Afghānistān, officially the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (Pashto: د افغانستان اسلامي جمهوریت, Persian: جمهوری اسلامی افغانستان,Turkish:Afganistan), is a landlocked country at the crossroads of Asia and the Middle East. Generally considered a part of Central Asia, it is sometimes ascribed to a regional bloc in either South Asia or even perhaps the Middle East as it has cultural, ethno-linguistic, and geographic links with most of its neighbours. It is largely bordered by Pakistan in the south and east, Iran in the west, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in the north, and the People's Republic of China in the far east. The name Afghanistan means "Land of the Afghans".


Afghanistan national emblem


Afghanistan is a mosaic of ethnic groups and cultures, and a crossroads between east and west. An ancient land that has often been plundered and also a focal point of trade. The region of present-day Afghanistan has seen many invading forces come and go, including Persians, Greeks, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, British and Soviets. Afghanistan was created in 1747 as a large empire, its modern-day shape was recognized by the international community as a fully independent state in 1919, when foreign intervention ceased following the Anglo-Afghan wars. Since 1979, the country has suffered almost continous conflict, beginning with the Soviet invasion followed by civil war and finally by the 2001 US war on terror, in which the ruling Taliban regime was toppled. In December 2001, the United Nations Security Council authorized the creation of an International Security Assistance Force. This force, composed of US and NATO troops is assisting the government of President Hamid Karzai in establishing authority across the country.





The name Afghānistān literally translates to Land of the Afghans. Its modern usage derives from the word Afghan. The Pashtuns began using the term Afghan as a name for themselves from the Islamic period onwards. According to W.K. Frazier Tyler, M.C. Gillet and several other scholars, "The word Afghan first appears in history in the Hudud-al-Alam in 982 AD." The last part of the name Afghānistān (-istān) originates from the Persian word stān (country or land). The English word Afghanland that appeared in various treaties between Qajar Dynasty and the United Kingdom dealing with the lands between Iran and British Raj inhabited by Pashtun tribes (modern Southeastern Afghanistan) was adopted by Afghan officials and became Afghanistan.


However, Afghanistan was pronounced by its current name in 18th century when Ahmad Shah Durrani formed the new government based on Pashtun rule, and was officially named as Afghanistan during the ruling of Abdur Rahman Khan. Before the 18th century, the region of present-day Afghanistan was known as a province of Greater Iran called Khorasan.



Afghanistan troops in the mountain passes


Soviet troops withdrawing from Afghanistan in 1988



The Encyclopaedia of Islam states:


Afghānistān has borne that name only since the middle of the 18th century, when the supremacy of the Afghan race (Pashtuns) became assured: previously various districts bore distinct apellations, but the country was not a definite political unit, and its component parts were not bound together by any identity of race or language. The earlier meaning of the word was simply “the land of the Afghans”, a limited territory which did not include many parts of the present state but did comprise large districts now either independent or within the boundary of Pakistan.




Excavation of prehistoric sites suggests that early humans lived in Afghanistan at least 50,000 years ago, and that farming communities in Afghanistan were among the earliest in the world.


Afghanistan exists at a unique nexus point where numerous Eurasian civilizations have interacted and often fought, and was an important site of early historical activity. Through the ages, the Hindu Kush has been home to the Aryans (Indo-Europeans: Indo-Aryans, Persians, Medes, Parthians, etc.). It also has been invaded by a host of people, including the Greeks, Mauryans, Kushans, Hepthalites, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, British, Soviets, and most recently by the Americans. On other occasions, native Afghan entities have invaded surrounding regions to form empires of their own.


Between 2000 and 1200 BC, waves of Indo-European-speaking Aryans are thought to have flooded into this part of Asia which now consists of modern-day Afghanistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan,Tajikistan, Pakistan and others, setting up a nation that during the rule of Medes and the Persian Empire became known as Aryānām Xšaθra or Airyānem Vāejah. Later, during the rule of Ashkanian, Sasanian and after, it was called Erānshahr ايرانشهر (Irānshæhr) meaning "Dominion of the Aryans", which included large parts of Mesopotamia, the Caucasus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran and modern-day Central Asia (Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, the western part of Pakistan, etc.).



Afghanistan world location map


Afghanistan world location map





Afghanistan is a land-locked, mountainous, central Asian country, with plains in the north and southwest. The highest point, at 7485 m (24,557 ft) above sea level, is Nowshak. Large parts of the country are dry, and fresh water supplies are limited. Afghanistan has a continental climate, with hot summers and cold winters. The country is frequently subject to earthquakes.


