The Helmand Sistan Project

Contemporary Life

Our knowledge of the Baluch villages in the Helmand Valley come from the work of our project’s Afghan representative, Ghulam Rahman Amiri, who spent hundreds of hours interviewing and observing in villages in Sistan. His ethnographic work is published as one of the project volumes, The Helmand Baluch. Sadly, Mr. Amiri passed on 20 years ago.
Life in Sistan revolves around the Helmand River, which provides vital water for humans, livestock, and crops alike. Here, herdsmen bring their sheep to the river to wash their fleece before shearing them.
To get water to agricultural fields, a complex set of canals lead from the river, like this set near Qala-I Fath. This has been true of human occupation going back at least 3000 years. Many of the modern canals follow the path of their predecessors.  Access to water in the contemporary region is controlled by the local village khans. In the bigger picture, Helmand River water has caused decades of conflict between Afghanistan and neighboring Iran, who share the river’s bounty.
Agriculture is the mainstay of the Helmand Valley, where wheat is grown along with several other grain and bean crops and vine melons. There are only a few orchards and vegetable gardens. In the 1970s, agricultural technology was largely unchanged from that of earlier periods using oxen to plow and thresh grain. Farming was conducted by groups of six farmers (pagao) on behalf of the land owners.
The pagao farmers of the Helmand Valley are forced to share their yields with the landowner, the community political and religious leaders, the regional craftsmen, and the distant government, leaving little for their own needs. G.R. Amiri has traced this feudal system back to Sasanian times.
Farmers build flexible houses made of tamarisk branches and leaves. These houses can be erected quickly using local materials. In winter, the exterior is covered with a layer of mud to retain the heat.
Baluch families may create decorative patterns to adorn the mud covering their homes.
A carved wooden door of a Baluch home and one of its residents.
The flexibility to erect or move a house in a day is crucial as landowners will often ask the village farmers to move their homes closer to the fields being worked that season. The abandoned village sites are a challenge to archaeologists, who look for non-perishable material objects to reconstruct sites of previous villages. We may have found a similar occupation pattern going back 2000 years at the Plain of Jars.
Interiors of Baluch homes are simple, with rugs, a hearth, and a few simple tools.
In contrast to the simple village houses, landowners often have large compounds made of mudbrick, constructed by the villagers.
While agricultural production is central to the local economy, others go into the deserts to collect wood for construction and for hearths from the tamarisk trees growing there.
The stereotypical image of Central Asian camel nomads wandering through the desert represent a small part of the population, but do exist. They transport goods, religious personnel, and visitors through the region.
A group of children in a village along the Helmand River. Few get more than rudimentary education and the girls often received none. 
Playing with knucklebones is a common pastime among village children. We found these bones in archaeological contexts as well.
Qilims are constructed on very primitive looms in some of the villages.
Cradle made by the village carpenter of Sehyak. Craftsmen are supported by a tithe on the harvest of the villagers.
Baluch Afghans are generally Sunni Muslims, matching the national orientation, but their relatives across the border are usually Shiites, the main Iranian sect. Few village mosques exist and are generally not filled. One feature of religious practice is shown by truck drivers who plow through the deserts and construct their own modest mosques by clearing stones into the proper configuration.
The research team studied a contemporary shrine to an early Arab hero at Ziyarat-i Amiran.  Goats were generally sacrificed as offerings at the shrine, with their horns forming a mound almost 2 m high. With no nearby resources, the shrine’s caretakers were dependent upon pilgrims to bring food, water, and fuel. Architectural elements in the shrine’s compound suggest it was occupied as early as Ghaznavid times.
Cemeteries at the edge of the village were decorated by rounded river stones. In some cases, these stones are supplemented with chunks of travertine, modern pottery, rifle shells, or artifacts from nearby archaeological sites, as we discovered at Godar-I Shah and Khwaja Kanur.
Our workmen were kind to show us their music and dance each season. The stick dance is familiar in India and Central Asia. String, reed, and percussion instruments accompanied the dancers. Large drums were often made of modern oil barrels.
In the 1970s, Sistan had no electricity, running water, or sewage systems. Only two unreliable telephone lines were strung into the region. The ancient auto belonging to one of the village khans had not functioned for many years before we arrived.