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Country of some 647,500 sq. km in the middle of the steppe and desert zone of Eurasia. It is bounded on the north by the Amu (Oxus) River and the republics of Central Asia, on the west by Iran and on the south and east by the Indian subcontinent. In the Pamir Mountains to the northeast, a narrow tongue of land known as the Wakhan corridor links the country with China (see fig.). Located at the crossroads of major trade and migration routes between the Mediterranean, Central Asia, India and China, the region has been subjected to diverse cultural influences throughout its history. This article focuses on the arts produced since 1900; for the arts in earlier periods, see appropriate sections of other articles.

I. Introduction. II. History. III. Architecture. IV. Painting and sculpture. V. Other arts. VI. Museums and collections.

I. Introduction

The physical geography of Afghanistan is very varied and includes formidable mountain ranges, fertile valleys and barren deserts. The dominant mountainous core is the Hindu Kush, an extension of the Karakoram and Pamir mountains that stretches southwest for some 965 km and has peaks rising to some 5180 m in height. To the north, between the Hindu Kush and the Amu River lie the semi-desert plains of Turkestan. South of the Hindu Kush is a transitional zone of plateaus with broad mountain valleys. To the west and southwest the mountains gradually descend to the stony and sandy deserts of the Iranian plateau. North of Kabul the Kuh-e-Baba range (“Grandfather Mountains”) of the Hindu Kush is the watershed for four great Afghan rivers: the Kabul River flowing east to the Indus, the Kunduz flowing north into the Amu River, the Hari Rud flowing west to Herat and the Helmand, which flows southwards into the marshy lake of Hamun Helmand in Sistan. There are several passes through the mountainous core of the country linking north to south and east to west, and traffic is also channeled along the rivers or round the mountain mass. The low-lying plains and deserts between Herat and Kandahar provide an easy route for traders and invaders traveling eastwards into the Indus Valley.

The climate is generally dry, with wide variations in temperature. Snow falls in the mountainous areas above c.1830 m from October onwards and blocks the passes for much of the winter. In the plains of Turkestan most of the rain falls as spring thunderstorms, and there are sometimes disastrous floods when this water combines with melting snow from the mountains. In winter there is rain in the Herat area and the rivers are swollen with melt water in the spring, but in the Helmand basin there is virtually no rainfall in any season. The Jalalabad Valley has a winter rainfall and can, with irrigation, grow rich crops.

Afghanistan is not a single ethnic unit. In the pre-Muslim period, the Hindu Kush Mountains formed a natural divide between the Hindu-dominated areas of the south and the Zoroastrian peoples of the north. The largest racial group in modern Afghanistan consists of the Pathans, a people of Turko-Iranian origin who speak Pushtu and are probably the descendants of the original inhabitants of the south. The Tajiks, who live north and east of Kabul, are of Iranian origin, speak Farsi and are thought to be descendants of the original northern inhabitants. The Hazaras who inhabit the central massif are thought to be descendants of the Mongols. There are also many minority groups, such as the Turkmen, Uzbeks and Nuristanis, who all speak their own dialects.

II. History

The region of Afghanistan has a long history of settlement and incursion. By about 20,000–15,000 BCE Paleolithic hunter-gatherers already inhabited the northern foothills of the Hindu Kush. From about 3500 BCE onwards lapis lazuli from the Badakhshan region in northeast Afghanistan, especially the Kokcha Valley, was exported all over the Near East. Urbanization took place at sites such as Mundigak in southern Afghanistan from the early 4th millennium BCE. The Rig veda suggests that Aryans passed through Afghanistan c.1500 BCE, and in the late 4th century BCE Alexander the Great conquered the eastern satrapies in Afghanistan, bringing them into direct contact with Hellenism from the west. His successors, the Seleucids, retained control in Bactria (the Amu River region north of the Hindu Kush and east of Merv and Herat) but lost the territories of Kabul and Kandahar c. 305 BCE to the Mauryans from India.


