Nancy Dupree, American historian who spent decades preserving Afghanistan’s heritage, dies at 90

Nancy Dupree, shown in 2014, founded the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University.
Nancy Dupree, shown in 2014, founded the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University.
(Massoud Hossaini / Associated Press)

An American historian who spent decades in Afghanistan working to preserve the heritage of the war-torn country has died at a hospital in Kabul.

An Afghan government statement said Nancy Hatch Dupree, who first came to Afghanistan in 1962 and spent much of her life collecting and documenting historical artifacts, died Sunday at the age of 90.

She amassed a vast collection of books, maps, photographs and even rare recordings of folk music, all now housed at a center she founded at Kabul University. She also wrote five guidebooks.


Dupree came to Afghanistan as the wife of a diplomat, but later fell in love with Louis Dupree, an archaeologist and anthropologist. They married and lived for decades in Afghanistan, visiting historical sites across the country, retracing the footsteps of ancient explorers and documenting it all.

Together they wrote the definitive book on Afghanistan, an encyclopedic look at the country they had adopted as their own.

Dupree lamented the fact that young people in Afghanistan, many of whom had grown up as refugees in neighboring countries, knew little, if anything, about their history.

“So many young Afghans know more about the histories of the countries where they lived as refugees than their own country’s history,” she said. “It makes me sad because their own history is so rich.”

In 2006, she founded the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University, where she worked to create an extensive library that could be accessed electronically from universities in Herat, Kandahar, Jalalabad and Mazar-e-Sharif.

“With deep sadness, we mark the loss of the honorary ‘grandmother of Afghanistan’ and stand in homage to a woman of exemplary grace, dedication, humor and humanity,” the center said in a statement.


She also launched a mobile library program that brought thousands of books, including easy-to-read volumes in Pashto and Dari, to communities across the largely rural country, often on the backs of donkeys.

Many Afghans viewed Dupree as one of their own, and hundreds of people posted condolences on social media. The U.S. embassy also lamented her passing.

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of Nancy Dupree, a pillar of the American community in Afghanistan for many decades, whose love for this country and dedication to its culture and history will be forever remembered,” it said in a statement.

Louis Dupree died in 1989. Dupree is survived by a daughter.