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Historical Review

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


Afghan Literature

Folk lore 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 literaturewas 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, Jami.

I Came
From the un-manifest I came, And pitched my tent, in the
Forest of Material existence.
I passed through mineral and vegetable kingdoms,
Then my mental equipment carried me into the animal kingdom;
Having reached there I crossed beyond it;
Then in the crystal clear shell of human heart I nursed the drop of self in a pearl,
And in association with good men Wandered round the Prayer House,
And having experienced that, crossed beyond it; Then I took the road that leads to Him,
And became a slave at His gate;
Then the duality disappeared And I became absorbed in Him.

By Abdullah Ansari

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, Jalalaluddin 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 meadow land
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.

Khushal Khan Khattak

While Afghan literature can be split into Persian, Turkic, and Pashto, there is a shared tradition andheritage thatunites the consciousness of all Afghans and is reflected in the literature. For example, a tradition of military prowess and invincibilitypresents 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 publication. 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.

A Night in Kohistan
On the mountain’s slope
The assembled trees form a dark green mass
The stars twinkle
And the moonlight adorns the Valley
It is a night of youth and love.
From the grassy meads, covered with wild flowers.
Where the nightingales sing
I hear the heavenly melody if the shepard’s flute.


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.

Etched into the dappled sandstone of the Bamiyan mountains are the faint remains of the once colossal Buddha statues that silently watched over the Bamiyan Valley for 1500 years. The Taliban’s destruction of the 174-feet and 115-feet tall monuments caused an uproar in March 2001. Recent efforts in the region hope to restore their magnitude and reintroduce their cultural significance.

The statues, which took Buddhist monks several decades to construct, date back to the 3rd and 4th century. Composed of mud-and-straw plaster and stucco, the Buddhas also harbored a variety of frescoes that decorated the walls in their vicinity. Until the 9th century, Bamiyan was a thriving Buddhist metropolis. Lying along the Silk Road, the area was frequented by many travelers who traversed the famous trade route linking China, Central Asia and Europe. Bamiyan’s beauty and the majestic presence of the buddhas have recounted in several ancient texts.

The structures, though over 1,500 years old, were remarkably resilient to demolition. The Taliban required several weeks of bombings to finally crumble the monuments, which they deemed idolatrous and un-Islamic. In 2003, in the wake of the Taliban destruction, UNESCO declared Bamiyan a World Heritage Site.

Beneath the shards of detonated bombs and rubble, archaeologists and other experts are attempting to gather and reassemble parts of the statues. Some hope that recovery of the fragments will lead to preservation and more importantly, reconstruction of the buddhas. Due to a lack of detailed photography, it is increasingly difficult to match fragments to their corresponding statue, but modern technology allows geologists to “fingerprint” pieces of the statues, which will later be scanned into computers and used to assemble the fragments. However, many Afghans and cultural experts believe that the statues should not be rebuilt, and that their absence is a stark reminder of the cultural destruction of the Taliban era.

Recently, archaeologists, engineers and architects have flocked to the Bamiyan Valley to search for buried Buddhist monasteries as well as a legendary 1,000-foot long reclining buddha statue. Zemaryalai Tarzi, an Afghan archaeologist, believes another giant Buddha may be hidden deep beneath the earth in the Bamiyan valley. A Chinese visitor in 632 described a reclining figure 1,000 feet long – if the account is accurate, the reclining Buddha is as wide as the Eiffel Tower is long.

Tarzi's recent excavations have unearthed one of the 10 monasteries that he says existed in Bamiyan. While the monastery did not yield any signs of the sought-after statue, the discovery was nonetheless an important step in reclaiming the cultural heritage and history that diminished with the demise of the two Giant Buddhas.

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 a 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 Pannecotta 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 musics 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 (badakhshani), 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 dambura, which is a long-necked, plucked lute. At home, women often play the 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.


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