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Volume 28, Number 5September/October 1977

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The Bright Thread

Written by Mary Norton
Photographed by Harold Sequeira

Tucked up in the eaves, if not on the roof of the world, is Afghanistan, a land of compelling beauty which has, from antiquity, been swept by the forces of history: migrations, invasions, conquests, tribal wars, and the rise and collapse of dynasties and of empires.

Into Afghanistan have come Aryans, Greeks, Persians, Bactrians, Scythians, Parthians, Kushans, Sas-sanians, Arabs, Turks, Indians, Russians and English. The fabled Silk Route from Rome to China traversed the Afghanistan landscape, its caravans conveying ivories, silks, spices and jewels, frankincense and furs, gold and silver. And great men of history, for good or ill, have left their mark here: Cyrus, Zoroaster, Alexander, Ashoka, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Babur and Marco Polo. For more than a millennium, however, one force has dominated the history of Afghanistan: the rule of Islam. And its impact is still visible and tangible today.

Tradition has it that about 661, when the first Arabs came to Kabul, the present capital, they prayed beside the river, placing a stone to orient themselves towards Mecca. Near the site, today in the heart of old Kabul, stands the large, imposing Pul-i-Khisti Mosque.

One of the best views of Pul-i-Khisti is from Sher Darwaza Hill, home of the "Noon Gun," the cannon which, for decades, marked midday for Kabulis. Its roar also marked the end of the hours of fasting during Ramadan. The city, its outlines softened by dusters of mulberry trees, stretches across level land to the embracing ring of dun-colored mountains which seem to shrink in the face of the glistening, snow-streaked peaks of the Hindu Kush beyond. Below, the tangle of simple houses and buildings crowds the azure dome and slender minaret of Pul-i-Khisti, but in the courtyard of the mosque the feeling is one of space and simplicity Mosaic tiles, yellow, blue and white, in geometrical and floral motifs, adorn the arched windows and portals of the white stoneedifice. Spanning the facade, near the roof, is a band of Arabic calligraphy - verses of the Koran in white on deepest blue.

The interior is plain: sturdy wine-red Turkoman rugs underfoot and, on the walls near the mihrab, plaques lettered with Islam's Profession of Faith, the Shahadah: "La ilaha ilia Allah; Muhammadun rasulu-Allah," "There is no god but God; Muhammad is His Messenger."

At the cry of the muezzin five times a day the mosque is soon filled with men, a crowd that swells at 'Id feasts to more than 5,000. From across Kabul's oldest bridge; from the narrow, twisted alleys behind Jodi Maiwand, the broad, new thoroughfare; from the chai-khanas, the tea houses, they come; from ancient Shor Bazaar and Char Chatta Bazaar, redolent and resonant marketplaces, they come in their turbans and sandals, their loose shirts and baggy trousers sometimes combined with vests and jackets, picking their way through traffic part automobile, part bicycle, part donkey and goat.

Side by side, after ablutions, they bow, kneel, prostrate themselves, facing Mecca, these Pushruns, Tajiks, Turkomans, Uzbeks: a human mosaic, tribally distinct, but, at the call of the muezzin, bound together as brothers in their Muslim faith.

I had seen them in the streets, many carrying loads to break the spirits, if not the backs, of men: the Hazaras, for example, hitched in pairs to a simple "Karachi," cart, loaded with crates 10 tiers high and 10 across, pulling it from one end of the city to the other. And I had read of the difficulties of life in Afghanistan: that, for example, 40 percent of Kabul's popultion lived on four percent of the land in the area of Shor Bazaar - with few basic amenities - and that summers could be searingly hot, winters icy cold; that, as in many emerging countries, prices were risng and wages were low. Yet, in the lined and leathery faces of those at prayer, I had noticed, or thought I noticed, a calmness, an absence of anxiety rarely encountered nowadays. Was I correct? And was there a link between the serenity and the religion they seemed to so devoutly embrace?

Gul Muhammad Katib Sahib, the white-bearded, gentle imam of Pul-i-Khisti Mosque, thought there was. "There is a strong drive in the people to believe that everything that comes, comes from the hand of God," he said. "If a man has but a single piece of bread for his dinner, that is because God wills it, and if his table is full, that too, is the will of God. Poor - rich - poor, all comes from God, is the will of God, and is accepted by the people." He paused and smiled. "'Islam' means 'submission,'" he went on, "and that is the key." This is not to say that God does not will mankind to overcome hunger, disease and poverty. Indeed, devout Muslims feel that in striving to improve the human condition they are submitting to the will of God.