Map of Afghanistan; those sites with separate entries in this encyclopedia are distinguished by Cross-reference type

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About 250 BCE Diodotus, the governor of Bactria, declared independence from the Seleucids, and subsequent Greco-Bactrian kings extended their territory south of the Hindu Kush to Kabul and Kandahar and invaded India. The kingdom became fragmented under several rulers, partly as a result of increasing pressure from nomadic Sakas or Scythians migrating southwards from Central Asia. One group, the Yueh-chih, occupied Bactria c. 130 BCE. In the 1st century CE the Kushana tribe united the Yueh-chih confederacy and established a powerful empire that expanded from Central Asia across Afghanistan to northwest India. The extent and stability of this empire encouraged the growth of international trade along the silk route from China across Afghanistan to the Indus River ports and thence by sea to Alexandria and Rome. Under the third king, Kanishka I, the Kushanas patronized Buddhism; stupas and monasteries were established throughout Afghanistan, and missionaries followed Kushana traders across Central Asia to China. The chronology of this period is still disputed, the era of Kanishka being attributed to various dates between 78 CE and the 3rd century CE. What is clear is that the Kushanas were defeated by the rising power of the Sasanians (c.224–651) in the 3rd century. Afghanistan suffered again in the 5th century from the invasions of the Hephthalites (White Huns), who in turn were overthrown in the mid-6th century by the Turki Shahis, allied to the Sasanians. Raids into western Afghanistan in the late 7th century gave the Arabs control of Sistan and Herat. From the 9th century, western Afghanistan was ruled by local Islamic dynasties: the Samanids (r. 874–999) based in Bukhara and the Saffarids (r. 867–1495) based in Sistan. Eastern Afghanistan remained an independent non-Muslim kingdom, centered at Kabul, under the Turki Shahis and their successors the Hindu Shahis, until conflicts with the Ghaznavids (r. 977–1186), an Islamic dynasty originating from Ghazna, forced a transfer of the Hindu Shahi capital to Hund, on the Indus River east of Peshawar.

The first Ghaznavid, Sebüktigin (r. 977–97), governed on behalf of the Samanids, but his son Mahmud (r. 998–1030) established an independent empire over Samanid territories south of the Amu River and expanded eastwards into India. By the mid-11th century, western Afghanistan had been relinquished to the Saljuqs (see Saljuq, §I), Turkish nomads originating from the steppe north of the Caspian and Aral seas, but the Ghaznavids retained control of eastern Afghanistan and northern India. In 1151 Ghazna was sacked by Ghurid chieftains from the inaccessible mountainous region east of Herat. Turkish tribes from the lower Syr (Jaxartes) River region overthrew the Saljuqs in 1153 and occupied Ghazna in 1163. In the next decades, the Ghurids gained control of Afghanistan and finally defeated the last Ghaznavid principality at Lahore in 1186.

Internal dynastic struggles and confrontation on the northern borders with the Khwarazmshahs resulted in the breakup of the Ghurid empire. From 1215–16 Ghurid territories were ruled by the Khwarazmshah Muhammad b. Takash (r. 1200–21), until the entire region was overrun in 1221 by the Mongols under Genghis Khan (r. 1206–27). Herat was restored in 1236 by his third son Chaghatay (Ögedey; r. 1227–41), while Ghazna and Kabul became military bases for Mongol raids into India. From 1250 onwards the different regions of Afghanistan were controlled by independent Mongol rulers, such as the Neguderis at Ghazna.

Timur extended his Transoxanian steppe empire southwards into Afghanistan with the capture of Herat in 1380. Under his son Shahrukh, Herat became the Timurid capital. From 1469 Afghanistan was divided into two Timurid principalities, one based at Herat, the other at Kabul. In the 16th century incursions by the Uzbek tribal confederacy of the Amu River region meant that frontier towns such as Herat frequently changed hands.

