Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

On the Cultural History of Opium – and how poppy came to Afghanistan

Doris Buddenberg 15 min

Mention drugs or Google the word ‘opium’ and the link to Afghanistan will never be far away. No wonder, since over the last few decades, Afghanistan has become the largest opium producer in the world. But where did opium come from, how did it spread and what are its cultural expressions? AAN co-director Thomas Ruttig and Doris Buddenberg – member of the AAN Advisory Board, former head of UNODC Afghanistan and curator of a recent exhibition on opium – have been taking a closer look.

An Afghan tool to harvest opium 'latex'. Photo: (c) Andrew Weir.An Afghan tool to harvest opium 'latex'. Photo: (c) Andrew Weir.

In 2015, opium poppy was grown in Afghanistan on an estimated area of 183,000 hectares. The annual production was expected to be 3,300 metric tons, down because of a bad harvest from 6,400 metric tons in 2014. But it has not always been this way. Afghanistan became the world’s largest opium producer only in the 1980s and, although, opium is often identified as an ‘eastern drug’, its use actually originally spread from Europe and the eastern Mediterranean to southeast and east Asia.

While travelling from Europe to Asia, opium morphed in people’s perceptions from a plant grown mostly for its nourishing oil and seeds into one that was farmed for its intoxicating content. In later times, it also morphed from a commodity on which colonial empires were built (1) and from which later guerrilla groups were financed to fight communism to a commodity that is perceived as funding terrorist groups and mafia networks and needs to be eradicated.

Afghanistan and its opium both feature in an exhibition curated by Doris Buddenburg, one of the two authors of this dispatch. The exhibition titled “Opium” is on at the Museum of Cultures in the Swiss city of Basel until 24 January 2016. It specifically covers the cultural history of opium and how its use spread from Europe and the eastern Mediterranean to Asia. The exhibit includes harvesting tools and smoking utensils, a statue of a Greek goddess with a poppy head as her symbol, a hall of fame of opium eaters in the colours that the drug users see, an iconic perfume bottle – and, yes, a cube of real raw opium.

Harvesting opium and its tools

One of the intentions of the exhibition is to show the material culture that developed via opium production and use, and not just discuss opium through words and statistics. (2) Harvesting opium is a labour intensive task, as it requires each poppy head or pod to be incised several times over a few days. It is estimated that, during the harvest season, up to 300,000 seasonal labourers work on the large opium fields of Afghanistan. As family labour is not sufficient, seasonal labourers follow the harvest from the warmer southern provinces where the harvest starts, all the way up through the cultivating provinces to the north. It remains a surprising aspect of the opium culture in Afghanistan that such large groups of people, which have to be fed, accommodated and transported, can move across large parts of the country without incident.

The instruments the labourers use have to be simple, easily replaceable and cheap. The tools for cutting the surface of the poppy pods, to let the white latex containing the morphine seep out over night, consist of a small wooden handle, with strips cut from razor blades inserted and fixed with glue. The form of these scratchers, or lancets – called nishtar or neshtar in Dari and Pashto – differ according to the regions and provinces where they are used, showing how cultural differentiation occurs even in such simple tools. The depicted scratchers were collected in the 1990s in Kunar, Nangrahar and the southern provinces.


Tools for the collection of opium poppy ‘latex’. © Andrew Weir

Tools for the collection of opium poppy ‘latex’. © Andrew Weir

After that, the opium is scraped off the poppy pods with scoops, usually made from metal. The opium resin is then formed into lumps that can be stored over a long time, as it is not perishable.

The opium poppy’s botany and origins

There are many species of poppies, but only one produces seed pods that, after the flower has withered, contain morphine and from which the derivate heroin or opium paste can be produced. Its Latin botanical name is papaver somniferum meaning the ‘sleep-inducing poppy’. The cultivated plant probably originated from the wild form of the poppy called Papaver somniferum subspecies setigerum which contains a very low amount of morphine. Opium poppies with a high morphine content, as grown in Afghanistan today, are the result of millennia-long history of breeding.

