The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan: Adaptation to Closed Frontiers and War

Book summary by Fozia Tahir

This book is written by M. Nazif Shahrani, who is a professor at Indiana University, Bloomington and teaches in the Anthropology Department, Central Eurasian studies, and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. He did his Ph.D. from University of Washington, Seattle, WA in 1976.

The book majorly focuses on the Kirghiz (a small nomadic community) and their cultural and ecological adaptations and compares it to that of their agriculturalist neighbours, the Wakhi – The Wakhi are a small distinctive linguistic and cultural group who are also adherent of an Ismaili sect of unorthodox Islam. As a minority subjected to continuous political pressure and persecution in western and central Asia by pre-dominantly Sunni majority. As a result, they are found to occupy the most remote lands of Hindu Kush Pamir mountain range-. These communities lived in one of the remotest corners of northeast Afghanistan- The Wakhan Corridor and the Afghan Pamir. The book talks about not how, but why they came to inhabit this extremely marginal environment. He goes on to discuss the dynamics of cultural ecological adaptations to the physical environment. He tries to recount the communities’ troubled social, economic and political relationships.

Figure 1: Cross section of an adapted map showing the silk roads through China, Pakistan and Afghanistan

As a Wakhi from Northern Pakistan I was interested more in the information relevant to the Wakhis and I have therefore, summarised the key information that I received from the book for people who will not find enough time to read this book. It will also help me make a comparison between the similarities and differences among Wakhis from Just across the border. Like the Wakhis in Pakistan, the Wakhi in Pamir are also Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, known as Ismailis in many parts of the world because they followed (Imam) Ismail as their 6thspiritual leader compared to those of Shias who followed (Imam) Musa Kazim and are known as Shia asnasri (twelever Shia). 

The soviet inspired communist coup of 1978 in Kabul led by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) against the rule of self-proclaimed Afghan President Mohammed Daoud Khan, who had previously overthrown his cousin King Mohammed Zahir in 1973, ended the 231 years of Afghanistan rule by Ahmad Shah Durrani and his descendants . The Soviet Union was dissolved on December 26, 1991. The socio-political unrest could have been one of the reason for small communities to stay in places far from the common reach. The Wakhan Corridor- silk Road- major part of communication and trade was now isolated. 

Figure 2: Simple sketch of Wakhan corridor, showing its significant location on the silk road

Part II- Wakhi of Wakhan:

Basic organising principle of the network of social relations in Wakhi society is agnatic descent and kinship. The Wakhi do not claim to have a common ancestor for all the members their society. They acknowledge six different agnatic decent categories that recognise separate and distinct ancestral ties with minor exceptions. Each of them is assigned and referred to by a distinctive title commonly used throughout the society. These Wakhi groups are listed here; 

  1. Sayyed

The group claims direct descent from Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and consists of only four families residing in four separate villages. They keep close contact with other families and groups claiming similar blood ties with the Prophet outside Wakhan. In the Wakhan the total membership in this group does not exceed seventy individuals.

  • Khuja

Five families, all living in the same hamlet, acknowledge descent from Sayyed Surab Aowleya who is also claimed to be related to the Prophet. This claim is however rejected by the descent of Abu Bakri.

The senior leading male members of both the Sayyed and Khuja groups are addressed by the same honorific title, shah (literally meaning Monarch/king).  

  • Mir

The descendants of former Wakhi Mirs or chieftains and feudal lords (rulers of the territory). They claim descent from Alexander the great. There are between 20-30 people from this group.

  • Sha’ana

These are the descendants of those male members of Mir agnatic, who broke the prescribed rule of endogamy and married women of kheek (commoner) group and lost the membership of the family. Upto 15 Sha’ana people were present in Wakhan.

  • Khyberi

About 70 individuals claim descent from the courtiers of the former Mirs. Their common ancestor is believed to have been a man from Khyber who had joined the service of one of the Mirs, and later married his daughter.

  • Kheek

These are the remainder of Wakhi society, the largest but the lowest ranking group- the Wakhi commoners. They have unknown but common descent.

Kheek however, has two meaning one a reference to that of commoner Wakhi or for all Wakhis to distinguish themselves from the Kirghiz. 

The social structural dichotomy in Wakhi society is explained by cultural notion of quality of blood. So, the first three (Sayyed, Khuja, Sha’ana) are considered to be pure while the rest are called ghareeb (poor). 

Another division is as Peer (leader) and Mereed (follower). Sayyeds and Khujas are peer while Mir, Khyberi, Sha’ana, and Kheek are all Mereeds. The peer is also called Shah. Khalifa is a representative of peer. Mereed is expected to allocate a certain amount of personal labour to shah, the Khalifa collects it. This theocratic hierarchy is presented in Figure 3. 