Submission to God, however, is one thing, submission to man another. Although the Afghan peoples eventually embraced Islam they have always been proud defenders of their lands. When, therefore, the Arab seventh century armies, afire with their new religion and exhilarated by swift victories over Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia, turned eastward, the Afghan peoples did not submit. And although the superb horsemanship and camelry maneuvers of the Arabs would propel them far and fast across the steppe regions - where they conquered Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent - they won no easy victories in the land now called Afghanistan.

More than half the territory of present-day Afghanistan is mountainous, the gorges ideal for ambushes and the passes often choked with snow. This terrain, and above all the steep, jagged peaks and plunging ravines of the Hindu Kush, rendered the usual Arab military tactics inoperable. In the high valleys, numerous petty kingdoms held sway, partly isolated, virtually autonomous and fiercely independent; their peoples, like the Arabs of the desert, had been honed on a pitiless terrain, and for years they were a match for the best of the intruders.

After a year-long siege, Kabul capitulated to the Arabs in 664, but the city was contested again and again. Not until late in the 10th century long after Arab rule had given way to local Muslim dynasties, were the tenacious rulers of the Hindu Shahi dynasty finally driven from power.

In the non-mountainous areas - Sistan and Kandahar in the south, Herat in the west, and Balkh in the north - the Arabs fared better. By the eighth century Arab governors were installed who, backed by military garrisons, permitted local rule. As a pattern of revolt persisted, however, and as the Abassid Caliphate declined, local dynasties arose. One such dynasty, the Samanids, fostered a flowering of Islamic art and culture. By the ninth century, many beautiful mosques could be found throughout Kabul, which the Arabs called "Umm al-Bilad," "Mother of Cities."

Despite those ancient wars and the country's difficult climate, one of the ninth-century mosques - discovered just 10 years ago - has come down to the present. By far the earliest Islamic monument yet found in Afghanistan, Masjid-i-Haji Piyada, a nine-domed mosque, is located in a field a few miles out of Balkh and, according to Afghanistan expert Nancy Hatch Dupree, is an architectural delight. As she says in her recent book, History of Afghanistan, "The elegantly carved stucco decoration is the wonder and beauty of this mosque. The capitals of the columns and the arches which span them exhibit an infinite variety of geometric and abstract floral designs: vine scrolls twist around grape leaves forming circles and semi-circles, squares, rectangles and polygons within borders of pearls, hatchings, mazes and meanders. On the capitals, pairs of palmettes frame trefoil lotus blossoms and plump pomegranates sprout at their base."

In the second century Greco-Bactrians in Afghanistan erected columns of the Corinthian order, and in the 16th century, the Ottomans invested the traditional decorative patterns with extraordinary richness and beauty. Standing midway between the two in time, the ninth century Haji Payada Mosque, with elements of each, is indeed, as the locals have named it, the Masjid-i-Tarikh, the "Mosque of History."

The first great Islamic civilization in Afghanistan arose around Ghazni, south of Kabul. Called the Ghaznavid Empire, this civilization was founded by a former Turkish slave and eventually stretched from the Caspian Sea and to beyond Benares in India. Through wealth brought back from India, the Ghaznavids financed the embellishment of Ghazni and other cities with mosques, minarets, aqueducts, palaces and gardens, until they fairly shone with splendor. The historian 'Utbi calls the great mosque of Ghazni the "Bride of the Sky" comparing it in beauty to the mosque at Damascus.

In addition to winning many converts for Islam in India, the Ghaznavids brought, from the far corners of the empire, the most celebrated scholars and scientists, artists and craftsmen, architects and poets - Persia's finest, Firdausi, among them - creating a court of dazzling artistic and intellectual attainment. Firdausi's epic Shah Nameh, or Books of Kings, the national epic of Persia, was completed at this court. As a result, the museums of Ghazni and Kabul today are rich in ceramics and superb bronze-ware: ewers, incense burners, bowls and such, richly engraved, and in laid with animal and floral motifs and complicated calligraphy. In addition there still survive the chief examples of their patrimony in Afghanistan: two soaring minarets, star-shaped in plan, 400 yards apart on a silent, dusty road.

