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Rebuilding Afghanistan Pot by Pot: The Turquoise Mountain Foundation and the Potters of Istalif
by Noah Coburn and Ester Svensson

The Turquoise Mountain Foundation is a non-profit, non-governmental organization which invests in Afghanistan’s traditional crafts, historic building and landscapes in order to preserve cultural heritage, improve living conditions and create economic opportunities. The Turquoise Mountain Foundation believes that the preservation of Afghan culture is vitally and urgently linked to the country’s much needed economic, social and urban regeneration. The Foundation currently has a ceramics school in Kabul and a Resource Center in the town of Istalif, where Afghan potters come daily to learn safer, more effective techniques. The aim of the Turquoise Mountain’s work is not to alter traditional skills, but to preserve Afghanistan's crafts while opening them to wider markets. www.turquoisemountain.org.

Kabul is a city teeming with construction. Returning refugees contribute to the sprawl of the city, while international companies and governmental organizations build taller and taller buildings downtown. Infrastructure struggles to keep pace; water and electricity are scarce, traffic crawls down unpaved streets and even the richest neighborhoods lack plans for sewage. Outside of Kabul the pace of life is slower. Traditional towns and villages have changed little in the past hundred years. Reconstruction and the impact of foreign aid have been minimal and much of the country struggles with poverty and hunger.

Areas such as the Shomali Plain north of Kabul were devastated by fighting with the Taliban and have been very slow to rebuild. Many of these towns have struggled to reconstruct themselves and have been forced to find their own means of economic development. For Istalif, a town an hour and a half north of Kabul, in the foothills of the Hindu Kush, this means returning to their traditional crafts to drive their own rebuilding process. Istalifi potters in particular have come back to rebuild their kilns and return to methods of potting which have been passed from father to son for generations.

Istalif has long been renowned for its gardens and traditional crafts. The Empire Babur praised the beauty of Istalif’s gardens. Before the Soviet invasion, Istalif was a popular spot for tourists and Kabulis to visit on the weekend. However, Istalif’s location also made it a target for military strikes during Afghanistan’s 25 years of war.


As a primarily Tajik town, at the edge of the mountains and therefore an ideal route between Kabul and the safety of the hills for resistance fighters, the Taliban saw Istalif as a threat to their rule of Kabul. As a result after weeks of fierce fighting, the Taliban took control of the town. They gave the residents a few hours warning and then slowly and methodically buried or razed every building in town.

Most of the potters in Istalif fled to Kabul, many walking for almost a month to avoid the intense fighting while carrying all their positions. Most remained in Kabul, living in poverty with relatives or in squatter villages, until the fall of the Taliban. Almost immediately after Hamid Karzai’s interim government arrived, Istalifi potters began to move slowly back to their destroyed homes and returned to what they do best, making pots.

The Hindu Kush Mountains above some of the still unrepaired houses of Istalif.

Istalifi Pottery:

The methods of the Istalifi potters have changed little despite the upheaval of the past three decades. They use a mixture of earthenware clays that they collect in the mountains above Istalif and bring to their workshops by donkey. To the clay they add a plant fiber called gul-e loch, which makes the clay more workable, but also makes their pots much more brittle. They do all their measuring by eye and then the clay is mixed together by stamping it with their feet for between two and four hours.

The Istalifi potters are masters on the kick wheel and traditionally make a variety of bowls and plates. They throw off a hump and often produce as many as 50 bowls an hour when they are pressed for time. Since the 1970s however, they have increasingly made candlesticks and other decorative objects, which both foreigners and visiting Kabulis purchase.

Sieving the clay

mixing clay

The unfired pots are then dipped into a white slip containing chakhma, or ground quartz, and a white clay. The potters then use three different glazes. The most popular, sundur, is a beautiful, but also highly toxic lead glaze. By working with the Turquoise Mountain Foundation and other non-profit organizations, the potters have come to realize the danger of the lead in this glaze and are beginning to use it less. In the past, the potters used an alkaline glaze called ishkor, made from the ash of a mountain bush found north of the Hindu Kush. Mixed with copper this produces a beautiful turquoise glaze for which Istalif has long been famous.

Potter using kickwheel

Istalif potters

The potters fire in traditional updraft kilns made with house bricks and clay. The kilns are fired for between five and seven hours, requiring over a thousand pounds of wood. The potters pack the kiln using a series of tripod stilts. This allows them to pack an incredible number of pots upside down into rather small kilns, but leaves three small scars on each pot.

A potter packs his kiln


The Challenges:

While Istalifi potters have worked hard to revive their traditional crafts they still face severe challenges, which the Turquoise Mountain Foundation is working with them to overcome.

Currently the Istalifi pots are brittle and impossible to export to wider international markets. Much of this is due to the fact that their wood kilns do not reach high enough temperatures and are very difficult to control. The Turquoise Mountain Foundation is currently working with a group of potters, teaching them how to build gas kilns. These potters will then build a gas kiln at TMF Resource Center, which will be available to all potters. Micro-lending programs will then allow groups of potters to construct their own cost-effective and more environmentally-friendly kilns. Such shared kilns will allow the potters to produce less brittle pots, will help slow the deforestation problem that confronts much of rural Afghanistan, and make it more economically viable for the potters to remove the tripod stilts.

The Resource Center also serves as a place where visiting ceramists can come and work with the potters of Istalif. The Resource Center provides workshops for the potters that emphasize the use of safer materials and the dangers of lead-based glazes. Pottery remains a central part of the social organization of the village. Beyond their work with potters, TMF is also establishing several social programs that are run out of the Resource Center including literacy classes and workshops on business development.
Above on the right are the tripod stilts that the potters use in stacking
and in the upper-left some of the lead-based glaze being ground.

The Turquoise Mountain Foundation’s work in Istalif began by primarily aiding the potters and their families, but the unique history and geography of Istalif are allowing traditional crafts slowly to revive the economy of the town. This is a town which can be reconstructed, primarily by relying on the appeal of their ancient craft. The Turquoise Mountain Foundation is in the process of building a visitor’s center near the town bazaar. This center will have museum displays about the history of Afghan pottery and will also be a place for the potters to display their work for visitors from Kabul and abroad.

The Turquoise Mountain Foundation is in need of continued support for its work with the potters of Istalif and other traditional Afghan crafts. To find out more about Turquoise Mountain’s work in Istalif or to make a financial contribution please contact us at ceramics@turquoisemountain.org. You may also contribute online at our website www.turquoisemountain.org.

Images & article courtesy The Turquoise Mountain Foundation, Kabul.

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