|Afghanistan is country of Central Asia. Afghanistan was once well known on the backpacking circuit as the place to stop for unparalleled hospitality, fantastic food, great hiking etc. Afghanistan is an intensely Muslim country. Although the Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif is one of the most important Shia Muslim shrines, the country is 85% Sunni. The Hazaras of central Afghanistan form the bulk of the Shias, and as such have strong links to Iran. The country has historically been a great centre of Sufism.
More than 20 years of war have left the dramatic countryside peppered with landmines and reduced many of the finest monuments and minarets to rubble. The poverty left in war's wake has taken an impossible human toll and encouraged the theft and sale of priceless national treasures. What cultural artefacts remain are at the mercy of whichever disorganised group happens to patrol the local streets.
When the Taliban, an orthodox Muslim faction with harsh interpretations of Islamic law and conduct, had control of the country between 1996 and 2001, having fun was branded as evil, women were banned from school and work, forcibly veiled and brutally punished for 'crimes' such as going to market without a male relative in tow. Men didn't have it much easier, as everyone was kept under close watch by a skittish and heavily armed military theocracy that could not find legitimacy abroad. Devastating earthquakes in 1998 and 1999 didn't help the situation. Still, although a risky venture, it was possible to visit what many say is among the most beautiful places on Earth.
Afghanistan consists of a variety of ethnic groups called Afghans, the overwhelming majority of whom are Muslim, usually either followers of Sunni or Shia Islam. Afghans are related to many of the ethnic groups in Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The Pashtuns (Pushtuns), who make up more then half the population, have traditionally been the dominant ethnic group. Their homeland lies south of the Hindu Kush, but Pashtun groups live in all parts of the country. Many of them also live in northwestern Pakistan, where they are called Pathans. Pashtuns are usually farmers, though a large number of them are nomads, living in tents made of black goat hair. For the most part, Afghans are farmers, although a significant minority follows a nomadic lifestyle. In the years since the Soviet invasion and the later civil war, a large number of Afghans have fled the country and become refugees in neighboring nations, most typically in Iran and Pakistan.
Afghanistan's geographical position - for centuries crisscrossed by armies, empires and trade routes - combined with its varied geological terrain have given rise to the great diversity of foods, arts, languages and traditions that make up this country's cultural heritage. Unfortunately, many of the country's artistic treasures have been surreptitiously sold on the global market, while 2001 saw the destruction of the Great Buddhas in Bimiyan by the Taliban. The Afghan people have, in some ways, sacrificed such luxuries in order to survive. However, no country with as rich and plentiful a heritage as Afghanistan could forget this source of strength and expression. If and when this country is blessed with a little peace, expect to be dazzled by its contributions to the world's culture once again.
The majority of Afghans are Muslims. About 84 percent of Afghan Muslims are Sunnites and about 15 percent are Shiites. Small groups of Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, and Jews are scattered in the towns. Since the 1960s, many Afghan Jews have been able to migrate to Israel. Mazar-e Sharif, where the tomb of the Muslim leader Ali is said to be located in a 15th-century mosque, is a leading place of Muslim pilgrimage. Scattered throughout Afghanistan are flag-covered graves of people who are revered and petitioned for help in childbearing, settlement of disputes, moral leadership, etc.
Major industries: Textiles and rugs, fruits and nuts, wool, cotton, fertilizer, soap, fossil fuels, gemstones
Major trading partners: FSU (Former Soviet Union), Pakistan, Iran, EU, Japan, Singapore, India, South Korea
Afghanistan's dramatic landscape encompasses a variety of biomes, from arid steppes to alpine fields. The seismically active mountains of the Hindu Kush, where most of the country's water falls as snow, are home to many plants and animals that exist nowhere else on Earth. The steppes and intermediary ecosystems are also of interest to the amateur biologist. But, as with many places in the former USSR, land and water mismanagement led to the destruction of many of these unique natural habitats. While unruly Afghanistan was spared the worst of this trend - not even the Soviets wanted to risk a nuclear jihad - the constant, high-tech bloodshed of the last 20 years has left no environment undisturbed. Unexploded artillery, landmines of every vicious sort and other implements of destruction are hidden in hill and vale; no one in their right mind would hike here without pushing a very large, very light metal detector in front of them. Though Afghanistan's tough wildlife would likely recover given just a moment of peace, that moment doesn't seem like it's coming soon. Consider postponing your studies of Central Asian daisies for a few more years.