Hamid Naweed: Top Afghan Art Historian Makes Global Art History

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Introduction:  When Afghan movie star Leena Alam told me about the many great works of Hamid Naweed, I knew that the hardest part would be deciding which of them to write about first.  When she said that Professor Naweed has just made history by publishing two groundbreaking new books on the history of Afghan art, I decided to start with that.   

     Professor Hamid Naweed is so many things.  He is a world-class art historian.  He is an adventurer, artist, author, and poet. He is an award-winning screenwriter, professor, cultural expert, and media personality.  He is the very definition of an Ustadاستاد one of the most honored titles an Afghan can have. “Ustad” is the title Afghans give to an esteemed professor, art master, music maestro, or a master of other learned crafts.

     In the 1970s Ustad Naweed was a popular professor in the Fine Arts Department of Kabul UniversityHe taught Art History, Color Theory, Studio Arts, and Art Appreciation, and was widely known and respected in his field.  He accompanied the famed Louis and Nancy Dupree to remote sites in Afghanistan during some of their archaeological work.      

     The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 changed all that.  Just before the invasion, Professor Naweed was forced to escape Afghanistan as a refugee.  He brought little more with him than a suitcase and his education.  But that did not stop his work.  Eventually he settled in America.  As a farmer, art history teacher and a Fulbright Scholar, he continued to write many scholarly articles and poems in Dari and English.

     But that is not all. Hamid Naweed became a featured expert appearing on international media networks such as CNN, BBC, Voice of America, and Ariana TV.  He wrote “Music of the Reeds,” a book about the life of the world-renowned Afghan poet Rumi.  And he is not just a student and researcher of Afghan art history; he also is a prolific painter himself in oil and acrylics.



  There is more. Professor Naweed is known internationally for producing and writing the screenplay for the award-winning film "Loori," starring the great Afghan actress Leena Alam.  His film and screenplay won Best Feature Film at the New York International Independent Film Festival in 2008. He is currently writing two novels.  His latest screenplay, entitled “Let’s Walk Together,” is almost complete.




     Hamid Naweed is active in many art societies, including Afghanistan’s High Council of the Arts, the Center for Contemporary Arts Afghanistan, the Afghan Poetic Society (Sham-i-Erfan) and Haft Shar-i-Honar (The Seven Cities of Arts).  He also is the Cultural Director of the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage (ARCH).

       As a popular speaker on Afghan art and literature, Naweed has lectured at The George Washington University, George Mason University, John Hopkins University, Columbia University, and the Historical Society of Williamsburg. His lectures have been widely aired by media such as Voice of America, Ariana TV, Zarin TV, and Radio Naqsh Hai-e Jawidan.                       

     Hamid Naweed’s two-volume master work “Art Through the Ages in Afghanistan” has sealed his place in world art history.  After only a few months, these two books are considered by many as the world’s definitive work on the art history of Afghanistan from prehistoric times to the present day.  These two books represent decades of field research, travel and study. They will guide artists, historians, archaeologists, scholars, and many others for years to come. 

     Professor Hamid Naweed speaks here in an exclusive Film Annex interview with Edward Zellem, the author of “Zarbul Masalha: 151 Afghan Dari Proverbs” and a U.S. Navy Captain.


Film Annex:  Ustad Naweed, it’s a privilege to speak with you.  There is so much to talk about regarding your work. 

Hamid Naweed:  Thank you, Dagarwaal (Navy Captain/Colonel) Zellem.  دگروالزالم  I am glad that Film Annex readers are interested in Afghanistan’s fine arts and cultural heritage.

     Unfortunately, many people today only think of war when they think of Afghanistan.  Perhaps that is not surprising, since Afghanistan is in its 34th year of war since the Soviet invasion in 1979.  But it is important to remember that 34 years is a very short time in the context of thousands of years of Afghan history. There is far more to Afghanistan than war and conflict.  People all over the world need to know that, including Afghans themselves.

