan, the Daunting land:  Political and Cultural Complexities Make a Mission Harder’, Souren Melikian art and culture columnist for The International Herald Tribune laments the current status of ancient cities in Afghanistan. “Herat, the great Persian metropolis wrested from Iran in the mid-19th century with British backing...Ghazni, 120 kilometres (75 miles) southwest of Kabul. This city part-Persian and part-Pashto speaking, was once the great capital of the eastern Iranian world under the Sultans of the Ghaznavid dynasty in the 11th and 12th centuries. It is the hometown of a famous 12th century Persian poet, the Sufi mystic Sanai. Kabul itself, which had been undergoing an intellectual renaissance in the early 1970s, is now devastated - its fine archaeological museum a half-destroyed empty shell...Kabul is one of the oldest Persian-speaking cities in the world...”

An exhibition took place in Barcelona, Spain in 2001 that revealed the ancient artistic creativity of Afghanistan dating back thousands of years. ‘Afghanistan: A History of Millennia’ unveils three thousand years of Afghan art and archaeology with two hundred and thirty objects on display, as well as films, photographs, books and music. The exhibit contains pieces on loan from private collectors and museums in Russia, the United States, Germany and France. The objects on display reflect Hindu, Greek, Roman and Chinese influences. Materials such as wood, ivory, clay, silver, bronze and glass were employed to make busts of Buddhist saints, ornate human and animal figurines, arrowheads, ink wells, cooking utensils and jewellery pieces including foot long silver bracelets. Souren Melikian in another article ‘Painting the Portrait of a Mysterious Culture’ in The International Herald Tribune, referring to the exhibition in Barcelona and the ‘Herat Bucket’ in particular, (on loan from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg), advises “it alone justifies a visit.”

The exhibition was conceived following the destruction by the Taliban government of Afghanistan in 2001, of the two colossal sculptures of the Buddha, dating from the third and fifth centuries carved into the mountain-side of the Bamiyan valley. Spanish organisers “wanted to offer an alternative view of the Central Asian nation.” The exhibition also travelled to the Musee Guimet (Museum of Asian Art) in Paris in 2002 where we missed it by a brief two months. One of the great Buddhist centres of the region, Bamiyan could boast ‘more than 10 monasteries and more than 1000 priests according to a Chinese priest who visited Bamiyan in 632AD. Souren Melikian writing in The International Herald Tribune in her article ‘Painting the Portrait of a Mysterious Culture’ notes, “A whole Persian romance in rhyming couplets was composed by Onsori, an eleventh century poet from Balkh, under the title ‘The Red Buddha and the White Buddha’ the names given to the two giant Buddhas in Bamian province blown up last March by the Taliban.” Sadly, this place had witnessed another tragedy in the distant past. Shar-I-Gholgola is the ruined city in the Bamiyan valley. The name means ‘city of sighs’; the ‘sighs’ being those of the inhabitants after Genghis Khan massacred the population.

An artistic offering comes from the internationally renowned Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. His film ‘Journey to Kandahar’, released in 2001 was widely acclaimed. It documents the life of an Afghani girl living in Canada who returns to Afghanistan to help her sister who has threatened suicide. Makhmalbaf has captured the trauma and tears of this war-torn nation. Following the making of this film, Makhmalbaf wrote a thirty-two page economic, political and historical analysis of Afghanistan. He titled the essay ‘The Buddha Was Not Demolished in Afghanistan; He Collapsed Out of Shame.’ It is a deeply poignant indictment of Man’s inhumanity and callousness.

Raana Haider is an author with a number of books to her credit. She also contributes to newspapers and newsmagazines.

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