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William Simpson

Simpson watercolor of tent and servant


In 2002, Rory Stewart walked eastwards across Afghanistan from Herat to Kabul. In 1878-79, William Simpson walked (and rode on horseback) westwards across Afghanistan from the Khyber Pass to Gundamuck. Both Scotsmen were there to observe the country in wartime, the former as an independent traveler recording the plight of the rural population following the recent removal of the Taliban and the subsequent US-led allied occupation; the latter as a pictorial journalist for the Illustrated London News reporting on the war between Britain and the Afghans over fears of Russian influence.

Though separated by almost 130 years, their experiences reflect striking similarities in a country that had experienced little change in over a century. Both kept daily journals and commented at length about the early history of the country and the various religious traditions, they were awed by the dramatic landscapes, they contracted illnesses living in the harsh conditions, they met people from different ethnic backgrounds, and sketched what they saw along the way. Indeed, the appearance of the various men Stewart sketched resemble the warriors Simpson recorded.

Stewart finally reached Kabul; Simpson didn't nor did he see the giant Buddhas at Bamiyan, although he wrote about them based on sketches from other travelers. The comparisons are indicative of a country that time forgot until 2001, a country in name only but made up of countless ethnic and tribal groups each with their own story to tell.