Following the loss of his Central Asian Timurid principality of Ferghana to the Uzbeks, Babur (r. 1526–30), the founder of the Mughal dynasty, occupied Kabul in 1504. He began raids into India and captured Delhi in 1526. Afghan chiefs led by Sher Shah Sur (r. 1540–45; see Sur) forced Babur's son Humayun (r. 1530–40, 1555–6) into exile in 1540. The capture of Kabul in 1545 gave Humayun a base from which to reconquer India in 1555. During the reign of Akbar (r. 1556–1605) boundaries between Afghanistan and the Uzbek territories to the north were demarcated, but control of Kandahar remained disputed with the Safavid dynasty (r. 1501–1732; see Safavid, §I) to the west. Succeeding Mughals retained Kabul, but western Afghanistan came increasingly under Safavid control. In the early 18th century the Safavid governor, Mir Ways, declared independence. The Afghans occupied most of Iran from 1722 until expelled in 1727 by Nadir Shah (r. 1736–47), a Turkmen chieftain from Khurasan in service with the Safavids, who subsequently founded the Afsharid dynasty (r. 1736–95) of Iran. When Nadir was assassinated in 1747, Afghan soldiers in his army elected one of his leading commanders, Ahmad Khan of the Afghan Sardozay tribe, as shah (r. 1747–73). The Durrani dynasty (r. 1747–1842), which Ahmad Shah founded, derived its name from his title Dur-i Durrān (“Pearl of pearls”). He established an empire comprising Afghanistan and northwest India, including Sind, Baluchistan, part of the Punjab and Kashmir, but most of the Indian territories were lost during the reign of Zaman Shah (r. 1793–1800).

In 1819 Dost Muhammad of the Barakzay tribe (r. 1819–62) took Kabul and retained control of Afghanistan despite pressures from Iran, Russia and the British. The kingdom of Afghanistan survived as a political entity until overthrown by leftist urban groups in 1978. The ensuing civil war was not halted by Soviet military intervention in 1979 or by the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1987–9. In 2001, the Taliban government was toppled, and the United Nations authorized the creation of an International Security Assistance Force to aid President Hamid Karzai in establishing authority across the nation.


  • N. Dupree: “Archaeology and the Arts in the Creation of a National Consciousness,” Afghanistan in the 1970s, ed. L. Dupree (New York, 1974), pp. 203–38
  • F. R. Allchin and N. Hammond, eds.: The Archaeology of Afghanistan: From Earliest Times to the Timurid Period (London and New York, 1978)
  • R. Dor and C. Naumann: Die Kirghisen des afghanischen Pamir (Graz, 1978)
  • L. Dupree: Afghanistan (Princeton, 1980)
  • M. K. Palat and A. Tabyshalieva: Towards the Contemporary Period: From the Mid-nineteenth to the End of the Twentieth Century, vi of History of Civilizations of Central Asia, ed. M. K. Palat and A. Tabyshalieva (Paris, 2005), pp. 757–93 [several articles on Afghanistan]
  • E. W. Anderson and N. H. Dupree: The Cultural Basis of Afghan Nationalism (London and New York, 1990)
  • W. Ball and L. Harrow: Cairo to Kabul: Afghan and Islamic Studies Presented to Ralph Pinder-Wilson (London, 2002)
  • B. Dupaigne and G. Rossignol: Le carrefour afghan (Paris, 2002)
  • N. H. Dupree: “Cultural Heritage and National Identity in Afghanistan,” Third World Q., xxiii/5 (2002), pp. 977–89
  • J. W. Betlyon: “Afghan Archaeology on the Road to Recovery,” Near Eastern Archaeology, lxvii/1 (2004), pp. 59–60
  • W. Maley and A. Saikal: “(Afghanistan): From Independence to the Rise of the Taliban,” Towards the Contemporary Period, from the Mid-nineteenth to the End of the Twentieth Century, vi of History of Civilizations of Central Asia, ed. M. K. Palat and A. Tabyshalieva (Paris, 2005), pp. 447–60
  • C. Noelle-Karimi: “Afghanistan from 1850 to 1919,” Towards the Contemporary Period, from the Mid-nineteenth to the End of the Twentieth Century, vi of History of Civilizations of Central Asia, ed. M. K. Palat and A. Tabyshalieva (Paris, 2005), pp. 439–447
  • J. B. Spurr: “Glimpses of an Eclipsed Heritage: Photography of Afghanistan in the Collections of the Fine Arts Library at Harvard,” Visual Resources, xxi/1 (2005), pp. 55–71
  • C. H. Bleaney and M. Á. Gallego: Afghanistan: A Bibliography, Handbook of Oriental Studies: Central Asia, 13 (Leiden, 2006)
  • J. van Krieken-Pieters: Art and Archaeology of Afghanistan: Its Fall and Survival, a Multi-disciplinary Approach, Handbook of Oriental Studies, Central Asia, 14 (Leiden and Boston, 2006)