At 249,984 mi² (647,500 km²), Afghanistan is the world's 41st-largest country (after Burma). It is comparable in size to Somalia, and is somewhat smaller than the US state of Texas.


The country's natural resources include copper, zinc and iron ore in central areas; precious and semi-precious stones such as lapis, emerald and azure in the north-east and east; and potentially significant oil and gas reserves in the north. However, these significant mineral and energy resources remain largely untapped due to the effects of the Soviet invasion and the subsequent civil war.



Afghanistan Kabul business centre


Business Center in Kabul





Afghanistan is an extremely impoverished country, one of the world's poorest and least developed nations. Two-thirds of the population lives on less than US$2 a day. The economy has suffered greatly from the recent political and military unrest since the 1979-80 Soviet invasion and subsequent conflicts, while severe drought added to the nation's difficulties in 1998-2001.


The economically active population in 2002 was about 11 million (out of a total of an estimated 29 million). While there are no official unemployment rate estimates available, it is evident that it is high. The number of non-skilled young people is estimated at 3 million, which is likely to increase by some 300,000 per annum.


As much as one-third of Afghanistan's GDP comes from growing poppy and illicit drugs including opium and its two derivatives, morphine and heroin, as well as hashish production.


On a positive note, international efforts to rebuild Afghanistan led to the formation of the Afghan Interim Authority (AIA) as a result of the December 2001 Bonn Agreement, and later addressed at the Tokyo Donors Conference for Afghan Reconstruction in January 2002, where $4.5 billion was committed in a trust fund to be administered by the World Bank Group. Priority areas for reconstruction include the rebuilding of the educational system, health, and sanitation facilities, enhancement of administrative capacity, the development of the agricultural sector, and the rebuilding of road, energy, and telecommunication links.



Map of Afghanistan showing ethnic composition


Map showing distribution of ethnic groups in Afghanistan





The population of Afghanistan is divided into a wide variety of ethnic groups. Because a systematic census has not been held in the country in decades, exact figures about the size and composition of the various ethnic groups are not available. Therefore most figures are approximations only. According to the CIA World Factbook, an approximate ethnic group distribution is as follows:

  • Pashtun: 42% (in gray)

  • Tajik & Parsiwan: 27% (in pink)

  • Hazara: 9% (in yellow)

  • Uzbek: 9% (in dark green)

  • Aimak: 4%

  • Turkmen: 3% (in light green)

  • Baloch: 2% (in orange)

  • Other (i.e. Pashai, Nuristani, Brahui, Kizilbash, etc.): 5%



The CIA factbook on languages spoken in Afghanistan is as follows: Pashto 35% (in gray) and Persian (Dari) 50% (in pink), both Indo-European languages from the Iranian languages sub-family. Others include Turkic languages (primarily Uzbek and Turkmen) 9% (in green), as well as 30 minor languages 4% (primarily Balochi (in orange) and Pashai (in blue) and Nuristasni (in purple). Bilingualism is common.




Religiously, Afghans are over 99% Muslim (approximately 80% Sunni and 19% Shi'a). Other religions in Afghanistan include Zoroastrianism, Sikhism, and Hinduism. Afghanistan was once home to an ancient Jewish community, numbering approximately 5,000 in 1948.  Most Jewish families fled the country after the 1979 Soviet invasion, and only one individual, Zablon Simintov, remains today. With the fall of the Taliban, a number of Sikhs have returned to the Ghazni, Nangarhar, Kandahar and Kabul provinces of Afghanistan.



Largest cities


The only city in Afghanistan with over one million residents is its capital, Kabul. The other major cities in the country are, in order of population size, Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-e Sharif, Jalalabad, and Kunduz.



Afghanistan President Hamid Karzal


President Hamid Karzai casting his vote at the 2004 Presidential elections





In 1984 Sharbat Gula was a student in an informal school, her parents had been killed and she was living in a refugee camp in Pakistan. The girl’s haunted, intense green eyes seemed to symbolize the suffering of the Afghan people and made the picture shown on this page below internationally famous. McCurry, rarely given the opportunity to photograph Afghan women, seized the opportunity and captured her image. She made it on the cover of National Geographic, her identity was only discovered in 1992.

She remembers the moment. The photographer took her picture. She remembers her anger. The man was a stranger. She had never been photographed before. Until they met again 17 years later, she had not been photographed since.

