Archaeological evidence indicates that there were probably well-developed prehistoric civilizations in southern Afghanistan as far back as the Stone Age (50000–20000 B.C.E.). Plant remains found in the foothills of the Hindu Kush Mountains suggest that people living in the region were among the first to develop agriculture and domesticate animals. Certainly the course of the nation’s history has been determined by its location at the crossroads of Central, West, and South Asia, attracting conquerors one after the other. Starting around 500, when the Persian king Darius the Great (c. 550–486 B.C.E.) conquered the region, to the USSR’s failed takeover, Afghanistan has risen from the rubble of one war, only to be reduced to rubble by yet another. Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.E.) conquered the region on his way to India, and Genghis Khan (1162–1227 C.E.) swept through the area between 1220 and 1223, razing Balkh, Herat, and Bamiyan. Yet no conqueror has been able to gain control of its people, and the resulting bloody revolts have become the nation’s hallmark.
Religion has been closely connected to the successive conquests. Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic religion and one of the world’s oldest, was introduced by Zoroaster in 628 B.C.E.in northern Afghanistan in what was then the capital, Bactria. Afghanistan remained under its influence for a considerable length of time until people from the east, the Yuechi, founded the Kushan dynasty early in the second century C.E., and introduced Buddhism into the Bamiyan Valley, where it held sway up to the 10th century. Islam arrived in Afghanistan in the seventh century C.E. when the Muslim conquest began. It has flourished since then.
The rich cultural and political history of Afghanistan as a nation extends over a little more than two centuries. Ahmad Shah united the country in 1747 and founded the Durrani dynasty, which lasted until 1818. The name Afghanistan is mentioned officially for the first time in the Anglo-Persian peace treaty of 1801. The Durrani were the first Pashtun rulers of Afghanistan, and it was under the leadership of Ahmad Shah that Afghanistan began to take shape as a nation-state after centuries of fragmentation and exploitation.
In recent times Afghanistan has seen a great deal of war and civil unrest. The country’s last period of (relative) stability occurred between 1933 and 1973 under King Zahir Shah (b. 1914). He was responsible for introducing programs of political and economic modernization, establishing a democratic legislature, encouraging education for women, and other much needed changes. These reforms, however, did not endear him to the religious militants who opposed him. In 1973 his brother-inlaw Sardar Mohammed Daoud (1909–78) staged a coup while Zahir Shah was abroad. Then in 1978, when the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan took over the government, his whole family was killed.
In 1979 the Soviet Union invaded but was forced to withdraw 10 years later by anti-Communist mujahideen forces financed by the CIA, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. The Communist regime in Kabul collapsed in 1992. Fighting that subsequently erupted among the various mujahideen factions eventually led to a feudal situation that ultimately resulted in the advent of the Taliban, an ultra-fundamentalist Islamic group. Clerics of the ferociously devout Pashtun, a tribe of both Pakistan and Afghanistan, formed the Taliban in the early 1990s. The black-turbaned clerics’ aim was to end Afghanistan’s civil war, which they achieved with help from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. The Taliban seized Kabul in 1996 and managed to capture most of the country outside of Northern Alliance strongholds, primarily in the northeast.
The Taliban was overthrown by the United States in 2001 in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11. In late 2001, under sponsorship of the United States, prominent opponents of the Taliban and Afghans living in exile met in Bonn, Germany. They agreed on a plan to form a new government. This led to the appointment of Hamid Karzai (b. 1957) as the chairman of the Afghan Interim Authority (AIA) on December 22, 2001. When national elections were held in June 2004, Karzai was elected as the first president of Afghanistan. The change in government marked a revival of celebrations and religious festivities that the Taliban had forbidden.

Afghanistan is bordered on the north by Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan; on the extreme northeast by China; on the east and south by Pakistan; and by Iran on the west. The terrain comprises mostly rugged mountains with plains in the north and southwest. The country is divided east to west by the Hindu Kush mountain range, which forms a rough border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Damaging earthquakes occur in the Hindu Kush. In the east the mountains may reach 18,000 feet; farther west peaks rise to heights of 24,000 feet. The highest peak Tirich Mir is over 25,000 feet high. Except in the southwest most of the country is covered by high, snow-capped mountains and is traversed by deep valleys. The climate of the country is arid to semi-arid, with cold winters and hot summers. Afghanistan is also prone to frequent droughts and flooding. ECONOMY Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest countries. The average life expectancy is 45–47 years; men have a slightly higher life expectancy than women. Centuries of war and the resulting political instability have ravaged the country and left it in shambles. Landlocked and poor, Afghanistan is dependent on foreign aid and has a national debt of US$8 billion, most of it owed to Russia. Agriculture accounts for 60 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) although only 12 percent of the land is arable. The major food crops are poppies, corn, rice, barley, wheat, dry fruits, nuts, and grapes. Other cash crops include tobacco, madder, castor beans, and sugar beets. Sheep farming is also extremely profitable. The major sheep exports are wool and the highly prized skins of young Karakul, a hardy breed of sheep native to Central Asia. Afghanistan is rich in natural resources. There are numerous deposits of minerals—coal, and precious and semiprecious stones—as well as natural gas. Only some of these have been explored. The country’s petroleum resources have not yet been exploited. Industry, which includes small-scale production of textiles, soap, furniture, shoes, fertilizer, cement, and handwoven carpets, accounts for only 10 percent of the country’s GDP.

The history of art in Afghanistan goes back to the very beginnings of the culture, although much has been destroyed by war and civil strife. Probably the most famous Afghan art is known as Gandhara, named for an area now located in northern Pakistan, where the Greek and Buddhist cultures met and flourished (250–130 B.C.E.). The monumental Buddhas in the Valley of Bamiyan were survivals of this rich interaction. Carved directly from the sandstone cliffs in which they were sheltered, the Buddhas had watched over the valley for 1,500 years, before being destroyed by the Islamist Taliban government in 2001.
Afghanistan’s violent history has not been kind to its other arts either. During the 1990s, the Taliban banned instrumental music and public music making was suppressed. In spite of arrests and the destruction of instruments, Afghan musicians have sustained their art into the 21st century. Although Kabul has long been considered the cultural capital of the country, Europeans have paid more attention to the city of Herat, perhaps because its music is closely related to that of Iran.
The two forms of poetry for which Afghanistan is famous are ghazal and charbeiti; both were originally unique to the Dari language, a form of Persian, but they are now popular forms in other languages as well. The ghazal (an Arabic term that means “speaking with women”) consists of couplets, called sher, that rhyme and share a refrain, called a radif. The charbeiti is an oral form based on four lines, usually describing love, youth, and war.
Afghans celebrate holidays (especially religious ones) with their families and relatives. Holidays in post-Taliban Afghanistan are also marked by revelry and rejoicing. Men dye their beards with henna, and women adorn their hands with intricate henna designs, especially for social occasions. Houses and streets are lit up, and special foods are shared among friends and families. Children dress up in new clothes and are given gifts or cash by their elders. Oral renditions and recitations from the Koran, in praise of Allah (as well as Muhammad and Hazrat Ali), are given. The Koranic recitations take place in local dialects, as well as in the traditional Arabic. Navruz, the Zoroastrian (Persian) New Year, remains a significant holiday in Afghanistan, where it is celebrated on the first day of the month of Farvardin, the first month of the Persian (Jalali) calendar. It is celebrated in different countries on different dates, depending on the calendar used in each country. Navruz is celebrated on March 21, the vernal equinox, in countries that follow the Gregorian calendar. The Muslim observance of El am Hejir is also celebrated around that time, but its date is set by the lunar Islamic calendar, so it falls on the first day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar.
Afghanistan Independence Day, celebrated on August 19, is also an important national holiday. Afghans celebrate this day by dressing up in colorful clothes, setting off fireworks, and participating in parades, buzkashi matches, and dances. Afghanistan, like Iran, uses the Persian (or Jalali) calendar, a solar calendar. Although the Persian calendar is virtually unknown in the West, it is one of the most accurate calendars in use. Whereas the Gregorian calendar, introduced by Pope Gregory in 1582 C.E., errs by one day every 3,226 years, the Persian calendar requires a one-day correction only every 141,000 years. The current calendar has been used in Afghanistan since 1957, except for 1999–2002, when the Islamic calendar was used. National holidays (such as Independence Day and New Year’s Day) are observed according to the solar calendar and consistently fall on the same date. However the dates of Islamic holidays and observances will usually be given according to the Islamic calendar, which is a lunar calendar. This means that Islamic holidays occur 11 or 12 days earlier each year on the Persian and Gregorian calendars than they did the previous year.