III. Architecture

The introduction of a more Western style of domestic architecture was accompanied by innovations in interior décor, furniture making, painting, landscape gardening and dress styles. When Amir Abdur Rahman (r. 1880–1901) acceded to the throne after living in exile in Central Asia for over a decade, he abandoned the traditional house plan with its interior courtyards and personally designed vaulted and domed palaces that faced outwards on to English gardens adorned with fountains.

The first “European” home was built according to the same specifications as Dorchester House of Park Lane, London, in Kabul. This building heralded a period characterized by British Indian designs. These verandahed colonial styles fell out of fashion after the short 1919 war between Afghanistan and England, and King Amanullah (r. 1919–29) turned for inspiration to 18th-century European grand styles with their exuberant and eclectic mix of Neo-classical and pseudo-Rococo elements. By the mid-20th century this ebullience gave way to the utilitarian Soviet and Central European models that still dominate both domestic and public buildings.

Interior transformations mirrored changing lifestyles. In traditional homes each room served several purposes. White walls were decorated with floral ornamentation in pressed, molded or carved stucco. Furnishings comprised richly colored Afghan carpets and embroidered door hangings. There was no need for furniture, as mattresses and bolsters doubled for sitting and sleeping, fabric runners were spread on the floor for dining, and traditional clothing folded easily for storage in wall niches or decorated boxes.

Rooms in modern homes in Kabul, on the other hand, were set aside for specific purposes and filled accordingly with massive, ornately carved furniture, including commodious wardrobes to accommodate European clothes. While carpets were retained, stuccowork gave way to flocked and textured wallpaper, or stenciled approximations and daubed simulations of luxurious wood and marble wainscoting that provided a backdrop for a wealth of imported Victorian clutter.


  • M. Kohzad: “L’Inauguration du salon d’automne à Kaboul,” Afghanistan Q., i/4 (1946), pp. 30–34
  • S. P. Seherr-Thoss and H. C. Seherr-Thoss: Design and Color in Islamic Architecture: Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey (Washington, 1968)
  • P. Centlivres: “Les Uzbeks du Qattagnan,” Afghanistan J., ii/1 (1975), pp. 28–36
  • W. Bechhoefer and T. B. Katz: Serai Lahori: Traditional Housing in the Old City of Kabul (College Park, MD, 1975)
  • N. Dupree: “A Building Boom in the Hindukush” [Boom edilizio nell’Hindukush], Lotus Int., xxvi (1980), pp. 115–21
  • M. Klimburg: “Notes on the Architecture of Nuristan,” Archv Vlkerknd., xli (1987), pp. 41–52
  • N. Dupree: “Victoriana Comes to the Haremserai in Afghanistan” [Viktorianischer Stil erobert den Haremserail], Bauen und Wohnen am Hindukush, Stiftung Bibliotheca Afghanica, vii, ed. P. Bucherer-Dietschi (Liestal, 1988), pp. 111–49
  • A. Szabo and T. Barfield: Afghanistan: An Atlas of Indigenous Domestic Architecture (Austin, 1991)
  • O. Tirard-Collet: “After the War: The Condition of Historical Buildings and Monuments in Herat, Afghanistan,” Iran, xxxvi (1998), pp. 123–38
  • B. O’Kane: “The Uzbek Architecture of Afghanistan,” La Mémoire et ses supports en Asie centrale, Cahiers d’Asie Centrale, viii, ed. V. Fourniau and C. Poujol (Tashkent and Aix-en-Provence, 2000), pp. 123–60
  • H. Bleaney and M. Á. Gallego: “Islamic Architecture in Afghanistan,” Afghanistan: A Bibliography (Leiden, 2006), pp. 116–23

