“How old is Afghanistan?” is a very difficult question to answer. The term “Afghanistan” was used as a geographic marker at least since the 1300s. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was a term used primarily by the Durrani Empire (1747–1826) to refer to the region around the Sulaiman Mountains, a range located east of present-day Afghanistan and western Pakistan. “Afghanistan” was thus a loosely defined geographic label for an area between “Hindustan” in the east, “Khurasan” in the west, and “Turkestan” in the north.
The first time that “Afghanistan” came to mean anything like our contemporary conception of the nation-state was in Soltan Mohammad Kales’s book Tarikh-e Soltani, which he began in 1865 but didn’t publish until 1880. During the period between when he wrote the work and when it was published, Afghanistan was beset by disputed claims to the throne of an area without defined borders. This would change with the rise of Amir Abd al-Rahman Khan (r. 1880–1901) and—most importantly—with the recognition by the British government of his suzerainty over “Afghanistan” in the aftermath of the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1879–1880). For the first time, Afghanistan was officially recognized as a territorial and political entity, largely as we currently understand it. Over the following fifteen years (through further border agreements made in 1887, 1893, and the controversial Durand Line demarcations of 1894–96), Afghanistan’s borders became fixed in the manner that they are portrayed on maps today.
Learn more about the history of Afghanistan and the traditions it’s reviving today in Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan, now on view.