The key ingredients of Afghani cuisine include walnuts, pine nuts, pickles, and spices. Like other facets of Afghan culture, its cooking style has been strongly influenced by the cuisines of Persia (modern Iran), India, and Mongolia. Some of the characteristic dishes include Afghan naan (a round, flat leavened bread), Kabuli palow (rice pilaf), kebabs (lamb, beef, and chicken), sambosa (crispy triangular fried pastries filled with ground beef and chickpeas), mantu (steamed dumplings with minced onion and beef), sabzi (sauté spinach flavored with onion, salt, and garlic), buranee-e-kadu (chunks of eggplant topped with creamy white yogurt and a light meat sauce made with oil, chopped onion, ground beef, and tomato purée). before the advent of Islam. It was probably a pastoral observance. Traditionally this is the day when farmers take their decorated cows to the nearest city for the annual agricultural fair, hoping to win a prize. On Navruz in Afghanistan a black-faced character known as haji firuz plays the tambourine and sings, “Haji firuze, sali ye ruze” (“It is haji firuz time. It happens one day a year.”) People gather around such haji firuzi figures to listen to the drums, saz (a stringed instrument), and kamancheh (bowed spike fiddle). They throw coins and paper money at the performers. In Kabul families follow a tradition of serving haft mewa (literally, “seven fruits”), a compote made up of walnuts, almonds, pistachios, dried apricots, red and green raisins, and sanjet, seeds of the mountain ash. A dessert called samanak, made of wheat and sugar, is also a favorite.
Khane tekani (“cleaning of the home”), carried out on this day, has a symbolic meaning. It shows that friends and family members are willing to entertain the spirits of their ancestors. Some Afghanis believe that Ajuzak, a threatening old woman, roams the countryside on Navruz. Rain on New Year’s means that Ajuzak is washing her hair, a sign that the harvest of the coming year will be a rich one. In northern Afghanistan, a standard—jandah bala kardan—is raised at the tomb of Hazrat Ali in Mazar-I-Sharif, and thousands of people visit the shrine hoping to touch the staff in order to gain merit or, for the sick and lame, to be healed. The standard remains for 40 days and is not removed until a specific red tulip blooms.
El am Hejir is also celebrated on this day by Muslims. It is the anniversary marking Muhammad’s flight (Hegira) from Mecca to Medina in 622 C.E. In addition the Bahai faithful, who number about 23,000 in Afghanistan, end a 19-day sunriseto-sunset fast that reminds them of their spiritual nature.

In Afghanistan, a ceremony for a newborn child is held six days after birth. Among the people of Pashtun tribes, the birth of a male child is announced with gunshots because they consider this the birth of a new warrior. During the celebration either the religious head or an elder of the family names the child. Names usually refer to Islamic heroes. Guests and relatives offer gifts to both the child and the mother.

Circumcision (khitan) is performed on boys in Afghanistan when they have recited the entire Koran once through. As a common practice the boy undergoes the operation when he is between 10 and 12 years of age, making it a puberty rite. Circumcision separates the boy from childhood and introduces him to a new phase of his life. This is a major change of status, anxiously awaited, because the young male is increasingly aware of his own sexuality. In some cases the event is semi-public, although it is more often performed in a clinic or hospital. The occasion is marked by festivity, music, special foods, and many guests. While the actual event takes place, one may hear praise of God, partly, as some observers have suggested, to muffle the boy’s cries. But the procedure is relatively safe, and those who perform it are usually trained and experienced. Circumcision is not mentioned in the Koran, but Muslims everywhere regard it as an essential ritual.