The photographer remembers the moment too. The light was soft. The refugee camp in Pakistan was a sea of tents. Inside the school tent he noticed her first. Sensing her shyness, he approached her last. She told him he could take her picture. “I didn’t think the photograph of the girl would be different from anything else I shot that day,” he recalls of that morning in 1984 spent documenting the ordeal of Afghanistan’s refugees.



Sharbat Gula as a young refugee


Sharbat Gula as a young refugee

The portrait by Steve McCurry turned out to be one of those images that sears the heart, and in June 1985 it ran on the cover of this magazine. Her eyes are sea green. They are haunted and haunting, and in them you can read the tragedy of a land drained by war. She became known around National Geographic as the “Afghan girl,” and for 17 years no one knew her name.

In January a team from National Geographic Television & Film’s EXPLORER brought McCurry to Pakistan to search for the girl with green eyes. They showed her picture around Nasir Bagh, the still standing refugee camp near Peshawar where the photograph had been made. A teacher from the school claimed to know her name. A young woman named Alam Bibi was located in a village nearby, but McCurry decided it wasn’t her.

No, said a man who got wind of the search. He knew the girl in the picture. They had lived at the camp together as children. She had returned to Afghanistan years ago, he said, and now lived in the mountains near Tora Bora. He would go get her.

It took three days for her to arrive. Her village is a six-hour drive and three-hour hike across a border that swallows lives. When McCurry saw her walk into the room, he thought to himself: This is her.

Names have power, so let us speak of hers. Her name is Sharbat Gula, and she is Pashtun, that most warlike of Afghan tribes. It is said of the Pashtun that they are only at peace when they are at war, and her eyes—then and now—burn with ferocity. She is 28, perhaps 29, or even 30. No one, not even she, knows for sure. Stories shift like sand in a place where no records exist.

Time and hardship have erased her youth. Her skin looks like leather. The geometry of her jaw has softened. The eyes still glare; that has not softened. “She’s had a hard life,” said McCurry. “So many here share her story.” Consider the numbers. Twenty-three years of war, 1.5 million killed, 3.5 million refugees: This is the story of Afghanistan in the past quarter century.

Now, consider this photograph of a young girl with sea green eyes. Her eyes challenge ours. Most of all, they disturb. We cannot turn away.

“There is not one family that has not eaten the bitterness of war,” a young Afghan merchant said in the 1985 National Geographic story that appeared with Sharbat’s photograph on the cover. She was a child when her country was caught in the jaws of the Soviet invasion. A carpet of destruction smothered countless villages like hers. She was perhaps six when Soviet bombing killed her parents. By day the sky bled terror. At night the dead were buried. And always, the sound of planes, stabbing her with dread.

“We left Afghanistan because of the fighting,” said her brother, Kashar Khan, filling in the narrative of her life. He is a straight line of a man with a raptor face and piercing eyes. “The Russians were everywhere. They were killing people. We had no choice.”

Shepherded by their grandmother, he and his four sisters walked to Pakistan. For a week they moved through mountains covered in snow, begging for blankets to keep warm.

“You never knew when the planes would come,” he recalled. “We hid in caves.”

The journey that began with the loss of their parents and a trek across mountains by foot ended in a refugee camp tent living with strangers.

“Rural people like Sharbat find it difficult to live in the cramped surroundings of a refugee camp,” explained Rahimullah Yusufzai, a respected Pakistani journalist who acted as interpreter for McCurry and the television crew. “There is no privacy. You live at the mercy of other people.” More than that, you live at the mercy of the politics of other countries. “The Russian invasion destroyed our lives,” her brother said.

It is the ongoing tragedy of Afghanistan. Invasion. Resistance. Invasion. Will it ever end? “Each change of government brings hope,” said Yusufzai. “Each time, the Afghan people have found themselves betrayed by their leaders and by outsiders professing to be their friends and saviors.”

In the mid-1990s, during a lull in the fighting, Sharbat Gula went home to her village in the foothills of mountains veiled by snow. To live in this earthen-colored village at the end of a thread of path means to scratch out an existence, nothing more. There are terraces planted with corn, wheat, and rice, some walnut trees, a stream that spills down the mountain (except in times of drought), but no school, clinic, roads, or running water.

Here is the bare outline of her day. She rises before sunrise and prays. She fetches water from the stream. She cooks, cleans, does laundry. She cares for her children; they are the center of her life. Robina is 13. Zahida is three. Alia, the baby, is one. A fourth daughter died in infancy. Sharbat has never known a happy day, her brother says, except perhaps the day of her marriage.

