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Asia Society
Homeland Afghanistan

Geography and Destiny For centuries, scarce resources and difficult terrain have required people in the Hindu Kush region to develop unique solutions to survive. But while geography has brought challenges, it has also offered opportunities. In Afghanistan, geography is a multi-sided destiny.

Identity and Perception Local, tribal, and religious identities in the Hindu Kush region have always shifted depending on one’s point of view. As Afghanistan decides what it means to be Afghan, it faces a kaleidoscope of moving perspectives.

Tradition and Modernization Afghans have always had to be flexible. At times, this flexibility has brought people together, and at other times it has torn them apart. Reconciling tradition and modernization means making sense of what’s at stake when people change--and when they don’t.

Traces and Narratives History is not always written. Much of what we know about Afghanistan comes from scattered artifacts, symbols, and oral traditions. Understanding these traces means piecing together the narratives that history leaves behind.

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The First Gated Communities

CIRCA 1600 BCE
THEMES:

Geography & Destiny

Tradition & Modernization

Reveal Source

Cutting Barley in Ghazni - 1920s. Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography, University of California, Riverside, Riverside, CA.

Dupree, Nancy. 62-46. Dupree Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Dupree Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.

Dupree, Nancy. 63-122. Dupree Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.

Dupree, Nancy. 77-89. Dupree Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.

Dupree, Nancy. 82-3120. Dupree Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.

Dupree, Nancy. 88-38. Dupree Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Dupree Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.

Dupree, Nancy. A Type of House: A69-499. 1969. Dupree Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.

Dupree, Nancy. A69-483. Dupree Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.

Dupree, Nancy. Qalah- a House Type: 50-28. 1950. Dupree Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williamstown, MA.

Q-00499-24. AMRC Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.

Qeran, Baba, performer. Naghne Danbora. Lorraine Sakata, 1972. © Radio-Television Afghanistan Archives.

Typical Farmhouse 1920s, Afghanistan. 1920s. Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography, University of California, Riverside, Riverside, CA.


Producer: Alexis Menten

Reveal Transcript

Walls may seem simple, but actually they are an indication of a complex society. They demarcate not only space, property, and people, but also important concepts – like the difference between what is “inside” and what is “outside”; and who is one of “us” and who is one of “them.”

As social groups form and settle, they design new ways to live together.

Human structures serve a variety of purposes. They are often built to keep things out – for example, as shelter from the elements or protection from attackers. The site on which they are built is also often chosen to be close to water or other valuable resources, and in a strategic setting that can be defended from others outside the community.

The qala was one of the earliest kinds of settlement patterns in what we now think of as Afghanistan. It was a series of attached houses with a wall surrounding these houses.

The qala settlement pattern developed uniquely in Afghanistan because of the tensions between nomadic cultures and the sedentary. The sedentary needed the protection of the walls around the qala. It looks like a fortress from the outside but when you look on the inside it may have a couple of dozen families living inside the qala. So effectively it’s a village but it’s in one large structure.

This is unique from other settlement patterns, in which farmhouses are built outside a village, and the villages are built outside a larger central town. In the qala, the structures of the house, village, and town would all exist inside one walled site. In this way, qala settlements can keep important things protected inside - like families and workshops.

This type of walled structure can still be seen today, although on a much smaller scale. Similarly, houses in Afghanistan often have walls surrounding a central courtyard.

Houses change. We know from archeology however, that the courtyard house was a very popular form throughout this entire region. It provided privacy; it provided shade; it was multi-functional. And we actually have evidence of houses going back quite far through excavations, certainly to many, many millennia B.C.

The courtyard house traditionally is centered around a courtyard in the middle with rooms often on two sides, sometimes on four sides, to take advantage of the position of the sun. So when the sun is strong, you can go into the shade. When the sun is weak, as in the winter, the sun will penetrate into the ends of the courtyard and warm the rooms. You have communal activities like cooking often in the courtyard, and you have individual rooms for sleeping and other activities.

From the street you often don’t have any idea of what’s inside the house. The street is anonymous, the street is blockaded. You have usually a single entrance, often separating then into men’s and women’s quarters, or certainly public and private quarters.

You would have had a public room for entertaining, and then smaller, more private rooms, often on the other side of the courtyard for personal and private life.

This style of architecture may seem to hide a lot, but it is actually an inviting portal into a way of living that has existed for millennia.

The qalas may hide a lot, but they have also invited us in to understand a way of living that has defined this region for many millennia.

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