Timur is a small province nestled between Nimroz to the West, Helmand to the North, and Pakistan to the South. If you’ve never heard of it, then it might be because you would have to travel back in time to the 1300s to see it, back when Tamerlane unified hundreds of tribes in the greater Persian region and ushered in an era of enlightenment, art, and architecture.
The great empire of Timur.
Many would come to challenge it, and various kings and commanders, spurred on at trying their hand at the impossible, would grab the sand from the dusty air and claim that they could in fact do the impossible.
Look what they had conquered.
Behold what they had achieved.
And they would commission men to write great inscriptions on timeless rocks.
But then they got old, died, or their empires fell apart. The sand would slip from their hands, their armies would fade, and their efforts would be lost to the wind once again, leaving behind inscriptions that only historians could interpret.
There was Alexander the Great in 330BC.
Many lost efforts during the golden age.
The Mongols in the 1220s.
Tamerlane from the 1300s to the 1500s, who held the region the longest and thus had the most influence.
The Durrani in the mid 1700s.
The Sihks in the late 1830s.
The British, who seem to try anything several times before resentfully departing, came in 1838, 1878, and came back again in 1910 to try their point one last time.
The Soviets, not to be out done, 1929, 1930, and 1979.
And then the Americans in 2001 – with the British in tow – but they all left in 2021.
Seeing this on a timeline is like watching Spain and Portugal send ship after ship across the Atlantic after el Dorado, but instead of seeking gold, something else rushes to Afghanistan. They seem to be led by idealogue's, and choose Afghanistan as their proving ground, if for no other reason than to simply prove themselves correct. Curiously, it is only after many years that they leave, often confused, many times not being sure what happened or what to show for their efforts, and rarely having met any real Afghans because they perceived it too dangerous to do so. Sometimes though, they do not leave at all, for they, like their ideas, died somewhere along the way. And sometimes, no one even notices.
If lucky, the history they may have created is etched behind. If luckier still, it might also be debated by professors, the types of professors who are invited to stuffy protocol dinner parties, and who have nothing else to do but put their knowledge on display with a smattering of verbal facts while sitting with their legs crossed at an angle.
Then, when a discovery is made, like the Minaret of Jam, which is likely the capital city to the Ghurid empire, a new list of facts and possibilities must be backwards-tucked in to Afghanistan’s long history. The Ghurid's earned their 'empire slot' in the early 1200’s, and these professors, these occasional few, will fuss about and seek out who inscribed what, for what purpose, and why exactly is there a Jewish cemetery near by? But even though the Minaret was officially discovered by westerners in the 1800’s, it was forgotten, then rediscovered in the 1950s, then forgotten about again until 2002, at which point, three cycles of professors removed, the outside world decided that this time it was going to be remembered better, not like the last three times, because the Minaret is tiling now and will likely fall over, and who will be left to discover it a fourth time?
Interestingly, as the government of Afghanistan crumbled and disintegrated in the middle half of 2021, I, a US Army Green Beret and the team I was on, stayed in the former-Timur region for long as we could.
We were the last. We did what we could. And then we left.
What struck me was that the idealogue's were also there, holding out to the very end; but it was as if even they suspected that their words had rung hollow, just like the sand in the wind, or whoever had built the Minaret of Jam.
(It was the Ghurid empire, remember? Or have you forgotten already?)
Thus, like everyone else’s empire, the empire of Timur only exists as a word that references a point back to a time in history. To think that which used to exist so proudly, and fought for so much, has vanished, and may only exist because you are reading about it, be it in book format or digital print. It's as if Timur is a proverbial Schrodinger’s cat, for it can only 'be' for as long as stories are told about it, and for as long as there is someone to tell them.
But where does one go to to discover that which no longer exists?
And where does one start when the professors have all but forgotten?
Some would say it is to the South West area of Afghanistan. Others say it is North West of Pakistan. If you journeyed to there, like an intrepid traveler, locals might point you to an independent mountain range; the Chagal Hills. And if you got there, others might stop to listen to you as you described what you were looking for, because something in their bones would resonate with your questions.
But then the practical questions would start. They would want to know why you passed through the smattering of deserts, homes, nomads, rivers, fields, and mountain tops to come here. And how did you survive it? Because it is dangerous. And with whom did you communicate, because Pashto, Dari, and Balochi are spoken here, and the Pakistan-Afghan border splits at least twenty-five qalat homes in some degree or another there.
And more over there.
But you aren’t from here.
Just when you grow confused and your smile of politeness starts to wane, and you start to question your own intentions, perhaps because you are an idealogue yourself, an Afghan or Pakistani state official would come to complain about the walls over there. He would tell the locals they were on the wrong side of the map, and the local would stop listening to your questions and turn to talk to the representative.
“The border doesn’t exist here, only there, on your map,” a local would clarify.
“And anyone can move a border. With ink.” Another would muse, looking closer at the edges.
Paper that is smudging by the state representative's sweaty thumb.
“These walls have been here for over a thousand years,” another elder would say, framed with implied context that if one cut the wall, one could see each layer as it was placed there, mud mixed with hay, generationally spread.
Like an onion.
Thousands of years old.
And then the local would make cutting motions, as if cutting the onion.
“And who are you to this wall?” the villagers would follow, angry at the arrogance of this state representative.
The representative then, be he from Karachi or Kabul, would restate his case. That this large wall is in Afghanistan, and the tail end of it is in Pakistan. The wall, therefore, must be divided, and a custom’s station must be built in the middle of it to control it.
“These walls are not coming down!” the villagers would shout. Then other villagers would come out of their square-cornered buildings, having been rallied in support.
“These walls will stay in my family until I die! And until you are dead and forgotten!”
And long after your map has withered away!
And another thousand years after that!
And that’s where I ended up, in 2021, as a U.S. Army Special Forces Green Beret. I tried to write nearly every day, and collect my thoughts as I went.
I also knew I would become a different me, to deal with being there, and I allowed myself the freedom to explore that transition. And if lucky, learn how to transition back to here.
Would I be a Jekyl, or a Hyde? Or could I be both? Or would I be neither, rather, just myself in a world that no westerner has ever seemed to fit in? Why then would I assume I could fit in at all? Perhaps I knew I would not, and thus, I just let it come as it would present itself.
And even though I knew what I was sent to do, when I left, I left with immense confusion.
Was I the idealogue. Or was I just a passer of time?
Equally interestingly, National Geographic followed the SF-team. Our team was tasked to work with an Afghan General, with whom we would push back against the Taliban. History, however, saw its chance and smirked, for like the ethnographs they are, National Geographic accidentally captured what would be the last SFOD-A in Helmand, working with the last Afghan Special Operations General, against the backdrop of the collapse of Afghanistan.
And while it all happened, I wrote. I wrote 400 pages of notes and entries, some pages long, other's a single sentence, but each moment in time having happened.
Maybe that's what the inscriptions are for. Maybe they, the empires before, knew better than I that their time was limited, and if they didn't chisel these events into stone, then their accomplishments and struggles, however brief, would disappear as soon as they did.
Perhaps then, this is my awareness that time passes for everyone no matter the strength of one's grip. And if it isn't etched in stone, no one, let alone a stuffy professor, will read it; Because it is only called 'history' if someone can reference it.
Do I chisel in stone?
Or do I just accept it.
My fear is perhaps that which is common to all, that we'll all be history, rather, a forgotten bleb, soon enough. The risk, however, is if we don’t show others how it was done, then the next generation may reach out, grasp at the sand, and say proudly, “Let me show you how I’m going to do it."