Astronomy in Afghanistan

I wrote the following article, 4 years ago for AWB (Astronomers Without Borders) and thought that maybe still interesting for someone.



Andrew Quilty/Oculi for Newsweek

There are mountains which touched the sky.  There are deep valleys and significant landscapes. This land witnessed the rise and fall of ancient and modern empires. Thousands years of history, culture and traditions lying under the clear and beautiful sky of Afghanistan. But for decades, the smokes of guns, the shadow of war and fear covered the beauty of starry nights of this land.

In the last decades, invasion of the USSR, civil wars, dark and scary regime of Taliban, shadow of horrific Osama bin Laden’s Empire of terror and international war against terrorists didn’t remain any chance for people of Afghanistan to think about stars which always shining over this land and look for them.

But as soon as dark clouds started to vanish and first sight of clear sky shown up, Stars start to shine again.

The country is still suffering from many problems and facing many challenges. Security is still a major problem in Afghanistan. Rebuilding country and its foundations, fighting for empowering the young and vulnerable plant of democracy, improving health and education systems, solving the puzzles of international relations, fighting against violence and regional problems are more than enough for a nation.

But during in this hard time a group of Afghans amateur astronomers starts a tireless and courageous journey to remind the glory and beauty of the stars and the night sky to the people. They believe inviting people to look and think about limitless and without boundaries sky, not only inspire a young generation of Afghan people and  helping for increasing scientific awareness in the society, but also can remind them that all people of the world (and Afghanistan) sharing one destiny in this little blue planet.

Younes Bakhshi, is an Afghan amateur astronomer worked very hard during the last few years to bring back the astronomy to the people. He organized first amateur astronomy society in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. He was launched first Farsi language astronomical weblog in Afghanistan in 2007. He gathered, translated and published astronomical and space news in this weblog which called Kabul Sky. After a while he changed this weblog into the first astronomical website of Afghanistan under the same title: Kabul Sky. People welcomed this website, but during the years after Taliban most of people don’t have access to the Internet and many of them couldn’t use this new source. Bakhshi and his friends wanted to reach to the young people and kids and help them to increase their scientific and astronomical awareness. So with the financial support of 10 interested people they founded the first astronomy group in Afghanistan: Afghanistan astronomy society, in 2009 and start to organize star parties and astronomical gatherings in Afghanistan. They also joined the international astronomical and space events and organize the local events in Afghanistan.

“as soon as dark clouds started to vanish and first sight of clear sky shown up, Stars start to shine again.”

One of their first experiences was Space Week. Their special guest was General Mohammad, Commander of Afghan Air force and the man who was supposed to flight to space with first Afghan astronaut, Abdul Ahad Mohmand.

The space flight of Abdul Ahad Mohmand to the Mir space station is one of the most exciting moments for all Afghan people and especially for Afghans who loved astronomy and space. It was after the communist revolution in 1978. Before that time there were few attempts to popularize astronomy in Afghanistan. In 1970 s Afghanistan Cartography Institute, tried to organize few astronomical groups in all around the country with association of France and Egypt governments, but these planes were failing because of the revelation in 1978. In 1988 first Afghan astronaut was flight into the Mir Space station. There were many hopes that this flight inspires a young generation of Afghanistan and help to scientific development in this country, but the shadow of war still was there and another revolution was underway.

In 1992 the government of Dr. Najibullah, the president who had supported by the USSR was fallen after a few years’ civil wars and Mojahedin took the power. But it just was beginning of another civil war. This time

Civil war was continued till 1996; When Taliban a very hardline Islamic group occupied capital Kabul and announced their government. These years were one of the darkest and hardest time for the Afghan people in all of their long and challenging history. No one in the world, even in the Islamic countries and Islamic authorities support their ideology. There was nothing about human rights, women’s rights, freedom or any other basic concept of human life. Ruling with an iron fist, violence and horror didn’t let any space for scientific activities. The Taliban banned such activities because it was against their ideology. But such situation provides great space and opportunity for other hardliner groups. Osama Bin Laden, leader of Al-Qaida joined Taliban and leads his terror network from Afghanistan.

