Afghanistan, Then And Now

By Kate Smith | 15 January 2007
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photo shows blue skies and market stall along the edge of a road

Street Scene, Kabul © Frohar Poya Faryabi, 2005

Invaded by the British and Russians, destabilised by tribal differences and constantly shifting borders, full of damaged monuments to a glorious past.... yes, it's Afghanistan at the turn of the 19th century.

As I explored the Royal Geographical Society's new exhibition Kabul To Kandahar, the similarity to the country's history in the past 30 years became overwhelming.

From 1839 - 1919 Britain fought three wars to try to keep the Russians out of Afghanistan, and away from the borders of colonial India. This politicking - and similar manoeuvring in Asia and the Middle East - was known as the "Great Game". But as curator Vandana Patel comments "Afghanistan is a notoriously difficult country to conquer" - after the failure of 1919, Britain retreated and pursued diplomatic relations instead.

photo shows shepherd with gun in studio

Pathan man, by R. B.Holmes, 1919 - 1920 S0002916 Courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society.

One of the side effects of the British presence were the first ever photographs of the region - some stretching back as far as 1840, as well as lithographs going back to the early 1830s. Many were taken by military personnel - others by intrepid independent travellers. Many were selling atmospheric shots of this little visited land back to a hungry market in Victorian England.

Around 700 of these pictures ended up at the Royal Geographical Society in London - some arranged in photo albums, others as piles of loose pictures with little context. There they sat unregarded for a century. Now they've been re-evaluated by researcher Sara Wajid, but also by the Afghan community themselves in London. Kabul to Kandahar is the result of that collaboration.

photo shows green gardens with city in the background

Baghe Babur, Kabul © Deborah Dunham, May 2006

Also in the display are modern pictures of Afghanistan by Deborah Durham - showing green places and Kabul markets. They are a great counterpoint both to the Victorian images, and to the current newspaper pictures of Afghanistan as desertified war zone.

Today Afghanistan offers fluctuating security, especially for foreigners. Six months ago it was still possible to travel to Kabul - today it is extremely risky. Victorians found the same dangerous hospitality. One writer, John A Gray, recalls the charm of the Amir of Afghanistan, in whose palace he was living, before commenting that he and his fellow guest/invaders are:

"but as Pawns on the chess board of this Prince, to be swept off with an unshrinking hand when a move in the game might need it."

photo shows woman sitting outside yurt with man to one side

A comparatively rare picture of a woman in the RGS Afghan collections. Sariks Turkoman Woman, Maruchak 1931-32 (S0015639).

Not all of the material shown is of the West looking at the East. One member of the Royal Geographic Society a little later, in 1936, was Jamal-Ud-Din Ahmad. He commented that many of the works written about Afghanistan in the West were inaccurate, and produced his own book Afghanistan: A Brief Survey. There's also a map issued in 1964 by the Afghan Embassy in London, announcing Afghanistan as "Land Of Hospitality". It's a reminder of a peaceful interlude when Afghanistan was a place on the hippy tourist trail, a land which exported grapes, melons and carpets all over the world.

photo shows a victorian photographer and afghan people

Ramsay taking a photograph, Helmand Valley, southwestern Afghanistan, by Thomas R. J Ward, 1903 - 05. S0015833. Courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society.

Members of the Afghan Association were able to carefully read the photographs - especially the signals in the dress, for clues about the people pictured - the area of the country they came from and their job. Histories of the veil in Afghanistan are explored, and emerge as complex. There are very few images of women in the exhibition, but the rules of dress were different area by area. John A Gray again:

"The women (along the Khyber pass) unlike the Mohamedan (Muslim) townswomen, were not closely veiled, the head is covered with a blue or white shawl, which when a stranger approaches is drawn across the bottom half of the face".

Photos in the exhibition show women in just such a pose, and also cheerful young girls in a photographer's studio.

photo shows giant statues photographed from below

A Bamiyan Buddha photographed by Robert Byron. Courtesy of the Courtauld Institute.

Huge but damaged monuments also tells the story of much older Afghan history - the vast fortified castles are still used by Taliban and Northern Alliance as a fight goes on for control of the country today. Some were built by the Ghaznavid dynasty (962 - 1140) and have survived wars and earthquakes ever since. We also see the less lucky Bamiyan Buddhas in a 1930s photograph. Resplendent in gold leaf when they were first built in the 2nd - 5th century, they were completely destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

Exhibitions about Afghanistan are comparatively rare - the Royal Geographic Society offers a great introduction to a people and their history.

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