Finished Lapis Lazuli gemstones being cut. Photo: Melanie Eddy

I tried not to have too many preconceptions before coming to Afghanistan, but this was difficult considering the news tends to focus on the poverty there, the instability of the country, or how many British soldiers have been casualties of insurgent actions.

However, when I spoke to anyone who had actually spent time in Afghanistan, they prepared me for the very different picture which emerged when I arrived. There is a vibrancy there that I have not experienced anywhere else, and Afghans break so readily into smiles that it is contagious.

I experienced an earthquake and heard explosions in the distance, but I also attended the opening of a cultural centre, visited Kabul’s old city, travelled to a trade fair with students preparing to showcase their work, got involved in the set up and running of an arts and crafts exhibition, hiked in the hills and valleys surrounding Istalif and, most importantly, spent time with the jewellery and gem-cutting students at the Turquoise Mountain Institute.

I watched students doing intricate Nuristani woodcarving, the elaborate Islamic patterns in traditional calligraphy styles, saw them cutting and faceting lapis on traditional gem-cutting machinery, and fabricating elaborate Turkoman style jewellery. 

I was truly blown away by the level of craftsmanship that I witnessed in my time in Kabul. It was great to experience different approaches to craft practices, and students and staff took a keen interest in my approach to working and my perspective of the design process. The students told me how much they enjoyed the design workshops, and I felt that it really gave them the opportunity to let their creativity flourish.

I am so grateful to the British Council and Turquoise Mountain for my time at the Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture. Not only was it a fascinating insight into the rejuvenation of a strong historical arts and crafts tradition in Afghanistan, but it enabled me to meet some individuals who are truly committed to their craft.  

Read Melanie’s blog

See a Flickr set of Melanie’s photos from Afghanistan

Read more about the British Council’s New Silk Road programme