The Ghaznavids, however, found themselves under attack almost as soon as they established the borders of the empire. In the early part of the 11th century, the Seljuk Turks took two great provinces and later all of its territories in Iran and Central Asia. For another 100 years, the dynasty held onto eastern Afghanistan and northern India, but then, in 1151, the Ghorids of central Afghanistan sacked and burned Ghazni itself. Their leader, Ala-ud-Din Hassan, took for himself the name of Jahansuz, "World-burner" but the Ghorids themselves were extinguished not long after: in the 13th century they were overcome by the Turk Khwarazm-Shah. That victory too was short lived as, that same century the Mongol tide led by Genghis Khan swept over Afghanistan as it would eventually sweep over most of the Muslim world.

Descending upon Balkh, his forces 100,000 strong, Genghis Khan, in a dreadful assault, obliterated the area and its inhabitants. As the historian Juvaini, who visited Balkh 30 years later and whose father had ridden with the Mongols, wrote, "...Ghenghis Khan commanded that the population of Balkh, small and great, few and many, both men and women, should be driven out onto the plain and... put to the sword... and they cast fire into the gardens of the city and devoted their whole attention to the destruction of the outworks and walls and mansions and palaces."

Next, the Mongol hordes advanced on the enchanting valley of Bamiyan, once a flourishing center of Buddhism, but now a thriving Islamic center. As the Muslims chose to resist, and as Genghis Khan's grandson was killed in the fighting, the Mongol leader ordered that every living thing be destroyed. This was accomplished, and the city thereafter became known as the "City of Sighs." or "City of Skulls." It has never been inhabited since.

The Mongol destruction, however, had no effect on the forces of religion. Marco Polo, visiting Afghanistan some 75 years after Genghis Khan, speaks of the population as entirely Muslim. Despite death and desolation, the faith of Islam survived and after another conqueror, Timur-Leng - Tamerlane - a descendant of Genghis Khan, Islam in Afghanistan was to rise to new pinnacles of culture and grandeur.

Tamerlane, to be sure, destroyed many cities in his invasions but he sometimes spared the populations and transported artisans to Samarkand for the enrichment of his court. And Shah Rukh, Tamerlane's son, who became governor of Herat in 1391, set about restoring the city at once. Later, Shah Rukh was largely responsible for a great efflorescence of culture in Iran, Afghanistan and Khorasan centered in Herat Steeped in Persian traditions, Shah Rukh and his extraordinary queen preferred scholarship to conquest, creation to destruction, art to arms; as a result they drew to their court the most brilliant minds of the time in science and literature, architecture and art. They also passed on their love of culture to their son, Baisungur, poet and calligrapher. Baisungur founded the School of Herat, which set such standards of excellence that it became the model for all subsequent schools of painting in Iran, Turkey, Transoxania and India, and Timurid examples of the arts of the book - calligraphy miniature painting, illumination and binding - remain among the finest ever produced.

Queen Gawhar Shad herself presided over the construction of a magnificent madrasah -place of learning - a project financed, by some accounts, through the sale of her jewelry. Of this grand complex of portals, arcades, minarets and domed buildings, once completely covered with mosaic tiles - each brilliant bit of turquoise or gold or other color glaze separately fired, then placed in position in a wealth of ornament - only the Queen's mausoleum and a few minarets have survived. They suffice, however, to convey a sense of the delight the Timurid buildings must have evoked when they were set, as was the custom, amid fountains in flowering orchards and parks.

With the decline of Timurid rule, Afghanistan became a battleground for contesting empires: Shaybani Uzbeks in the north, Persian Safavids in the west and, in the east, the Indian Moghul dynasty whose founder Babur had begun his reign in Kabul. In addition, many individual tribes asserted their independence, shifting their allegiances from one dynasty to another and their alliandes with each other as circumstances dictated. Eventually an Afghan nation was formed by Ahmed Shah Durrani - crowned king in Kandahar in 1747 - but on his death, disorders again ensued and England, fearful of Iranian and joint Russian-French designs on Afghanistan, entered the area. Finally, in 1880, the forceful Amir Abdul Rahman Khan emerged to unify the various tribes under one central government and thus lay the foundation for modern Afghanistan.

Through those centuries of vicissitudes, the faith of Islam was the single bright thread linking the disparate - and sometimes warring - peoples. Spreading now slowly now more rapidly Islam in 1896, with the conversion of the Kafirs, isolated in the remote, high, forested regions of Kafiristan in the eastern mountains, eventually triumphed. All Afghanistan was then an integral part of Islam.

