There is a delightful tradition among the English of writing guide books to inaccessible parts of the world. Nowhere has inspired us more than South and Central Asia, seat of the Raj and the theatre that staged the Great Game.
Contrary to what one might suppose, it is not a tradition that died with the last King-Emperor. Among the most useful in the genre is, for instance, A Traveller’s Guide to Pakistan, published in 1981 and compiled by Hilary Adams and Isobel Shaw, two diplomatic wives who thus rendered at least as great service as their husbands. Their efforts would have been justified by one entry alone. They record that one of the gravestones in the Christian cemetery on the Jamrud Road in Peshawar reads, ‘Here lies Captain Ernest Bloomfield/ Accidentally shot by his orderly/ March 2nd 1879./ Well done, good and faithful servant.’
Bijan Omrani and Matthew Leeming are mostly above such frivolity. However, they too have performed a signal service. As far as I know, no one has attempted a comprehensive guide to Afghanistan in English since Nancy Hatch Dupree’s scholarly and authoritative effort, published before the Soviet invasion.
Since then Afghanistan has been on the rack. The Russians withdrew, knowing that their Afghan venture had contributed substantially to the collapse of their scrap-metal empire. The Americans in turn soon found that their over-lavish and indiscriminate supply of money and weapons had equipped their Islamic allies of convenience with the wherewithal to turn on them. Indeed, they are about to discover that their proclamations of victory over the Taliban and assorted other factions were premature.
Meanwhile, millions of Afghans have been killed and maimed, the majority of them in the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal. Millions more have fled as refugees to Pakistan and Iran, many of them never to return; and many, many others, among them the best educated and cultured, have chosen exile in the West. A country which from prehistoric times had seen some of the greatest civilisations flourish on its soil has been reduced in some of its most alluring parts to chaos and rubble. Afghanistan is spectacularly rich in monuments, a relic of the many different cultures that have dominated all or part of the country since prehistoric times, and the destruction of the two giant Buddhas at Bamiyan has come to symbolise for the outside world the barbarism of the Taliban iconoclasts.
Leeming and Omrani quote the description by Mahommedi, a local Afghan witness, who attended this crass act of vandalism. ‘I asked a mullah who was there, and the mullah said: bin Laden, Mutaqi [the Taliban Minister of Culture!], the Minister of Defence and some other [villains].’ The lands that make up modern Afghanistan have suffered destruction before, notably by Genghis Khan, but even he let the Buddhas survive, as did the Islamic Timurids under whom Islam saw perhaps its greatest cultural flowering.
Some in the West try to excuse the savagery of the Taliban and other Islamic extremists by loftily comparing them with 16th-century and 17th-century European Christian extremists and implying that in a century or two these culturally backward people will one day become as civilised and aesthetic as us. They forget that the culture of Islam under the Ghaznavids, the Timurids and the Moghuls made their Christian contemporaries feel like barbarians contemplating Rome under the Antonines. There is no excuse for people like bin Laden, Mullah Omar or Gulbuddin Hekhmatyar to pervert a culture that has produced some of the most sophisticated expressions of civilisation, and this guidebook, with its coverage of the monuments that remain, is all the more timely.
I should declare a personal interest in this book since its genesis was in some notes Matthew Leeming, with typical kindness, produced for my son James before his first visit to Afghanistan in 2002. However, it is an association, although tenuous, to be proud of. The book is practical in size and shape and in the toughness of its plastic cover. It is well illustrated in that its photographs are fine and they give an idea of the unequalled beauty of the country in all its variety. It is full of sensible tips. Above all, it is authoritative and as well-informed as only extensive travels inside the country can make it. It is strong on the history. In particular the synopsis at the beginning is a masterly piece of compression.
The book may encourage people to go to Afghanistan before it once again descends into chaos. If the country deters all but the most dauntless, it will serve as a vade mecum for them and for the rest of us as a reminder of what we are missing.
distributed by Cordee Books, 3(a) De Montfort Street, Leicester, LE 17 HD, Tel: 01162543579
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 2, 2005