Context & Culture

The Hunt for the Holy Wheat Grail: A not so ‘botanical’ expedition in 1935

The German expedition members also gave medical treatment to the local Nuristani population. Photo from: Herrlich, Land des Lichtes (1938).

The German expedition members also gave medical treatment to the local Nuristani population. Photo from: Herrlich, Land des Lichtes (1938).

AAN has just reported about an area in Central Afghanistan, the Shah Foladi in the Koh-e Baba mountain range, that was recently declared a new conservation area for its botanical diversity. This reminded AAN’s co-director Thomas Ruttig of a first ‘botanical’ expedition – 80 years ago, in 1935 – to another isolated mountainous region of Afghanistan: Nuristan. It was organised by Germany, and it was the first scientific expedition allowed into the country by the Afghan government after the reign of Amanullah (apart from the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA) that came in 1922 by request of the Afghan government). But the German Nazi regime was not only after plants.

On the morning of 28 May [1935], we depart from Kabul. A last piece of luggage is handed onto the lorry, a last rope tied. Undecided we stand in the garden of the German legation. . . . Maybe, we shall return in two weeks as the defeated heroes. ‘Inshallah’, God willing, we shall succeed. . . . The route leads parallel to the northern slopes of the Safid Koh. It is a powerful landscape of gravel, folded and jagged, traces of ice age flows. Over depressions and heights, the road leads, soon down into the bed of a dried out river, then up again into altitudes of more than 3000 meters.

This is how Albert Herrlich (1902–70), the doctor of the “German Hindukush Expedition” of 1935, described the first day of their journey in his book Land des Lichtes: Deutsche Kundfahrt zu den unbekannten Völkern des Hindukusch (Land of Light: German exploratory tour to the unknown peoples of the Hindukush), (1) published in Munich in 1938. From the Kabul-Jalalabad road, the group turned north, into the Kunar and Pech valleys and, over the Mum Pass, into the Kantiwa/Parun valleys, then into the uncharted territories of western Nuristan, the Shuk, Ramgel, Kulam (Kolangar), Kolatan, Achenu and Waigal valleys.

Millet and cedars

The stated aim of the expedition was to find the Urweizen, the original wild wheat. (2) Therefore, the expedition of six Germans – along with Afghan support staff, ie drivers, cooks and servants, (3) and two officials as escort (one a police colonel of Nuristani origin) – consisted of a botanist (Gerhart Kerstan from Leipzig), three agronomists (Werner Roemer from Halle, Klaus von Rosenstiel from Müncheberg and Arnold Scheibe from Gießen, who was the head of the group), and Wolfgang Lentz (a philologist from Berlin). It was completed by the already mentioned doctor, Albert Herrlich from Munich, who also was an anthropologist based in Kabul, as the German embassy’s doctor. (Lentz also joined the group from Kabul.) All were between 26 and 35 years of age. Herrlich defined the expedition’s task:

We are supposed to collect live material, first of all grain seeds of all kinds. Our focus is on wheat and barley; but also forage plants, fruit and vegetable species interest us. No particular mountain, no particular valley is defined as the destination. A multitude of Hindukush valleys must be visited, in order to obtain materiel on the broadest base. . . . What is growing today on Europe’s fields is a fully accidental heritage. We know that the home of important grain species cannot be found in the old agricultural countries but in the high valleys and steppes of West and Central Asia. . . . The idea seemed to be obvious not to leave this accidental heritage at that [and to regain “attributes that withered” during the “crossbreeding” of the original seeds and the “industrialisation of agriculture.”]

The expedition members thus collected samples of all agricultural species in the Nuristan valleys: “barley, wheat, corn and, first of all, millet and millet again. They [the villagers] bring us beans, peas, lentils etc.” In the Waigal, the only grain they found was millet:

Everywhere in Nuristan, millet is grown. But the Waigalis are masters of millet cultivation. They do not have less than three different species, kaz, foxtail millet, tanasu, broomcorn millet, and a third species, called ansü. Roemer called it sorghum millet.

