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A panoramic view of Afghanistan.
Letts’s bird’s eye view of the approaches to India. Map by W.H. Payne, Published by Letts, Son & Co. 19–. Geography and Map Division.

The Great Game and the Boundaries of Afghanistan

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Letts’s bird’s eye view of the approaches to India by W.H. Payne was published in London during the early 1900s. Letts, Son & Co. sold stationary, maps and diaries, among them is this striking panoramic view that depicts Russian territory in the north marked with a red dotted line along the Amu Darya River. Mountain ranges, the Khyber Pass and the cities Kabul, Herat and Jalalabad are shown on the map. Two British soldiers in the lower right-hand corner seem to be overlooking an area marked by another red dotted line labeled “British Boundary.” The Indus River located in present day Pakistan is shown east of the British boundary line. This detailed view illustrates the history of 19th century Afghanistan and the Great Game that took place between Great Britain and Russia.

According to British historian Malcolm Yapp, the term Great Game was originally associated with games of risk such as cards and dice long before the 19th century.  The term was later used to describe the rivalry that occurred between Great Britain and Russia as their spheres of influence moved closer to one another in South-Central Asia. The Great Game between England and Russia began in 1830 and lasted throughout the 19th century. The British were concerned about Russian advances in Central Asia. England used Afghanistan as a buffer state to protect all approaches to British India from a Russian invasion. British concern about the Russian influence on Afghanistan led to the First Anglo-Afghan War (from 1838 to 1842) and the Second Anglo-Afghan War (from 1878 to 1880).

After the end of the Second Anglo-Afghan War, Russian forces continued to move southward. In 1884, they seized the Merve Oasis, today known as the Mary Oasis in Turkmenistan. The Panjdeh Oasis, also located in present day Turkmenistan, was seized by the Russians in 1885.

The map below Central Asia: Afghanistan and her relation to British and Russian territories was published in 1885 by the American company G.W. & C.B. Colton. Maps of Indiana and Ohio are shown above the distance scale, at the bottom center, as a way to compare the size of the two states with areas in Central Asia.

Central Asia: Afghanistan and her relation to British and Russian territories. Published by G.W. & C.B. Colton & Co., 1885. Geography and Map Division.

During the mid-1880s, a joint Anglo-Russian Boundary Commission was formed after the two empires agreed to work together to mark the northern boundary of Afghanistan. The commission delineated a permanent border along the Amu Darya River.

The map below titled Map illustrative of the march of the Indian section of the Boundary Commission from Quetta to Olerat and Badkis; of the frontier as proposed and actually demarcated, and of the author’s return journey from Herat to the Caspian was published in 1885. A route shown on the map starts at Quetta in British India, extends to Herat then continues north to Badghis. British members of the Anglo-Russian Boundary Commission traveled this route on their way to mark the boundary in northwest Afghanistan. Lines are shown to indicate the “Boundary as actually demarcated,” “Boundary as required by the Russians,” and “Boundary as required by the Afghans.”

Map illustrative of the march of the Indian section of the Boundary Commission from Quetta to Olerat and Badkis; of the frontier as proposed and actually demarcated, and of the author’s return journey from Herat to the Caspian. 1885. Geography and Map Division.

Abdur Rahman Khan ruled Afghanistan from 1880 to 1901. During his reign the Afghans were bystanders as the Russians and British determined the northern borders of  their country. However, the Afghan ruler did have a role in marking the border between Afghanistan and present day Pakistan. In 1893, Abdur Rahman Khan and British civil servant Sir Henry Mortimer Durand agreed to mark the boundary between British India and Afghanistan. The boundary became known as the Durand Line. It cut through Pashtun villages and was the cause of continuing conflict between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pictured below are Abdur Rahman Khan and Sir Henry Mortimer Durand.

Afghanistan, 1879-80. Photo of Abdur Rahman Khan by John Burke. 1879-1880. African & Middle Eastern Division.>

Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, 1850-1924, full length portrait, standing in front of desk. Photo by Clinedinst. 1904. Prints and Photographs Division.

The map below Afghanistan, Beloochistan, etc. was published in 1893 before the Durand Line was delineated.

Afghanistan, Beloochistan, etc. Published by Hunt & Easton. 1893. Geography and Map Division.

Despite a long period of foreign interference in Afghanistan, the situation was about to change. The Third Anglo-Afghan War, also known as the War of Independence, began May 1919 and lasted for a month. Great Britain no longer had control of Afghanistan’s foreign affairs after an armistice was signed on August 8, 1919.

During ancient times the area that is present day Afghanistan served as an important crossroads. Throughout its history numerous civilizations have invaded the country. Afghanistan finally began to take shape in the 18th century during the Durrani Empire. It was not until the late 19th century that permanent boundaries were formed, which have had a lasting impact on the country.




Comments (7)

  1. That was fun to see! From their boots to their maps, they did have style back then. But they didn’t get the job done, altogether. Afghanistan’s international boundaries still vary slightly, but in many places, from one map to another.

  2. great article, indeed Afghanistan map has kept it’s significance since day 1.

  3. The boundaries match the description of Afghanistan’s ancient geography called Ariana described by Eratosthenes and Stabo. Zoroaster came from that region of Hindu Kush and lived and preached between ancient Bactria by the Oxus and Helmand. Yasna 9:14 of Zoroaster’s Gathā called his homeland Airyanem Vaejah. The regions mentioned in Avesta (vendidad I, section 8) are as follows: Iskata, Pouruta, Bactria (Balkh), Nisāya by Amu River , Harōuva(Herat), Harakhvaiti(Kabul Valley-swat- Khyber), Urva(Ghazni) Gandahara, čarc(Logar) and Buner in Paktia- Swat region. The maps in this article cover all these geographic locations and called Ariana or Land of aryans

  4. Cynthia’s piece totally ignores Kafiristan and its Animist tribes who had resisted Islam for over 1000 years but were sold out by the British who not only trained , armed and paid for the Afghan army but drew up a border treaty that placed there independent lands under Muslim Afghan rule . Only the Kalash escaped the forced conversion that followed in 1894-96 , the other Kafir tribes are today Nuristanis. Kafiristan could have been a western ally today but alas British India had to have a buffer against Russia , something that means nothing today .

    • Thank you for your comment. The map of Kafiristan that is available on this link may interest you.

  5. The piece ignores Kafiristan ,

  6. Great information! Helped me a lot with my Human geography projects! The examples of conflict in Afghanistan are clear and very easy to understand.

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