IV. Painting and sculpture

From the late 19th century onwards artists experimented with novel Western techniques, yet their landscapes and vivid abstract paintings incorporated no recognizable Afghan characteristics; even when the scenes were Afghan, the styles were clearly derivative. Sculpture, an innovation introduced many years later by students returning from Italy and the Soviet Union, was coolly received by this Muslim society. However, birds and animals carved from marble and lapis lazuli by artisans trained in Kabul by Chinese masters became popular with tourists.

Contemporary Afghan artists and sculptors have yet to enjoy either private patronage or public support despite official promotion by the government since the 1970s. In 1978 leftist urban leaders overthrew the élites who had set trends for almost 100 years. Their rise, closely followed by Soviet military intervention, ushered in a period dominated by Socialist Realism. Devastation caused by ground and air offensives forced more than a third of the Afghan population into exile in neighboring Pakistan and Iran. Nevertheless, since 1989 an intrepid group of young artists has attracted growing numbers of students in their attempts to revive the Herati traditions of miniature painting and calligraphy renowned in Afghanistan during the 15th century. Within the public domain, stylized floral mural painting enjoys a certain popularity in the decoration of mosques and teahouses. The most distinctive painting tradition in this genre, however, is displayed on truck bodies completely embellished with a wide range of themes including Swiss chalets, lovely ladies, trains, boats, telephones, animal combat scenes, birds and contemporary battle scenes.

Nevertheless, conservative elements in Afghan society remained suspicious of art. Islamists clerics cracked down on “un-Islamic” traditions, banning all forms of imagery, music and sports, including television, in accordance with what they considered a strict interpretation of Islamic law. In March 2001 they blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan, two monumental statues (h. 55 and 37 m) of the standing Buddha, carved into the sandstone cliffs of the valley in central Afghanistan some time between the 5th and the 9th century. The act spurred an international outcry, and various attempts have been made to correct what all now agree was a horrendous mistake. The Afghan government has commissioned Japanese artist Hiro Yamagata (b. 1948) to recreate the Bamiyan Buddhas using 14 solar- and wind-powered laser systems to project the images of the statues onto the cliff where they once stood. Pending the decision whether to rebuild the statues on the site, a $1.3 million UNESCO-funded project is sorting out the chunks of clay and plaster, ranging from boulders weighing several tons to fragments the size of tennis balls, and sheltering them from the elements.

V. Other arts

Of all Western innovations, dress probably had the most far-reaching, durable influence upon society. In the late 19th century hoops, bustles and wide-brimmed plumed and beribboned hats were introduced for the ladies, along with splendid emblazoned uniforms, frock coats and tweeds fancied by the gentlemen at court. As fashions closely followed European changes, including mini-skirts and the ubiquitous T-shirt and jeans, Western dress became a measure of modernity throughout the educated urban populations and, for women, it symbolized emancipation. Such Western dress was clearly offensive to conservative elements of the society, and after the Taliban seized control, they required women to cover in a full-length veil (burqa) whenever they were out of doors.

More enduring indigenous examples of art and craftsmanship are found among the diverse creative traditions brought to Afghanistan over many centuries by artisans passing through this pivotal Central Asian land from all directions along the routes of conquest and commerce. From 1978 onwards, however, the disruptions of war hastened the decline of crafts already affected by the introduction of modern materials, production methods, imports and commercialization. The art of ornamental stucco has all but disappeared; ikat weaving from an already limited number of northern workshops suffers equally; Nuristani wood-carving, Pushtun painted and lacquered wood decoration, tilemaking, copperwork and pottery and Herati glassblowing, silversmithing and silk weaving are all threatened. Nevertheless, since few items produced in Afghan villages and semi-nomadic camps are purely decorative and since most express personal and/or group identification and status, there is reason to hope for a craft revival once peace permits life to return to normal. The exquisite embroidery made by refugees for their personal use, in contrast to the lamentable pieces seen for sale, allows this note of optimism. Several international organizations, such as the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, have been set up to revive traditional crafts and restore the historic center of downtown Kabul.

