The Glassmakers of Herat

In Winter, a thick cloud hangs over Kabul as people light wood and coal burning stoves to warm their homes. As a result the last few weeks Kabul’s weather has been described by Yahoo weather as ‘smoke’. We left the polluted capital, for the western city of Herat for a restorative break and to visit Hajji Sultan, the head of one of Herat’s last remaining glassmaking families.

The glassworkshop sits at the base of Herat’s citadel – an ancient fortification, built by Alexander 1st, sacked in typical style by Genghis Kahn, and rebuilt again by Tamerlane. The workshop looks as old as the fortifications themselves. Around the kiln the walls are caked with thick black soot, and the ground littered with shards of broken glass.

The kiln had been fired two days before, and the walls of the kiln were still warm. We watched as one by one pieces of glass were caringly coaxed out of a small hole in the kiln with a long metal stick. Around 20% did not make it out in one piece.

The only instructions on making coloured glass to have survived since antiquity are found on a cuneiform tablet dating back to the 7th century B.C. The tablet describes the process step by step from the mixing of ground quartz, plant ash and copper oxide, to the method for blowing the glass and loading the kiln. The way they make the distinctive turquoise and lapis glass today remains almost identical to the 7th century description, although they melt down coloured glass found in the bazaar for some of their new colours.

These ancient techniques are not maintained for a love of ‘tradition’ itself. Next door to the glassworkshop we came across a tiny room with a camel strapped to a log of wood rotating in a stone bowl. Inside the bowl, the log was slowly crushing a mound of sesame into a fine pulp. ‘It is for the oil’ the man guiding the camel explained. In any other country, this would have been an attraction set up just for foreign tourists.

In Herat, they are no foreign tourists. The method is just the most economical method available. In the glassworkshop, the same relationship with tradition is true.

The glasses which survived the kiln will eventually be sent to Kabul to stock the family shop, but the local market for them has almost entirely disappeared. Cheap factory made imports from China have priced the glassmakers out of the market, and with no international flights, except to Mashad in Iran, Herat is isolated from markets abroad.

When we went to see Hajji Sultan that afternoon, he was not optimistic about the state of the industry. Lying in bed with a broken hip, he explained, ‘Before forty years, fifty years… many many tourist come to Afghanistan’, there were 12 factories back then. ‘Now 1 factory! No business, no foreigners, no tourists’.

Each glass is individually made by hand. Each has its own unique variation in shape and colour. Each has a soul of its own. It would be a tragedy if Herati Glass became another casualty of Afghanistan's latest war.

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