Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Nancy Hatch Dupree’s Last Project: Afghan History Revealed in Photographs

Martine van Bijlert Kate Clark 12 min

AAN was due to post this dispatch when we heard the news of the death of the great archivist, historian and advocate for Afghanistan, Nancy Hatch Dupree. The piece looks at Nancy’s last project, the uploading of thousands of historical photographs to the website of the Afghanistan Centre at the Kabul University (ACKU), the successor institution of the ACBAR Resource and Information Centre (ARIC) founded in 1989 in Peshawar. The images take the viewer on a journey through Afghanistan’s history, the landscapes of its provinces, and memories of hope, despair and determination to thrive again. The project is an embodiment of Nancy’s belief that “for a nation to prosper, it must have an involved citizenry and they must have access to knowledge.” This piece, write AAN’s Martine van Bijlert and Kate Clark, is partly a look at the collection and also a first brief obituary for a woman many people – including we at AAN – loved and admired.

Nancy Dupree (passed away 10 September 2017 in Kabul) speaking in 2012. Photo. Wikimedia, under Creative Commons.

Kate first met Nancy in Peshawar in 1999 at the centre she and her husband, Louis (who died in 1989) had set up there after fleeing the communist coup d’etat of 1978. They had become refugees from the country that had been home and like millions of Afghans were now living in exile in Pakistan. The Duprees were involved, like many others, in humanitarian work, but they were also archiving. Theirs was a great love affair, but also a working partnership and from the time of their exile, they were keeping what others threw away.

The Duprees archived mujahedin and, later, Taleban newspapers, surveys by aid organisations, reams and reams of reports and pamphlets from all conceivable sources. This became known as the ACBAR Resource and Information Centre (ARIC), established in Peshawar (Pakistan) in 1989. (ACBAR being the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, which also has long moved from Peshawar to Kabul.)

Nancy was fiercely pro-education, pro-literacy and pro-knowledge. One of her side projects then (which continues to this day) were mobile box libraries, sending books to parts of Afghanistan where people might be literate, but there was nothing for them to read – whether for enjoyment or information. She also commissioned books where she felt there were gaps – books on history and folklore, stories for adults and children, how to keep bees and prevent TB. (1)

In 2005, she organised the transport of her collection built up over a quarter of a century, in 300 sacks, from Peshawar to Kabul. The collection needed a home and she cajoled, persuaded, campaigned and harried a multiplicity of people to establish a proper Afghan centre to house it. The result was the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University (ACKU), a beautiful, airy building set around a central green courtyard, with space for the collection and for researchers, inaugurated in 2013. Before, between 2005 and 2013, the ACKU library was hosted in the Kabul University’s central library.

Side-by-side with the physical ACKU there is also a virtual ACKU, a catalogue and website where the digitised 80,000 (and growing) items can be viewed. (Read AAN’s report here and the centre’s website here.) It is an extraordinary resource: not just the written record of three decades of war, but also DVDs and radio programmes, publications going back into the nineteenth century and more books on Afghanistan than can be imagined.

Even in 1999, Nancy had seemed old to Kate. By that time, she had been involved in Afghanistan for over 30 years, having arrived in Kabul, in 1962. (Kate knew her for her 1972 tourist guide to Afghanistan, the still useful and ever fascinating, “An Historical Guide to Afghanistan.” We used it for travelling in the remoter parts of Hazarajat in 2012, see our report here.)

Indeed, in 1999, Nancy was already in her 70s, but still working doggedly during dismal, gloomy times – the hope of mujahedin victory, an end to the war and return from exile had been destroyed by the mujahedin’s vicious internecine fight for power, only to be followed by the Taleban’s capture of most of the country. Nancy was of an age when most people were slowing down and enjoying retirement, yet her passion and willpower remained through those dark times.

Nancy Dupree (1927-2017) and (then future) President Ashraf Ghani at the opening of the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University (ACKU) in 2013. Photo: AAN archive

She would continue to work for almost two decades more, pretty well until she died, less than three weeks before her 90th birthday (3 October). She was an increasingly frail figure but still driven to work, to make things better for others and get things done. She was an extraordinary force, inspiring, visionary, successful – and at times difficult. Her determination to follow through what she believed should happen meant that, as now president Ashraf Ghani said of the woman he called his mentor at the opening of the ACKU in 2013, “I learned there were two ways of dealing with Nancy. Say yes quickly, or after a long time.”