Her husband, Rahmat Gul, is slight in build, with a smile like the gleam of a lantern at dusk. She remembers being married at 13. No, he says, she was 16. The match was arranged.

He lives in Peshawar (there are few jobs in Afghanistan) and works in a bakery. He bears the burden of medical bills; the dollar a day he earns vanishes like smoke. Her asthma, which cannot tolerate the heat and pollution of Peshawar in summer, limits her time in the city and with her husband to the winter. The rest of the year she lives in the mountains.

At the age of 13, Yusufzai, the journalist, explained, she would have gone into purdah, the secluded existence followed by many Islamic women once they reach puberty.

“Women vanish from the public eye,” he said. In the street she wears a plum-colored burka, which walls her off from the world and from the eyes of any man other than her husband. “It is a beautiful thing to wear, not a curse,” she says.

Faced by questions, she retreats into the black shawl wrapped around her face, as if by doing so she might will herself to evaporate. The eyes flash anger. It is not her custom to subject herself to the questions of strangers.

Had she ever felt safe?

”No. But life under the Taliban was better. At least there was peace and order.”

Had she ever seen the photograph of herself as a girl?


She can write her name, but cannot read. She harbors the hope of education for her children. “I want my daughters to have skills,” she said. “I wanted to finish school but could not. I was sorry when I had to leave.”

Education, it is said, is the light in the eye. There is no such light for her. It is possibly too late for her 13-year-old daughter as well, Sharbat Gula said. The two younger daughters still have a chance.

The reunion between the woman with green eyes and the photographer was quiet. On the subject of married women, cultural tradition is strict. She must not look—and certainly must not smile—at a man who is not her husband. She did not smile at McCurry. Her expression, he said, was flat. She cannot understand how her picture has touched so many. She does not know the power of those eyes.

Such knife-thin odds. That she would be alive. That she could be found. That she could endure such loss. Surely, in the face of such bitterness the spirit could atrophy. How, she was asked, had she survived?

The answer came wrapped in unshakable certitude.

“It was,” said Sharbat Gula, “the will of God.”

Sharbat Gula, Afghan Girl, Mona Lisa, oil painting by Martin House


Sharbat Gula painted by Martin House (click on the thumbnail)




Sharbat Gula (born ca. 1972) is an Afghan woman who was the subject of a famous photograph by journalist Steve McCurry. Gula was living as a refugee in Pakistan during the time of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan when she was photographed. The image brought her recognition when it was featured on the cover of the June 1985 issue of National Geographic Magazine at a time when she was approximately 12 years old. Gula was known throughout the world simply as "the Afghan Girl" until she was formally identified in early 2002. The photograph has been likened to Leonardo da Vinci's painting of the Mona Lisa and is sometimes popularly referred to as "the Afghan Mona Lisa".


Pashtun by ethnicity, Gula was orphaned during the Soviet Union's bombing of Afghanistan and sent to the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in Pakistan in 1984. Her village was attacked by Soviet helicopter gunships sometime in the early 1980s. The Soviet strike killed her parents — forcing her, her siblings and grandmother to hike over the mountains to the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in neighboring Pakistan.

She married in the late 1980s and returned to Afghanistan in 1992. Gula had three daughters: Robina, Zahida, and Alia. A fourth daughter died in infancy. Gula has expressed the hope that her girls will receive the education she was never able to complete.




At the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in 1984, Gula's photograph was taken by National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry on Kodachrome color slide film, with a Nikon FM2 camera and Nikkor 105mm F2.5 lens. The pre-print photo retouching was done by Graphic Art Service, based in Marietta, Georgia. Gula was one of the students in an informal school within the refugee camp; McCurry seized a rare opportunity to photograph Afghan women and captured her image.

Although her name was not known, her picture, titled "Afghan Girl", appeared on the June 1985 cover of National Geographic. The image of her face, with a red scarf draped loosely over her head and with her piercing sea-green eyes staring directly into the camera, became a symbol both of the 1980s Afghan conflict and of the refugee situation worldwide. The image itself was named "the most recognized photograph" in the history of the magazine.




