Istalif and Ceramics

The village of Istalif and its potters

By Turquoise Mountain

Istalif, Afghanistan

Shaping clay by Lalage SnowTurquoise Mountain

Potters of Istalif

The potters of Istalif believe their forefathers originally came from Bukhara, in modern-day Uzbekistan. Four hundred years ago the potter Sayyid Mir Kolal, whose surname means potter, is said to have travelled to Balkh in northern Afghanistan to escape political upheaval. Leaving behind some companions there, he continued on in search of a new home. With his four sons he chose to settle in Istalif, with its rich clay deposits, abundance of water, and beautiful surroundings. To this day, the potters of Istalif believe they each descend from one of Mir Kolal’s four sons.

Istalifi Ceramics (2018) by Turquoise MountainTurquoise Mountain


Istalifi ceramics are renowned for their turquoise ishkar glaze. For centuries the ishkar plant has only been found in particular provinces in northern Afghanistan, allowing the artisans of this region to develop a distinctive ceramic tradition. The root of the ishkar plant is burned, ground into a powder and mixed with water. It is then combined with locally sourced quartz and copper oxide. Once fired, the pots are covered with the distinctive sea-green glaze.

Ishkar Plant by Turquoise MountainTurquoise Mountain

Ishkar plant

Traditional Istalifi bowl by Turquoise MountainTurquoise Mountain

Antique bowl from Istalif, showing marks of the tripod traditionally used to stack bowls in the kiln.

Traditional Istalifi ceramics by Turquoise MountainTurquoise Mountain

A potter and a kiln by Turquoise MountainTurquoise Mountain

Job for Life

In Istalif, being a potter is much more than a profession, it is an identity. It is also often a family business. From a young age, boys will become apprentices, training with their fathers and uncles after the school day has ended. Every son in a potter’s family is automatically considered a part of the pottery clan. Although they may never master the art of throwing pots, instead acting as a family salesman, for example, they are still considered potters. Women are also involved in the process, applying the glaze and engraving the patterns while the men prepare the clay, sit at the potter’s wheel, and stack the traditional kiln.

Ustad Abdul Matin Malikzada (2015) by Lalage SnowTurquoise Mountain

The New Generation

In 1985, Ustad Abdul Matin was born into an illustrious Istalifi family of potters. His father is the leader ('malik') of the town’s potters. His training as an apprentice was interrupted by the Taliban's arrival in the village in 1997. The family hid their tools and fled to Pakistan as refugees. Returning in 2002, the family discovered their house and equipment had been destroyed. Unfazed, they rebuilt their workshops and kilns. One of the Turquoise Mountain Institute’s first graduates, Ustad Matin has since become the Head of the Ceramics Department, passing on his traditional skills to eager new students. Keen to raise awareness of his local cultural heritage, Matin has travelled all over the world, from Washington D.C. to Japan, to attend international workshops.

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