Torn apart by decades of conflict, post-2003 Afghanistan was on the brink of an economic, social, and cultural collapse. Besides the much-mediatized shelling of the country’s material heritage, such as the Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan’s intangible heritage equally took an untold toll. In addition to various practices that had been directly targeted and proscribed (such as making the rubab, a short-necked lute), a general weakening of the national economy, disruption of raw material procurement networks, and an overall destruction of the social fabric put a majority of Afghanistan’s heritage at risk. Particularly threatened were its craftsmen, the stewards of woodcarving, goldsmithing, or miniature techniques, skills firmly rooted in more than 3,000 years of artistic traditions and defining features of many of the country’s communities.
Indeed, the practice of crafts in Afghanistan is intricately connected to many aspects of society, which makes it an inseparable part of its social fabric. Guilds long consisted in the main framework of production for artisans and acted as self-governing bodies (Kennedy 2011). Guilds connected artisans with each other and all the craftsmen to other social and governmental institutions, defending their interests and presenting them in a favorable light (Jasiewicz 1991). Within it, the apprentice was introduced and would learn techniques and rituals associated to his or her function. For instance, we have met in Mazar-i Sharif a guild of coppersmiths which gathers once a year in the lead-up to the Nowruz festival, when the time comes to clean the Hazrat Ali shrine’s many quba. This way, the guild reaffirms its place in the community by taking the lead in the associated rituals and engaging everyone in the process.
Many guilds in Central Asia were also connected to a particular patron saint. The saint figures of the Quran (Khazrati Ali, patron of textile craftsmen whose responsibility it was to give the final shine to the materials) or the Bible (David-Daoud—patron of smiths and all metal crafts) required particular rituals, transmitted orally within the guild but also sometimes recorded in resāla, booklets containing their legends, a series of prayers to be recited before any production took place, and a list of proper behaviors to be adopted by the artisans.
The challenge faced by Turquoise Mountain in 2006, and indeed by any project aiming at the protection of intangible heritage, was thus to regenerate crafts that relied heavily on practices and communities that had virtually disappeared.
Thus, the organization has endeavored to recreate a framework for this entire ecosystem to survive and flourish through a comprehensive, holistic, and long-term commitment to the community and its craft.
The 2003 Convention clearly states that the protection and preservation of ICH practices essentially relies on a holistic philosophy and strategy. If much has been discussed regarding the documentation and inventory-building programs (Hafstein 2009), these make up the first step of sustainable safeguarding efforts, and any long-term strategy needs to rely heavily on the creation of a healthy framework of practice and the support of education, both formal and informal.
Arriving in Kabul in 2006 with the goal of protecting this legacy, Turquoise Mountain recognized the necessity not only to protect the artisans by supporting their activities but also to safeguard the various systems of knowledge transmission involved in these traditional practices (Kennedy 2011). This approach was completed by engaging the community of Murad Khani in the restoration of its architectural heritage, putting directly to work many of the organization’s artisans.
The first few years were thus dedicated to large-scale urban regeneration work, which engaged more than two hundred people from the community, and thousands more, in the restoration of traditional Afghan dwellings, including various local techniques such as senj (diagonal layers of bricks in a wooden frame providing the building with more flexibility and resistance to seismic activities) or the manufacturing of carefully carved wooden panels (of classic style, largely inspired by Timurid motifs).
In 2007 the Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture was established under license with the Afghan Ministry of Education (Kennedy 2011). This institute trains over a hundred students each year in woodcarving, calligraphy, miniature painting, jewelry, gem-cutting, and ceramics. Its location within Murad Khani, near the bazaar and the workshops of many artisans, was chosen to preserve the technical and social meaning of a traditionally embedded training while providing the advantages of a contemporary vocational program.
This approach required the development of a tailored curriculum dedicated to both the transmission of technical and artistic knowledge while also providing each student with the tools to become competitive in the Afghan and international market and the opportunity to adapt the skills they learned in contact with the master artisans. The ever-evolving curriculum results from the collaboration of Afghan masters and international experts.
The institute is also one of the centers of the community, where celebrations that take place sometimes echo the rituals that used to occur within the guilds. For instance, it is customary in Afghan craftsmanship that new apprentices give gifts to their master, and in return the masters will give the students the resāla. This ceremony, held each year in March in Murad Khani, is known as the gurmani, which means “putting sweets in front of a master”. Rooted in the traditional guild system that used to support artisan activity, this ritual allows the future practitioners to contextualize their practice within a long line of artisans and to preserve the social and cultural meaning associated with their craft.
Furthermore, the restored buildings at Murad Khani become the locus of other community activities, such as the celebration of Nowruz, bringing both artisans and the stakeholders together in the historical environment of Kabul.
Thus, Turquoise Mountain has, since 2006, restored and rebuilt over 150 historic buildings in Murad Khani and created the Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture. Over 5,000 Afghan women and men have learned traditional skills from woodwork to calligraphy and senj construction to jewelry. These artisans run over a hundred small craft businesses and produce millions of dollars of high-quality products rooted in tradition each year to sell in Afghanistan and around the world. Recently, Turquoise Mountain launched its Design Center at the core of Murad Khani, which will further support artisans in the development of an Afghan design DNA and the integration of their perennial practices into a contemporary technical and aesthetic environment. It is in these synergies—place, traditional skills, and incomes—that we believe we can really safeguard these traditions for generations to come.
Jasiewicz, Z., 1991, “Professional Beliefs and Rituals among Craftsmen in Central Asia: Genetic and functional interpretation.” In: S. Akiner (Ed.) Cultural Change and Continuity in Central Asia (pp.171-180), London, Kegan Paul International.
Kennedy, T., 2010, “Safeguarding Traditional Craftsmanship: A Project Demonstrating the Revitalisation of Intangible Heritage in Murad Khane, Kabul.” In: International Journal of Intangible Heritage, 5 (pp. 74-85).
Hafstein, V.T., 2009, “Intangible Heritage as a List: From Masterpieces to Representation.” In: Smith, L. (Ed.), Akagawa, N. (Ed.), Intangible Heritage. London: Routledge.
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, 17 October 2003, available at: https://ich.unesco.org/doc/src/01853-EN.pdf.