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Article

Afghan Trading Networks  

Magnus Marsden and Benjamin D. Hopkins

Afghanistan has long been conventionally regarded as a remote space peripheral to the wider world. Yet scholarship produced in the 2nd decade of the 21st century suggests its multiple connections to a wide array of regions and settings. Such connections are especially visible when viewed through the lens of the trade networks originating from the territories of modern Afghanistan. Scholars have come to recognize that Afghan traders have long been active players in many contexts across Asia and beyond. Such traders and the networks they form play a critically important role in connecting different parts of Asia with one another, including South Asia and Eurasia, as well as East and West Asia. The connective role performed by Afghan caravanners and religious minorities in the trade between India and Central Asia are especially well documented by historians. Increasingly so too are the activities of Afghan merchants in Ottoman territories. The trading networks Afghan traders have participated in are historically dynamic. Their orientating values shift across time and space between various forms of religious, ethno-linguistic, and political identity. The capacity to adapt to changing circumstances is helpful in understanding the continuing relevance of Afghan traders to 21st-century forms of globalized capitalism, in contexts as varied as the former Soviet Union, China, and the Arabian Peninsula.

Article

Global Mobile Afghanistan c. 1900–Present  

Magnus Marsden

Afghanistan has long been associated in scholarly and more popular work with images of remoteness and isolation from the modern world. Over the first two decades of the 21st century in particular, however, scholarship on the country has increasingly brought attention to Afghanistan’s multiple connections to a wide range of contexts, both regional and global. This work has focused on the agency that mobile people from Afghanistan have exerted by connecting the country to global transformations, and shaping the influences these have had on its dynamics. Scholars have brought attention to the importance of social networks made of traders and merchants, students, religious scholars, as well as refugees and exiles in mediating Afghanistan’s connection with the global world over the 20th century.

Article

The History of Anthropometry and Fingerprinting in Colonial South Asia  

Mira Rai Waits

In the late 19th century, an obsession with identifying and classifying people emerged in the West. Efforts to develop lines of inquiry to support this obsession were common; visual technologies were harnessed and invented to further the acquisition of knowledge about human identity and classification. Anthropometry, the measurement of the human individual to understand physical variation, was used as the foundation for Bertillonage, a system designed to identify recidivists through a standardized collection of images and data sets about the human body. Consequently, anthropometry came to be associated with broader efforts to manage crime in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as law enforcement touted the potential of visual technologies and their related archival systems as mechanisms for improving criminal identification. This interest in visual technologies and criminal identification coupled with the colonial exploration of South Asia in the 19th century led to anthropometric studies of South Asian peoples. Some of these studies were tied to institutions of colonial law enforcement, such as the police or prison system, but others, including the late 19th-century study of the people of the Andaman Islands, demonstrate how the broader obsession with human identification and classification was tied to efforts to study race as a measurable subject. Colonial civil servants also turned to visual technologies for assistance with the management of colonial subjects. In 1858, Sir William James Herschel, the chief administrator of the Hooghly district of Bengal, after observing a native practice where fingermarks were used as marks of authenticity for the illiterate, began to experiment with taking handprints and fingerprints as identifying images. Scottish doctor Henry Faulds had contemporaneously expressed a similar interest in studying fingerprints after observing sample prints on ancient pottery while serving as a medical missionary in Japan. Herschel shared his findings with Sir Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics, who, after reviewing Herschel’s findings, posited that fingerprints were permanent visual markers of identity. Following this observation, Sir Edward Richard Henry, inspector-general of police of Bengal, along with police sub-inspectors Chandra Bose and Azizul Haque, developed a classification system for using fingerprints to identify recidivist criminals. This system was exported from colonial India to Britain and then on to police organizations globally.