The menu of the Kafirs . . . is not as unvaried as we supposed so far. There is bot [also: brenj], (4) a mash made from millet flour, fat [roghan, not a fluid here] and water. The flour also can be boiled with concentrated grape juice which would result in kumat. Then we hear of bean mash with and without nuts, dried sweet mulberries, apples and apricots, black and white grapes, of mura, the grape juice that is stored in clay pots. This is only juice, they hypocritically declare, as wine is forbidden for them as Muhammedans.

Herrlich’s botanical renderings are those of an (enthusiastic) amateur. He particularly likes the Nuristani forests that remind him of his home country:

And then the forest [in Kurder valley, Nuristan]. No poplar along a jui [the irrigation channels] but dense forest on the slope, tree next to tree, also for us a long-missing sight. This Pech valley is narrow and tight. . . . Like a wall, the creek’s other bank is facing us. It is covered by bushy forest, up to some hundreds of metres. Now, towards the sunset, the valley’s bottom almost lies in shadow, but at the upper edge of the slope, lies the light of the evening sun. It falls on the rich dark green of the dots of the holly oaks (Quercus baloot) and breaks like in thousands of mirrors when the wind moves the small, spiny, waxen and shimmering leaves. Between the dark green, there is a delicate, yellow-greenish shimmer, bushes of the wild olive. Almost black loom the pointed pyramids of the conifers, some small cedars and firs.

The Waigal valley has the most beautiful forests, according to Herrlich. He called the valley the “green heart of the Hindukush” and compared it with the Thuringian hills in Germany:

We hike through a cedar forest. It surely has the most beautiful conifers we have ever seen: gigantic trunks with widely protruding, sagging branches. No brushwood, no undergrowth hinders our feet. The trees stand in large distances from each other, but over our heads, the branches merge into a dense roof. A dull green light fills the space. The steps are cushioned by the ground and the silence is solemn. Isn’t it like in the high forests of home? Only the small green parakeets do not fit into this picture. . . . For two days, we hike through the conifer forests. Uphill, downhill.

Herrlich’s book leaves it open whether his colleagues found the original wheat. (5) But the expedition brought home 4,000 seed samples and shoots of wild and cultivated plants as well as over 10,000 photographs, collections of minerals and insects and of taped songs, proverbs and poems of the local populations.

Skulls and the path over the Pamirs

As the subtitle of his book already indicated, Albert Herrlich was mainly interested in contributing to solve “the last riddle” of Central Asia, the ethno genesis, popular life and racial aspects of the Nuristani:

“These are your brothers,” the Afghans told [earlier] travellers [exploring Nuristan/Kafiristan] and emphasised that the Kafirs [the old name given to the Nuristani by the Afghans, for their non-Islamic religion] sit on chairs and drink wine. Early on, the assumption had been voiced that they were remainders of the original Aryans, and [the British author] Biddulph (6) located the home of the Aryan race to here.

To look for Aryan traces became one of the overriding tasks of the expedition, as Herrlich admits. It also fitted into the political context.

The expedition had indeed been pushed for two other reasons by the Nazi German government. One was its interest in ‘race studies,’ a subject popular not only in Nazi Germany, as the Herrlich quote shows. But looking for the origins of the ‘Aryans’ – originally a linguistic category for the southeastern (Iranian) wing of the Indo-European (formerly: Indo-Aryan) language family that morphed into a ‘racial’ term – was not innocent research any more; it had become part of a theory that divided humankind into ‘humans’ and ‘sub-humans’ (as early as in the 1920s), with the latter to be eliminated. With the Holocaust and the genocides against Sinti, Roma and Slavonians, it became murderous practice.

Herrlich describes in his book how he and other participants of the expedition took craniometrical measurements of the Nuristani, this era’s ‘racial sciences’ yardstick, used to divide people into valuable Aryans and inferior non-Aryans. The expedition members measured 250 Nuristani, and Herrlich expressed his hope that he could add the soldiers of the Nuristani army company in Kabul to his pool. He summarises:

But already during the collecting work, one gains a general idea about of what kind the final result will be and in which direction they will go.

