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Afghanistan Reflected in the Collections at the Library of Congress

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(The following is a guest post by Iranic World Specialist Hirad Dinavari)


Situated in the heart of Asia, Afghanistan has age-old historical ties to the Eurasian regions of Central Asia, the Near East, Anatolia, and South Asia.  According to archeologists, Afghan history can be traced to Neolithic times, when various ancient river valley civilizations in the Indus, the Oxus, Mesopotamia, and Egypt imported raw materials such as copper and lapis-lazuli, among other rare gemstones from the Afghan highlands.

Throughout its history, Afghanistan was invaded and incorporated into various empires imbuing Afghan civilization with their cultural practices and beliefs.  Beginning with the Achaemenid Empire in the 8th Century BCE, Afghanistan would be incorporated into numerous empires in the region and from various parts of the world.  As such, Afghanistan was rendered a part of diverse civilizations ranging from the Persian, Indian, Macedonian-Greek, Arab, Turkic and Mongol, in all their various dynastic formations.

These numerous influences and cultural practices pervaded Afghan civilization. Early encounters of Zoroastrian, Manichean, Buddhist and Greek traditions, would result in a distinctive Gandharan and Kushan fusion form of Buddhism. A famous architectural example is the Buddha of the Bamiyan valley. The Library’s Gandhara scroll is another example of the unique form of Afghan Buddhism.

The Gandhara scroll as it arrived at the Library in a pen case. Asian Division. Photo: Holly Krueger.


Located along migratory routes, the Afghan region has been at the crossroads of numerous ethnic and linguistic groups.  More significantly, scholars of linguistics, such as David W. Anthony, traced some of these migrations back to a period ranging from 2,500 to 1,500 BCE, contending that they ultimately contributed to the development of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European languages.

With the advent of Islam in the 7th Century CE through the Islamic conquest, Afghanistan began to express itself in almost exclusively Muslim terms as congruent with the region.  Afghan contributions to Islamic civilization were produced in variety of languages depending on the subject, style, and the historic periods in which they were written.

During the Abbasid period, for example, the cities of Balkh, Ghazni, and Herat became centers for Islamic religious studies, arts, and scientific works written in the Arabic language.

Timurid era, Quranic page in the Muhaqqaq script, copied in either in Herat or Samarqand, in Arabic, ca. 1400 C.E., Arabic Calligraphy Sheet Collection, Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.


With the flowering of the Persian language in the 8th and 9th Centuries CE, Persian literature started to take root in the major Afghan centers of the greater Khurasan region. This era witnessed some of the greatest Persian masterpieces written by authors hailing from what would become present day Afghanistan.  Some noteworthy examples are the works of poets such as Rudaki, Rabia Balkhi (the first Persian speaking poetess) and Sanai; the epic masterpiece “Shahnameh” by Firdawsi; and the works of the world-famous Jalal al-Din Rumi.  Moreover, Afghan calligraphers such as Mir ‘Ali Heravi (d. 951/1544-5) produced pieces that were recognized for their beauty and unique artistic value.

Quatrain by Rumi written in black Nasta’liq script by the calligrapher Mir ‘Ali Heravi (d. 951/1544-5 C.E.), Arabic Calligraphy Sheet Collection, Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.


By the 16 Century, following centuries of Turkic and Mongol conquests, Turkic languages began to play a role in Afghan culture.   ‘Ali Shir Nava’i, a pioneer of this early Turkic literature, wrote his Chagatai poetry in a Timurid court situated in Herat.

Poetry written in Nasta’liq script in Persian & Chaghatay Turkish (Central Asian Turkish). Persian poems by Sa’di (d. 1209/1292 C.E.) Chaghatay poems by Mir ‘Ali Shir Nava’i (d. 1501 C.E.), Patron: Husayn Bayqara (r. 1470-1506 C.E.) Timurid era.  Arabic Calligraphy Sheet Collection, Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.


Afghan literature and poetry would continue to evolve and flourish in the centuries to come.  The 18th Century, for example, witnessed the blossoming of a uniquely Afghan form of literature in the Pashto language from the Afghan cultural centers of Kandahar and Kabul.  Works by Afghans in both the traditional Persian (Dari) and in the local Pashto language were being produced and published in abundance.  These included works by Afghan women such as former queen Ayisha Durrani.

Collected works of Ayisha Durrani, Afghan Queen and poetess, in Persian, 1881. Persian Lithograph Collection, Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.


Divan-i Mir Zahi Afghani Muhashi, a collection of poems, in Pashto, 1915.  Persian Lithograph Collection, Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.


From a political perspective, by the 18th century, the Afghans had finally broken free from the yoke of foreign empires, having resisted numerous attempts at conquest by the Mughal Empire in India during the Mughal-Afghan wars of the 16th Century.  On the western frontier, Afghan tribes sought to break away from the Safavid Empire. Once they gained control over their own regional domain, Afghans became fiercely independent rendering their territory impervious to foreign invaders.  Even attempts by the mighty British Empire which resulted in no less than three Anglo-Afghan Wars were met with failure.  By the late 19th century, Afghanistan would finally unite under the rule of the “Iron Amir” Abdul Rahman Khan (ca.1840 – 1st Oct 1901).

An autobiography of ‘Abd al-Raḥmān Khān, emir of Afghanistan from 1880 to 1901, in Persian, 1883, Persian Lithograph Collection, Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.