     I believe with all my heart that a better understanding of Afghan fine arts and history can inspire Afghans to pull themselves up from the rubble of war.  It also can inspire the international community to continue helping Afghans to help themselves.  I have devoted most of my life to the fine arts of Afghanistan, and to improving that understanding.   

FA:   Let’s start with your latest book.  This year you became a part of global art history by publishing “Art Through the Ages in Afghanistan.”  It is the most definitive work ever written on the art history of Afghanistan.  What makes Afghan art unique from other cultural traditions of art? 

HN:  I am glad you asked this question.  The various schools of arts that have flourished in Afghanistan over thousands of years have distinct artistic characteristics and behaviors. They are different in many ways from the artifacts of Afghanistan’s neighboring countries. But unfortunately,Afghan art has largely been misrepresented in most of the world’s famous museums. In most art history books written by Western scholars there is hardly any mention of Afghanistan’s rich culture and the artistic creations of its people. In most cases, the ancient Afghan art and artifacts of pre-Islamic times and the valuable manuscripts of the Islamic era have been generically and incorrectly labeled as “Persian Art” or “Indian Art.“

     This creates an interesting question.  Is this due to the carelessness of 19th century western Orientalists, who left behind inaccurate information for future generations?  Or is it a more deliberate effort to overlook the rich cultural heritage of Afghanistan?  This is a question that must be studied further.

FA:  Please tell us more about the historical context of Afghan art. 

HN:   To understand Afghanistan’s art history we first must understand the history of Afghanistan itself.  The two cannot be separated.  The territory of Afghanistan today is situated in the heart of an ancient land with a history more than four thousand years old.  This land was called Ariana according to the ancient Vedic and Avestan (Old Bactrian) texts.  Ancient Greek historians and geographers such as Strabo, Polybius and Ptolemy, as well as the Roman historians Justin and Arrian, mentioned the land of Ariana in their manuscripts while explaining the military campaigns of Alexander the Great, who spent much time in what today is called Afghanistan.

     This historic territory of Ariana stretched from north of the Oxus River (today’s Amu Daryaa آمودریا) and parts of ancient Sogdiana to the Indus Valley, and from ancient Bactria to Herat, Margu (Margiana), and Nishapur.

     Most people in the modern day do not know these names any more.  But in the ancient world Ariana was one of the world’s great crossroads.  It had a great influence on Afghan art, and continues to do so to this day.  The region later became known as Khurasan, خراسانکهن‎  a name that is somewhat more commonly known today.

      The ancient trade routes that passed through the valleys and gorges of the Hindu Kush mountains made Afghanistan one of the world’s centers of commerce and trade in these ancient times. Historians today call these routes the Silk Road.  Caravans of silk and exquisite Chinese commodities made their way along the Silk Road to Anatolia, (modern-day Turkey) and the Roman Empire. Traffic also went the other direction, as Greek, Roman, Turkish, Kazakh and Persian merchants crossed Afghanistan to sell their goods in India.  Indian merchants also came to what is now Afghanistan and did business there with merchants from all the Central Asian countries. 

     It was a fascinating and important time in world history, and ancient Afghanistan was a busy and exciting place.  Afghanistan’s fertile land, green valleys and cities were places where ideas, goods, and art were exchanged by merchants, businessmen, traders and travelers of many nations and cultural backgrounds. 

     Many people don’t know that in the 3rd millennium BCE, long before the Silk Road, there was an even older trade route through Afghanistan.  It was called the Arian Trade Road.  It started at Sar-i-Sang in Badakhshan, and ended in the major cities of Persia, Mesopotamia and beyond.  We know this because some of the ancient art works of Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt feature beautiful lapis lazuli stone that is unique to Badakhshan.

     Lapis lazuli is a rather rare semi-precious stone.  For over 6000 years,the world’s finest lapis has come from the Sar-i-Sang mines in Badakhshan.  These Afghan mines were the main source of lapis lazuli in the ancient world.  In fact, lapis lazuli from Sar-i-Sang has been found in famous archaeological discoveries, such as the Royal Treasure of Ur in Iraq and the Tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt.

