A review of the Archif-e Milli (National Archives) in Afghanistan, Kabul.
The Archif-e Milli in central Kabul is the appropriate base camp for the intrepid academic wishing to venture the yet uncharted domain of historical research in Afghanistan. The Archives are, no doubt, replete with latent possibilities. However, given 30 years of conflict in the country, researchers are urged to come equipped will a good deal of patience and perseverance.
The Archives are housed in a spectacular turn of the century building, located on the main road in Deh Afghanan. The building was originally commissioned under Amir Abdul Rahman Khan (a.k.a., the ‘Iron Amir’) for his son and successor Amir Habibullah in 1892. Designed by architects from Bukhara, it is reminiscent of Turkestan’s colonial architecture, complete with painted ceilings and pointed arches. It was not until 1973, under Sardar Muhammad Daoud, that the building was inaugurated as the National Archives. In the decades of crisis that followed, the Archives were largely neglected. However, despite the fact that the building was attacked several times during the civil war, its collection remained miraculously undisturbed, even under Taliban rule.
Collection: Classical Central Asian works
The present collection housed at the Archives was pieced together from several historic libraries. These include the Kabul Museum Library (comprised of the royal library founded by Amir Habibullah), the Independent Press Library of Afghanistan, the Royal Palace Library, and the Presidential office library of Daoud Khan, as well manuscript collections from libraries at Khulm and Ghazni.
Altogether, the Archives are said to contain over 180,000 historical documents (such as farmans, deeds, newspapers, and photographs) and 9,000 manuscripts (including copies of the Quran, hadith and tafsir collections, poetry, philosophy, jurisprudence, and history). The collection boasts several rare items, ranging from a Quran attributed to Ali ibn Abi Talib to early copies of Mirza Bedil’s poetry and works of well-known calligraphers. I had the privilege of browsing several early Kufic Quranic texts as well.
There is an impressive collection of divans, in addition to Sufi texts, mostly didactic in nature. However, I found the collection of histories to be limited. Nonetheless, gems have been discovered. Several years ago, for example, the last volume of the seminal history of Afghanistan, Siraj al-Tawarikh, was found in the Archives, later to be published by a local bookseller.
Historical documents remain mostly uncatalogued, and therefore difficult to access. Resources from the late 19th and early 20th century are, as expected, more numerous and easily accessible than earlier periods. Researchers wishing to consult printed books should supplement their research with a visit to the nearby Kitabkhane-e ‘Ame, which hosts a large and user-friendly collection.
As the Archive’s financial resources are limited, preservation remains a challenge. Projects are currently underway for restoration, computerization and digitization, and for developing provincial archives.
Patience is key.
I spent two summers at the Archives (2012-2013). In the first visit, I was introduced to the director, whose office is located in the administrative building to the right of the main archival building. I presented the director with a letter of introduction from my academic institution, and after a detailed discussion of my research interests, he requested that I provide a letter outlining the types of material which I wished to access. He signed the document, and referred me to the manuscript archivist, who was also required to approve and sign the research plan.
The manuscript reading room where I conducted my work is located in a corner of the main archival building. The reading room is small, with only two or three desks, one of which may be occupied by the archivist. The archivist tried his best to assist me and other researchers in finding relevant materials. However, he did not hesitate to warn me that manuscripts are scattered, and that employees have at best a limited sense of what the Archives may contain. I would recommend accessing the printed catalogues in advance if possible, otherwise the archivist does have copies available for perusal. I found that the most efficient way of requesting manuscripts was to request two or three at a time in the morning, and working with them throughout the day. The reading room is air-conditioned, but there are frequent power outages, during which it is not possible for the archivist to access materials.
If you need to work with historical documents, be sure to specify this in advance. When I tried to access farmans, I was shown a handlist of documents that could be shown to me in one to two days. I was also informed that other official documents (correspondence, charitable endowment documents, deeds, etc.) are not catalogued, making access extremely difficult.
Visitors should not expect security along the lines of most government or international institutions in Kabul. However, the Deh Afghanan area is generally considered safe. Several guards are stationed in front of the building, and bags are checked upon entry. Visitors are also required to sign in at the main archival building.
Overall, I found the staff to be very friendly. As is typical in Afghanistan, meals were shared and green tea offered regularly. The whole environment is community oriented – to the extent that on my first day, I was taken unwittingly – along with the rest of the staff – to a three hour funeral of a relative of one of the employees, located at the other end of Kabul. Needless to say, I did not get very much work done that day.
The collection has been catalogued partially in various stages. Published catalogues were prepared in 1984 (Muhammad Azam Afzali, Fehrist-e Nuskhaha-e Khati, Archif-e Milli Afghanistan) listing basic information. Unfortunately, this catalogue does not provide a description of the contents. One catalogue is exclusively for Qur’ans, and another two volumes list other manuscripts alphabetically.
There are also several incomplete handlists, including one set produced several decades ago, and another binder compiled in 2012, organized by author. Be warned, however, that access to the handlists are at the discretion of the archivist.
The permanent exhibition is worth browsing. To the left as you enter, copies of official correspondence and farmans as well as newspapers and photographs are on display, while the room to the right features manuscripts and calligraphies.
Expect surprises. The Archives are frequented by a fascinating cast of characters, such as local scholars, Sufis, and bookstore owners. As you can expect to be drawn into conversations, this can both be distracting or quite useful. For instance, I was able to meet several booksellers from the Pul-e Khishti, Jui Shir, and other book bazaars who offered me materials.
Hours and Access
To get from the Archives to your place of residence, taxis are available from the main road in front of the Archives (alternatively, you can use the slightly more expensive but reliable Zuhaak taxi service). For getting there, taxi drivers generally know the location if you specify that it is on Salang Watt. There are several public buses, too, which pass through Deh Afghanan, accessing most parts of the city. The Archives are also within a 15 minutes walking distance from two book bazaars, including Jui Shir and a charming book bazaar along the river.
Regular hours: 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM (the times can also vary depending on power outages, or other factors)
• Asst. Prof. Sakhi Monir, Chief of the National Archives
• Abdul Rashid Osman, Assistant Archivist, Manuscripts
There were no facilities for copying manuscripts while I was there. However, researchers may request permission for use of a camera (with varying degrees of success).
Address: Salang Watt, Kabul
E-mail: info.nationalarchives.gov.af (Abdul Rashid Osman) Tel: +93 (0) 798637001 (Prof. Sakhi Monir)
+93 (0) 786 57 3523 (Abdul Rashid Osman)
Department of History
Image by author, royal seal from farman of Shah Shuja’ al-Mulk Durrani.