Artistic activity in Afghanistan can be traced back as early as 1800 BC. For centuries Afghanistan linked the civilizations of Iran, India, and China. In the Islamic Era, the Ghaznavid rulers of the 10th to 12th centuries and the Ghorids fostered artistic development. Continuing through the Timurid dynasty, Afghanistan’s cultural life prospered and flourished through the rulers’ high regard for men of learning and artists. The descendants of Timur turned the city of Herat into a center of cultural activity enticing artists such as Abdul Rahman Jami, Abdulhay, and Kamal al-Din Bihzad to create finely illustrated books and exquisite buildings.
Folk lore and legends told through song and storytelling are a centuries-old tradition in Afghanistan and continue to thrive today. Afghanistan has a rich literary tradition as well. During the medieval period literature was written in Dari, Pashto, Turkic and Arabic. The royal courts of regional empires such as the Samanids, the Ghaznavids, the Timurids, and the Mughals, were great patrons of Persian literature supporting literary geniuses like Rumi, Rudaki, Abdullah Ansari, Ferdowsi, Jami.
From the un-manifest I came,
And pitched my tent, in the Forest of Material existence.
I passed through mineral and vegetable kingdoms,
Then my mental equipment carried me into the animal kingdom;
Having reached there I crossed beyond it;
Then in the crystal clear shell of human heart
I nursed the drop of self in a pearl,
And in association with good men
Wandered round the Prayer House,
And having experienced that, crossed beyond it;
Then I took the road that leads to Him,
And became a slave at His gate;
Then the duality disappeared
And I became absorbed in Him.
By Abdullah Ansari
One of the most important works of this period was the Dari epic poem Shah Nameh (The Book of Kings), completed in 1010 by Firdawsi and comprising 60,000 rhyming couplets. Another famous poet, Jalalaluddin Rumi Balkhi (1207-1273, also known as Rumi) from Balkhi, is considered one of the greatest Sufi poets. Much of his writings have been translated from Farsi into English.
In the 16th-18th centuries, many literary figures originated from Afghanistan but due to the partition of the region between Safavid Persia and the Mughal Empire, famous poets moved to literary centers. Khushal Khan Khattak, a 17th Century Pashtun poet and warrior, lived in the Hindu Kush foothills. He used verse to express the tribal code. By the late 19th century Pashto sung poetry had been formalized at the royal court into the classical genre known as ghazal, in recognition of the fact that music can be a powerful
way to deliver great poetry.
Whenever I have said a word
To any single friend
Immediately the secret’s spread
Till all the world has known.
When the black partridge lifts its voice
From the lush meadow land
He is soon stripped of his regal plumes
By falcon or by hawk.
I’ve many quite devoted friends
The prize of passing years
But to their thousands there’s not one
To call a confident.
Khushal Khan Khattak
While Afghan literature can be split into Persian, Turkic, and Pashto, there is a shared tradition and heritage that unites the consciousness of all Afghans and is reflected in the literature. For example, a tradition of military prowess and invincibility presents itself in the literature, whether it is a product of Khyber Pass Pashtuns, Uzbek Central Asians, or Tajik mountain ghazis.
In the 20th century, Kabul became the center of publication. Mahmud Tarzi (1865-1933), a reformer and editor of Kabul’s first literary publication, Seraj ul-Akhbar, was instrumental in developing a modern literary community. Afghanistan has produced several literary figures including Khalillulah Khalili (1907-1987) and Sayed Buhaniddin Majruh. A neo-classicist poet, prose writer, poet laureate, and ambassador, Khalili defined the Afghan Renaissance man.
A Night in Kohistan
On the mountain’s slope
The assembled trees form a dark green mass
The stars twinkle
And the moonlight adorns the Valley
It is a night of youth and love.
From the grassy meads, covered with wild flowers.
Where the nightingales sing
I hear the heavenly melody if the shepard’s flute.