Friday, 17 August 2007

Over and out

The last week of the season was predictably hectic - apologies for the dearth of new postings.

Left: the happy team, displaying the kites one well-known courier quoted a price of $350 to ship back to the UK.

Below: Iain demonstrates the safe way to fold sheets during the OH&S seminar...

We held four days of seminars on archaeological survey techniques in Kabul University, completed the inventory of 2,400 bags of Kandahar ceramics in Kabul National Museum, and took delivery of 3000 copies of our bi-lingual educational booklets.

Unfortunately, the print-run was poorly supervised and about half of the booklets were sub-standard. We are still waiting for the printers to rectify this.

Other momentous events included DCT shaving off his beard - the jury is still out as to whether this resulted in an improvement or not.

Despite all the problems we encountered this season, we achieved our primary objective - everyone got home safely, without incident (apart from various credit cards taking a hit in Dubai). The fact that we also managed to get a significant amount of research and documentation done during the month is testimony to the team's hard work and patience, for which Alison and I are very grateful.

Friday, 27 July 2007

Kites, fighting partridges and graves

The enforced inactivity following the former king’s death has given us the opportunity to do some sightseeing around Kabul (and more shopping – the world’s stock markets may be reeling, but Afghan retail is booming).
On Wed. we headed to Asheqan Arefan district, in search of Noor Agha, the most famous kitemaker in Afghanistan. We didn’t find the cemetery where he lives, but his personally signed kites are readily available in the bazaar, for the princely sum of 150 Afghanis ($3).

I was feeling extravagant and bought five. I didn’t realise that the 6000m of string encrusted with powdered glass, essential for cutting rivals’ strings in kite fights, would cost as much as the kites put together. I’m sure I could’ve managed with a mere 500m. Needless to say, there’s not been a breath of wind since, and when I inquired about shipping costs, TNT quoted me a figure of $350 (including a 15kg metal case) to get them back to UK in one piece. I think I’ll resort to the ‘message in a bottle’ technique and see where the airstream takes them.

Yesterday arvo, we investigated another Afghan obsession – partridge fighting. The Ka Faroshi bird market consists of a warren of sewerage strewn narrow lanes, past huge woks frying offal and tomatoes over wood fires – hmm, tasty. A bewildering variety of birds are for sale – most are tiny, scrawny creatures which huddle pitifully on their perches. Prize partridges are kept in larger wicker cages, or in their masters’ pockets, to be unleased on unsuspecting sparrows or passers-by. Coupled with the national sport of buzkashi (a cross between polo and rugby, with a dead goat as a ‘ball’), you begin to get a sense of what Friday Grandstand / Sportscene programmes are like.
We rounded off the outing with a more tranquil assignment – a visit to the mausoleum of Timur Shah. TS moved the capital from Kandahar to Kabul in 1776, a prescient move without which we wouldn’t be here.
The recent spate of kidnappings in the south and east has prompted the Min. of Interior to ban foreigners leaving K without an armed escort.
That scuppered today’s planned trip to the Panjshir (Five Lions) Valley, which is to the north of K and safe… we’ve got one Friday left, but somehow I doubt the restrictions will be lifted by then.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Three days of mourning

And then the former king died, and the President announced three days of mourning... so much for our plan to go to the Ministry today in the hope of collecting permission for two of our Afghan colleagues to go to Jam to collect our ceramics for study! Saturday, at the earliest, which means they probably won't get a seat on the 10 seater flight on Sunday. We're starting to run out of time...
This season seems to have been blighted from the outset, but we're not alone in experiencing postponements and frustrations - I can think of several dig directors with larger teams who have had to deal with much greater 'inconveniences' (eg. various Gulf Wars, September 11th, etc.). And we'd a fairly relaxing day of data entry / standardisation, pot drawing and a tasty lunch at the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, courtesy of Rory.
Tomorrow, we have to vacate DAFA as Prof. Tarzi's team flies in... one advantage of the moves is that I've found my sunnies again!

