Sunday, December 30, 2007

Early history of Afghanistan - pre Alexander the Great

The ancient mountains of Afghanistan have been inhabited for well over 100,000 years and contain a story which is still unfolding as archaeologists discover more evidence of earlier civilisations. Stone tools made in Lower Palaeolithic era, more than 100,000 years ago were discovered on terraces to the east of a lake named Dasht-i-Nawur, west of Ghazni. In August 1966. an American, Louis Dupree discovered evidence from the Mousterian period (Middle Paleolithic) in a cave high in the mountains of Badakhshan at a place called Darra-i-Kur. Several hundred tools and flints were unearthed and is the earliest evidence of people living in the high mountains of Afghanistan and the eastern most Mousterian site in the world. The same survey team headed by Dupree found further evidence in 1969 in the foothills near Gurziwan, south-east of Maimana. The site known as the Cave of the Dead Sheep (Ghar-i-Gusfand Mordeh) revealed tools older than those found at Darra-i-Kur.

The foothills of the Afghanistan's Hindu Kush have also proved to be the first place in the world where man first developed to control his food supply when important evidence was discovered to show carbonised grasses and other agricultural relics estimated to be 9000 years old.

Modern day Afghanistan was once part of the great Persian Empire stretched from the Dardanelles (Turkish Greek Border) to the Indus, Upper Egypt to Central Asia

The most interesting people on the fringes of Mesopotamia were the nomads of the plains east of the Capsian Sea and around present Persia. They were the many tribes and they had many names-Scythians, Medes, Parthians, Aryans, and others. Together they formed a link between India and southeastern Europe. About 1700 BC these tribes may have come to Babylonia as mercenary soldiers, bringing with them an animal the Babylonians had never seen-the horse. A thousand years later, under the more general
name of Persians, they were to overcome the Assyrioans, with the destruction of Nineveh, the capital. This period was one of movement, the restless Persians looking for new lands to conquer. Marching armies and trading caravans crossed the wide open spaces between Persia and Egypt, and as far north as the Black Sea.

Hardy and well disciplined, the Persians were welded into a strong nation by their great leaders Cyrus and Darius. By 500 BC, with armies of foot soldiers and mounted cavalry fighting with bronze-tipped arrows, the mighty Persian Empire was the largest the world had yet seen. Cyrus, in his time, subjected the people of Babylon, the Phoenicians, and the Greek cities of Asia Minor to his rule; Cambyses added Egypt; and darius, the great lawgiver, found himself in supreme command from the Dardanelles to the Indus, from Upper Egypt to central Asia. But the mastery of Europe was another matter. neither Greeks, Sicilians, nor the people of the Spanish Phoenician came under Persian rule.

In his determination to make Persia a great sea power, Darius sent an expedition, under one Scylax, to explore the Indian Ocean from Suez to the Indus. He also led his armies into an involuntary voyage of exploration. In 512 BC, during his wars with the Scythians, he crossed the Bosporus and the Danube and then, under the impressions that he was near the Black Sea, he found himself in the steppes of Russia, from which he was forced to return.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Understanding Afghans.

King Zahir Shah before his death this year.

The bones of thousands of over-ambitous conquerors and their followers lie strewn across the heights of the Hindu Kush as they tried to take Afghanistan, but few were able to hold the mountain lands for long as the Soviets found out in the 1980's. This current war,like so many earlier ones against Persian, British and Russian armies, will be decided in the mountain valleys and passes where fanatical warriors momentarily put aside tribal feuds and joined together, displaying a unique brand of mountain guerrilla warfare which is based on hawk-like instincts, circle, swoop and loot. The spoils of war provide important resources. William Blake wrote "Bring me men to match my Mountains," and as Najibullah found out, you can't hold a capital city unless you have popular support in the country side.

European writers over the centuries have described the people as fiercely proud, arrogant, hospitable, ethical, loyal, insolent, belligerent, aggressive, friendly, untrustworthy, truculent, lawless, poetical, violent, passionate, revengeful, mystical, nationalistic, tribal, scavenging and indolent and it is this dichotomy that the Pashtoon (Pathan) code of ethics has its root. Cameron in his classic "Mountains of the Gods" touches on some of these characteristics.

"It is because the Hindu Kush is split up into so many frequently warring communities that its people have acquired a reputationfor lawlessness and belligerence. 'They are proud' to quote from Peoples of the Earth), 'and although they can be hospitable and friendly they are also aggressive and quick to avenge any injury. They enjoyed centuries of independence, and raised their sons to be hunters and warriors, first with spear and bow and later with rifles. Not so long ago a man's most prized possession was his Lee Enfield.' It is not surprising that more explorers have disappeared without trace in the Hindu Kush than any other range in the complex."

Describing Afghans superficially is easy, but understanding them is trying to understand each complex and inter-related strand of a finely woven tapestry. Unless you have a good knowledge of their language, culture, religion, poetry, folklore and equally important, having lived and travelled with them, simplistic conclusions often mask complex answers. Why is travelling ewith them so important ?

Afghans love to travel and at heart, each is a pilgrim and an adventurer. In August 1994 when walking over the Sabzak Pass, by chance three Afghans caught me up. After awhile I asked them where are you walking to,; They replied, "Home."

