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The Foundation for Culture & Civil Society ( holds regular Afghan music concerts in Kabul – see p102 .

instantly recognisable Afghan design, with its huge medallions that dominate the carpet. Baluchi carpets frequently have stylised animals as well as flowers, and designs such as the tree of life. Baluchis also produce intricate gilims, woven rather than knotted. Afghan carpet production moved wholesale to Pakistan during the war, instantly creating an industry for a country that had never be- fore had one. Even now, a Pakistani carpet is very likely to have an Afghan origin. Now that carpet producers have returned, the success of the Pakistani brand has hampered the rebuilding of Afghan carpet exports.

Three Women of Herat by

Veronica Doubleday is an intimate portrait of the lives of female musicians in 1970s Afghanistan, a world now largely lost.


Afghan music is divided into two main strands – classical (also known as art music) and folk. In the 19th century court musicians were brought to Kabul from north India, bringing a tradition that still heavily influ- ences Afghan music. The instruments used are similar to those found throughout the region and in the Arab and Turkish worlds. Foremost among these is the rebab (short-necked lute with waist), the national instrument and particularly associated with Pashtun music. The dutar (long-necked lute) from Herat is also prominent. Both instruments are played in the main classical music genre, the Kabuli ghazal, ac- companying sung mystical poetry with harmonium and tabla (In- dian tuned drums). Classical musicians train for years under ustads (masters), the most famed of whom was Ustad Mohammed Qasim Afghan in the 1920s – who was popularly called the father of Afghan music.

Folk music is divided into ethnic genres, but the one thing that unites them all is the atan, the so-called national dance performed by both sexes at any celebration. Rhythm is very important in folk music, and there are a number of drums such as the barrel-shaped dohol, the gob- let-shaped zirbaghali and the flat-framed daff (or daireh). The latter is the only instrument women are meant to play, and is also used in many Sufi rituals.


Ask any Afghan to name a popular singer, and it’s likely they’ll say Ahmad Zahir. A strikingly hand- some man with huge sideburns, he revolutionised Afghan popular song but died a tragically young death – characteristics that have led many to claim him as the Afghan Elvis Presley. And like the King, Ahmad Zahir continues to cast a long shadow from his grave. Zahir was born in 1946, the son of a diplomat. A natural musical talent, he studied classical

Afghan and Indian music, but was unusual in writing his own compositions. He was also influ- enced by Western styles, and was unafraid to mix electric guitars and saxophones with traditional instruments. Zahir’s star rose at the right time, when national radio was increasing opportunities for musicians. His golden voice and new musical style touched a chord with Afghans, and as a Pashtun who sang in Dari he became a symbol for the whole country. His dynamic stage per- formances helped create Afghanistan’s first modern celebrity. But he also used a poet’s right to criticise power – having praised Daoud in 1973, he later raised his voice at the republic’s empty promises, leading to a ban of some of his music. After the Saur Revolution, many of his songs had to be recorded in secret. In July 1979 Zahir was killed in a traffic accident near the Salang Pass, aged 33. Many Afghans

believe that he was actually assassinated by the communist regime. But his music has stood the test of time, and is one thing that a frequently divided country can happily agree on.


Music has suffered greatly in recent decades. Severe restrictions were placed on musicians in the refugee camps and later under the mujahed- din government, and they were often forbidden to play to respect the martyrs in a time of national calamity. The musician’s quarter of Khara- bat in Kabul was levelled. This anticipated the total ban imposed by the Taliban, when unspooled cassettes fluttered at checkpoints, confiscated from taxi drivers, and musicians had their instruments smashed. Only chants celebrating jihad were allowed. Modern Afghan pop is a genre that flourished in exile, with singers

like Farhad Darya and Marwash, while many Afghans returned from exile sporting a love for Hindi pop.


Afghan building has harnessed the vitality of the Central Asian steppe to the refinement of Persian culture to produce in its mosques and minarets some of the masterpieces of world architecture. Much Islamic vernacular architecture tends to be flat and functional, with time and money dedicated instead to religious buildings. Excep- tions where form and function blend successfully can be found in the Pashtun qala (fortified houses) of the east and south, where each build- ing resembles a mini castle, as well as in the desert houses of the west, with their cooling domes and wind towers. Mud-brick is the building material of choice. The buildings are hard to date, and the viewer can sometimes be forgiven for wondering if a crumbling building was recently abandoned by its owner, or levelled by the Soviets or even Genghis Khan.