The wild version of the plant can grow up to a northern latitude of 56° – which is the line roughly connecting Glasgow, Copenhagen and Moscow. But where the cultivated, morphine-containing plant was initially cultivated is not fully clear. In older sources, it is often described as “a native of Persia.” One of the earliest UNODC reports, published in 1949, said its “original home” was “probably the Mediterranean region.” (3) But the plant’s cultivation seems to have started further west. The most ancient poppy seeds ever found, dated to 7000 BC, and were discovered in Cologne in modern-day Germany. As the Rhine river was an old trade route, it is likely that the poppy seeds came travelling down the river, perhaps from areas around Lake Konstanz, that are now on German, Swiss or French territory. Urs Leuzinger, a Swiss specialist on the late Neolithic period and director of the Archaeology Museum of the Kanton of Thurgau, has said:

“Poppy was cultivated in vast quantities in the pile dwellings at Lake Konstanz. It can be assumed that those people were after the oleiferous [i.e. oil-containing] seeds. We find them in excavations as plant remains of the ripened fruit. Those, however, are not suited for the production of opium anymore.”

Leuzinger adds that there is no “absolute archaeological proof” that the people of the Neolithic (between 4400 and 3500 BC in Central Europe) used the poppy seeds’ mind-extending substances. But, he said, it also cannot be excluded:

“But the people of the pile dwellings [at Lake Konstanz] knew nature by heart. They surely also knew about the effects of the poppy and presumably have used it. It is highly probable that it was consumed as a pain reliever.”

Opium praised, opium damned

Mass production and the use of opium as a drug, however, did occur for certain in the eastern Mediterranean in what is now modern-day Iraq, Syria and south-eastern Turkey. The oldest scriptures mentioning the cultivation of poppy have been found on Sumerian clay tablets that date back to 3400 BC. Through the Assyrians, for whom poppy was considered the “plant of life” and the “medicine of the gods,” the cultivation of opium poppy spread to Egypt, with Thebes as its centre, and to Cyprus in the 13th century BC. A statue of the Minoan ‘Moon Goddess of Gasi’ found on Crete and shown in the Museum of Heraklion, wears an opium poppy crown with the pods scratched (a photo here, p 27). Poppies and opium also became important substances in ancient Greek medicine. In the 4th century, however, early Christians banned its use as a painkiller, as they saw illness as a punishment from God that should be endured. The use of opium was later rediscovered through Arabic medicine in central Europe in the 14th and 15th century and popularised by Paracelsus in the 16th century under the name of laudanum. (4)

The intoxicating quality of opium was known early on. Early Roman emperors such as Nero, Titus, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius were all major consumers of opium. An inventory of the Imperial Palace of Rome, dated to the year 214 AD, lists 17 tons of opium there. Poets across many cultures used it as an inspirational help. The Basel exhibition’s hall of fame includes among the Persian-speaking poets, from Attar the Perfume-Maker, Nizami and Nasir Chosrau from the classical period to 20th century Sadeq Hedayat. On the European side, the list contains Novalis, Heinrich Heine, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire and Pablo Neruda. Also featured is fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent who, not incidentally, created a perfume called ‘Opium’.

A Persian author, Abu-l-Qasem Yazdi, wrote the Treatise for Opium Smokers. Published in 1898 in Bombay, his 50-page treatise contains verses and prose, philosophical deliberations and practical advice on opium smoking and for opium smokers. The opium, Yazdi says, heals the diseases of the body and the suffering of the soul; it strengthens friendship and unity among its admirers, and keeps them away from involvement in earthly irrelevancies.

A short history of opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan

Some sources, like German researcher Katja Mielke, suggest that in several parts of Afghanistan “cultivation of opium poppy with the aim to produce raw opium for self-consumption had a long tradition.” She mentions Badakhshan in the northeast, in particular, as a place where opium has long been used on as a remedy against snakebites and other pain, as well as to quell hunger. However, she and other sources do not tell us exactly how long “long” may have been. Jonathan Goodhand, from the School of Oriental and Asian Studies, says Badakhshan’s poppy cultivation had come from China and Bukhara via the silk route. (5)

However, the spread of the opium poppy to Afghanistan, via the eastern Mediterranean and Persia seems more probable – see the references in the 12th to 14th century Persian literature. Ibn Sina (Avicenna) who lived from 980 to 1032 and worked in Bukhara and Hamadan stilled described opium as the “sun-dried juice of the Egyptian black poppy” (our emphasis) in his al-Qānūn fī ibb (Canon of Medicine), indicating that opium poppy was apparently not yet regularly cultivated in the region that nowadays includes Afghanistan. In China, opium cultivation for regular consumption started very late, probably only in the 15th century when it was transformed from a rare medicine into a luxury item. (6)