Article

Humanitarian Aid and Development Assistance in Afghanistan since 1979  

Jennifer L. Fluri and Rachel Lehr

Afghanistan has been on the receiving end of uneven development aid and humanitarian assistance since the early days of the Cold War. Since the onset of war in 1979, a lack of strategic planning has contributed to poorly coordinated and irregularly implemented relief and development aid only worsened by proxy wars of competing empires and the capriciousness of donor governments. Armed conflict, whether between empires or regional and local actors, has been a consistent challenge. The intent of humanitarian assistance is to alleviate suffering and save lives in times of crisis, political or environmental. It is by design reactive, limited in duration and reach. The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan has required relief and assistance over a long rather than limited time period. Humanitarian aid worldwide is mostly coordinated through UN agencies and implemented by local affiliates or partners. Development aid is designed to address structural issues in a country in order to improve lives and livelihoods, through improvement programs for infrastructure and economies. Institutional and political reform are part of development aid, often conceived in accordance with the political systems and to meet the goals and interests of donor countries. In Afghanistan, in the past twenty years the problems relating to the distribution of massive amounts of donor funding, the coordination and implementation between local and international Non-Governmental Organizations, the role of the United Nations, and the international military forces, have all hampered success across spatial scales. From 1979 to 1992 humanitarian assistance was also delivered in response to the political goals of donors—in the proxy war between the US and Soviet empires—and from 2001 to 2021 as a primary target of the US-led Global War on Terror. Relief and aid have always suffered from top-down administration, allocation decisions made at the donors’ political whims, decisions about programs and budgets taken at headquarters, or implementation in the field where reality does not meet expectations.

Article

Indus Valley: Early Commercial Connections with Central and Western Asia  

Dennys Frenez

The study of the commercial and cultural connections between the Greater Indus Valley and other regions of Central and Western Asia occupies a pivotal role in scholarly research on the Indus Tradition. Interregional trade was already established in the Indus River basin during the Neolithic period in the 6th millennium BCE. However, from the early 3rd millennium bce, the Indus (Harappan) merchants and craftspeople contributed to defining, promoting, and regulating long-distance, cross-cultural trade exchanges throughout this region. Indus-type and Indus-related artifacts have been found over a large and differentiated ecumene, encompassing Central Asia, the Iranian Plateau, Mesopotamia and the northern Levant, the Persian Gulf, and the Oman Peninsula. The discovery of Indus trade tools (seals, weights, and containers) in all of Middle Asia, complemented by information from Mesopotamian cuneiform texts, shows that entrepreneurs from the Indus Valley regularly ventured into these regions to transact with the local socioeconomic and political entities. However, Indus artifacts were also exchanged beyond this core region, eventually reaching as far as the Nile Valley, Anatolia, and the Caucasus. In contrast, only a handful of exotic trade tools and commodities have been found at sites in the Greater Indus Valley. The success of Indus trade in Central and Western Asia did not depend solely on the dynamic entrepreneurialism of Indus merchants and the exotic commodities they offered. Specific products were proactively designed and manufactured in the Indus Valley to fulfill the particular needs of foreign markets, and Indus craftspeople moved beyond their native cultural sphere, adapting their distinctive productions to the tastes of foreign elites or reworking indigenous models. The adoption of specific seals and iconographies to regulate external trade activities suggests a conscious attempt to implement a coordinated supraregional marketing strategy adopting shared rules and procedures, with observable globalizing impacts in various contexts of Central and Western Asia.

