55 ethnic groups have made their homes in the region now known as Afghanistan.
The Pashtuns represent the largest proportion of the population. They speak Pashto, an Iranian language, related to Persian (Farsi). Tajiks form the second largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. The Tajiks, thought to be one of the oldest ethnic groups, speak a dialect of Iranian Persian called Dari. The Hazaras are said to be descended from the Mongols and tend to be Shi'ite Muslims rather than Sunni as most Afghans are. The Uzbeks of Afghanistan are the fourth largest group and are Sunni Muslims and usually bilingual, fluent in both Persian and Uzbek. There are many other smaller groups with ancient ethnic origins. The Afghan National Anthem mentions a total of 14 ethnic groups suggesting significant diversity.
The chaos caused by the war makes it difficult to get accurate statistics on the population of Afghanistan. Recent estimates place the figure at about 30 million. Compared to Australia, where the median age of people is 37 years, Afghanistan is a very young country. 18.2 years is the median there.
Alexander visits the sage from a miniature attributed to Basawan of Lahore, 1597
Source: This image is in the public domain, Wikimedia Commons
Alexander the Great
There are thousands of stories about Alexander and his adventures.
In his short but spectacular career – he was king at 19 and died aged 33 – Alexander traversed Central Asia for three years. He conquered the most important cities (Susa, Babylon and Persepolis) and founded many of his own. He led a huge army over treacherous terrain. His ambition was to reach the end of the world which was thought to be over the Himalayas. He achieved legendary status through his personal bravery, ingenious military tactics and the work of the ancient historian, Arrian.
Larger than life qualities were ascribed to this man in stories that mostly depict him as a heroic conqueror. He is said to have believed he was half-god, claiming the armour of Achilles at Troy and breaking the Gordian knot. He also appears in Oriental literature. The renowned Persian poet Nizami writes of Iskender (the Arabic form of Alexander) in his long narrative poem, Eskandar Nameh.
Alexander’s adventures in Afghanistan had an enduring legacy in Bactria, the northern province where a Greek city was established and Hellenistic culture lasted for 300 years.
Viktor Sarianidi and Terkesh Khodzhanyanov
Photograph courtesy Viktor Sarianidi
Viktor Sarianidi was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan and is of Greek descent. He studied archaeology and joined the Institute of Archaeology in Moscow in 1959. His work is devoted to understanding the Oxus civilisation of central Asia where he is excavating in the Kara-Kum desert in eastern Turkmenistan.
While investigating a Bronze Age settlement, in 1978 this Russian archaeologist unearthed what became known as the Bactrian Hoard at Tillya Tepe. Over 21,000 gold artefacts were uncovered in the graves of six nomads who had lived between 100 BC and AD 100.
Unfortunately Sarianidi’s work was brought to a halt by the Russian or Soviet invasion in 1979. After the withdrawal, civil war broke out in Afghanistan. In 1989 the National Museum was pillaged and precious cultural heritage objects ended up on the black market.
Sarianidi was able to authenticate the Bactrian Hoard when it was rediscovered in 2003 because he recognised a repair he had made on some gold jewellery during his time at Tillya Tepe.
Minister of Information and Culture Sayeed Makhdoom Raheen (center) turns to Viktor Sarianidi (left, front) as the inventory team opens the first safe of Bactrian gold in the presidential bank vault, Kabul, 2004.
Photo © Kenneth Garrett, National Geographic Society.
The Key Holders
By 1988 the situation in Kabul was so precarious that staff at the National Museum worried about the safety of the precious objects under their care. They devised a plan to hide as many objects as possible. The treasure was hidden in two places – the Ministry of the Interior and the Central Bank treasury vault at the Presidential Palace. Five, anonymous key holders known as ‘tahilwidars’ swore to keep the hiding places secret. All five keys were necessary to open the bomb-proof safe inside the Presidential Palace.
In 1994 the museum sustained considerable damage from shelling. In 1996 the Taliban ordered the vaults at the Presidential Palace to be opened. One of the key holders deliberately broke the key in the lock so that when another attempt was made in 2001, it was also unsuccessful. In the same year, the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas and 2,000 museum objects considered idolatrous, including some of the artefacts hidden in the Ministry.
The objects hidden by brave museum staff were thought lost or stolen until 2003 when the Taliban were defeated, the safe was opened and the treasure was revealed.
It was heroism by silence. It was the Afghan curators and key holders themselves who preserved these things and... made sure no one got into the storerooms. They were safeguarding these treasures even when people couldn't eat, and when people said they would kill them if they didn't give them up. But they didn't.
Fredrik Hiebert, Archaeologist, National Geographic Society
Today, Afghanistan has archaeology police who guard significant sites from looters – ten have been murdered fulfilling their duties. Not even land mines left at these sites by retreating armies deter looters.