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Gorgeously illuminated manuscripts, rare books, historical documents, sacred texts, photographic albums, vintage maps, architectural studies, lithographic books and prints, popular journals and magazines, and many other often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 ( 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.

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)
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)
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)

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.

Carnegie Reporter

A hub of ideas and a forum for dialogue about the work of…