After the September 11th tragic event the whole world was united and decided to stand against the Taliban and Al-Qaida. International invasion with the help of resistance groups inside the Afghanistan finally puts an end to the dark age of the Taliban in 2001.

War was still continued in Afghanistan, but breeze of freedom was beginning to blow. Internet, free television stations and media were beginning to work and the windows for astronomical and scientific activities was opened.

After space week program, new formed Afghanistan astronomical group with support of few members bought 3 telescopes a 5”, ۸” and an 11”.  During the IYA 2009 (International year of Astronomy) this group organized Galilean nights. About 60 to 70 Afghan people, including children and women look to the sky and observed the moon and Jupiter through the telescopes for the first time.

They hold photo exhibitions and astronomy courses in private schools. This astronomy group uses this opportunity not only to introduce the beauty of the sky to the student, but talk about the environment and nature with them.

“Afghanistan is suffering from the aftermath of war and most of the people use fossil fuel for their daily life. They even burn plastics and tires. We explain to the children that how important that protecting nature and keep trees and don’t pollute the environment. Our country has limited water sources and we teach kids that they have to use water wisely” Younes bakhshi said.

In the next step Afghanistan astronomical society in association with The Royal Astronomical Society of UK published first astronomy book in Afghanistan: “Basic astronomy for everyone”. The budget was designed for 900 copies, but with some savings, they published 2000 copies of this book.

Now they are trying to organize some events in other cities of Afghanistan and each time they give out a few copies of this book to students. Recently they hold an event in the camp of the UN at Bamiyan, the same city that Taliban destroyed its giant statues of Buddha there. In another very interesting activity they joined a club which founded by some foreign people and learn the Afghan kids skating free. They use this opportunity and beside skating, talk about astronomy with enthusiastic kids.

Now Afghanistan astronomy society is the only astronomy group in Afghanistan. They did a lot of work to popularizing the astronomy in Afghanistan and even for a while they aired a TV program from one of the TV stations. They also have many plans for the future, including organizing astronomy courses for schools, holding public observing events, public observation of Venus transit and… but they are alone and the way in front of them is not easy.

All of these programs need money and expect the help of The Royal Astronomical Society of UK and Mike Simons, who donated 2 Galileo Scope and few other staffs in IYA 2009, they didn’t receive any kind of financial supports. All of the cost was paid by interested people, especially Younes Bakhshi and one of his family members. Their 8” telescope need repair, they have to buy solar filters if they want to hold a public event for Venus transit and they had to spend more money if they want to publish more books and organize astronomical packages and give them to students.

In the current situation of Afghanistan, there are many urgent needs that most of money have to spend there; Security, Infrastructures, Health, Education, Energy and many other items. It is true and all of these investments are valuable and necessary, but people like members of the Afghanistan Astronomical Society are making future. They are inspiring young generation into astronomy and science. These children are the future leaders of Afghanistan who can lead this country into scientific development. Beside it astronomy is changing the way that people are looking to their world. When people remember forgotten glory of the sky and think about it, they think about themselves and their position in the world. People can find that they all shared same destiny in our little blue planet. Popularizing astronomy help to popularizing science and science is the enemy of dogmatism and Afghanistan is a place that suffers from dogmatism more than many other parts of the world. Spreading science and awareness of astronomy can help the younger generation of Afghanistan to fight against dogma and more important, to keep their dreams alive. Stars of night are a source of inspirations and source of dreams. The dreams can keep a nation alive and hopeful for the future.

But the body of astronomy in Afghanistan is young and fragile. It needs help and support. Small helps can make great changes in a country such as Afghanistan. Educational materials such as posters, books, solar filters for observing eclipse and Venus transit, maps and sky charts and these kind of simple materials can help organizations such as astronomical society of Afghanistan to bring astronomy to the more people.

We are all share beauty and glory of the sky. We are under unlimited and without borders sky. We believed that astronomy can change our life and can bring us peace. Now in Afghanistan all of us have a chance to see how this belief can work in the real world and maybe we can help them because their success is the success of all of us who love sky and starry nights.

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