FA:  What period of Afghan art fascinates you the most? 

HN:  The interaction between all these different people and ideas on the trade routes helped give Afghan artists unique and innovative styles that endure to this day.  For example, the Hellenistic art styles of ancient Bactria, Bagram and Kapisa show the very fine and unique influences between Classical Greek art and the art of ancient Afghanistan. 

     The Greco-Buddhist statues of the Temple of Hadda in Jalalabad and other ancient artworks found in Kabul, Bamiyan, and Logar are fascinating and very inspiring. They show how ancient Afghan artists beautifully incorporated their own cultural perspectives with the perspectives of Buddhist philosophy and Hellenistic art.  This is an important role model for today’s world too. Afghans today can learn so much from this type of openness to other cultures.

     Interestingly, most of the ancient art of Afghanistan was created in a very realistic manner.  What I mean by this is that there are very few examples of zoomorphic creatures (animal-human combinations) in pre-Islamic Afghan art,unlike those found in Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Indian art. Also, in terms of unique and creative usage of local material, most of the statues found from Afghanistan were made from special long-lasting and durable sculpting clay topped with a thin layer of gypsum plaster. This method was invented by Afghans and was actually quite revolutionary.  Examples are found in the beautiful statues discovered in Hadda, Fondukistan (today’s Parwan province) and Bamiyan.

   Even the colossal statues of Buddha in Bamiyan (Buthoy-e Bamiyan بت های باميان ‎) were sculpted in this way.  They were initially carved in the heart of a sandstone cliff, and then later were topped with layers of this Afghan-invented sculpting clay and a gypsum plaster coating. This local, unique, and brilliant invention made the statues of ancient Afghanistan very different from their Greek and Indian counterparts in terms of technique.

     Because of this original Afghan sculpting technique, the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan lasted outside in the elements for over 1500 years.  It was a great crime and a loss to the entire world when these historical treasures were deliberately dynamited and destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

     Also, recent discoveries in the caves of Bamiyan revealed the very first oil painting ever painted in the history of world art. These cave murals were created centuries before the first use of oil paints in Europe in the 1400s. 

FA:  What are your thoughts on today’s Afghan art, especially the work of many rising young Afghan female artists like Meena Saifi

HN:   In contemporary Afghanistan, the emergence of an outstanding young generation of artists is an amazing phenomenon. It includes some really outstanding female painters. Their paintings are powerful statements that express the artists’ desires, aspirations, ordeals and hopes for a brighter future.

     I am on the Board of Directors of the Centre for Contemporary Arts Afghanistan. The Centre has sponsored several exhibits in Europe and North America featuring paintings by Afghan women.  Their paintings have impressed many viewers, art critics and international collectors.  This is a very positive change for postwar Afghan society.

     These young artists of the New Afghanistan are so inspiring. They give me great hope for the future of Afghanistan and Afghan art.  I will support them any way I can. 

FA:  Professor Naweed, we have learned so much from this interview.  We look forward to speaking with you again about your work in Afghan film and in other areas.  Perhaps we also could hear some stories about your adventures with Louis and Nancy Dupree and the ancient gold treasures of Tela Tapa, which National Geographic helped make famous as the Hidden Treasures of Afghanistan.

HN:  That would be wonderful, Captain Zellem.  دگروالزالم  As one of the Afghan Proverbs in your own book says, Az gap, gap mey-khezad (Good conversations lead to more good conversations.) ازگپ،گپمی‏خیزد

      I truly believe that knowing more about the fine arts of Afghanistan, both past and present, can help us find the way to the lasting peace in Afghanistan that we all want.


     Look for the next interview with Professor Hamid Naweed and more interviews of key thought leaders by Edward Zellem on Film Annex’s The Annex Press.  

     Hamid Naweed’s next book event and signing for “Art Through the Ages in Afghanistan” will be at the Library of Congress on August 6.  The event is free and open to the public.    


-- Edward Zellem


Twitter: @afghansayings 


More of Edward Zellem's interviews with Afghan celebrities and thought leaders are coming soon. 

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