In the 1220s, when Ogedei Khan, the favorite son of the fearsome Mongol leader Genghis Khan, conquered the Ghurid dynasty in central Afghanistan, he ended two centuries of Ghurid rule—and destroyed Firozkoh [the Turquoise Mountain], the capital of Afghan culture.
Today, 800 years later, all that remains of Turquoise Mountain is the Minaret of Jam, a 213-foot-tall cylindrical tower that sits in a desolate, uninhabited river valley.
Nonetheless, Afghans still consider the lost city of Turquoise Mountain as the heart of Afghan culture.
This is what inspired the name for the Turquoise Mountain Institute of Arts and Architecture, a British nonprofit that Prince Charles and then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai founded in 2006 to revive Afghanistan’s ancient craft industry, by offering vocational training in a historic area in an old mercantile district of Kabul, Afghanistan.
And this is why Julian Raby, director of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., is organizing a truly innovative exhibition titled: “Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan.”
Beginning on March 5, 2016 the Smithsonian’s International Gallery will resemble an ancient caravanserai in Old Kabul. An arcade of intricately carved wood stalls from Afghanistan will showcase Afghan’s diverse crafts: gold necklaces boasting pendants of Afghan lapis lazuli and green tourmaline, carved furniture, hand-painted illuminations, gaily colored rugs and turquoise pottery. Not only will one see the amazing goods these artisans create but also meet some of the men and women themselves.
Pairs of them will fly in from Kabul for two-week stretches until the show closes on January 29, 2017, so they can both demonstrate their skills and share their stories. (The artisans study English at Turquoise Mountain.)
“It is a counter-narrative to so much one hears today,” says Tommy Wide, an Oxford-educated Afghan cultural historian who is co-curator of the show.
“Julian Raby contacted us because he wanted to do a show that captures the story of these people. He sees Afghan cultural heritage as people, not just buildings,” Wide, after years of living and working in Kabul at Turquoise Mountain, recently stepped down as managing director to focus on the exhibition.
In those years Turquoise Mountain restored the historic Murad Khani district of Old Kabul, a neighborhood of handsome, late 19th-century wooden houses that once belonged to courtiers and merchants.
Beginning in the 1970s and during the civil war, Murad Khani became a rubble-filled slum. It had no running water or electricity and was being used as a dump. Its inhabitants fled.
So, in 2006, Turquoise Mountain had to organize clearing out 30,000 tons (!) of garbage before it could unearth the old houses.
“Over seven months we trained a thousand people, first in garbage removal,” recalls Wide, a slight 31-year-old Englishman who speaks Farsi, Pashto, Arabic, Urdu and Turkish in addition to Chinese, French and English. “The street level dropped six to ten feet. The old buildings were collapsing at the rate of one per month, so we learned to restore the architecture as we dug it out. We’ve now restored or rebuilt 112 structures. We see the historic buildings not as museums but as part of the cultural fabric of the city. Murad Khani is one of Kabul’s very last surviving historic neighborhoods.”
By 2010, Turquoise Mountain had the vocational schools operating and today artisans are actively teaching their skills to 200 members of the next generation.
“So much development in Afghanistan now is about what people don’t have,” Wide continues. “We focused on what they DO have.”
By that he means Afghanistan’s craft traditions: centuries-old legacies of pottery making, jewelry fabrication, rug design, illumination work and woodcarving.
“What is unique about Afghanistan is the range and quality of its crafts,” he says. “We brought back the potters, miniature painters and gem carvers who had scattered during the civil war so they could teach at Turquoise Mountain.”
Pippa Small, an English anthropologist who became a jewelry designer, has been working closely with Turquoise Mountain, visiting Kabul twice a year.
“Because there are so many ethnic groups in Afghanistan and they were so isolated, their crafts have distinctive styles unique to each region,” Small explains. “My collections are drawn from these traditions—including Islamic, Bactrian, Turkmen and Pashtun.”
She brings her Afghan-inspired designs to jewelers in Kabul, who work with the Afghan gems she purchases, including rubies from Jegdalek in the east, emeralds from the Panjshir Valley in the north, vibrant blue lapis, pink tourmaline and purple amethyst.
“When I started to make jewelry in Kabul, I realized it could be a community resource,” Small says. “The work generates money for the jewelers and motivates them to hold on to their traditional skills and keep doing what they do.”
And she is seeing success: celebrity customers include actresses Angelina Jolie and Eva Longoria. She now shows her Afghan jewelry collections during fashion week in Paris, New York and London and she has boutiques in Los Angeles and London.
Turquoise Mountain’s woodworkers carve walnut from northern Afghanistan into latticework jalis [screens for shade and privacy] and furniture. The calligraphers are reviving the Timurid style of intricate illumination work, painting with natural pigments derived from walnut shells, pomegranate skins and crushed lapis.
Turquoise Mountain exports the goods, working with companies like Kate Spade in America, exporting pottery to Dubai and the United Kingdom, sending woodwork to America and calligraphy to the Middle East (one hotel in Doha recently bought 1,000 calligraphic works to decorate its guest rooms).
The word is getting out. New York architect Peter Pennoyer recently commissioned a set of carved panels for an American client. (“The work is so refined, it’s at a much higher level of craftsmanship than anything I’ve seen in Morocco,” Pennoyer says. “It’s good news all around. The work means a lot to them and we are getting something we cannot get anywhere else.”
The exhibition will feature large-scale photographs and videos of individual Afghan craftsmen talking about their craft.
“This exhibition is a story of transformation,” Julian Raby says. “To be able to tell a story through the Afghans’ words I’m hoping will touch a core with our American audience. It’s a big experiment. It will all depend on the character of the individuals who come and if they can communicate their enthusiasm. I’m hoping what comes through is joy, a shared humanity.”
“Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan” will be on view from March 5, 2016 to January 29, 2017 at the Smithsonian's International Gallery in Washington, D.C.