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Collection description

This powerful image is of Emir Sher Ali Khan (c1825 – 1879), the ruler of Afghanistan from 1863 to 1866, and again from 1868 until his death. It was taken in either 1869 or 1870 by the Irish photographer, John Burke (c1843 – 1900).

Emir Khan’s rule was greatly hindered by pressure from Britain and Russia, as they manoeuvred for political and economic advantage in Asia during most of the nineteenth century. Khan attempted to keep Afghanistan neutral in the conflict between the two great powers, but he ultimately failed as the British believed he was coming under Russian influence. This led to the start of the second Anglo-Afghan War in 1878. Khan fled Kabul and died on his way to Russia where he had hoped to claim political asylum.

Collection detail

Khan’s efforts to keep Afghanistan free of the struggles between Russia and Britain even came to the attention of Sir John Tenniel at Punch Magazine in London. This 1878 cartoon shows the unfortunate Emir caught between the Russian Bear on one hand and the British Lion on the other.

Burke published many images of the Anglo-Afghan War, and a high number of these were taken “in the field”. Their excellent quality is remarkable given the heavy equipment and numerous chemicals he would have needed in order to take and develop the photographs, but his achievement is all the more impressive as he was working in a harsh and unforgiving environment.

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