The mosque is the centre-point of Afghan architecture. The typical mosque consists of a courtyard, portico and prayer hall, facing Mecca. A minaret is usually attached for the call to prayer. Afghan Islamic architecture really began to take off in the 10th and 11th centuries, with the rule of the Ghaznavids, who built in fired brick. Their successors, the Ghorids, took this to an artistic high with their construction of the Minaret of Jam (pp126-7) and Herat’s Friday Mosque (pp136-7). Decoration was plain, and it wasn’t until the rise of the Timurids, who drew in influences from across the whole Muslim world, that buildings started to sing with colour. The almost-totally-destroyed Musalla Complex (pp137-8) in Herat was the apogee of Timurid archi- tecture, but even the citadel there was brightly decorated. The Timurids also loved high entrance portals and fat ribbed domes, such as that found at the Shrine of Khoja Abu Nasr Parsa (pp156-7) in Balkh. Afghan architecture went into a general decline following the Timu- rid period, as the region’s cultural centre shifted east with the Mughals. Until the modern period, most buildings were rather poor copies of Mughal originals. In the 20th century, the westernised King Amanul- lah tried to import central European classic design to the country with commissions such as Darulaman Palace – not an entirely successful enterprise.

Since then, the story of Afghan buildings has sadly been largely one

of neglect and destruction through war. Afghanistan is currently under- going a building boom, with new buildings hastily thrown up every day. Ugly and modern confections with lots of plate glass and fake columns, they bear little resemblance to any indigenous tradition, and seem more to do with the pretensions of the Afghan nouveau riche. They’re often dubbed ‘poppy palaces’ for the basis of much of the wealth funding the boom.

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The abandoned metal shipping container is the war’s legacy to Afghan architecture: pressed into service everywhere as shops, workshops and temporary accommoda- tion, often covered with mud-brick to insulate against the heat and cold.

Monuments of Central

Asia by Edgar Knobloch puts Afghan architecture firmly in its regional context. Page 1  |  Page 2  |  Page 3  |  Page 4  |  Page 5  |  Page 6  |  Page 7  |  Page 8  |  Page 9  |  Page 10  |  Page 11  |  Page 12  |  Page 13  |  Page 14  |  Page 15  |  Page 16  |  Page 17  |  Page 18  |  Page 19  |  Page 20  |  Page 21  |  Page 22  |  Page 23  |  Page 24  |  Page 25  |  Page 26  |  Page 27  |  Page 28  |  Page 29  |  Page 30  |  Page 31  |  Page 32  |  Page 33  |  Page 34  |  Page 35  |  Page 36  |  Page 37  |  Page 38  |  Page 39  |  Page 40  |  Page 41  |  Page 42  |  Page 43  |  Page 44  |  Page 45  |  Page 46  |  Page 47  |  Page 48  |  Page 49  |  Page 50  |  Page 51  |  Page 52  |  Page 53  |  Page 54  |  Page 55  |  Page 56  |  Page 57  |  Page 58  |  Page 59  |  Page 60  |  Page 61  |  Page 62  |  Page 63  |  Page 64  |  Page 65  |  Page 66  |  Page 67  |  Page 68  |  Page 69  |  Page 70  |  Page 71  |  Page 72  |  Page 73  |  Page 74  |  Page 75  |  Page 76  |  Page 77  |  Page 78  |  Page 79  |  Page 80  |  Page 81  |  Page 82  |  Page 83  |  Page 84  |  Page 85  |  Page 86  |  Page 87  |  Page 88  |  Page 89  |  Page 90  |  Page 91  |  Page 92  |  Page 93  |  Page 94  |  Page 95  |  Page 96  |  Page 97  |  Page 98  |  Page 99  |  Page 100  |  Page 101  |  Page 102  |  Page 103  |  Page 104  |  Page 105  |  Page 106  |  Page 107  |  Page 108  |  Page 109  |  Page 110  |  Page 111  |  Page 112  |  Page 113  |  Page 114  |  Page 115  |  Page 116  |  Page 117  |  Page 118  |  Page 119  |  Page 120  |  Page 121  |  Page 122  |  Page 123
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