Afghanistan, 1879-80 is a rare album of historical images of people and places covering the 2nd Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880). Library of Congress, African and Middle Eastern Division.


Afghanistan’s travails and struggles against foreign control would nevertheless continue well into the modern era.  In the 1980s, Afghanistan faced a Soviet invasion which dragged on from 1979 till 1989 ultimately ending in the Soviet failure to control it.

At the turn of the 21st Century, the Afghan nation once again found itself in a protracted war with the United States and the presence of a multinational coalition of forces on its soil, which lasted from 2001 until 2021. Today, the memory of the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, the Mujahedeen movement, the ensuing civil war giving rise to the Taliban, and the withdrawal of the U.S. military remains fresh to many.  Afghanistan is independent of any foreign overlords, but like many states, struggles with its own internal political problems.

The African and Middle Eastern Division (AMED) at the Library of Congress has been active in expanding and enhancing its collection of Afghan materials, including providing digital access to Afghan related resources.  Such materials include illuminated manuscripts and a unique collection of Persian and Pashto language lithographs and early imprints from Afghanistan.  Collecting Afghan materials, however, requires looking beyond sources published in native Persian (Dari) and Pashto languages. There is a plethora of sources in various languages such as in English, particularly regarding British and American involvement in Afghanistan, in Russian documenting the Soviet invasion, and Arabic and Urdu content covering religious movements and diaspora refugees in neighboring Pakistan, Iran, the region and around the world.

Zhvandūn : majallah-i haftagī. Volume 31, Number 49, Saturday, February 23, 1980
(Afghan Life magazine) Featuring Young Women and Men Athletes, Pre-Soviet Invasion Publication).  Library of Congress, African and Middle Eastern Division.


Through these sources in multiple languages, collections in multiple formats, and various lectures and symposia, the division’s goal is to make Afghanistan and its history, culture, and politics discoverable and available to its patrons and researchers.

Digital Afghanistan:

The Afghan Media Resource Center

(A collection acquired through collaborative effort with Afghan partners featuring 1,175 hours of videotape, 94,651 black & white and color photos and slides, and 356 hours of audio recordings on 40 plus hard drives.)  Library of Congress, African and Middle Eastern Division.

Afghan Music Project.

(A collection of more than 420 audio recordings documenting Afghan music, folklore, and culture.)  Library of Congress, African and Middle Eastern Division.

The Afghan Album of 1879-80

(A collection of photographs documenting the Anglo-Afghan Wars.)  Library of Congress, African and Middle Eastern Division.


Lectures and programs on Afghanistan:

Further reading:

Afghanistan, les trésors retrouvés : collections du Musée national de Kaboul : Musée national des Arts asiatiques-Guimet, 6 décembre 2006-30 avril 2007 / sous la direction de Pierre Cambon en collaboration avec Jean-François Jarrige, Paris : Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux; Paris : Musée national des Arts asiatiques-Guimet, 2006.

Abbas, Hassan, Return of the Taliban : Afghanistan after the Americans left, New Haven : Yale University Press, 2023.

Anthony, David W, The Horse The Wheel And Language. How Bronze-Age Riders From the Eurasian Steppes Shaped The Modern World, Princeton University Press, 2007

Choksy, Jamsheed K. & Dubeansky, Jennifer, Gifts to a magus : Indo-Iranian studies honoring Firoze Kotwal, New York : Peter Lang, 2013.

Ghubār, Ghulām Muḥammad, 1898-1978, Afghanistan in the course of history / by Mir Gholam Mohammad Ghobar ; translated by Sherief A. Fayez. Alexandria, VA : Hashmat K. Gobar, 2001

Ghose, Dilip Kumar., England and Afghanistan, a phase in their relations., Calcutta, World Press, 1960.

Kakar, M. Hasan, Government and society in Afghanistan : the reign of Amir ʾAbd al-Rahman Khan / by Hasan Kawun Kakar., Austin : University of Texas Press, 1979.

Khalili, Masood, Whispers of war : an Afghan freedom fighter’s account of the Soviet invasion / Masood Khalili, New Delhi, India : SAGE Publications India, 2017.

Kātib Hazārah, Fayz̤ Muḥammad, 1862 or 1863-1930 or 1931, History of Afghanistan : Fayz Muhammad Katib Hazarah’s Siraj al-tawarikh / Fayz Muhammad Katib Hazarah. Leiden ; Boston : Brill, 2013-2016.

Hanifi, Shah Mahmoud, Connecting histories in Afghanistan : market relations and state formation on a colonial frontier, Stanford, California : Stanford University Press, 2011.

Rastogi, Ram Sagar, Indo-Afghan relations, 1880-1900., Lucknow : Nav-Jyoti Press, 1965.

Singh, Ganda., Ahmad Shah Durrani, father of modern Afghanistan., Bombay, Asia Pub. House, 1959.

Sykes, Percy Molesworth, Sir, 1867-1945, History of Afghanistan / by Sir Percy Sykes., New York : AMS Press, 1975.

Teitler, Anthony, US policy towards Afghanistan, 1979-2014 : ‘a force for good’., London ; New York : Routledge, 2020.


Comments (3)

  1. A superb introduction to these rich collections.

  2. I am sorry it is not comment you want but I am looking how to get in touch with someone.
    I have a hand writin book about afghanisatn.
    it is very old Myabe more than 300 years.
    me not keeping it in a good tempreture ,it may decay.
    I like to lend it to the Libray of Gongerss till a stable Government come to afghanistan

  3. Good

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