The Glassmakers of Herat

In 1968, Dr. Robert Brill, the Museum’s Research Scientist Emeritus, participated in a National Geographic Society expedition to document traditional pyrotechnologies in order to determine how the comparable ancient processes may have occurred. As the expedition was passing through Herat, Afghanistan, the group noticed a glass and antique shop. The traditional-style glass offered for sale turned out to have been made in a nearby village. Arriving at the one-room factory, the group was astonished to see evidence of glassmaking practices that seemed to echo what had been recorded in ancient cuneiform texts about 2,700 years ago.


This was a rare opportunity to discover more about ancient glassmaking techniques. Most of what we know comes indirectly from examinations of surviving objects, and the few remains of early glass furnaces and written records. Similar small furnaces had been discovered in Damascus, Hebron, and Cairo, but these were re-melting scrap glass instead of melting glass from raw materials, as the Herat factory was doing.

Furnace at a glass factory in Herat, Afghanistan, 1972

Furnace at a glass factory in Herat, Afghanistan, 1972.

Two cousins, Saifullah and Saidullah, and one of their sons operated the business. They said their family had been making glass for about 200 years. Their nearly two-meter-long furnace was built of local stones daubed with clay and mud. The batch was melted in mudbrick crucibles above the firing chamber. The glassmakers were making objects similar in style to those made by their very distant ancestors.

Nasrullah, nephew of the glassmaker featured in the 1977 film "Glassmakers of Herat"

Nasrullah, nephew of the glassmaker featured in the 1977 film "Glassmakers of Herat."

ancient cuneiform with recipe for glassmaking

The cuneiform recipe mentioned above, a replica of which is displayed in the Museum’s Origins of Glassmaking gallery, details the ingredients necessary to make glass from raw batch materials in ancient Mesopotamia. White pebbles from a riverbed are prescribed as the primary siliceous ingredient in the glass, and plant ashes are listed as the necessary alkali component. In the 1960s, the glassworkers in Herat were using these same ingredients. They were careful to select only the whitest pebbles from the riverbed. Nomad families in the desert prepared the plant ash, ishgar, which was also used in making soap and pottery glazes.

A glassmaker at the furnace in Herat

A glassmaker at the furnace in Herat.

In the fall of 1977, a six-person crew traveled to Herat and spent four weeks studying and filming the glassmakers at work. The Glassmakers of Herat film is the fruit of their labor.

The area of Herat has suffered various forms of turmoil in recent decades. The status of the factory is currently unknown.

10 comments » Write a comment

  1. Wonderful article! I hope that they are still producing their glass and carrying on this ancient tradition. I am often amazed and relieved that any historical tradition survives in our modern society. I imagine their glasswork is very beautiful.

  2. Pingback: Glassmaking in Afghanistan |

  3. Great article! We are the only independent Afghan art and craft center in Kabul. We are working with the Herati glass maker, especially Mr. Nasrullah, to continue his craft and make new things. we are now doing lamps, lamp shades, cheese cutting board, glass covered with precious and semi-precious stones, etc. I hope to bring Mr. Nasrullah to the US for an exhibition in 2014. contact me if you are interested in seeing this project happen.

    • Hi Rameen, This post if already a couple of years old and I was wondering whether the Herati glass maker is still working in Herat. I am interested in Herat glass and would like to find out more. Thanks!

  4. nasrullah, now the master glassmaker of herat, is coming to the US in july 2014. it would be great if we cold arrange a visit. contact me at rjavid [at ] gmail dot com

  5. @rameen javid
    Hi Rameen,
    Mr Nasrullah and his son moved back to Herat a couple of years ago.  I have quite a collection of their glass (brought to Europe at each home leave over a period of some 10 years) and am very interested in any updates about their fate. Do you have any recent news about them, or other glass makers in Herat?

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