Willem Vogelsang’s study of Afghanistan and the Afghans went to press just before the events of September 11 2001, and the subsequent repercussions for Afghanistan are addressed only briefly in the preface. However, this in no way detracts from the value of this book, by an eminent Leiden scholar, as a comprehensive overview of Afghanistan’s history and peoples from ancient times to the modem era.
Vogelsang’s deep knowledge of and interest in archaeology and ancient “Iran” are reflected in the chapters he devotes to the Indo-Iranian invasions of the second millennium BCE, the Persian Achaenienids, and the advent of Hellenism in the wake of Alexander. For Vogelsang, Alexander’s campaigns in Afghanistan were particularly important in view of the number of geographers, botanists, historians, biographers and others [who] collected a wealth of information about the campaign itself and about the terrain and the people the Macedonians"“encountered” (p. l 16). Forty per cent of the book is devoted to pre-Islamic Afghanistan, a period often marginalized in studies of medieval and modern history.
The term “Afghan” is first unambiguously recorded in the tenth century Persian work; the Hudud al Alam, and it becomes a common, terminl the histories and travelogues of the medieval period. It would seem generally to refer to the Pathan tribes, though it sometimes encompasses all tribes, inhabiting the Hindu Kush mountain region. Vogelsang commits more space to examining the Pathans than to the other ethnic groups that make up Afghanistan no doubt because the Pathans have always been the dominant group in the area and account for between 40 and 50 per cent of the population. However, space is given to such little-known groups as the Aymaq and Pasha’i speaking Dihgan.
Post-Islamic conquest history and the modern era are covered in nine well footnoted chapters, while the advent of Islam is discussed in one revealing chapter depicting Afghanistan from the mid-seventh century until the midninth century as a battlefield, shared by Arabs, Chinese and Tibetans fighting for control of the Silk Road and the passes between east and west. It is often forgotten that Afghanistan is more a Central Asian rather than Middle Eastern state.
Chapters covering the Islamic period and the modern era are of necessity narrative in style and afford only an outline of events. Footnotes are provided for scholars interested in additional research and the ample thirty pages of bibliography supply much food for further scholarly pursuit. However, for what is in many ways an historical account, there is a noticeable lack, either listed or cited primary source material, much of which is now readily available in edited and translated form.
Willem Vogelsang has written a comprehensive overview of a region now very much in the public eye and the welcome result is a readable, lucid and easily accessible guide to ways in many ways is a painfully complex subject.