A. Carpets and textiles. B. Jewelry. C. Ceramics. D. Woodwork.

A. Carpets and textiles.

The richness of form and color of the flat-woven, hand-knotted and felt carpets made by the Turkomen, Uzbek, Hazara, Aimaq, Kirgiz and Baluch place them among Afghanistan's most renowned artistic products. Ranking fifth among the country's exports before 1978, the carpet trade has continued on a reduced scale throughout the war, although the difficulties in obtaining quality raw materials coupled with local market demands on design and pricing have adversely affected the production of Afghan carpets by refugees in Pakistan and Iran. Carpet production contributes significantly to family income and is highly valued. Quality products are more particularly esteemed because they add to individual status. A bride gains heightened respect from her husband's family when her dowry includes fine examples of her own handiwork; a man's wealth and status is gauged by the quantity and quality of his household's production. Furthermore, since distinctive structures, designs, symbols and colors are proudly associated with specific groups, the excellence of the work of its individual producers enhances the reputation of the entire community. While carpets represent a major portion of woven articles for sale, an inexhaustible variety of other items are made for both utilitarian and decorative use within the household. Long narrow woven bands both strengthen and decorate the wooden lattice framework of round felt-roofed yurts (see Tent, §II, B). The Kirgiz, among others, entwine the reeds forming the skirting of yurts and interior partition screens with yarn in variegated designs. Almost all semi-nomadic groups use hand-knotted, often fringed, door hangings.

Furniture in most sedentary and semi-nomadic homes scarcely extends beyond an occasional wooden stool, one or two wooden chests and perhaps a cradle (see §D below). Possessions from clothing to food supplies are stored in flat-woven or knotted bags of various shapes and sizes. Uzbeks distinctively wrap bedding and clothing in flat-woven squares (2×2 m), which are stacked on top of chests. Finely embroidered V-shaped pieces and beaded tassels hung against these bundles provide the final adornment. Elsewhere, strings of pompoms and wool tassels are used as cornices and wall hangings. By the mid-20th century, hand-woven textiles for clothing had largely given way to imported and locally manufactured materials. Exceptions are prized silk turbans, a specialty of the Herat area, and the popular striped cottons used for long-sleeved robes throughout the north.

Embroidery motifs and stitches serve to distinguish ethnic and regional groups. Embroidered items are made for family use and only rarely offered for sale. This handicraft is most importantly associated with marriage. Each male family member attending a wedding is presented with a finger-woven trouser drawstring with silk tassels and an intricately embroidered cummerbund. In addition to embroidered clothing, the bride's dowry typically includes up to 20 types of embroidered household items, from spoon bags, tray covers, sachets for money and make-up to dust covers for Korans and radios. Soft, knee-high leather boots embellished with fine embroidery by Turkic-speaking women of the north are especially prized. Every woman in the family takes part in spinning wool and silk, weaving, stitching and embroidering in order to amass this extensive collection. Kin-related girls often work together on the large embroidered and patchwork pieces. Mothers devise baby bonnets festooned with feathers, pompoms and protective charms. Intricately embroidered and beaded hats worn under men's turbans and women's headscarves (see color pl. 1:I, fig. 3) are distinctive symbols of group identity. Ornaments, mirrorwork, gold braid, elaborate beading and fine embroidery decorate the high-waisted bodices, elbow-length cuffs and deep hems of women's dresses, the skirts of which may, among some groups, contain as much as 12 m of velvet or flowered cotton.

Semi-nomads publicly display their individual artistry during annual migrations in a variety of ornamental trappings for camels, donkeys and horses. In addition to saddle bags and blankets there are decorated leather harnesses, silver-studded saddles and neckpieces. A bridal camel, bedecked with a heavy, glass-beaded headdress and reins takes pride of place in any caravan. These sumptuous accoutrements proclaim wealth, status and power.