Today, the impact of the Arabs of the seventh century and of the religion they brought is clearly visible in Afghanistan. In Kabul, for instance, there are 350 mosques - some of them as small as shop stalls - and government religious colleges are scattered throughout the country, including Kabul's Daral-'Ulim-i-Khatib-i-Arabiyyi, from which the brightest go on to the Shar'iah College at Kabul University and eventual posts as judges. Others will teach religion in high schools or perhaps become neighborhood religious leaders.

More importantly, the impact is visible in the practice of its faith. Unlike many Muslim countries today at the call of the muezzin men throughout the country flock to mosques to pray or, if they cannot, drop to their knees wherever they are. The fast of Ramadan, furthermore, seems to be strictly - and widely - observed; in Kabul, the capital, only those restaurants catering to foreigners remain open during the day in the month of Ramadan. And when the 'Id feast arrives at the end of the month of fasting, the country seems to have locked itself up for several days and thrown the key away.

With respect to other pillars of Islam - the main duties of Islam - veteran observers say Afghanistan Muslims are equally diligent. Almsgiving is taken seriously - with each family likely to dispense the expected two-and-a-half percent of debt-free income to whom it sees fit. And those who can afford it do make the Hajj, the Pilgrimage to Mecca. As in other emerging nations economics often prevents this long and costly journey but many, nonetheless, do so - some after a lifetime of scrimping.

Some Afghans are members of a small sect which venerates the memory of 'Ali, a cousin and successor of the Prophet Muhammad. They pay particular homage to him at Mazar-i-Sharif, a shrine dedicated by them to 'Ali and accepted by some as his tomb.

The shrine is the scene of a widely known festival held each year on Nawruz, the Afghan New Year which falls on March 21. A few days beforehand, people from all over the country - up to 100,000 by some estimates - converge on the grounds to ride ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds, play games, listen to music and buy delectable kebabs, cakes, fruits and nuts, and colored syrupy drinks from stalls. Then, on the morning of Nawruz, the crowds gather in the courtyard and gardens to witness, amid fanfare and emotion deeply felt, the raising of the standard of 'Ali, which will fly for 40 days. Those nearest the flagpole, which lies between the shrine and the mosque, clamber to touch the pole or the flag in its slow ascent.

Although Islam flatly rejects the concept of sainthood, shrines or ziarets dedicated to pious or heroic persons, who may have lived in the seventh century or died last month and who are believed to possess powers of intercession with the Divine, flourish and proliferate in Afghanistan. These, out of centuries old superstitions are beseeched through prayer; for favors asked, personal reminders are left; often a scrap of cloth from the garment of the supplicant. One comes upon them everywhere - elaborate ziarets in the center of Kabul; small, domed structures encompassed by fields of wheat on the plains of Turkestan; and deep in the Hindu Kush, in the terrifying, blue-black kingdoms of stone, nomad shrines, a mound of rocks and a pole, tied with strips of colored doth: ensigns of hope fluttering endlessly in the wind.

These departures from Islamic beliefs are, of course, frowned upon in traditional circles - as is the new and sometimes critical sophistication of many well-traveled young people. But they are not, in fact, sources of major concern. The traditional Muslim in Afghanistan believes firmly - and calmly - that all Muslims, including their own occasionally dissenting offspring, will in time return to the fold. They believe too that although some change will inevitably occur, the Afghanistan they know and cherish will, in time, absorb the flaws and errors of all. This is the Afghanistan I saw: fantastic sandstone cliffs with striations of magenta, green, slate blue and beige; terraced mountainsides in yellows and greens with the snowy summits always beyond, untouched, original, unpolluted, almost unseen; and ancient watchtowers jutting from the crests of rocks; and caravanserais in pieces. And, too, young boys nudging their flocks of goats along the narrow, zigzag mountain trails; an old man, sniffing a rose in a park in Balkh; Turkoman ladies, bejeweled and dressed in scarlet robes, their tall, domed hats giving them a queenly aura as they crouch by their carpet looms, fingers flying: in time, the work of art emerges, the flaw carefully woven in, since only God is perfect.

Mary Norton, who has lived in Saudi Arabia since 1958, is a frequent traveler to Afganistan and an occassional contributor to Aramco World .

This article appeared on pages 2-11 of the September/October 1977 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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