He finds three categories among the people measured: “small people with all features of a primitive human race,” a medium-sized group “with dark hair and a strongly protruding, curved nose,” which he describes as belonging to the “Armenian race,” and a “third Kafir type . . . tall, with blond hair and blue eyes. . . . Would one put a Kafir of this type into other clothes and bring him to Germany, he would not stand out the least. Yes, one would probably perceive him as a typical Tyrolean or Upper Bavarian.” He also draws a link from the Nuristani back to the “old Aryan conqueror peoples” that invaded India in the third and second millennium BC. (7)

German Ambassador Kurt Ziemke (1933–36), a member of the Nazi party, who in his own memories (8) claims to have personally obtained the Afghan government’s consent to this ‘botanical’ expedition, does not only see the Nuristani but also the “Afghans” (he uses this term as synonymous to “Pashtuns”) as “of Aryan origin.” Because of their “racial character” – he lists, among others, reliability, fealty, modesty, discipline and diligence, the lack of arrogance, pomposity and corruption in the administration, and calls them “the Prussians of Central Asia” – he muses that therefore “I do not consider the Afghan an Oriental in the usual meaning of the term” and foresees that the country, with its strategic location between Russia and India might be “destined to play an important role.” With his 1936 decree to promote the Pashto language, King Muhammad Zaher has, Ziemke adds, “willingly or not, made a decision of foreign policy impact: Afghanistan, again, becomes the homeland of the Pashto-speaking Afghans of British India.” Later, after the start of World War II, some in Hitler’s government would offer Kabul the Pashtun territories beyond the Durand Line, in exchange for support of the German cause, the annexation of British India. (The Germans never get that far, in the end.) (9)

While the Afghan ‘Aryans’ would have been welcome allies for Nazi Germany’s plans to raid British India, the expedition may well have had other short-term but nevertheless highly strategic aims. It was to explore the very areas deemed the most dangerous stretch of the planned commercial German Lufthansa air route into eastern Asia, via Tehran and Kabul (as necessary stop-overs) to China, to finally link up with Japan, a later axis ally. This route was finally opened in 1937, after test flights to Kabul and over the Pamirs in 1936 and 1937. (10) But a regular service on this route never materialised, and all commercial Lufthansa routes were closed down with the start of World War II in 1939.

After World War II, a number of German botanists, with Afghan colleagues, were among the pioneers of mapping Afghanistan’s plant life. (11) Helmut Freitag, from Göttingen University, contributed portraits of Afghanistan’s four plant regions (12) to Willi Kraus’ standard opus Afghanistan (Erdmann Verlag, Tübingen and Basel 1972), an extensive country study of over 400 pages of a kind that had not been available in any other language at that time. Freitag speaks about 3,000 plant species, 30 per cent endemic, with “every larger expedition discovering new species not known so far for the country or fully unknown.” For endemic species, he points out the genera Astragalus (traganth, brushwood of the pea family) and Cousinia (a specifically Irano-Turanian genus of thistles), mentioned in Kate Clark’s recent AAN dispatch about the Shah Foladi area. S W Breckle and M D Rafiqpoor’s Field Guide Afghanistan: Flora and Vegetation (Bonn 2010) is the handbook for this particular field of research. (13)

Hindukush wild grass, but is it the 'original wheat'? Photo: Herrlich, Land des Lichtes (1938).

Hindukush wild grass, but is it the ‘original wheat’? Photo: Herrlich, Land des Lichtes (1938).


A postscript on modern genetic policy

While researching this article, the author found material about so-called Khorasan wheat (Triticum turgidum, sometimes also: turanicum), also called “Kamut,” which was registered as a trademark by a Montana farmer in the US in 1987. This wheat is a cultivated form developed from the Wild Emmer, one of the two wild species of original wheat mentioned above. Kamut is an Old Egyptian word, meaning “soul of the earth,” and it had been cultivated in old Egypt. According to some accounts, grains of it were found in a Pharaonic grave in the late 1940s by a US soldier who brought it home and gave it to his father, a farmer. A few decades later, another farmer in the same US state also started cultivating it again and registered the trademark.

There is only one discrepancy. The ‘Egyptian’ wheat’s Latin names – turgidum resp. turanicum – indicate a Turkish, if not a Central Asian origin, Turan being the flatlands north of the Hindukush, Pamir and Tienshan mountains, the mystical home of the Turks and the Iranians  – Khorasan would be its western-most borderland. The turgidum species was first mentioned in 1753 by the Swedish botanist Carl von Lenné (Linnaeus) who established an overall classification system for plant life. John Percival, professor for agricultural botany at the University College of Reading, England, described it for the first time in detail as Triticum orientale (14) in his 1921 monography The wheat plant – and significantly added that his sample had been “sent by Sir Percy Sykes from Khorasan, Persia, where it is cultivated on irrigated land.” Sykes was a British officer and member of the (British-) Indian Political Service who, during the 19th century “Great Game”, travelled extensively through and published about Central Asia and Persia.  Later he served as British Consul in Khorasan, based in Mashhad (1905-13), General Consul in Chinese Turkestan, based in Kashghar (1915-16) and commander of the South Persia Rifles, based in Shiraz (1916-18) where he became the main adversary of the German military expedition of Niedermayer and Hentig whose march through Iran to Afghanistan he failed to block (see also footnote 3).

So, Triticum turanicum/turgidum/orientale was no species ‘forgotten for millennia’ and ‘re-discovered from a Pharao‘s grave’? Maybe, this is just another example of turning natural genetic material into private property – also known as “bio piracy,” defined as the “appropriation of the knowledge and genetic resources of farming and indigenous communities by individuals or institutions who seek exclusive monopoly control (patents or intellectual property) over these resources and knowledge.” In order to prevent, or at least limit, this, the UN initiated the Convention on Biological Diversity which meanwhile has been signed by 192 countries. It gives each country the right to profit from “its own” biological resources.

The case may also be that the Khorasan wheat, or Triticum orientale, was privatised because, so far, there is no government claimant. This could become a case, say, for the Afghanistan’s National Environment Protection Agency (NEPA) or an association of Central Asian botanists and agriculturalists.


(1) Published by Knorr and Hirth, Munich 1938. No translation into English available. All quotes from Herrlich’s book and other German sources used in this text are mine. Herrlich also mentions that the Soviet government had approached the Afghan government for permission to allow an expedition to Nuristan in 1934 but had been rejected.

The expedition started on 28 March 1935 and ended on 19 November 1935: It did not only cover (Afghan) Nuristan but also parts of north-western India, ie Chitral.

(2) According to the English botanist John Percival (more about him later in this text), two species are thought to be the original forms of our wheat: Wild Small Spelt (Triticum aigilopoides), which has only one grain in its ear (although larger than a wheat grain); and Wild Emmer (Triticum dicoccoides), with two grains in its ear, as the Latin name suggests. Both are grasses (poaceae). Wild Small Spelt originates in southeastern Turkey and has been domesticated there and in the southern Levante as early as 7800 BC.

(3) One of the Afghan servants, Muhammad Akram, seconded to the expedition by the embassy, is interesting. He, like Herrlich, had already worked for the German 1915–16 Hentig-Niedermayer military-political expedition that was sent to persuade then Afghan King Habibullah to join World War II on the side of the central powers (including the Turkish Sultan and Caliph) to support a planned invasion of, or anti-British uprising in, British India (see also my AAN dispatch on Afghans in World War I here). Muhammad Akram had been Niedermayer’s personal servant.

(4) In Dari, brenj is (cooking) rice.