Figure 4: Bureaucratic hierarchy of Wakhi in Wakhan

Wakhi House:

The room is rectangular with high clay platforms built around all sides. The highest platform is located opposite the entrance, and it contains the family hearth. The platform is used for cooking and as work area for women. Other platforms about 50cm high are partitioned by mud walls (used as sleeping areas) the rea close to main hearth is elevated and contains fire pit in addition to ash pit. 

Figure 5: Wakhi home plan

A skylight above the hearth furnishes the room with day light. The entrance to the main room is never directly exposed and has a maze-like passage instead as shown in Figure 5. Wood is very scarce, so they rely on cow dung as their fuel for the hearth. The major tasks of a household include agriculture, livestock, domestic chores, clothing etc. the soil is thin porous and sandy with very poor yield that makes survival even harder for these people. Marriages are costly and economic strain.

Major Livestock: gadek, turki, dwarf native breed, cattle, yaks, donkeys and horses

Favourite drink: Several gallons of Shur chai (salty tea) are consumed by most wakhi households every day.

  • The use of tea started in earlier times as a luxury but has now but has now reached the point of addiction for most people throughout the area

Staple: Bread made of a milled mixture of barley, lupin, lentil, and millet, ash-i-baqla (a gruel made of milled horsebeans) are commonly used 

  • Wheat and barley and particularly wheat has become Wakhi cash crop 

Part III

Territorial loss for Kirghiz:

Prior to the closure of the Chinese and Russian border (1949), the Kirghiz were familiar with Wakhi peasants of the corridor, and on occasion visited the area in the service of traders. They didn’t initiate socioeconomic relation because 

  1. Wakhi villages were about the same distance from Afghan Pamirs as the nearest settlements in Sinkiang (China). 
  2. The Wakhi were radically different linguistic, cultural and religious sectarian group from the kirghiz and the Turkic people of central Asia 

After 1949 it was not possible for the Kirghiz to move more south to the northern top of British Indian empire (Hunza, Gilgit, Chitral) due to difficult passage over Hindu Kush.

 The only alternate was to seek only pasturage in wakhan corridor with Afghanistan. Wakhi owned most of the pasturages. In recent years however, the Kirghiz are owning more of those because of more livestock.

  • Kirghiz borrowed grains from Wakhi 
  • Being relatively poor Wakhi seek summer work or permanent herding jobs from kirghiz and have therefore settled in kirghiz regions and the entire household works for Kirghiz
  • Their poverty is reflected by the fact that some Wakhi (badakhshani) come to Pamir solely for seeking Alms and donation 
  • Because of the closure of the post/ border, the wakhi have suffered more as compared to the kirghiz.
  • The wakhi people have been accused several times for their opium use and there need to come to kirghiz area for opium


Wakhi is an endangered language and very little Wakhi scripture is available. The significance of keeping the knowledge in writing has now been realised as the orally transferred language is losing its usage in everyday lives of Wakhi around the globe. As a student of science there is very little I can do for this, so I am trying to find the literature on Wakhi language and its speakers, to share it with the rest of us. This book was an interesting read. While the Wakhi in north Pakistan are very similar to the Wakhi in wakhan in their agricultural practices, they live in more settled and self-sufficient communities compared to that of Wakhi in Wakhan. The current boom in education has improved the socio-economic and political standing of Wakhi in the region in all walks of life. However, the same can not be said for the wakhi of Ishkoman (sh’qaman), settled in the Ghizer district of GB.

The author because of his Kirghiz roots describes the Kirghiz with much more respect than those of Wakhi. For example, he will call the Kirghiz livestock owners, pastorals while the Wakhi as ‘peasants’. That however might be the true reflection of exactly how they are treated by their Kirghiz neighbours. 

The home style, consumption of salty tea and having a khalifa and arbob were all a common practice in the Wakhi of Pakistan but they are now evolving with time. Despite many commonalties the sayyed, shaana and khuja are names inexistent in the Wakhi of North Pakistan. 


the author can be contacted at

Published by meerekarwan

The origins of Meer-e-Karwan can be traced back to a rainy evening in 2017, over a cup of chai, in a small tea house of Oxford. Disillusioned and saddened by the lack of adequate awareness, meaningful discussions and often, the dismissal of the voices of marginalised groups – a group of friends decided to create a social platform to combat this and provide a platform to teach, learn and engage with individuals and communities. A pledge was made. No topic will remain taboo and no voice will be quietened. The phrase meer-e-karwan in Urdu alludes to a leader of a procession, a tribe of likeminded individuals, who set about a journey with a common goal. No matter where you are in your journey and what your goal is, we invite you to join the karwan.

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