Ishkar & Ceramics in Istalif, Afghanistan
Updated February 2023, Ishkar & Ceramics in Istalif, Afghanistan was originally published in December 2021
Clung to the Koh Daman Mountains, perched on the Shomali Plains, near the former Bagram Airbase, and less than an hour drive north of Kabul, Istalif had long been on my to-do list on my various returns to Afghanistan, but I just haven’t ever made the time to visit.
With a sinking feeling that this would likely be my last visit to Afghanistan for a long time (or maybe ever), I decided to make the jaunt up to Istalif as a city break from Kabul.
Istalif, famed for its handmade pottery, is a tradition that goes back centuries. It’s believed that Istalif’s ceramic art was initially brought to the area by the Uzbeks who introduced the craft and their techniques that originate from Rishtan, Uzbekistan over 400 years ago.
What attracted the Uzbek artisans to the area around Istalif was likely the rich clay deposits found in the Istalif District. All around Afghanistan Ishkar, the plant the pottery’s glaze is made from is found.
Pottery in Istalif is a family tradition and a financial livelihood for the people inhabiting this stretch of the Shomali Plains. Techniques and skills are passed down from generation to generation.
A Quick History of Istalif
Istalif is long regarded as one of the most beautiful areas of Afghanistan, attracting rulers, emperors, politicians, and other Afghan and foreign elites.
Bestowed with verdant forests, plentiful streams, and lush orchards featuring some of the nation’s best grapes, cherries, mulberries, and figs, Istalif was known as Afghanistan’s Breadbasket.
Unfortunately, Istalif has suffered devastation at the hands of invaders over the years. In the early 1840s, many Kabulis fled to Istalif and other destinations in the Shomali Plains following the invasion of Kabul by the British Indian Army of Retribution during the First Anglo-Afghan War. Soon, the town would be pillaged. The British Indian Army massacred hundreds of the town’s residents- reportedly burning many alive, including women and children.
Following the Anglo-Afghan Wars, the town did rebuild. In 1998 it would suffer another disastrous fate at the hands of the Taliban. Many forests were cut down, wells poisoned, dwellings burned, livestock killed and crops destroyed in an effort to starve out the largely ethnic Tajik population and effectively razing Istalif.
Beginning in 2002 Istalifis began to return and something of a Renaissance began, starting with the rebuilding of the town. They also picked back up their craft, returning to creating the ceramics Istalif became famous around the country for.
After hiring a taxi off the street in the Shahr e Naw neighborhood of Kabul we made the roughly one hour long drive north to Istalif. Knowing the situation was quite tense in and around Istalif we knew that it would be best to keep a low profile on our visit.
We arrived to oddly quiet streets in the Istalif Bazaar, lined by shops selling the pottery we had made the journey to shop for. It appeared that we were the only visitors in Istalif, bar a couple of local men milling along down the shop-lined lanes. We soon learned that there had been an uptick in Taliban members lurking around Istalif, putting a stop to the typical leisure trips for Kabulis looking for a weekend escape- which would explain the lonely streets.
Despite this, the potters were still busy at work in their different shops shaping bowls, painting, glazing, and chiseling. As we entered each shop, the owners proudly displayed their works, telling us their family stories of the craft that has been handed down several generations and the techniques they use today.
Needless to say, we both happily walked away and back to the car with stacks of turquoise-glazed pottery, my friend, having done all the talking and purchasing. A few days prior in Kabul I had botched his negotiating with a bazari for saffron on the cheap by asking about another item in the shop in my thickly American-accented Farsi- a dead giveaway causing sudden inflation of price… so I was banned from talking on our future shopping endeavors 😂 (I also shot all these photos from my phone rather than with my camera to remain unnoticed).
On the way out of Istalif, we stopped to buy some of the famed cherries from one of the forest-shaded chaikhanas perched along the Istalif River. Carpets laid out and shisha pipes dotted the forest- a perfect place for a weekend picnic. But because of the Taliban pop-ins, the carpets sat mostly empty, void of the laughter and clanking of glasses filled with chai you would expect from such a scene.
How we got to Istalif
A good friend of mine made the day trip to Istalif with me back in June, and we hired an ordinary taxi off the street (though I wouldn’t normally recommend doing this unless you’re with a local as I was).
A return taxi from Kabul to Istalif should cost about 1,500 AFS. The best way to arrange this is by asking your guesthouse in Kabul to set up a driver for you and negotiate the price.
There were minibusses that ply the route from northwest Kabul’s Sarai Shomali Bus Station for around 100 AFS, though taking public transport is not recommended.
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