History Detective

The woman who set up Afghanistan’s biggest cultural archive

01 December 2017
Nancy had a long association with Afghanistan, where she was instrumental in setting up a cultural archive with over 100,000 documents relating to modern Afghan history and art.
massoud hossaini / ap

When the cultural historian and archivist Nancy Dupree came to Kabul in 1962, she did not know that it would spark a lifelong association with Afghanistan. She died in Kabul in September this year, three weeks short of her ninetieth birthday. Between the mid 1980s and 2006, she and her husband Louis Dupree set up the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University, or ACKU. It houses more than 100,000 documents relating to modern Afghan history and culture, as well as the largest existing photographic archive on Afghanistan.

Two years ago, Nancy gave me a tour of the ACKU library’s stack room, which was lined with racks of catalogued books, reports and documents in different languages. She recounted how she had collected some of these in Peshawar, in Pakistan, during the 1980s, while Afghanistan was ravaged by war. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, documents relating to Afghan art, culture and history and several government departmental reports—which were kept in various libraries, archives and other institutions—were ransacked and scattered all over South and Central Asia. Nancy took it upon herself to recover as many of these as possible, and brought back tens of thousands of documents and books to Kabul from Peshawar in 2004, when Hamid Karzai, then Afghanistan’s president, offered to help her build the ACKU.

Nancy arrived in Afghanistan as the wife of an American diplomat, but she soon found that she loathed spending time with the wives of other diplomats, recalling in an interview with a Swedish author in 2008 that drinking tea and gossiping with them was “a waste of time,” and that playing bridge was even worse. Although Nancy was captivated by Afghanistan’s rich history and landscape, she could not find any guidebooks to assist her in her attempts to explore the country. When she complained about the lack of such books, the head of the newly formed Afghan Tourist Organisation suggested that she write her own—an idea she took to instantly. In 1963, she authored her first guidebook, The Valley of Bamiyan.

Nazes Afroz is former executive editor for BBC World Service, South and Central Asia. He has been visiting Afghanistan regularly since 2002 and has co-authored a cultural guidebook on Afghanistan.

Keywords: culture art archive Afghanistan