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My Grandfather, My Hero: Remembering The Historian Ahmad Ali Kohzad


Ahmad Ali Kohzad (front right) poses with members of the Afghanistan Historical Society, of which he was the founding director.

As a little girl, I was often reminded that my family name represents something special, that I carry with me something much bigger than myself.

Growing up in America, the walls of my childhood home were hung with black-and-white photographs of my late grandfather in the company of kings, queens, ministers, and other prestigious people. His stories were a constant topic of conversation at the dinner table, and towers of his books were always stacked in our home office.

Ahmad Ali Kohzad was a leading Afghan historian and archeologist. He was a prominent and esteemed scholar and cultural figure who was the first person to uncover Afghanistan's pre-Islamic history.

He was also my grandfather, who passed away before I was born. My father would often say he had dedicated his life to others, namely his country and his fellow countrymen.

As I grew older and became more curious about my roots, I realized my grandfather’s stories were told not just in my household but across Afghanistan. Kohzad was like a hero to the Afghan people.

A portrait of Ahmad Ali Kohzad taken in the 1960s.
A portrait of Ahmad Ali Kohzad taken in the 1960s.

It was he who paved the way for the study of Afghanistan’s rich history and archeology, opening the door for other historians to follow in his footsteps. As curator of the national museum and founding director of the Afghanistan Historical Society for 19 years, he was one of the most influential historians on pre-Islamic Afghanistan.

Through his revolutionary research into the past, Kohzad -- my grandfather -- helped formulate a new historical identity for Afghans.

Inspired By The French

Kohzad was born in 1907 in Kabul’s Chindawul neighborhood. He was one of the first students to study at Kabul's only French high school, Estiqlal, where he became fluent in French, a skill that had a formative impact on the direction his life would take.

Though he never went to college, the French he learned at high school served as a gateway for European scholarship, including reading French translations from languages such as Greek, Sanskrit, and Chinese.

His francophone background and other language capabilities bolstered his career and allowed him to interact with foreign archeologists, gaining a passion for history and building a foundation for a legacy even he would not have imagined.

In 1931, Kohzad began working at Darultahrir -e-Shahi, the publication department of the King’s Court, and was later posted as a secretary to the Afghan Embassy in Italy. He was appointed head of the Kabul Museum and assumed leadership of the Afghanistan History Society, which until that time had largely comprised scholarship of the country’s Islamic dynastic periods starting in the 14th century.

A Pioneer and Catalyst

My grandfather was the first historian to shed light on Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic, prehistoric past, bringing hard evidence to a realm most often associated with the oral tradition.

“He showcased Afghanistan's history for the first time via scientific research and created a chronology,” my father, Fariar Kohzad, told me. “Before him, the history of the country was more like storytelling and lacked any sort of scientific backing, but he changed that forever.”

“He was a pioneer, making 5,000 to 6,000 years of history clear to everyone,” he added.

With the innovative nature of his research, Afghanistan was able to launch a new era of historical analysis, an unprecedented move at the time.

A young Ahmad Ali Kohzad in Rome when he was a secretary at the Afghanistan Embassy, a posting during which he met Mussolini several times.
A young Ahmad Ali Kohzad in Rome when he was a secretary at the Afghanistan Embassy, a posting during which he met Mussolini several times.

Nile Green, a historian and professor at the University of California Los Angeles, explored my grandfather's work extensively in his book The Afghan Discovery Of Buddha: Civilizational History And The Nationalizing Of Afghan Antiquity. He writes that Kohzad took on a challenging mission.

“He charged himself with the task of using more concrete archeological data to demonstrate the civilizational splendor of the Afghan national past,” Green said. “Afghan historical writing [was] radically transformed by Kohzad’s introduction of new methods, models, and chronologies for constructing a national past that was broader and deeper than either the dynastic or genealogical historiographical models that preceded it.”

My father would talk of the great lengths my grandfather went to in order to make such a radical change in Afghanistan, recalling his extensive writing, research, and travels.

Kohzad published over 70 books and booklets and celebrated the achievements of pre-Islamic religions including Buddhism and Zoroastrianism, highlighting the civilizations of the Aryans, Bactrian Greeks, and Kushans, among others. My grandfather helped bring these communities and their significant mark into the mainstream of our nation's culture. Evidence of this can be seen in the prevalence of names such as Yama, Avesta, and Bakhtar, which are now commonly used in Afghan society.

“His research methods included excavation of artifacts and coins, analysis of prayers, old religious and cultural Vedic songs, and Greek and Sanskrit writings -- all of which required years of on-the-ground research and travel,” my father said.

He recounts how his father “traveled all over the country. I remember him telling me that he had traveled to Bamyan at least 72 times by foot, horse, automotive, and sometimes by plane, as there were few planes operating during those times.”

“He truly dedicated his life for his country. From Nangarhar, Khost, and Nuristan to Bamyan, Balkh, and Herat, he didn't miss a single inch of Afghanistan,” he added.

Kohzad (second left) shakes hands with the Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi.
Kohzad (second left) shakes hands with the Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi.

As a catalyst for change, my grandfather helped promote Afghanistan's 1,000-year past through his books and other works. He collaborated with historians locally and internationally, most notably Joseph Hakin, Gustave Schlumberger, Giuseppe Tuci, Nancy Dupree, and her husband, Louis Dupree. He also dabbled in film, theater, and etymology.

Kohzad was among the first to research the history of languages in Afghanistan, including both Farsi and Pashto. Previously, research on the origin of the Pashto language was limited and many did not know of its lexis relationship with the Iranian language family.

A Legacy That Lives On

Many years after his death, Ahmad Ali Kohzad’s literary works still have resonance. My family hopes that Afghans will continue to preserve his legacy and honor the rich past he uncovered.

“I hope up-and-coming historians follow my father’s path in writing history in a just and objective manner,” my father said. “I hope the people of Afghanistan use his research to benefit them and better understand their complex yet ancient roots.”

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has spoken numerous times about my grandfather's contributions, commemorating the anniversary of his death each November. In previous years, Ghani labeled him a key figure and a representative of Afghan history, describing him as “the founder of Afghanistan’s contemporary historiography.”

“He wasn’t just a chronicler but a representative of history himself,” Ghani said, adding Kohzad wrote in a manner that was accessible to everyone and not just academia. “Archeology witnessed a change after Kohzad’s era and research … and we must ensure we preserve this national culture.”

Kohzad (second left) stands with Asghar Khan (left), a high-ranking personality from Afghanistan, and two others from Uzbekistan.
Kohzad (second left) stands with Asghar Khan (left), a high-ranking personality from Afghanistan, and two others from Uzbekistan.

My grandfather dedicated over 50 years of his life to scientific and literary studies, traveling to all corners of Afghanistan. His books, found in libraries around the world, are a testament to his diligent lifelong research.

He passed away in 1983 and was laid to rest in the small graveyard of the Shah-i-Do Shamshira Shrine in Kabul. He left behind a memorable contribution to Afghanistan’s culture and identity and holds a special place in the heart of the Kohzad family.

Today, I cannot help but think that perhaps his unconditional love for and inquisitiveness about his homeland and roots have been passed down to me, his granddaughter.

As I embark on my own personal and professional journey, my grandfather's service and sacrifice inspire me to pursue a similar path, albeit in my own distinct and humble way.

Perhaps my own writing, passions, and even career path being highly defined by the quest to better understand my ancestral land, Afghanistan, is not accidental at all.

I never had the pleasure of getting to know my grandpa, but I hope that wherever he is that he is proud of his granddaughter who, thanks to him, has learned to appreciate and cherish the richness of Afghanistan’s diverse and incredible history.

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