Another sign that the opium poppy came late to Afghanistan is that there does not seem to be an original Persian name for the plant. In Afghanistan, a Turkic word – koknar – is used; kok mean “green” and nar means “pomegranate” (anar in Persian), which may be an allusion to the poppy pod’s shape. Opium is locally called taryak, which comes from the old Greek word theriac (7); in the Middle East and south Asia, this word is used more widely than just for opium. It denotes a substance or mixture used to treat pain, wounds and snakebites, and could refer to any number of various of plant and mineral origin including opium. In Sa’adi’s 13th century Golestan, one of the most outstanding works of classical Persian literature, for example, there is the line:

Before theriac arrives from Persia, the one bitten by the snake has already died.

Theriaca, Andrew Weit 2015 MITTEL

Theriaca, Andrew Weit 2015 MITTEL

As to the recent past, a 2003 UNODC report says “opium poppy was not really a ‘traditional crop’ in Afghanistan” and that “unlike many other countries in the region, Afghanistan did not have much of an ‘opium culture’” in the past. The 1949 UNODC report quoted earlier said that, according to the then most recent data sent by the Afghan government (in 1937), “in 1932 the area of cultivation was 3,846 hectares. [This would have been 1.7 per cent of the 2014 peak.] The production was then estimated at 74.5 tons.” The report also mentioned pre-World War II imports of Afghan opium by the Soviet Union, Germany, the US and France and the fact that Afghanistan had prohibited the production of opium in 1945: “No information as to the observance of this prohibition” was available, though, and the 1949 UNODC reports stated that “[t]he Annual Report of India for 1946 mentioned continued smuggling from Afghanistan.” By 1956, Afghan production had fallen to twelve tons.

Two pre-war producing areas were mentioned in the 1949 report, “one in western Afghanistan, adjacent to Khorassan province of eastern Iran [which may have been Herat or Farah], and the other in eastern Afghanistan, near Kashmir [probably Badakhshan and Nangrahar].” However, according to the 2003 report, poppy “was not cultivated in most parts of the country until the 1990s“

In 1971, however, the UN expressed concerns (quoted here) that the Afghan government was “too passive in response to its own recognition that illicit opium production was increasingly taking place and its stated inability to achieve a significant suppression of production” despite the 1945 ban. Two years later, in 1973, German magazine Der Spiegel reported that, driven by a five-fold increase of heroin prices, “farmers in the southwest of Afghanistan are expecting the most abundant opium harvest in living memory – thanks to new irrigation systems installed by US aid workers.” American protests about opium production were rejected by the Afghan government, after which Washington threatened to cut off development aid. Helmand and Kandahar have ever since remained major opium production areas in Afghanistan.

The growing of opium poppy started booming in Afghanistan as a result of two developments. First, as a UN report stated, “between 1972 and the early 1980s three main sources of opium production, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey, were enforcing bans or severe drug control laws, creating an opening for other sources of opium in South-West Asia. … As early as 1972 … it was already clear that Afghanistan could [but had not yet] become an alternative source of supply.” The main opium producer of the late 1970s and early 1980s was still Pakistan and it was in the 1980s that production shifted to Afghanistan, especially the eastern provinces. Further, after the Soviet military intervention in 1979, the central government lost control over many rural areas, and its opponents, the mujahedin, who controlled these areas, expanded poppy production. As Fariba Nawa, an Afghan author, put in her 2012 book Opium Nation:

“It was in the 1980s with the help of the American government that Afghanistan became a major producer of opium. Ronald Reagan’s government looked the other way when Mujahideen guerrillas encouraged farmers to plant poppy and used those profits to buy weapons to fight the Soviets.”

Picturing drug burning and eradication

 Manual eradication of poppy cultivation has been singularly unsuccessful in Afghanistan. Only very small percentages of the crop are generally eradicated. For 2015, no more than the eradication of two per cent of the country’s overall production could be verified by UNODC (which represented already an increase of 40 per cent compared to 2014). And even those eradication efforts are surrounded by rumours alleging that only the small farmers are ‘robbed’ of their harvest and that, in some cases, big landowners pay compensation to those small farmers who ‘allow’ the eradication to show compliance with government and international efforts.