B. Jewelry.

All groups have zealously developed items for personal adornment. Distinctive patterns distinguish each ethnic group, place of origin and, particularly among the Pushtun, tribe and sub-tribe. The most popular jewelry is made of silver, at times fire-gilded, a technique most employed by the Turkmen. Heavy, embossed torques of twisted silver are a specialty of Nuristan, but all bracelets, armlets, earrings, temple pendants and headdress ornaments tend to be massive and liberally hung with pendants. Insets of colored glass or hardstones, including cornelian, turquoise and lapis lazuli, are frequently imbued with symbolic meaning to avert sorrow, danger and disease or bring joy, serenity and marital bliss. Generous sprinklings of silver beads, discs, coins, medallions, dress fastenings, amulets and talismans are also sewn on to clothing in great profusion.

C. Ceramics.

The shapes and designs of the primarily utilitarian pottery have survived unchanged for 5000 years. Glazes are rare, except for those found at Istalif, a hillside village just north of Kabul. The clear, bright blue pottery with black incised floral decorations and the bird and animal figurines from Istalif are unique. The Istalif double-headed horse must surely represent a tradition of considerable antiquity, although the potters themselves attribute their creations simply to “custom.”

D. Woodwork.

Lacquered wooden boxes, stools, bed-legs and cradles are regional specialties, most notably in the east. Lacquerwork is normally restricted to colorful banding, but some artisans have developed a technique of applying several layers of different colors, which are then cut away to reveal intricate floral designs. The art of wood-carving in general is largely applied to such architectural elements as window-frames and panels, doorframes, lintels and pillars in homes and mosques. Much of this work exhibits affinities to Kashmiri floral, geometric and curvilinear traditions; unique motifs from Nuristan include animistic symbols that pre-date the conversion of this area to Islam in 1895. Distinctive snuffboxes, made from small gourds, are traditionally shaped in wooden molds as they ripen on the vine and are then highly polished, painted or adorned with silver stoppers and decorative collars.


  • Turquoise Mountain Foundation, http://www.turquoisemountain.org [organization dedicated to reviving traditional arts] (accessed June 7, 2008)
  • A. Friedman: “The Handicrafts of Afghanistan,” Afghanistan Q., xxv/2 (1972), pp. 11–12
  • G. O’Bannon: The Turkmen Carpet (London, 1974)
  • M. Centlivres-Demont: “Les Peintures sur camions en Afghanistan,” Afghanistan J., ii/2 (1975), pp. 60–64
  • J.-C. Blanc: Afghan Trucks (London, 1976)
  • M. Centlivres-Demont: Popular Art in Afghanistan: Paintings on Trucks, Mosques and Tea-Houses (Graz, 1976)
  • L. Dupree: Afghan Women (Hannover, 1976/R 1994 VHS) [film; Afghanistan Ser., iv]
  • A. Janata: “Ikat in Afghanistan,” Afghanistan J., v/4 (1978), pp. 130–39
  • I. Rittmeyer: “Die Sammlung Rittmeyer,” Afghanistan J., ix/4 (1982), pp. 112–14
  • R. Parsons: The Carpets of Afghanistan (Woodbridge, 1983)
  • The Decorative Arts of Central Asia (exh. cat., ed. by J. Graham and H. Sandys; London, Zamara Gal., 1988)
  • B. Dupaigne and F. Cousins: Afghan Embroidery (Lahore, 1993)
  • J. W. Frembgen: Lebensbaum und Kalaschnikow: Krieg und Frieden im Spiegel afghanischer Bildteppiche [Tree of Life and Kalashnikov: War and Peace Reflected in Afghan Pictorial Carpets] (Blieskastel, 2000)
  • M. Klimburg: “The Arts and Culture of Parun, Kafiristan's ‘Sacred Valley,’” A. Asiatiques, lvii (2002), pp. 51–68
  • H. Bechna: “Fine Arts in Afghanistan: from Ancient Times until the 20th Century,” Art & Thought: Fikrun wa Fann, lxxviii (2003), pp. 20–26
  • W. Floor: “Iran and Afghanistan,” Towards the Contemporary Period, from the Mid-nineteenth to the End of the Twentieth Century, vi of History of Civilizations of Central Asia, ed. M. K. Palat and A. Tabyshalieva (Paris, 2005), pp. 757–93
  • C. H. Bleaney and M. Á. Gallego: “Arts: Traditional Crafts,” Afghanistan: A Bibliography, Handbook of Oriental Studies: Central Asia, 13 (Leiden, 2006), pp. 102–10
  • S. Paine: Embroidery from Afghanistan (London, 2006)

