Capturing the Cultural Memory of an Embattled Nation

A project to digitize the national archives of Afghanistan is preserving endangered and deteriorating manuscripts and may well be a key defense against radicalism.

An illustrated page from Diwan (poem collection) of Abdur Rahmān Bābā (1653–1711) a renowned Pashtun Sufi Dervish and poet from Peshawar in the Mughal Empire. Photo credit: National Archives of Afghanistan.

Amid the continuing worldwide threat of ideological radicalism, archivists in Afghanistan are partnering with a team of researchers from France, England and the United States to digitally preserve the national archives of the embattled nation.  The project aims to digitize and make available to the world 300 highly valued manuscripts from the collection of some 6,500 documents.  Afghanistan’s records date back to the 13th century, and include a manuscript handwritten by Jami, a Sufi poet from the 15th century. 

"By preserving this cultural memory, we are also keeping the door open for peace and mutual understanding." Emad Khazraee, Ph.D.

“It is a great example of impactful research, because Afghanistan is such a marginalized community, and we can see how cultural heritage can be preserved and become globally accessible for research,” says Kent State University assistant professor of library and information science Emad Khazraee. 

Khazraee says this work is part of the emerging field of cultural heritage informatics, which looks at the relationships between cultural heritage, social memory, and digital technologies.  As Kent State’s College of Communication and Information offers the nation’s first Ph.D. in cultural heritage informatics, the project’s relationship to the university’s research agenda, Khazraee said, is plain to see.

An illustrated page from Khamsa (quintet) of Amir Khusrau (1253–1325 CE), a Sufi musician, poet and scholar and an iconic figure in the cultural history of the Indian subcontinent. Photo credit: National Archives of Afghanistan.

“This work is very important in this era of troubled identities, particularly in the Middle East,” says Khazraee.  “Cultural heritage interacts with social memory and helps us to shape our sense of identity.  Many of the radical groups intentionally erase any trace of history in an attempt to recast a new narrative that support their ideologies.” 

Looking ahead, Khazraee believes the full value of this work will be seen in post-war Afghanistan, as the manuscripts inform the resurrection of Afghan doctrine, public policy and vision.  “Our work in cultural heritage informatics and digital humanities can protect a foundation for the next generation to build upon and reconcile in the post-stress era.”

Photo of Kent State University Assistant Professor of Library and Information Science, Emad Khazraee, Ph.D. Photo credit: Kent State University.

Khazraee, a native or Iran, suggests the best evidence of diversity and tolerance can be found in the artifacts of cultural heritage — precisely the narrative that extremists must erase in order to establish a new cultural identity. He says this work can also help to cultivate a positive image of the United States in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

The National Archives of Afghanistan project represents a collaboration with the University of Maryland’s Roshan Institute for Persian Studies and the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library in Minnesota.  With support from a Collection Care Emergency Grant from The Islamic Manuscript Association at the University of Cambridge, a four-member team traveled to Kabul for three weeks, from April 13 - May 4, 2016.  They trained the staff of the National Archive of Afghanistan in codicology, cataloging, preservation and conservation to prepare the documents for digitization. The team included renowned codicology professor and former director of the Islamic Art Department of the Louvre, Dr. Francis Richard of the Sorbonne.

“Some people ask me what a data scientist like me is doing preserving Persian manuscripts. My involvement in this work is aligned with Kent State University’s global impact agenda, and this is the kind of interdisciplinary, socially impactful research that is encouraged here.”

Information on the project is available at www.kent.edu/AfghanArchive.  

Staff of the National Archives of Afghanistan are pictured in Kabul with members of the project team in April, 2016. Photo credit: National Archives of Afghanistan.