"Why are you walking," I asked. " We like walking, walking is a journey." Still puzzled I asked again, " Why are you walking," and in reply they said, " we try to walk every day." During 4 years in Afghanistan I crossed many high mountain passes on foot and lived in Nuristan, and it was on these journeys that I discovered the true unquenchable wanderlust, and their fierce desire to be free of all foreign powers.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Mountains of Afghanistan - An essay

"Bring me men to match my mountains" wrote William Blake. Had he visited Afghanistan, it is likely he would have found an answer to his question. There he would have found a hardy, resilient and romantic people who match the mountains of Blake's poetic imagination. A country where poetry and beautiful roses disguise the toughness of the people whose imagination, spirit and culture have been shaped by the mountains. This book is an attempt to describe the mountains of Afghanistan and the relationship between people who inhabit them, and the significant role these icy barriers have played in world history. Mountains shape the people, people shape the mountains. One tunnel through the mighty Hindu Kush shaped the modern history of Afghanistan, the Soviet invasion in 1979.

Mountains dominate the landscape of Afghanistan and these massive ramparts have shaped the lives, culture and the minds of the Afghan people for thousands of years. People and carpets are named after mountains, poets write, artists paint, novelists fictionalise, legends and folklore abound and conquering Kings and Khans fall homesick for their grandeur and beauty. At the opening of Radio Kabul in 1941, a commitment was made to broadcast regularly the songs of shepherd bards who inhabit the antique mountains.

The sons and grandsons of those bards are still there tending their flocks

Wherever you are in Afghanistan it is impossible to escape the influence of the mountains. The success of crops depends on adequate winter snows, millions of sheep, goat and cattle rely on the lush summer alpine grazing for their survival, the country's economy depends on the gemstones lodged in deep mountain recesses, transportation is reliant on the condition of the alpine passes, avalanches, spring snow melt and the resultant floods can wipe out a village and its total crops with a flick of its icy tail.
And, with the heavy deforestation and overgrazing up to the snowline all year round, local eco-systems and the biodiversity have been so impacted that the mountain habitat is degrading so quickly that landslides, flooding from bursting natural dams caused by blocked rivers, have wreaked havouc in mountain regions. Local mountain inhabitants complain that changing weather patterns are affecting their lifestyle. The result is a major ecological disaster occuring in the Hindu Kush. Part of the purpose of this articleis to publicise the degradation of one of the world's important mountain habitats.

Festivals pay tribute to the live-giving winter snows. One famous one is the jandah bala kardan," raising of the standard", held on Nauruz ( the start of the Persian New Year) in Mazar I Sharif at the tomb of Hazrat Ali. When the standard is raised people race to touch it in order to gain religious merit. This pre-Islamic festival has fertility associations and songs and poems allude to the importance of the winter snows which are the life blood of the northern perrenial rivers.

Therefore it is not surprising that the influence of the mountains permeates every aspect of Afghan life when 75% of the country, or 653 000 sq. km, is covered by mountains which dominate the central and eastern parts.

The names of the mountain ranges roll musically off the tongue; Parapomisus, Hindu Kush, Firoz Koh, Kohi-Baba, Speen Ghar, Pamirs, Sulaimans, Tirband-i-Turkestn, Hazarajat Each part of the mountain complex of Afghanistan is different, but probably the most fascinating is the Wakhan corridor. Here it is a spectacular elemental region of rock, snow, ice and desert where the Hindu Kush and Pamirs, made of a common pre-Cambrian rock, abut and comprise an intricate maze of glaciers, mountains and steep sided valleys. Yurts, camels and drug peddling midst stunning scenery are all part of the Wakhan. Its borders have been levered back and forth by early Pashtoon leaders and later by the key players in the Great Game, Russian and Britain, with some influence from China.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Poem - Mountains of our Mind

One cold Autumn day in Sept. 1994, I wsa camped under the peak of Mir Samir in the Chamar Valley, Afghanistan, and was so inspired by the landscape, I wrote this poem which later became the title of my book.

Mountains of our Mind
From the courtyard of our dreams
To the mountains of our mind
We escape the blood and violence
To a white world sublime

Born on the edge of a cloud
I saw snowflakes form
Together we danced a ring of fire
Before the day was born

We travel on a moonship
Where lunacy dictates
Where love is like a mountain
And where there is no hate

We scud along the summit ridge
Where the updrafts push
I am the King of Kabul
And lord the Hindu Kush

Bob McKerrow

Mountains of our Mind - Afghanistan

Today, 24 December 2007, I am starting a blog on Afghanistan.I worked in Afghanistan in 1976 and again from 1993-96, and visited a number times after the events of 9/11/2001. I have also published a book on Afghanistan called Afghanistan - Mountains of our Mind with essays, photographs and poems I wrote.
My book Mountains of our Mind - Afghanistan published by india research press (www.indiaresearchpress)

The book is available internationally at www.indiaresearchpress or if you live in New Zealand, Take Note Bookshop, Hokitika, New Zealand. (

I hope you will enjoy this blog which I will update regularly.

Merry Christmas.