The Architecture of Nuristan, Afghanistan
The traditional timber and stone architecture of Nuristan is one of the most stunning of the many indigenous forms of housing found in Afghanistan. Nuristan is located in an mountainous and inaccessible part of eastern Afghanistan; to its north are the high passes of the Pamir mountains leading to China; to the south lies the city of Jalalabad, the Kabul gorge and the Khyber Pass. The people of Nuristan are Muslim, converted by the sword by the Amir Abdur Rahman of Afghanistan only in 1896. Many elements of Nuristan's domestic art and culture are still tied to the pre-Islamic traditions which are maintained by the Kalash people who live just over the Pakistani frontier, on the borders of the valley of Chitral.
Nuristani villages are clustered on steep mountainsides, with dwellings constructed directly above each other, so that one household's flat roof serves as patio for the neighbor above. Fruit drying and various outdoor household tasks are performed on these stepped porches, the only available flat exterior space. The patios are connected to each other with notched logs used as ladders and serve as pathways for the movement of people through the village. Homes are generally two-storied; the lower level contains storage rooms and stables. The upper floor is a large single room in which the family cooks, sleeps and receives guests. Nuristani society is largely divided between landowners and hereditary craftsmen, and this social division is reflected in the decoration of their houses.
Traditionally, members of the land owning aristocracy established and maintained their status by giving feasts to the entire village community, and thus earned the right to carve elaborate decorations on the facade and interior wood columns of their homes. While many feasts were part of the normal social obligations entailed in marriages and other rites, some feasts served only to enhance the prestige of the giver's family. While the majority of Nuristani were part of the land owning farming or herding class, each village had at least one family of bari, craftsmen who performed the labor of building houses and making tools, furnishings and household utensils. The bari who executed the elaborate wood carvings on the aristocrats' houses were not permitted to carve the wooden elements of their own dwellings.
Houses are of post and beam construction. The spaces between the timber framework are filled with small stones, and a clay-plaster coating is applied to the area of the stone only, leaving the timbers exposed. Only the solid wooden upper facade, and the interior columns of a home are carved. This facade is made up of wooden beams, sills, window posts and a variety of panels fitted between the supporting members. A typical facade may be twenty to thirty feet in length, and every section of the facade of a landowner's home may be elaborately carved.
Wood for house construction was hewn in the coniferous forests of the mountains adjoining the villages. Logs and rough hewn pieces were dragged or brought by donkeys along steep paths to the villages. (There are no roads in the interior of Nuristan.) Several carpenters often worked together to adze the timbers for a new building. Designs for carved wood sections were first outlined, then carved into the wood
Wide window posts were made in the shape of highly stylized, horned goat-heads, in which the pendant vertical element of the head fits over the sill and lower horizontal panels. The upper part of the widow post was often carved in elaborately intertwined designs representing interlacing goat horns. In winter, solid wooden shutters were placed between each window post. A basketry pattern is often found covering larger areas of wood-carving. Round symbols with radiant lines represent public feasts given by the family. Interior posts carved on three or four sides are placed in groups of four at the center section of the large family living room at the upper level of the home. These carved posts often contain elements in three-quarter relief. Again, the stylized goat heads are the only overtly figural elements of the design, and are often interspersed with interlacing patterns and rectangular symbols of rank or achievement.
For additional information, see Lennart Edelberg and Schuyler Jones, Nuristan, Akademische Druck - u. Verlagsanstalt, Graz, 1979 and Albert Szabo and Thomas J. Barfield, Afghanistan, An Atlas of Indigenous Domestic Architecture, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1991.