Sharbat Gula safely grown up


Search for the Afghan Girl

The identity of the Afghan Girl remained unknown for over 17 years; Afghanistan remained largely closed to Western media until after the removal of the Taliban government by American troops and local allies in 2001. Although McCurry made several attempts during the 1990s to locate her, he was unsuccessful.
In January 2002, a National Geographic team traveled to Afghanistan to locate the subject of the now-famous photograph. McCurry, upon learning that the Nasir Bagh refugee camp was soon to close, inquired of its remaining residents, one of whom knew Gula's brother and was able to send word to her hometown. However, there were a number of women who came forward and identified themselves erroneously as the famous Afghan Girl. In addition, after being shown the 1985 photo, a handful of young men falsely claimed Gula as their wife.


The team finally located Gula, then around the age of 30, in a remote region of Afghanistan; she had returned to her native country from the refugee camp in 1992. Her identity was confirmed using biometric technology, which matched her iris patterns to those of the photograph with almost full certainty.[8] She vividly recalled being photographed—she had been photographed on only three occasions: in 1984 and during the search for her when a National Geographic producer took the identifying pictures that led to the reunion with Steve McCurry. She had never seen her famous portrait before it was shown to her in January 2002.





More recent pictures of her were featured as part of a cover story on her life in the April 2002 issue of National Geographic and she was the subject of a television documentary, entitled Search for the Afghan Girl, which aired in March 2002. In recognition of her, National Geographic set up the Afghan Girls Fund, a charitable organization with the goal of educating Afghan girls and young women. In 2008, the scope of the fund was broadened to include boys and the name was changed to Afghan Children's Fund.

In 2010, the South African photographer Jodi Bieber won the World Press Photo of the Year award for her photograph of Bibi Aisha, an Afghan victim of facial mutilation at the hands of her estranged husband. In making the photograph, Bibi was inspired by Afghan Girl: "For me, it was putting a moment of history in perspective. It was just one thing that added to the image", she said.



  1. Afghanistan, in Encyclopædia Britannica, Online Edition, 2006, 

  2. Part of the region bordering Pakistan falls in the disputed Kashmir region which is claimed by India

  3. M. Longworth Dames/G. Morgenstierne/R. Ghirshman, "Afghānistān", in Encyclopaedia of Islam, Online Edition


  5. Infoplease - Afghanistan: History

  6. New Supreme Court Could Mark Genuine Departure - August 13, 2006

  7. Morales, Victor (2005-03-28). Poor Afghanistan. Voice of America. 

  8. North, Andrew (2004-03-30). Why Afghanistan wants $27.6bn. BBC News. 

  9. Fujimura, Manabu (2004) "Afghan Economy After the Election", Asian Development Bank Institute

  10. CIA World Factbook

  11. The Economist magazine, UK, October 2005

  12. BBC News - Afghan poll's ethnic battleground - October 6, 2004

  13. CIA World Factbook

  14. - Afghan Jew Becomes Country's One and Only - N.C. Aizenman

  15. Heathcote, Tony (1980, 2003) "The Afghan Wars 1839 - 1919", Sellmount Staplehurst

  16. R. Farhādī, "Modern literature of Afghanistan", Encyclopaedia Iranica, xii, Online Edition, (LINK)

  17. - Ustad Khalilullah Khalili - 1997

  18. - Kharaabat - by Yousef Kohzad - 2000


Afhan Girl, refugee Sharbat Gula, painted on rock


Stenciled rendition on rock at the Albany Bulb



National Geographic Magazine, Shabat Gula, the Afghan Girl refugee, mona lisa





National Geographic' tracks down Afghan girl

Hollywood movie poster at the Kabul Cinema

Black and White picture says it all Ikràn 2011-02-15

Afghan Girl: A Life Revealed National Geographic

Afghan Eyes Girl Famous Pictures Magazine

Nikon World Nikon World

National Geographic: Afghan Girl, A Life Revealed The Washington Post 

Afghan Girl was Identified by Her Iris Patterns

How They Found National Geographic's 'Afghan Girl' National Geographic News

National Geographic Society: Afghan Girls Fund

National Geographic Society: Afghan Children's Fund

Capturng Aisha Montreal Mirror

A Life Revealed

High-resolution image

Search for the Afghan Girl at the Internet Movie Database

Before and After - The Afghan Girl (1984 and 2002)

'Afghan Girl': Taking National Geographic's Most Famous Photo





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Artwork by Martin House for the John Storm adventure novel series


A heartwarming adventure: Pirate whalers V Conservationists, 

with an environmental message.

For release as an e-book in 2013 with hopes for a film in 2015 TBA

(graphic design: Martin House)





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