Afghanistan’s most popular art is poetry. The country’s poetic heritage spans many centuries and cultures. Poems traditionally celebrate heroic virtues, romantic love and religious piety. The most important Pashtu poet is Kaushal Khan Khattak, a 17th century chieftain and warrior who also wrote books on philosophy, medicine and ethics. Many Turkic epics are widely read in Afghanistan, particularly the poems Kudatkybilik and Koblandy.
Persian literature is read mostly by educated Afghans, though it is also transmitted orally. Children may be told one of the animal fables in the Kalilah wa Dimnah. Tragic love stories such as Rabia Balkhi by the poet Rabia are also very common. The 10th century Shahnama (Book of Kings) by Firdausi is considered a national epic.
Major cities such as Kabul, Kandahar and Herat have theatres where troupes stage original Perisan plays or adaptations from Turkish, Arabic or European classics. Women’s roles are often played by men. Cities also offer cinemas showing Indian, Pakistani and Western films, although such entertainment has been disrupted by war. Afghanistan’s small film industry came under state control by the Soviets and was later suppressed by the Taliban. Nevertheless, people continue to produce films. As well, Afghan life was recently the subject of the acclaimed Iranian film Kandahar.
Tile work, an ancient art form highly developed in the Middle East, decorates many public buildings and mosques in Afghanistan. The architectural achievements of Afghanistan date back to the Middle Ages and are best revealed in the country’s beautifully constructed mosques and shrines. Built in 1420, the renowned Rawaza-e-Shariff (Blue Mosque) in northern Afghanistan is covered in glazed tiles made of lapis lazuli. The tiles create pictures of leaves, stems and blossoms, and the work is so intricate that the walls appear to have been painted. Mosques from the later Tamerlane era are famous for their tall minarets, bulbous domes and elaborate tile mosaics.
Afghan music is generally performed separately by male or female bands of professional musicians. Informally, women generally play the daireh, a frame drum like a tambourine with bells and rings fixed inside the rim. Men play the armonia, a portable harmonium, and various types of drums and flutes. At engagement parties and weddings, a group of female dancers or musicians may entertain the women while male musicians entertain the men. Some urban wedding receptions are held in halls and feature a female singer with a male band. At such events, Afghanistan’s national dance, the atan, is performed.