Article

The Maratha Empire  

Sumit Guha

The Marathas, now sometimes called “Maharashtrians,” are an Indic people, speakers of the Marathi language. The boundaries of the modern Indian state of Maharashtra were drawn so as to include all majority Marathi-speaking areas. The Marathi language emerged a thousand years ago, but the Maratha Empire took shape only after 1674. Its leaders contended with the Mughal Empire and contributed to its downfall. They created a loosely knit but dynamic political system that grew within the frame of Mughal imperial power while reducing it to a shadow of its former self. Maratha governors ruled the great cities of Agra and Delhi, and it was from them that the British wrested control of north India in 1803–1806. The residual Maratha states still put up a fierce resistance before succumbing to the new British Empire in 1818. British historians wrote the first draft of Indian history. The English public was uninterested in the Marathas. The Mughal dynasty and the older states of Rajasthan received far more favorable attention. The historical narrative that the British rescued India from chaos also required a depiction of the Marathas as predatory sources of disorder. This representation has resulted in minimizing the commercial dynamism and flexibility of Maratha administration. Maratha taxation was far from destructive. It operated within a dynamic political economy. While periodically affected (as Indian governments had long been) by climatic catastrophe or political breakdown, this economy could recuperate quickly in better times. The Maratha Empire also represented a unique identification between a people and an empire. Ordinary Maharashtrian farmers served in its armies, were proud of its political achievements, and identified with the Maratha patria. The empire was also marked by a continuity with the symmetrical patterns of kinship and marriage customary in Maharashtra. While sons of secondary wives could rise to high positions in the lineage, primary marriages continued to be with women of status. Affinal relatives were recognized and played a large role in governance. Also, unlike the Mughal Empire, the Marathas used their own language wherever they ruled, enriching and elaborating it all the while. This prefigured the rise of linguistic nationalisms more generally in India under British rule.

Article

Objects and Material Cultures in Afghanistan, c. 100–1500 CE  

Alka Patel

During the first 1.5 millennia of the Common Era (c. 100–1500 ce), the multiple cultural geographies constituting the contemporary nation-state of Afghanistan were collectively a place of significant and enduring encounters among traditions and lifeways from across Eurasia. Just as migrating and settling populations contributed new ways of believing and making to Afghanistan’s already rich socio-religious tapestry, objects that arrived through trade and pilgrimage also acted as conveyors of ideas originating elsewhere, often combining with existing traditions and resulting in innovative iconographies (visual content) and styles (methods of depiction, visual languages). An examination of Afghanistan through its objects and their material cultures during these centuries is especially rewarding, as this approach illustrates the multidirectional connections between Afghanistan and its Eurasian neighbors near and far. In turn, these transregional connections came to shape religions, languages, political systems, and other cultural aspects not only of Afghanistan but also of other contiguous areas throughout the first 2 millennia ce.

Article

The Persian Cosmopolis  

Richard Eaton

The Persian cosmopolis refers to the vast territory between the Balkans and Bengal in which, for 1000 years, an integrated sense of moral, social, political, and aesthetic order was informed by the circulation of normative Persian texts. Several centuries after the Arab conquest of the Iranian plateau, a spoken form of a hybridized Middle Persian and Arabic emerged in written form, using a modified Arabic script. What had begun as a regional vernacular swiftly became a transregional, literary medium as regional courts in Khurasan and Central Asia patronized Persian literature and used that language in their bureaucracies, building on a tradition of professional writers that had served Persian empires for centuries. The technology of paper-making, recently introduced from China, facilitated the rapid movement of Persian texts across space, while Firdausi’s epic poem the Shah-nama (1010) celebrated Iranian mythology and pre-Islamic history in ways that connected widely scattered peoples of different ethnicities. Territorial conquests by Persianized Turks, followed by Mongol invasions that drove peoples of Central Asia and Khurasan into new lands, also served to expand the geographical extent of the Persian cosmopolis. By the 14th and 15th centuries, the political, aesthetic, and moral order elaborated in a growing Persian canon—for example, the principle of justice—had become associated with a prestigious, cosmopolitan style that was emulated and absorbed by widely scattered peoples of diverse ethnicities and religions. Persianate architecture, attire, urban design, music, cuisine, and numismatic traditions were also assimilated by such peoples. With the translation of a rich store of romance literature into vernacular tongues, the Persian cosmopolis became as much a subjective phenomenon, inhabiting people’s collective imagination, as it was an objective, mappable zone in which popular, discursive, and normative texts circulated along networks that connected royal courts, provincial notables, Sufi lodges, merchant communities, and schools.