Afghan farmer thanking God for a good harvest. © Alessandro Scotti 2006

Afghan farmer thanking God for a good harvest. © Alessandro Scotti 2006

Similar rumours surround the sensational drug burning ceremonies, where it is often alleged that what is burnt are not drugs but some other, cheap substance. (8) Confiscated drugs have a huge value and it would not be surprising if they were re-channelled into the market.

Drug burning ceremony near Kabul, Afghanistan. © Alessandro Scotti 2006

Drug burning ceremony near Kabul, Afghanistan. © Alessandro Scotti 2006

Posters have also often been a way in which governments and anti-drug agencies have sought (to be seen to be trying) to prevent and combat drug production and use, even though their efficacy is limited. The exhibition in Basel has a slideshow with such anti-opium posters. From a cultural point of view, they are interesting and often unintentionally funny. The opium poppy is often personified and shown as acting by itself, without a human actor needed. It is imbued with mighty power, able to overwhelm human beings and even countries. The combination of skulls, skeletons or much feared animals are superimposed on the drug, which takes on the power of death or of wild animals (see examples below).



Anti-Opium posters from Afghanistan. The slogan of the top one (Kabul, Afghanistan, 1996) reads: “Save the sons of our beloved country from the pernicious jaws of drug addiction” in Dari and Pashto.

Although eradication has been largely ineffective, Afghan film director Siddiq Barmak did run into trouble with it when he shot his movie “Opium War” set in the opium fields of Afghanistan. (The film became Afghanistan’s official submission to the 2009 Academy Awards, ie the Oscars – see its poster below.) The main characters are two US soldiers who crash their helicopter in the Afghan desert and find themselves at the mercy of a family of Afghan opium farmers. Barmak, according to Time magazine, wanted to create a realistic setting, but had to obtain special permission from the Afghan government to plant a field of opium poppies. Nevertheless, Afghan eradication teams came twice attempting to destroy the film set. At the 2008 Rome Film Festival, Barmak’s film won the Golden Marc Aurelio Critics’ Award for Best Film – very much to the point, as the prize’s eponym, the Roman Emperor, was a heavy opium user himself.


Legal – Illegal

Today, the illegal opiate market, its production areas, trade routes and consumption are monitored and analysed by UNODC. In 2014, the illegal production of opium in Afghanistan was 6400 metric tons – (80% per cent of the world production. For 2015, UNODC predicts there will have been a fall to 2,700 to 3,900 tons. However, as AAN has reported, “one year’s result is not a trend” but rather represents one of the occasional lows that in this case was mainly caused by crop failure and market fluctuation.

There is also a global market for legally produced opiates, which is monitored and controlled by the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB). Governments provide estimates of their annual requirements for opium for medical and research purposes. Subsequently, the INCB fixes production quotas that are then allocated to various countries, which in turn guarantee strict controls to ensure that their opium cultivation is secured and that no black market will develop.

In 2014, the main countries producing legal opium were Australia, France, India, Spain, Turkey and Hungary. The legal production of opium for morphine extraction in 2014 was some 7,000 metric tons. Over time there have been suggestions, from within Afghanistan and from non-Afghan organisations, that Afghanistan be given a part of this quota. But the impossibility of controlling the production in Afghanistan stands in the way of such a step.

A pragmatic approach

In contrast to some other countries, Afghanistan’s opium culture is largely based on a business oriented approach. In contrast to southeast Asia, no myths or legends about its origin or history have developed, but there is keen awareness of the value of the crop and price developments across the country and beyond. Various species of papaver somniferum have been developed according to their properties and qualities: pest resistant, water-intensive or not, for early or late harvesting, adjusted to the climates of the different growing areas, for mountainous areas or the lowlands, irrigated or not. This pragmatic approach is highlighted in the Basel exhibition.

It is particularly interesting that, in contrast to the opium and drug wars in other historical periods or currently in other countries, dealing and trading in Afghanistan is relatively peaceful, and crosses ethnic and religious boundaries without many disturbances. While some of the fighting in Helmand and other provinces, past and present, has been caused by conflicts over poppy growing areas, drug routes and taxation of the drug economy, the level of violence is much lower than in for instance Mexico and, in previous decades, Colombia. There, the competition between different networks over markets and trading roots has taken on the dimensions of a civil war. In Afghanistan, in contrast, drug related fighting is part of a wider pattern of conflicts that have – as shown above – boosted the illicit drug economy. The drug trade is also run exclusively by Afghans, at least up to the national borders. Seizures of opium and heroin often come about as a result of competing interests, as traffickers have infiltrated the security apparatus or buy protection from the state. Almost without exception, they are solved without the use of violence.

