As I’ve stated in earlier posts, mud is an important part of Afghan life and is a foundation for much of its industry. When I first came to Afghanistan in early 2009, I was fascinated about how people built their houses and other buildings out of brick, stone and mud.
One of its biggest industries is the production of bricks. Bricks have been made in some form in Afghanistan for the last 5000 years, at least. The cool thing about Afghanistan is that as brickmaking modernizes, it doesn’t mean the cessation of the ancient ways of brickmaking. You can drive down a city or village street and see a cinder block and steel modern 12 story building going up and a couple blocks away, men are using mud and straw like the Egyptians.
The basis of all bricks is a mixture of clay mud, water and possibly straw, cut into approximately 6-inch sections. This mixture is called “pakhta” in Dari, and is made by mixing clay mud with water and straw, and allowed to soak for two to three days, with water being added to prevent it from drying out.
Once the pakhta is ready, it can be made into either the ancient style of brick, also known as “pakhta”, which is made by forming the mud into a hand sized ball. These bricks are then set out into the sun to dry, and then made into structures, with more wet pakhta being put between and over them, with fingers drawn across the wet pakhta to tie them together.
3000 year old finger marks
We were out visiting our friends at Marefat School, who were digging a new foundation to add on to their successful school in Dasht-e Barchi, in the western part of Kabul, when we saw this example of Pakhta construction. The foundation excavation had exposed an approximately 3000-year-old “Kharez” or underground man-made water system, which was constructed by hand. It is amazing to see the ancient hand marks, as if they were made yesterday.
Next, are the air dried bricks, made by putting “pakhta” into forms; the forms are then allowed to dry just enough for the mud to set up, then they are dumped out and allowed to dry in the sun. The bricks are turned until all sides are allowed to dry, then they are ready for sale as is or for kiln drying. We saw examples of this every where we travelled in Afghanistan.
Traditional “beehive” brick kiln
Both traditional and modern kilns are used for drying. The traditional types are like a beehive in construction. They have a grate in the bottom, and the fire is fed from a tunnel under the kiln. Once the traditional kiln is stacked full of bricks, the opening is sealed with rock, and the entire load of bricks are fired at once. Firing is relatively uneven and capacity is relatively low. These kinds are still quite prevalent, but are being supplemented by the new style of kiln.
The more modern type of kiln that is used is the “racetrack” kiln. With the racetrack, it uses mobile smokestacks, and they are moved around the racetrack oval, with new bricks being stacked in front of the smokestacks, and fired bricks being removed from behind.
Air dried bricks stacked and ready for firing
Workers put the bricks in place in front of the fires
Bricks being buried in front of the kiln fire
Baked bricks being removed behind the retreating kiln fires
This type of kiln does a more even job of firing the bricks, and production is as high as the manpower available to feed coal and bricks into the process. We encountered this particular brick-making factory when visiting a new development in Kabul. We approached the owner, who showed us the process and explained how the bricks are made, dried and then stacked. He then put some coal under the iron lids, and stoked it for us.
Coal is scooped into these holes, covered by the iron lids, fueling the kiln fire
These smokestacks are mobile and are made of metal drums
The newest process being introduced to Afghanistan is the concrete brick, which are thoroughly modern, but requires cement to make, which is not as popular, due to the wide availability of clay, which is free, to make traditional pakhta bricks.
The other problem with concrete brick, is that Quality Control is much more important than with the traditional clay brick. The combination of cement, aggregate and water is relatively more sensitive, and we saw several instances of sub-standard formation of concrete bricks.
I must admit, I didn’t think I would become such a fan of bricks before I went to Afghanistan. But the co-existence of so many different levels of technology in one place is fascinating, and shows the sheer pragmatism of Afghans. They do not abandon a technique just because it is not “modern”. As long as it works for the intended purpose, they continue to use it.