Afghanistan is constantly in the news, and always for the wrong reasons. Despite the entire world knowing of Afghanistan, very few know much about it other than the conflict and humanitarian issues we see on our screens.
Here are eight facts about Afghanistan that you probably didn’t know, but are now glad you do!
1. There are no public Christian churches in Afghanistan and only one Synagogue
Afghanistan is officially an Islamic country. Even before the Taliban took over and it became the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Afghanistan was still an Islamic Republic. Officially 99.7% of the country are Muslim, predominately Sunni (80%), with a small Shite minority (19%). There is one Catholic Chapel inside the Italian Embassy called Our Lady of Divine Providence which has been offering Catholic services since 1933. Of course, being inside the Italian Embassy it is not open for the public to just walk in. Anyone wishing to enter needs to get permission beforehand. The one Synagogue was maintained by the only remaining Jewish person in Afghanistan – Zablon Simintov. He left when the Taliban recently took over meaning that there is now no one left to use it.
2. The world’s oldest oil paintings are in Afghanistan
Dating from the 7 th century AD, the oil paintings aren’t traditional oil on canvas, but actually on cave walls. The paintings themselves depict Buddhas and other mythical creatures and are from the Buddhist period of Afghan history, predating Islam. The oil paintings are located in Bamiyan, famous for being the location of the former biggest Buddha statues in the world, as well as the picturesque Band e Amir lakes. It’s interesting to note that the first oil paintings in Europe weren’t created until the 13th century, roughly 600 years later than in Afghanistan!
3. Afghanistan is the world’s biggest producer of opium
This fact you probably did have an idea about, however you might not have realised how big it really it is. For those who are a little on the naïve side, opium is used to make various opiates as well as heroin. Opium comes from poppies, the exact same one many countries use to remember those fallen in war, and Afghanistan happens to produce 90% of the world’s opium! It’s also believed that 95% of Europe’s opium supply comes from Afghanistan. In order to extract the product, small slits are made in the side of the poppy bulb before it blossoms and a sticky off-white residue is expelled which is the opium. An interesting thing to note is that although you typically visualise opium fields as big expanses of red, associating the flower of the poppy, by the time the fields are red it means it’s too late to harvest the opium.
4. Afghanistan has had at least 26 different flags
The current flag of Afghanistan was introduced by the Taliban when they took over in 2021. However, even in the 21 st century, Afghanistan has had at least 7 flags, depending on what you consider a change, with slight changes in colour and design being a regular occurrence. Over the past 300 years, once again depending on what you consider a change in flag, it could be argued Afghanistan has had as many as 35-40 different flags. In such a turbulent country, it seems fitting that the flag changes with each regime. Read more about the flag of Afghanistan here.
5. The national sport of Afghanistan is Buzkashi
Also known as Kok Boru in parts of Central Asia, or dead goat polo by some westerners, the sport involves players on horse back fighting over a decapitated goat, and then breaking free from the group and trying to throw the goat into a large basket. In small villages they won’t always have a basket and instead put it in a circle that has been drawn on the ground. The game is taken very seriously, and serious players will invest in the best horses they can afford. The game can be very rough and shows a man’s agility, horsemanship, and strength all in one sport. Afghanistan shares this sport with the rest of Central Asia, but due to training facilities and budget rarely are able to beat the powerhouse teams of Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan.
6. Arnold Schwarzenegger posters feature at most gyms
Posters of Arnold Schwarzenegger are plastered on the outside and inside of most gyms across the county. No one really knows why this has happened, but it just wouldn’t be a gym in Afghanistan without a picture of Arnie. Despite modesty laws, it’s normal to see the pictures of topless Schwarzenegger, and young and old seem to think he has the perfect body. Some Afghans even believe Arnie could be Afghan, although we don’t really see the resemblance between the Austrian Governor and the average Afghan.
7. Afghanistan didn’t have a national anthem between 1996 and 2001
When the Taliban first took over in the mid nineties, it’s hard to believe but they were a lot more strict and a lot more puritanical than they are the second time around. One of the things that was banned was music and this also included the national anthem. Of course, at international sporting events the anthem of the internationally recognised government was played, as the Taliban government was never recognised.
8. Afghanistan has one of the youngest and most rural populations in the world
After decades of war and lack of health care, Afghanistan has an extremely young population. As of August 2022, roughly 64% of the population are under the age of 25. The average age of the country is just over 19. Almost half of the population is under 15 and you’ll notice that when you’re there, as there are a lot of kids. Afghanistan is also extremely rural with almost 75% of the population living in small towns and villages, although this is changing as more Afghans head to the cities to find work.