The exhibition “Opium” can be visited in the Museum der Kulturen (Museum of Cultures) in Basel, Switzerland, till 24 January 2016 (more information here).

All illustrations in this text have been taken or are shown at the Basel exhibition and are used with the kind permission of the organisers.


(1) Kenneth Pomeranz and Steven Topik, The World That Trade Created, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1999.

(2) The statistics can be found in the regular reports of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime – the latest is here. AAN has analysed the latest general trends here and has recently also written about the appearance of crystal meth on the Afghan drug market, which seems to constitute a new trend in Afghanistan’s drug production and use (AAN reporting here).

(3) Nathan Allen, Opium Trade, Boston: Lowell, 1853, p 6; Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy, “Afghanistan’s Opium Production in Perspective”, China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, Volume 4, No. 1 (2006), p 21-24.

(4) Sources: “Erste Medizinkonzepte zwischen Magie und Vernunft, 3000-500 v. Chr.”, in: H. Schott (ed), Die Chronik der Medizin, Chronik-Verlag, Dortmund 1993, pp 16-33 and Csaba Nikolaus Nemes, “Der Mohn in der bildenden Kunst und Literatur (Opium, Mithridatica, Theriak, Laudanum, Morphin und Heroin)”, University of Heidelberg (p 27).

(5) Katja Mielke, “Opium as a economic engine: Drug economy without alternatives?” in: Wegweiser zur Geschichte: Afghanistan, Potsdam: MGFA 2007, 207; Jonathan Goodhand, “From holy war to opium war? A case study of the opium economy in North Eastern Afghanistan”, Central Asian Survey (2000), 19(2), 270.

(6) Zheng Yangwen, The Social Life of Opium in China, Cambridge University Press 2005. China itself was ‘opened’ up for the opium trade by force, through the so-called Opium Wars (1840-42 and 1856-60) at the initiative of the British East India Company which had earlier taken over poppy cultivation in Moghul India. After the Opium Wars, China became a major producer, with a peak output of 41,000 tons in 1906: at that time, this was 85 per cent of world production and amounted to more than six times Afghan production in 2014.

In Moghul India, between 1773 and 1797, the British East India Company, replaced the indigenous syndicates. Up to the end of the first half of the 19th century, around 280 tons were produced annually, but by 1858, opium was being exported from India to China in an amount that roughly equalled Afghanistan’s 2014 production of 6400 tons, as Alfred W. McCoy writes in his contribution to the exhibition’s publication.

At its peak in the late 19th century, Bengal’s opium production stretched for 500 miles along the Ganges River Valley, with over a million registered farmers growing opium poppy exclusively for the Company on some 500,000 acres of prime land. From their factories in Patna and Benares in the heart of opium country, British officers directed some 2,000 Indian agents who circulated through the opium poppy districts, extending credit and collecting opium. … Not only did opium solve the fiscal crisis that accompanied the British conquest of Bengal, it remained a staple of colonial finances, providing from six to fifteen per cent of British India’s tax revenues during the 19th century.

(7) The pomegranate and the poppy pod were often used as symbols of fertility in ancient Greece, Mesopotamia, Turkey etc, because of the many seeds they contain. An opium pod contains up to 2000 seeds and more.

The word ‘opium’ itself might have travelled from east to west, with opium poppy being called apiphena in old Sanskrit scriptures (here) which later became afyun in Greek.

(8) Large quantities of illegally produced drugs that are confiscated by the police are often burnt in highly publicised ceremonies. The sacks or plastic bags supposedly filled with the drugs are piled onto wooden logs, petrol is poured over them and the pile is lit, after which the bonfire starts, creating a thick black smoke. Representatives from embassies, the United Nations and the press are often invited to witness this destruction through fire. Until today, such burning ceremonies are celebrated in Myanmar, Thailand, Pakistan, China, Iran and also in Afghanistan. These ceremonies are meant to produce iconic pictures of success in the ‘war on drugs’.


exhibition Museum der Kulturen Basel opium taryak


Doris Buddenberg

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