Virtual Treasures

Featured on BBC News: A Short History of Life: Afghanistan’s Lost Magazine

Bringing historical and cultural riches from Afghanistan — and beyond — “to all people, wherever in the world they might be”
Covers of the popular magazine Zhvandūn, 1970s-80 (Library of Congress)

Gorgeously illuminated manuscripts, rare books, historical documents, sacred texts, photographic albums, vintage maps, architectural studies, lithographic books and prints, popular journals and magazines, and many other often unique materials (some never before published) — these have been drawn from the collections of the Library of Congress and other great world libraries for inclusion in the Afghanistan Project, a major initiative of the World Digital Library (WDL). Led by the Library of Congress and supported by Carnegie Corporation of New York with grants in honor of the foundation’s 2011 Centennial, this project constitutes a major gesture and commitment to “virtually repatriating” Afghanistan’s patrimony. But in fact the project includes not only items originating in Afghanistan proper, but also materials from the broader Islamic and Persianate cultural region of neighboring countries that share a common heritage and/or related language and ethnicity: Iran, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and others. With such massive (and culturally significant) endeavors, there is always the question of what should make it into the digitization pipeline. Fittingly, one “amazing source” in the selection process for the Afghanistan Project was the bibliography of The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan: Politics of Reform and Modernization, 1880–1946, the classic study by Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden has said that one of her goals as Librarian is “to open up the riches of the Library of Congress to all people, wherever in the world they might be.” With the Afghanistan Project, the World Digital Library (wdl.org) has succeeded splendidly in that endeavor. Here follows a selection of treasures that capture the histories, achievements, and spirit of people — or peoples — for future generations.

A Legendary Hunter — The great Sasanian king Bahram Gur (reigned 430‒38) and his entourage on the hunt, an episode drawn from Niẓāmī Ganjavī’s Khamsah. Famous for his hunting prowess and thus known by his nickname (Bahram Gur means “wild ass”), the king astonishes his companions with his quasi-divine skill and power in hunting onagers. Illuminated manuscript (detail), Persia, 16th century. (Library of Congress, African and Middle Eastern Division)
Polychrome Abundance — Original watercolor drawings by L. A. Shostak were included in the archaeological part of Turkestan Album, a six-volume survey (1871–72) produced under the patronage of the first governor-general of Turkestan, as the Russian Empire’s Central Asian territories were called. The album devotes special attention to the lavish and vibrant polychrome ceramic ornamentation of Samarkand’s Islamic architecture, such as 14th- and 15th-century monuments from the reign of Timur (Tamerlane) and his successors. Geometric, floral, and inscriptional patterns abound. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)
The Great Game: A Bird’s-Eye View of the Approaches to India — Produced probably in the 1920s, this map dramatizes the approaches to British India through Afghanistan by offering a bird’s-eye view of the mountainous territory between the then-Soviet Union and the Indus River valley (present-day Pakistan). Produced by Letts, the famous London stationer and publisher of diaries, the map was clearly intended for hobbyists and armchair strategists who, as advertised, could buy for six pence a packet of flags for sticking into the map to plan or follow military movements. In the foreground two British soldiers in uniform overlook the Indus River. (Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division)
Government Minister, Emirate of Bukhara — The Russian photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863–1944) used a special color photography process to create a stunning visual record of the Russian Empire, with most of his photographs dating from between 1909 and 1915. With the support of Czar Nicholas II and the Ministry of Transportation, the photographer undertook extended trips through many different parts of the empire, including the Emirate of Bukhara. Prokudin-Gorskii’s portrait of the emir’s kushbegi (plenipotentiary) shows the official wearing a splendid silk robe decorated with Russian orders and a red sash; in his lap the minister holds a ceremonial saber with gilded scabbard. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)
Prokudin-Gorskii’s Eye for Color — Clockwise from upper left-hand corner: Fabric merchant, Samarkand (present-day Uzbekistan) | Woman of the Teke ethnic group standing at the entrance to a yurt, near the Murgab Oasis in the region of Baýramaly (present-day Turkmenistan) | Chaban (shepherd) in the hilly country near Samarkand | Young man with camel loaded with large sacks of cotton destined for the cotton gin, near the town of Baýramaly | Melon vendor, Samarkand | Portrait of Asfandiyar-khan, penultimate ruler of the Khanate of Khiva, 1910. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)
Love Story — This painting depicts a well-known passage from the tragic story of Laylah and Majnun described in the third book of the Khamsah (Quintet) by the great 12th-century Persian poet Niẓāmī Ganjavī. Forcibly separated, the two ill-fated lovers meet again for the last time before each is to die, thanks to the intervention of Majnun’s elderly messenger. Upon seeing each other in a palm grove outside of Laylah’s camp, they faint from pain and extreme passion. The messenger tries to revive the lovers, while the wild animals, protective of Majnun (“king of the wilderness”), attack unwanted intruders. Illuminated manuscript (detail), Persia (Shiraz), second half of the 16th century. (Library of Congress, African and Middle Eastern Division)
The Valley of Maidan — one of 25 lithographs in James Atkinson’s “Sketches in Afghaunistan” (London, 1842). The artist depicts an Army of the Indus soldier on camelback meeting Afghan men near a watch tower while behind him a file of soldiers rides on horseback from Maidan to Arghandeh. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)
A Mirror of the Times — Zhvandūn was one of the most popular magazines published in Afghanistan in the second half of the 20th century. Launched in May 1949 as a progressive magazine publishing both in Persian and Pushto, Zhvandūn presented articles on literary, historical, educational, and entertainment topics throughout the time it was published. However, as these covers from the 1970s and 1980s demonstrate, the changing social and political dynamics of Afghanistan clearly influenced the character of the magazine’s editorial content. Zhvandūn ceased publication in 1996. (Library of Congress, African and Middle Eastern Division)
Prayers for Safety and Success — This illuminated manuscript includes verses in Persian — framed by cloud bands and placed on a gold background decorated with vine motifs and blue flowers — praying for the patron’s personal well-being and the prosperity of his kingdom. The calligrapher, Mir ‘Ali Heravi (d. 1543), was active in the city of Herat, Afghanistan, until he was taken to Bukhara (modern-day Uzbekistan) by the Shaybanid ruler ‘Ubaydallah Khan Uzbek. (Library of Congress, African and Middle Eastern Division)
War Story — The “Afghanistan” album contains nearly 100 albumen prints of people and locations associated with the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878–1880). Left: Afridi tribesmen crouch with rifles at Jamrūd Fort, which was strategically located at the eastern entrance to the Khyber Pass in present-day Pakistan. Right: Elephant battery is on the march, with lead elephants in each team mounted by Indian mahouts and escorted by British cavalry and foot soldiers. An accompanying baggage train of mules and oxen is seen on the right. (Library of Congress, African and Middle Eastern Division)

All items reproduced in “Virtual Treasures” are from the collections of the Library of Congress and are reproduced courtesy of the Library and the World Digital Library (WDL). For detailed bibliographic citations and complete descriptions of each item featured in this story, visit the Library of Congress Afghanistan Project. Captions for this story have been adapted from texts at the WDL, whose mission is to make available on the Internet, free of charge and in multilingual format, significant primary materials from all countries and cultures.

Like what you read? Give Carnegie Corporation a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.