Saturday, 21 July 2007

Salang side-trip

One of the pluses of spending more time in K than we anticipated was the opportunity to drive up to the Salang Tunnel, 122km to the north. The tunnel was generously built by the Soviets in 1964, and then used less altruistically by the Red Army in 1979 when they invaded Afghanistan.
The debris of that war still litters the valleys on both sides of the tunnel – a huge abandoned army base at Qalah-e Surkh, the overturned, stripped carapaces of tanks, hillsides littered with mines, graveyards of prisoners and mujahideen.
Half way up, on a hairpin bend is a shrine to a different form of martyrdom – that of a bus-conductor who threw himself under the wheels of his bus as it slid towards a precipice due to dodgy brakes. I suspect that few of us in the West would be so self-less.

Our first stop was for mulberries, down by a gushing stream; on the other side of the tunnel, we ate deep-fried trout for brunch, and then stuffed ourselves with peaches near Doshi, a village on the edge of the muggy plain leading north to Mazar-e Sharif and central Asia.
Back on the K side of the Salang, we made a detour to visit the Kushan site of Begram, famous for the ivories which the French excavated 60 years ago. There’s little to see there these days, and you have to stick to the worn tracks, due to the mines, which still do not deter looters. (Photos of Naqshband and DCT, and U-shaped valley courtesy of Fiona Kidd).

Cunning plan No. 7a part II

The past week has been quite productive, even though we’re still in K and unlikely to get to Ghur now. We’ve been volunteering our services / skills in the museum – Jane, our conservator, has been cleaning Timurid (15th century) gravestones and a Buddhist figurine head, Piet’s started drawing the former (see above left), ably assisted by Naqshband and the rest of us have made an inventory of over 1000 bags of pottery from the British / Australian excavations at Kandahar in the late 70s (we’re probably only about half way through).
The pottery turned up in the basement of the former British Embassy in 2004 – we’re assessing how much of it has survived 30 years of conflict and neglect, so that future researchers will at least be able to find what remains easily. It’s tedious, dusty work (above right), as some of the bags have disintegrated, but the Kandahar team deserve commendation for double-labelling their bags and Alison periodically gets excited by an unusual form or extravagant glaze… each to their own!
Iain’s doing what he can with museum staff requiring First Aid, and will train some of them in basic procedures – it’s sobering to hear some of their stories from the war years.
We’ve finalised the bi-lingual educational booklets, and the British Council has offered to pay for 2000 copies, on top of the 500 we were going to print anyway. This support is a great fillip, and we may translate the booklets into Pashto, as well as Dari, so as to reach the maximum Afghan audience.
On Wednesday, Alison and I had a tour of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation with its founder / CEO Rory Stewart, who walked through Afghanistan in 2001/2 and was one of the first people to publicise the extent of the looting at Jam. TMF’s work, revitalising traditional craft industries and renovating Murad Khane, a largely 19th century district of Kabul, is inspirational.

Thursday saw us unexpectedly ushered in to a meeting with the Min. of Culture, to discuss our work at Jam (or rather lack of work there). We think that we now know why we’ve been blocked even going there to collect the remaining sherds for study… well, not so much why, but who has blocked us. I expect that if we can arrange a meeting with those involved this week, it will result in a “frank exchange of views”, to use diplomatic parlance! What else the forthcoming week holds is anyone’s guess.

Saturday, 14 July 2007


The Koh-i Paghman to the NW of Kabul top 4,700m - unsurprisingly, snow still nestles in gullies. A couple of thousand metres lower, these nomads graze their flocks on the stubble and thistles - only the hardy survive in Afghanistan.

Terraced hillslope suburb

The road to Istalif passes through a gorge, whose hillslopes are lined with terraced brick and stone houses. This is near where a US military vehicle careered out of control last year, mowing down several pedestrians; to compound the tragedy, the troops then shot dead several bystanders, because they felt 'threatened'. And we wonder why many Afghans are unconvinced about the benefits of Western forces here.