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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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Divided Caliphs Fractured Land


Geography & Destiny

Reveal Source

Album (Girl Luring Quicksilver from a Mine with Her Beauty). 18th C. © Trustees of the British Museum, London.

Bellini, Gentile. Drawing (A Turkish Woman). 1479-81. © Trustees of the British Museum, London.
Bontenbal. "Shah Ismail I." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 22, 2010.
Homann, Johann Baptiste. Jomann Imperium Periscum (Map of Persia). 1700. In Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 22, 2010.
Leutze, Emanuel Gottlieb. Columbus Before the Queen. 1843. In Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 22, 2010.
Levha (panel) in Honor of Imam 'Ali. 19th C. Africa and Middle East Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
Lorichs, Melchior. Ismael, The Persian Ambassador of Tahmasp, King of Persia, 1569. 1569. The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago.
Mohammad, Yar, and Baz Mohammad. Urozgan Province, Tirin Hotel. Field Recordings: Hiromi Lorraine Sakata. Sakata Music Collection, 1966.
Nader Shah Afshar. In Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 22, 2010.
Photograph of Tomb Wall Painting Featuring a Khitan Horseman and His Steed Mid-Liao Dynasty. 11th C. Inner Mongolian Museum, Huhehaote. In University of Washington's Silk Road Exhibit. Accessed August 22, 2010.
Portion of the Fra Mauro World Map. 1420. In Wikipedia Commons.
Portrait of Fani the Painter. 1590-1610. © Trustees of the British Museum, London.
Sultan Bayezid II "the Holy" (Veli). 1481-1512. Topkap─▒ Saray─▒ Müzesi, Istanbul.
Two Lovers. 1629-30. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Unknown. "The Queen of Sheba (Bilqis) Facing the Hoope, Solomon's Messenger." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 22, 2010.

Producer: Grace Norman


Reveal Transcript

With the collapse of the Timurid Empire in Central Asia and Iran, a native dynasty called the Safavids took power in Iran, and ruled the country for several centuries, up until the 18th century.

It was another glorious time for art.

New techniques, such as modeling, were introduced.

And new subjects, like women and love, became popular.

But as much as it was defined by love, it was also defined by hate. Specifically, the hatred that the Safavid ruler Ismael felt towards the Ottomans.

Ismael Shah’s army battled the Ottoman Empire to the West. The fighting led to the divided caliphs of Islam.

What made it unique was the conversion of the population to the Shiite form of Islam.

While the Ottoman world were orthodox Sunni, Ismael was Shiite. The people of his Safavid world were told to convert to the Shiite denomination–or face death.

The heart of the Safavid Empire was in what is today Iran. The Hindu Kush region was on the very edge of the Safavid Empire.

It was unclear how much influence the Safavids really had on Afghanistan–aside from one very important consequence: the end of Silk Roads trade.

As the Silk Road had to go through Iran, and by converting to the Shiite form of Islam, the Safavids made enemies, both to the west, the Ottoman Empire, which was a bastion of Sunni orthodoxy.

And also to the South, where land-based trade connected to seaports. Around the same time, another ruler was building an army that would become the great Indian Mughal Empire.

And Central Asia and Afghanistan, which were also bastions of Sunni orthodoxy. So the struggles and conflicts back and forth between the Ottoman Empire, the Safavids in Iran, the Mughals in Afghanistan and India spelled the end of trade across Asia.

This interruption in land-based trade probably had an influence on the rise of European and Chinese explorations of sea routes.

But the Safavid reign would not last forever. In the 18th century, the Pashtuns would wrestle control of the region, and turn it from a buffer zone to a national homeland.

What did Ismael, leader of the Safavid Empire, do to catalyze the famous voyages of Christopher Columbus and Zheng He?