The forests of pine, cedar, and walnut which shade Afghanistan have long been the source for high-quality woodworking materials. This includes wooden furnishings, doors, windows and screens, such as the intricately patterned jali. Large freestanding figural sculptures (from Nuristan, the northeast region of Afghanistan) are typical artisanal creations from the masters of Afghan carving.
The two traditional “schools” of Afghan carving include both “classic” (three-dimensional carving) and nuristani (chip-carving) techniques. Most apprentices learn both, as well as the slivered latticework technique for making jali. The Turquoise Mountain Institute in Kabul has been instrumental in supporting, reviving, and expanding Afghan woodworking through their school, where teachers include Abdul Hedy (jali maker for the last king of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah), as well as Naser Mansori, perhaps the finest Afghan woodworking master working today. Mansori’s work has been exhibited worldwide. He heads a woodworking atelier near the Babur Gardens in Kabul, employing dozens of young Afghan woodworkers. He also produced the intricate jali used in the restoration of the fourteenth century, Timurid-era mausoleum of Gowhar Shad in the western Afghan city of Herat.
The finest Afghan woodworking contains no nails. It is assembled entirely and painstakingly by hand over a period of weeks. The delicate joinery required for all traditional Afghan techniques speaks to the high quality of craftsmanship and transmission of knowledge from ustad (master) to pupil: for instance, jali requires hundreds of joins in a single piece. This vibrant tradition has resulted in scores of young Afghan woodworkers—women and men—producing everything from architectural ornaments to chess sets, jewellery boxes to jali, for clients at home and abroad.
Fragrant cedar and rich walnut are traditional, and luxurious, materials, but can sometimes be difficult to source in Afghanistan due to issues with transportation, security, and quality control. Some wood must currently be imported to meet demand, although hopefully with enough future support for the industry, Afghan woodworkers will be able to change this.
Ball, W. The Monuments of Afghanistan: History, Archaeology and Architecture. i.B. Tauris, 2008.
Michelsen L.K. et al, Ferozkoh: Tradition and Continuity in Afghan Art. Doha: Bloomsbury Press, 2013.