Even as Nancy got older and her health worse, that determination and passion endured. In the last year, she had wanted to get what she called the photographic galleries online at ACKU, particularly those of her husband Louis who was travelling and photographing Afghanistan from the 1950s onwards. That collection is now gradually going online and it is a rich, new resource for anyone interested in Afghanistan.

The online collection

ACKU’s photographic archive is made up of four collections: antique photographs taken by Khalilullah Enayat Siraj between 1880 and 1929; the collection of Dr William Barton, a public health consultant who studied sanitation systems in Kabul in 1965; pictures taken by Jean Willacy, who photographed life in the refugee camps in Pakistan for twenty years, beginning in 1979; and the large collection of Louis Dupree which contains pictures reflecting his wide-ranging passions: prehistoric artefacts, folk art and artisans, archaeological sites all over the country, historical events in Kabul, trips with the mujahedin, and visits to the refugees camps in Pakistan. “The photo galleries are designed,” ACKU founder, Nancy Hatch Dupree, said “as research tools to provide users with a unique way to learn about the ecology and history of Afghanistan.”

The total archive consists of over 14,000 slides and prints that are slowly but surely being digitalised and made available. So far, around 2000 pictures have been uploaded (they can be found here). Most so far are from Dupree’s archive, but they have been complemented with vintage photographs from Siraj, as well as more recent-day pictures, to round out the various thematic galleries. While the individual pictures are interesting in themselves – the site is fully searchable – it is often well worth going through galleries from beginning to end, as they explore the history of a certain era or area through images and captions. As Nancy Dupree explained:

Choosing a photo gallery, a user may take a trip with Louis Dupree from Kunduz to Shugnan in Badakhshan, stopping along the way to note various ecological or ethnological features of historical interest. Each image carries a thumbnail description of its contents and why it is important. Or one may travel with Dupree on a mission to Khost, observing life during the jihad. By selecting the Kabul Galleries one can visit the palaces built by Amir Abdur Rahman and his successors, take a walking tour through the old city and its bazaars in the 1960s, observe the destruction of downtown Kabul during the 1970s and end your historical tour with the growth of this city and its new architectural fashions.

King Amanullah had a grand dream to transform Paghman into a European-style resort worthy of the admiration of the comity of nations. An imposing Victory Arch, designed by a Turkish architect, commemorated those who fought and died during the War of Independence in 1919. Photograph from 1969. Copyright: ACKU, reproduced here with permission.

Paghman in the 1920s

An interesting example is the 1920 Paghman gallery, a collection of 84 images, many of them of the ornate modern 1920s buildings that were the result of King Amanullah’s dream to transform Paghman into a European-style resort “worthy of admiration of the comity of the nations” (some of these photographs were printed in Paris as souvenir postcards).

There are vintage pictures of King Amanullah and his wife Queen Soraya that tell the story of his determination to prod Afghanistan into a process of rapid modernisation, including photos of women in “diaphanous” veils and of Queen Soraya publicly attending the king’s speeches (for instance here standing next to him wearing a veil that leaves her face largely visible).

Queen Soraya stands next to King Amanullah, wearing a “diaphanous” veil, as he addresses Loya Jirga delegates in Paghman’s amphitheatre. Photo: KES Collection No. 852. Copyright ACKU, reproduced here with permission.

The most fascinating juxtaposition of pictures, from the Siraj collection, comes from the 1928 Loya Jirga held at the race track in Paghman. Although King Amanullah, following in the footsteps of his grandfather Abdur Rahman Khan, had ordered all men to wear Western dress in Kabul, the thousand delegates to the Loya Jirga appeared in turbans and chapans, as documented in the first picture below.

King Amanullah ordered males to wear western dress in Kabul. However, when the 1000 delegates to the 1928 Loya Jirgah took their seats on the first they wore gay provincial chapans and turbans.” Photo: KES Collection No. 1024. Copyright ACKU, reproduced here with permission.

