At the Crossroads: Qandahar in Images and Empires

Getty Research Institute, in collaboration with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, presents some of the earliest historical photographs of Qandahar, Afghanistan.

The Getty Research Institute

At the Crossroads: Qandahar in Images and Empires highlights the Getty’s “Kandahar Album,” a late 19th-century album of seventy-two albumen prints, with captions, taken by the British army surgeon and photographer Benjamin Simpson (1831–1923) near the end of the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878–81).

Artillery Square Showing the Main Bastion of the Citadel (1880-11-29/1881-04-21) by Benjamin SimpsonThe Getty Research Institute

Though created as military documentation within the framework of imperialism, these early photographs offer insights into the region and its traditions, which will inspire further study of the history and culture of Afghanistan.

The photographs, which include landscapes as well as images of local people, remind us of Qandahar’s long history and vibrant cultural heritage.

The Ruins of the Old Qandahar Citadel (1880 - 81) by Benjamin SimpsonThe Getty Research Institute

The Ruins of the Old Qandahar Citadel

The ancient city of Qandahar, known as Qasr-e Narenj, is located adjacent to the Old City (Shahr-I Kohna), four kilometers southwest of the modern city. 

The former city served as a seat of power for later empires, including the Ghaznavids, Timurids, Mughals, and Safavids, cementing its position as a political and cultural stronghold.

Visible above its ramparts is the large Qaitul stupa, attesting to Qandahar’s prominent role in propagating Buddhism through the 8th century CE. 

One of Afghanistan’s most important cultural monuments is the tomb of Ahmad Shah, located in Qandahar. A former commander in the Persian army, Ahmad Shah is credited with establishing the state of Afghanistan following the assassination of the Iranian ruler Nadir Shah Afshar in 1747. After being appointed as king of Afghanistan in 1747, he was given the honorific title “Durrani,” meaning “pearl of pearls.” With Qandahar as his capital, Ahmad Shah Durrani built an empire that stretched from eastern Persia to northern India, and from the Amu Darya to the Indian Ocean.

Ahmad Shah’s Tomb, from Khirka Sharif, Benjamin Simpson, 1880 - 81, From the collection of: The Getty Research Institute
Show lessRead more

Qandahar became a pivotal seat of conflict between Afghan and British-Indian forces in the Second Anglo-Afghan War. In a bid to reclaim the Afghan throne and eliminate foreign intervention, Ayub Khan, governor of Herat and son of Afghanistan’s late Amir Sher Ali Khan, besieged Qandahar in July 1880. His delegation, seen here, was in Qandahar for negotiations with the British following their siege.

Ayub Khan's Ambassdors (1880 - 81) by Benjamin SimpsonThe Getty Research Institute

Ayub Khan's Ambassadors

Ayub Khan's Ambassdors (1880 - 81) by Benjamin SimpsonThe Getty Research Institute

Abdulla Khan sitting on the left

Ayub Khan's Ambassdors (1880 - 81) by Benjamin SimpsonThe Getty Research Institute

His son on the right

Ayub Khan's Ambassdors (1880 - 81) by Benjamin SimpsonThe Getty Research Institute

Umrjan Sahib Zadah in the centre. He is said to have raised all the Ghazi against the British at Maiwand.

Possibly because the British had expelled most of the city’s residents, few of the album’s photographs show local inhabitants. These group portraits exemplify how Western photographers often presented foreign cultures.

Simpson homogenizes how individuals are shown, standardizing the backdrop, the number of people, and the composition. The photographs might have been indistinguishable to a general European audience if not for the captions, which reflect the British understanding of these groups at this time.

Group of Parsiwans (1880 - 81) by Benjamin SimpsonThe Getty Research Institute

Group of Parsiwans

Group of Timuris (1880 - 81) by Benjamin SimpsonThe Getty Research Institute

Group of Timuris

 

Chilzina or The Forty Steps (1880 - 81) by Benjamin SimpsonThe Getty Research Institute

Chilzina, or the 40 Steps

A monument carved out of the hills to the west of the modern city, Chilzina was commissioned by Babur, the founding emperor of the Mughal Empire.

Its decorated chamber, covered with ornate Persian inscriptions in high relief, commemorates Babur's conquest of Qandahar on the thirteenth of the month Shawal, AH (1508 CE), and enumerates the chief cities extending from Kabul to Bengal that came under Mughal rule.

Defenses of CandaharThe Getty Research Institute

Defenses of Candahar

Published in 1880, James Wyld’s plan of Qandahar offers insight into the late 19th-century city renowned for its monumental walls that spanned a rectangular circumference of 4.8 kilometers. 

There were six gates, named primarily for the cities they were tied to through travel and commerce. Wyld’s plan underscores the importance Qandahar held at this time for the British public.


Located in the northeast sector of the city as recorded on Wyld's plan, the "Burdoranee" or Durani gate provided access to the cattle and grass markets.

Camels Coming out of Durani Gate (1880 - 81) by Benjamin SimpsonThe Getty Research Institute

Camels Coming out of the Durani Gate

Although the image captures a group of Afghans outside the gate, the caption focuses on the camels, showing their importance for the occupying British forces who in 1879 required over 1,300 camels for transporting military goods to Qandahar.

Many of these photographs focus on key landmarks in the Second Anglo-Afghan War, reinforcing a narrative of Britain’s victory. The album evidences imperialist ideology in every frame; yet it also captures Qandahar frozen in a moment of time.

A free accompanying book containing additional images, descriptions, and essays in Dari, English, and Pashto is available for download below.

Credits: Story

At the Crossroads: Qandahar in Images and Empires was developed by Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, in partnership with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. The publication includes texts by Alka Patel, Frances Terpak, and Aparna Kumar, in Dari, English, and Pashto, and may be downloaded at www.getty.edu/qandahar
 
View the entire digitized “Kandahar Album” (2013.R.5)


Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps