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Ar ts


The following is our pick of the architectural highlights of Afghanistan. Of these, the Minaret of Jam has been made a World Heritage site by Unesco (, while the Minarets of Ghazni and the No Gombad Mosque have all been listed as endangered by the World Monu-

ments Fund (

 Friday Mosque (1200; in Herat) – an astounding Ghorid monument, with four huge portals covered in a blaze of modern mosaic

 Gazar Gah (1425; in Herat) – a Chinese-influenced Timurid decoration, with 30m-high entrance portal

 Musalla Complex (1417; in Herat) – the forlorn remains of a showcase of Timurid art and architecture

 Herat Citadel (1415; in Herat) – an imposing castle with impressive crenellations, huge views and decorative tilework

 Shrine of Khoja Abu Nasr Parsa (1460s; in Balkh) – a stunning blue Timurid ribbed dome and massive portal

 No Gombad Mosque (800–900; in Balkh) – Afghanistan’s oldest surviving mosque, with deli- cate stucco decorations

 Shrine of Hazrat Ali (1480; in Mazar-e Sharif) – every square inch covered in dizzying blue tiles.

 Minaret of Jam (1194; in central Afghanistan) – as remote as you can get, this 65m spire stands as a lonely sentinel in the mountains

 Shah-e Doh Shamshira Mosque (1920; in Kabul) – a bizarre two-storey interpretation of Italian baroque, in lemon yellow

 Shah Jahan Mosque (1647; in Kabul) – an understated white marble mosque from the builder of the Taj Mahal

 Minarets of Ghazni (1099–1151; in Ghazni) – a pair of monumental octagonal-shafted victory towers

 Mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Durrani (1770s; in Kandahar) – a brightly decorated Mughal-style remembrance of modern Afghanistan’s founder

Phil Grabsky’s feature

documentary, The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas

of Bamiyan (2004), is a touching account of a Hazara refugee family living in the shadow of the destroyed monuments.


Afghans love the movies, in particular Hindi and Bollywood films. Af- ghan cinema itself began in 1951 with the film Eshq wa Dosti (Love and Friendship), but it wasn’t until the late 1960s and ’70s that filmmakers started producing films in any quantity. Although well regarded for such a young industry, local filmmaking was quickly stifled under the dead hand of Soviet censorship following the 1979 invasion, and didn’t begin to recover until the turn of the century. The Taliban took to the national film archives with their usual zealous attentions, and only the bricking up of many films behind false walls prevented the country’s entire film stock going up in flames. The Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar (2001) about

an Afghan exile returning to the country to save her friend from sui- cide met such international acclaim that even George W Bush appar- ently saw it. Makhmalbaf and other Iranian filmmakers have been instrumental in assisting the revival of Afghan cinema, efforts that helped produce Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban movie Osama (2003) by Siddiq Barmak – a heart-breaking story of a young girl who has to disguise herself as a boy to work in Taliban-era Kabul – that collected


a sweep of prizes at international film festivals. The Afghan diaspora have similarly picked up the camera, with Jawed Wassel’s Firedancer (2004) about Afghan-Americans, and Farid Faiz’s Ehsaas (Emotion; 2006) about refugees in the UK. Afghanistan has also recently found itself as the stage for several

international films, including Samira Makhmalbaf’s 2003 At Five in the Afternoon about a Kabuli girl dreaming of becoming president, and the Bollywood feature Kabul Express (2006) by Kabir Khan.


Afghanistan’s turbulent history hasn’t bred a nation in love with the quiet pursuits of lawn bowls. Sport is as you might expect it – martial and unruly. If things can be fought, Afghans will fight with them, from dogs and birds to the more esoteric – kites (see boxed text, p58 ) and even eggs (where dyed and boiled eggs are smashed against each other in a test of strength). But no sport more closely captures the Afghan spirit than buz- kashi, which is often cited as a metaphor for Afghan society and politics as a whole. The chance to see a match should never be passed up. Buzkashi literally means ‘goat grabbing’, and is wild beyond belief. It’s something akin to rugby on horseback, where the ‘ball’ is the headless carcass of a goat or calf, often soaked in water to toughen it up. The boz (carcass) is placed in a circle and surrounded by members of the two teams – any number of riders can participate. At the signal, a melée erupts as all try to grab the boz and lift it to their saddle, so they can carry it to the winning spot. Only chapandazan (master players) ever get the chance to manoeuvre the boz free, masterfully controlling their horses amid a thrashing of bodies, hooves and whips. The carefully trained horses are highly prized – ‘better a bad rider on a good horse than a good rider on a bad horse’. Traditional buzkashi is played on the north Afghan plains between the autumn ploughing and the spring planting seasons. A more formalised version was adopted by the Afghan Olympic Committee in the 1960s to bring it to Kabul, formalising the rules (banning knives among other things) and team sizes – this was sponsored by successive regimes as a form of patronage. Tooi (ceremonial matches) bring great prestige to the host who offer prizes to the most successful chapandazan. Mazar-e Sharif hosts the grandest buzkashi in Afghanistan, every Nauroz. Wrestling and boxing are popular, and there is something of an obses- sion with bodybuilding studios. Many refugees brought a love of cricket back from their time in Pakistan. Football is naturally popular and was one of the few team sports tolerated by the Taliban, who weren’t averse to the occasional public execution on the penalty spot as pre-match entertainment. One Pakistani team who played in Kandahar at the time were arrested for wearing shorts, had their heads shaved and were finally deported. Afghanistan has since rejoined FIFA, and played in the first qualifying match for the 2006 World Cup (where they were soundly thrashed by Turkmenistan).


Radio is the most important media in Afghanistan, where it plays an essential role in spreading news as well as entertainment. The national station, Radio TV Afghanistan, started broadcasting in the 1920s and has spent its life under pressure from the establishment of the day, pressure that continues from religious and political interests. The station faces strong competition from new broadcasters such as Arman FM, who mix

Spor t 57

Afghanistan’s unlikeliest cinematic outing is 1988’s

Rambo III. Sly Stallone

goes jihad, joining the mujaheddin to sock it to the Russians, take in a game of buzkashi and generally save the day to a constant backdrop of explosions.

For the definitive guide to the Afghan national sport, read Buzkashi:

Game and Power in Afghanistan by

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