That evening they were all given suits, ties and felt hats to wear, thus changing the appearance of the Loya Jirga overnight, as can be seen in the second picture.

When the 1928 Loya Jirga delegates turned up local dress, they were “issued black suits, ties and felt hats with orders to wear them from now on.” Photo: KES Collection No. 1025. Copyright ACKU, reproduced here with permission.

The gallery contains all the architectural highlights of Paghman, as well as how they fared during the various decades of war and rebuilding. There are pictures of the Victory Arch built to commemorate the 1919 War of Independence war, both from the late 1920s and from 1969 when it was still intact in all its grandeur. Then there are pictures from 1995, showing the damage to the arch after Paghman had been a mujahedin stronghold in the 1980s, and from 2004 when the arch was restored again.

The gallery also contains a present-day relic to ambition – a large imposing building with room for a thousand guests that was built to accommodate VIPs guests from neighbouring countries for the Nawruz celebrations of 2013 or 2014. The festivities were called off for security reasons and the building has so far never been used.

Everyday mujahedin life

In terms of images of everyday life, the galleries contain photographs of artisans and villagers encountered by Dupree during his peacetime travel, but also a fairly languid series of everyday mujahedin life in Khost.

The series was captured when Dupree accompanied a unit of Mahaz-e Melli (National Islamic Front of Afghanistan), led by Muhammad Gailani, son of the faction’s leader, the late Pir Gailani, on their travels in 1986. In the pictures, we see the men lounging and joking, waiting for the baker to finish making breakfast, the balls of dough and flat bread spread out on the rocky plateau without much fear of detection (apparently the Soviets never flew over in the early morning).

Command Group in eating area. Huge spread of bread dough ready for baking in the tandur. Also the sleeping area at night. Camouflaged with buria (reed) mats after the meal. “Why don’t the Sovs overfly the area in the early a.m.?”
Photo: Louis Dupree. Copyright ACKU, reproduced here with permission.

In other pictures we see them walking through the hills or hiding behind rocks and in camouflaged hideouts, taking shelter from Russian spotter planes. There are also a large number of pictures of various ‘reconciliation’ ceremonies in which government soldiers who had apparently changed sides, although described as ‘prisoners of war’ were given money and sent on their way (see for instance hereherehere and here. (One cannot help but wonder whether the treatment would have been different if there had been no foreigner and no camera.)

The series even contains a few pictures of Dupree himself, wearing glasses and a partially un-rolled pakol.

Creation, destruction and restoration

As one browses through the images, one cannot escape the overarching and recurring themes of creation, destruction and restoration. Over time, the pictures show the splendour, decline and preservation of many of Afghanistan’s historical sites. This is particularly poignant when viewing the pictures side by side (which can easily be done by saving them to the Lightbox) to see how history has affected a certain place.

For instance the destruction of Jada-ye Maiwand, seen here in 1993, still intact, and here in 1995 after it had been destroyed in the battles to control Kabul.

There are old photographs of Babur’s Garden in its old splendour from 1913 and 1977 (see here and here), and pictures from 1996 showing the damage to Babur’s grave and the garden’s pavilion. The garden and its buildings have now been lovingly restored by the Agha Khan Foundation.

The criminal impact of war is also shown in the tragic juxtaposition of pictures of Ai Khanom (Lady Moon) the famous 3rd century BC, Greco-Bactrian archaeological site in Takhar on the banks of the Amu Darya. The first picture below, from 1972, shows the original excavations (examples of the riches found in Ai Khanom can be found in the second half of this gallery). The second photo from 1995 shows a completely dug-up, cratered and looted ‘moonscape’.

A broad avenue ran the length of the city built in 280 BCE by the Selucid ruler Antiochis I and embellished by Bactrian King Eucratides I. Under his rule Ai Khanoum became a primary city of the Bactrian kingdom described by Justin, an historian of those times, as “an empire of a thousand cities.” Photo: Louis Dupree. Copyright ACKU, reproduced here with permission.

