Afghanistan’s complex cultural world
A new journal will focus on the country that has long been the crossroads of Central Asia
Norman Hammond, Archaeology Correspondent
June 2 2018, 12:01am, The Times
US Marines carrying out archaeological work in Helmand with Islamic mud-brick buildings that were destroyed by Ghengis Khan and Tamerlane
Afghanistan is a difficult country, it has seen off invaders from Alexander the Great to the British and Russian empires. At the moment an American-led force holds the main cities, but little of the countryside.
Positioned between Iran, Pakistan and the Central Asian republics — and reaching across the towering ranges of the Hindu Kush to the deserts of Balochistan — Afghanistan has long been the crossroads of Asia. It was in the foreground of Rudyard Kipling’s Great Game, and has not been far from many of the world’s conflicts since then.
For such a pivotal place it has been surprisingly little-studied, although its chaotic and violent politics have been a deterrent. For more than a century no leader has died peacefully there — all have been exiled or murdered.
The last academic journal devoted to the country, the British-based Afghan Studies, ceased publication in the 1980s, so the appearance of a new one, Afghanistan, is a welcome surprise. It is an international effort, sponsored by the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies (AIAS) in Boston, but published by Edinburgh University Press.
Its editor, the Australian-born archaeologist Warwick Ball, once directed the now-defunct British Institute of Afghan Studies in Kabul, and compiled the first gazetteer of Afghan sites. “Afghanistan is where Near Eastern, Central Asian and South Asian studies overlap. Its rich past embraces archaeology, art and architecture, literature, numismatics, religion and the social sciences”, he told The Times.
The journal represents the first concerted attempt in decades to treat Afghanistan as an academic and scholarly focus, rather than just a military problem or a political nuisance. Its editorial board is intercontinental in membership, as is the content of the first issue, published this spring.
The Afghan archaeologist Zafar Paiman presents recent excavations at the Buddhist monastery of Qol-e-Tut near Kabul, an area where doing archaeology has been risky, while the French scholar Claude Rapin examines a hazardous enterprise of 2,350 years ago, describing how Alexander the Great fought his way across central Afghanistan to the gates of India. More recent themes include how Victorian Britain sought to create a bulwark for the Raj via indirect rule in the northwest of the country.
How modern Afghan leaders conceptualised the nature of a state created and defined by the clashing imperialisms of Britain and tsarist Russia more than a century ago is key to understanding its perennial instability, as Elisabeth Leake shows. Apart from geography and ethnicity — the Hindu Kush mountains slicing it in half, with Tajiks and Uzbeks in the Oxus basin to the north and Pashtuns in the south spilling across the British-drawn frontier with Pakistan — there has been tension between the longstanding foreign policy of bi-tarafi, neutrality among greater powers, and demands for a separate Pashtun polity that would engulf much of northwestern Pakistan.
In essence, however, Afghanistan’s internal structure reflects the ancient satrapies of the Persian Achaemenid empire conquered by Alexander — regions in the west around Herat and in the north where Mazar-i-Sharif has replaced the historic centre of Balkh, “mother of cities” to the ancients, have remained the power-bases of warlords well into this century. Kandahar in the south, controlling the valley of Helmand River — the only great river between the Tigris and the Indus — has revealed Achaemenid origins and Greek inscriptions, and may have been one of the Alexandrias founded by the Macedonian invader.
There are two anomalies — Kabul is an accidental capital, its symbiosis with Peshawar at the lower end of the Khyber Pass in Pakistan severed by the modern frontier. The Mughal emperors ruled from the plains of India in winter, but used Kabul as a summer retreat. The dynasty’s founder, Babur, chose to be buried there.
Finally, Sistan, where the Helmand ends in a swampy basin shared with Iran, was one of the granaries of Asia until the time of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. Destruction of its cities and irrigation networks has left a desert strewn with the mud-brick ruins of palaces, fortresses and mosques, only recently seriously studied by a new generation of archaeologists.
This is the complex cultural world that Afghanistan hopes to bring to a broader notice. A forthcoming issue includes archaeological work along the Helmand done by Dr Marc Abramiuk while he was embedded with the US Marines. Looting of sites for the illicit antiquities market was funding insurgency and the IED explosive devices that have taken such a heavy toll on British and American troops.
Dr Abramiuk argues that protection of the country’s heritage would sever such funding, as well as educating Afghans about their common culture and national identity. In Afghanistan the past and the future, prehistory, history and politics, are perennially entwined.