Article

The Kushan Empire  

Xinru Liu

The Kushan Empire was a political power that started as a nomadic tribe from the Central Asian steppe and became established as sedentary state across South Asia and Central Asia. Migrating from the border of agricultural China in late 2nd century bce to north Afghanistan, by the 1st century ce, the Yuezhi nomads transformed themselves into a ruling elite in a large area from Afghanistan to the Indus Valley and North Indian Plain, embracing many linguistic and ethnic groups. Adapting the Persian satrapy administrative system into Indian kshatrapa administration, the Kushan regime gave much autonomy to local institutions such as castes, guilds, and Buddhist monasteries and meanwhile won support from those local communities. Legacies from Achaemenid Persia and Hellenistic cities, the cultures of various nomadic groups from Central Asia, and Buddhist and Brahmanical traditions merged to create a cosmopolitan Kushan material culture and art. Mahāyāna Buddhist theology and institutions matured in the Kushan economic and cultural environment and were propagated to Central Asia and China from there. Having under their control several important commodities, such as silk, lapis lazuli, and horses, demanded by elites from the Roman Empire, the Han Empire, and the Parthian Empire, the Kushan court sat on a key location of the Eurasian trade networks, or the Silk Road. The Kushan Empire benefited from the Silk Road trade economically and meanwhile received knowledge of faraway countries and facilitated transferring the information to the visions of the Romans, Parthians, and Chinese.

Article

Trade, Buddhism, and the Kushan Connection: Exchange across the Pamir Knot and the Making of the Silk Roads, 2nd Century bce to 5th Century CE  

Tomas Larson Høisæter

The history of contact and exchange across the mountain ranges radiating out from the Pamir knot, separating the three regions of Central Asia, Inner Asia, and Northwestern India, can be traced far back into prehistory, seen in the movements of languages, crops, and animals. From around the 2nd century bce onward, however, these connections steadily grew in intensity. New political connections were drawn across the mountains by the rise of the Kushan Empire in Central Asia, as they came to control much of Northwestern India and exert a significant influence in Inner Asia. Around the same time, Buddhism was spreading northward from Northwestern India into both Central and Inner Asia, bringing with it several innovations and practices that would come to shape these two regions for almost a millennium. Finally, paralleling these political and cultural developments, economic interaction between the three regions steadily grew, with both merchants and large quantities of goods moving between them. These developments feed into one another as local communities grew more and more enmeshed into the growing networks, serving to lay the foundation upon which the fabled Silk Roads could operate.

Article

The Wakhan Quadrangle  

Hermann Kreutzmann

The Wakhan Quadrangle emerged as a geopolitical constellation and situation in which a less important area—in terms of demographic size, political power, and economic wealth—can be perceived as a central arena for the ambitions of imperial powers. Since the second half of the 19th century, four major players participated in the competition as actors with competing stakes. Afghanistan, China, Great Britain, and Tsarist Russia turned to each other with spatial interests of expansion. The immediate protagonists were involved with or influencing one of the regional actors: Badakhshan, Xinjiang, Kashmir, and the Emirate of Bokhara are four representatives closing in on Wakhan, which still had maintained its autonomy as a quasi-independent principality in an economically marginal and remote high-mountain location with non-demarcated and shifting limits of authority. Overall political tensions grew during the hot phase of the Great Game. Upon the precautionary move into exile by its last ruler, Mir Ali Mardan Shah, Wakhan became an object of bargaining in the imperial endgame before international boundaries were delineated by the supreme powers. Wakhan ended up as a divided territory between Afghanistan and tsarist Russia, functioned as a spatial buffer between British India and its successors against Central Asian neighbors since, and its limits became a hermetic boundary between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Since delineating the boundaries, only the Afghan section is easily visible on maps and commonly perceived as the Wakhan strip.