There is no such thing as “dating” in Afghanistan, since the sexes are segregated at puberty. Premarital sex is strictly forbidden and, if it is discovered, the penalty for the woman is death. Marriages based on love do not occur in Afghanistan. Instead most marriages are arranged by parents and are between cousins, because marriages made within a family are thought to strengthen family ties. After the parents of both the would-be bride and would-be groom have met and come to an agreement, they ask the girl and boy if they are willing to marry each other. Usually both parties agree to the marriage, but this should not be confused with consent. Children are extremely obedient and loyal to their parents, so the idea of refusing to marry the person chosen by one’s parents probably would not occur to them. And the parents on both sides expect their children to agree to the partner chosen for them.
The legal age for marriage is 18 for males and 16 for females. Men often marry in their late teens, but despite the law girls are often sold into marriage when they are still children, particularly in rural areas. Once they have agreed to marry each other the boy and girl can meet, but they do not go out on dates, and they must follow certain rules. The boy can visit the girl in her home in order to get to know more about her and her family. A month or two after the parties have agreed to the marriage, an engagement ceremony is held, either in the boy’s house or in a hotel. All the relatives of both families are invited, and many foods and desserts are served. The boy’s family is expected to pay for the engagement ceremony.
Traditionally Afghan girls are expected to wear a dark green dress for their engagement ceremony because the color green is believed to ensure peace and happiness in one’s future life. Boys can wear whatever they want to, but it must be suitably formal attire such as a suit and tie. Usually the boy and his parents greet everyone who attends the ceremony; once all the guests have arrived the engagement ceremony begins. The boy puts the engagement ring on the third finger of the girl’s left hand, and she puts a ring on the third finger of his left hand. Then both read something from the Koran. Once the rings have been exchanged and the Koran has been read from, the engagement is official.
The date for the marriage ceremony is determined by the boy and his parents, usually five or six months after the engagement occurs. While the marriage ceremony is similar to the engagement, the wedding lasts for three days, with some of the festivities being held in the bride’s home and others held in the groom’s. Both families can invite anyone they know to the ceremony, and they provide many different kinds of food for all the guests. For the marriage ceremony the bride wears a white dress, and the bridegroom usually wears a suit and tie. As with the engagement the groom and his parents are expected to go around and greet everyone who attends the wedding.
If possible famous Afghan singers are hired to sing at the wedding. First they sing a traditional song called “Ho-esta Boro” (“walk slowly”), and the groom and bride sit together, joined by their families. Then both the bride and the groom are given copies of the Koran, and each reads a few lines from it. Next the bride says that she accepts the groom as her husband, and the groom says that he accepts the bride as his wife, and everyone comes and offers their congratulations to the newlyweds. Once the wedding ceremony is over, the new wife goes around to everyone in her family and hugs them, and the new husband takes his wife home with him.
Divorces in Afghanistan are extremely rare but very simple: a man has only to announce his wish for a divorce publicly three times, and the marriage is ended.

In Afghanistan elderly people from neighboring villages, along with the bereaved family, gather to grieve for the dead person. Traditionally funeral rites are assigned to youngsters, while the women and elderly mourn. The dead body is positioned with the eyes closed, toes tied, and the face turned toward Kaaba (Kaaba is situated at the heart of the Holy Mosque’s central courtyard in Mecca). The body is placed on a cot in the courtyard of the house, where the women encircle the body and grieve over the departed. Wailing and gesticulating wildly are considered natural ways of expressing sorrow. Even passersby may join the funeral procession to attain sawab (a pious act). When the body of the deceased is buried, the mourners offer janaza (recitation of the burial service by an imam). Mourning generally continues for a minimum of three days, but sometimes it may go on for weeks or up to 40 days. The deceased’s close relatives are not allowed to marry until the first anniversary of the death is observed.