We shall never know what has been lost by such clandestine activities. The destruction of sites removes the possibility of reconstructing the history of the objects, of the civilizations from which they came and of the people who made them. Artifacts must be studied in situ so that the dynamics of the culture from which they sprung can be understood. This is no longer possible at Ai Khanoum.” Photo: John Hayward. Copyright ACKU, reproduced here with permission.

During the chaotic years of war, local commanders dug up the site, making off with – for Afghanistan – priceless treasures. The ACKU has this picture of a teahouse in Khwaja Bahauddin in Takhar province, complete with ancient marble columns, excavated from Ai Khanum by an un-named looter.

Nowhere is this theme of discovery, destruction and preservation more pronounced than in the pictures and captions that track the history of the National Museum. The first half of this gallery tells the story of the destruction of the museum’s building, the looting of its artefacts, the reservation and loving restoration of as much as could still be salvaged and, in recent years, the repair of the building and the reopening of the museum.

“After a rocket hit the in May 1993, the fire-broken National Museum was in a precarious state. Rooms all along the corridors on the ground floor were thoroughly ransacked. Records were mutilated and thrown aside, destroying crucial information. Many files were badly burned.” Photo: Jolyon Leslie. Copyright ACKU, reproduced here with permission.

In 1996, what had been salvaged of the museum was temporarily moved to the deserted Kabul Hotel (where the Serena Hotel now is) and then moved again in 1998 by the Taliban to the Ministry of Information and Culture. In 2000, some of its artefacts were briefly and symbolically displayed at a re-opened museum by the then Taleban minister and smashed in March 2001 by his successor (see here and here).

The destruction, looting and vandalisim of the National Museum are a stark reminder of the irreplaceable losses Afghanistan has suffered, on top of a myriad human tragedies during the last four decades of war. But they are also an important symbol of the incredible and ongoing efforts of archaeologists, curators and ordinary Afghans to preserve the country’s history for future generations.

Afghanistan’s recent history

In January 1977 a Loya Jirga met in the auditorium of the Ministry of Public Health near Zarnegar Park to bestow its seal of approval on a draft constitution for the Republic. It confirmed Sardar Daoud Khan as President, ending the monarchy. Copyright ACKY, reproduced here with permission.

The current upload also contains several pictures of historical moments before and during the reign of Daud: for instance a women’s protest march in 1970; the raising of the new flag for the republic in 1974; and the convening of the 1977 Loya Jirga that ended the monarchy (see here and here).

There are old pictures of several of Kabul neighbourhoods and landmarks, recently after they had been established: the Spinzar Hotel in 1967Zarnegar Park in 1969Pashtunistan Square, also in 1969 and the Wazir Akbar Khan neighbourhood in 1974.

The designers of Wazir Akbar Khan followed the model of countless western housing schemes. Homes with minimal garden space all looked very much alike and stood on a regulated street grid. Photo: Stan Heuisler, December 1974. Copyright ACKU, reproduced here with permission.

Such old pictures of familiar places are always a delight, like seeing childhood photos of an old friend. Like many of the images, they are not just intellectually fascinating, but also tug at the heartstrings, showing what has been lost and what has been re-built. These photo galleries, painstakingly being put together, are a strong new part of what ACKU offers. They are also a reflection of ACKU’s and Nancy Hatch Dupree’s ethos, a passion for knowledge, a drive to share it and a love of all the variety that Afghanistan embodies. 

Nancy Hatch Dupree, born 1927, died in the early morning of 10 September 2017.

The photo galleries can be found here. 

(1) Nancy wrote:

The subjects of the books offer a window into the current needs of Afghans: popular subjects include such practical areas as basic healthcare (eye and dental care, malaria and tuberculosis prevention and treatment), income generation activities (beekeeping, poultry keeping and bicycle repair), computer skills, home management, and earthquake and environmental safety topics. However, book subjects also include history, politics, literature, folklore, archeology, arts, poetry, and children’s stories and games. The titles reflect areas of interest identified by communities and schools, and the popularity of the titles is monitored and recorded. To date, ACKU has published 126 titles of high-quality, easy-to-read books for distribution through the ABLE network.


Martine van Bijlert

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