VI. Museums and collections

The collections of material from Afghanistan are few in number but well published. The majority of pieces from the pre-Islamic period are located in the Kabul Museum and the Musée Guimet, Paris, including finds excavated by the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA), the sole organization with the right to survey and excavate in Afghanistan from 1922 to 1964. From 1964 no archaeological finds were legally allowed out of Afghanistan. Foreign teams worked under the control of the newly created Archaeological Survey of Afghanistan, and the finds from British, American, German and Japanese excavations were all placed in the Kabul Museum. The Kabul Museum ranked among the most opulent depositories in the world, with a collection that recorded 50,000 years of the cultural history of Afghanistan. Although the artifacts were all boxed in 1991 for safekeeping during the civil war, the museum building was extensively damaged during bombing in 1993. Artifacts from the museum began to appear on the international art market soon afterward, but the museum staff had apparently hidden some of the museum's treasures, and 22,000 objects, including the Begram ivories and coins, have been recovered.


  • O. Monod-Brühl: Guide to the Musée Guimet (Paris, 1966)
  • Ancient Art from Afghanistan: Teasures of the Kabul Museum (exh. cat. by B. Rowland; New York, Asia Soc. Gals; Los Angeles, CA, Co. Mus. A.; Washington, DC, N. Col. F. A.; 1966/R 1976)
  • J. Auboyer: L’Afghanistan et son art (Prague, 1968)
  • N. Hatch Dupree and others: The National Museum of Afghanistan: An Illustrated Guide (Kabul, 1974)
  • F. R. Allchin and N. Hammond, eds.: The Archaeology of Afghanistan: From Earliest Times to the Timurid Period (London and New York, 1978)
  • M. Klimburg: “A Collection of Kafir Art from Nuristan,” Tribus, xxx (1981), pp. 155–202
  • W. Ball and J. C. Gardin: Archaeological Gazetteer of Afghanistan/Catalogue des sites archéologiques d’Afghanistan, 2 vols. (Paris, 1982)
  • J. Kalter: “Die Sammlungen des Linden-Museums aus Afghanistan und der Nachbargebieten,” Afghanistan J., ix/3 (1982), pp. 76–85
  • N. Dupree: “National Museum of Afghanistan,” Art Museums of the World, i (Westport, 1987), pp. 26–30
  • Afghanistan: Une histoire millénaire (exh. cat. ed. by M.-C. Bianchini; Barcelona, Cent. Cult. Fund. Caixa Pensions; Paris, Mus. Guimet; 2001–2)
  • F. B. Flood: “Between Cult and Culture: Bamiyan, Islamic Iconoclasm, and the Museum,” A. Bull., lxxxiv/4 (2002), pp. 641–59
  • F. Tissot: Kaboul, le passé confisqué: Le musée de Kaboul, 1931–1965 (Paris, 2002)
  • C. H. Bleaney and M. Á. Gallego: “Museums,” Afghanistan: A Bibliography, Handbook of Oriental Studies: Central Asia, 13 (Leiden, 2006), pp. 126–7
  • F. Tissot: Catalogue of the National Museum of Afghanistan, 1931–1985, Art, Museums and Monuments Series (Paris, 2006)
  • Afghanistan, les trésors retrouvés: Collections du Musée national de Kaboul (exh. cat. by P. Cambon and J. F. Jarrige; Paris, Mus. Guimet; 2006–7)
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