(5) The expedition’s results are laid out in Arnold Scheibe (ed), Deutsche im Hindukusch: Bericht der Deutschen Hindukusch-Expedition 1935 der Deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft (Germans in the Hindukush: Proceedings of the 1935 German Hindukush Expedition of the German Research Association), Berlin, Karl Siegismund Verlag 1937. This author has not been able yet to consult this book. A short expedition report by Scheibe that proceded the book and has been published in the German journal Der Diplomlandwirt in 1936 also does not refer to it. (This report was republished after the war, in 1954 in the German journal Mitteilungen des Instituts für Auslandsbeziehungen, Stuttgart; a copy is here. It is unclear whether the 1936 and the 1954 articles are identical or not.)

(6) In John Biddulph’s book Tribes of the Hindoo Koosh (Calcutta 1880), see the chapter “The Siah Posh” (126–33). (There is a 1971 reprint from Graz, Austria.) George S Robertson, in his The Kafirs of the Hindu-Kush (London 1896) writes, “Although much remains to be studied, it is possible the Kafirs represent the easternmost extension of the first major explosion (3rd-2nd millennium B.C.) of Indo-European speakers from south Russia and Central Asia” (viii-ix). This assumption was more or less still the recognised state of knowledge when the German 1935 expedition commenced. Note his reference to languages, not race.

(7) In 1936, Herrlich contributed photographs to a Nazi propaganda show about the Soviet Union (“The Soviet Paradise”). Von Rosenstiel joined the SS and worked in occupied Eastern Europe.

(8) Kurt Ziemke, Als deutscher Gesandter in Afghanistan (As German Envoy in Afghanistan), Stuttgart 1939. Not available in English.

(9) Ziemke, the painstaking collector of detail, also lists the fruits and vegetables and game available on the Kabul bazaars: “grapes, melons of different kinds, pomegranates, apples, pears, plums, cherries . . . the delicious rhubarb of Kabul (see AAN’s piece on it here), porcini, beans, peas, cauliflower, curly kale, salads, cucumbers, tomatoes, pumpkins, aubergines, radish, turnips . . . wild ducks, water fowls, partridges, guinea fowls, snipes, common snipes . . . wild doves, quails, herons, fieldfare. . . . Hares are rare around Kabul. . . . Only fish is largely missing. The rivers around Kabul only deliver bony, not very delicious species.” He sees not many karakul hides (they are mainly exported and processed abroad, in Leipzig, Germany) but lots of marten and snow leopard skins.

(10) See: Carl August, Freiherr v. Gablenz, Pamirflug (Flight over the Pamir), Munich, Herbig 2002 (only in German).

(11) Mohammad Alam, from the Cantonal Botanical Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, has listed all botanical expeditions in a 2009 academic article (“Plant Collectors in Afghanistan”; full text here, including detailed travel routes and the whereabouts of the collections, starting with Johann Martin Honigberger, an Austrian from Kronstadt in Russia, who had become a physician at the court of the Sikh Maharaja Ranjit Singh in Lahore and travelled through Afghanistan on the way to visit his homeland). Alam also mentions a review of all available botanical literature by Breckle, W Frey and J C Hedge: Botanical literature of Afghanistan, Notes from the Royal Botanical Garden Edinburgh, Vol. 29: 357–371, 1969.

(12) The Irano-Turanian, Central Asian, Himalayan and Sudano-Deccan plant regions. In the same book, Ernst Kullmann (zoologist at Bonn University) gave an overview about Afghanistan’s fauna and Ludolf Fischer (from the Institute of Tropical Medicine at the University of Tübingen) about geo-medical problems, ie infectious diseases, based on decades of post-WWII German research.

(13) ISBN 3940766305, 9783940766304. Sadly, it is not commercially available. In Kabul, a reference copy can be read in the AREU library and an AAN review here.

(14) John Percival, The wheat plant; a monograph, London, Duckworth and co., [1921]. The full text can be read in the online Biodiversity Library, here, with an illustration at page 204.

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Thematic Category: Context & Culture