Afgan Treasures

Mar 24, 2021 | Diggings Online | 0 comments

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I have only visited the Kabul museum once – and that was a long time ago – but I have pleasant memories of the old building which then housed it and the long lines of Buddhas which had been excavated in the north of the country where the gigantic statue of the Buddha stands gazing out serenly over the Vale of Bamian. The museum catalogue, however, lists many other objects including Greek coins, memorials of Alexander’s progress through the country and his marriage to an Afghan princess, and ivory panels from India showing half-naked courtesans frolicking with their admirers.

The Russians who invaded Afghanistan in 1979 may not have been the most civilised of conquerors, but they did admire culture and respect the museum. Russian troops were involved in restoring the building and could be often seen walking around the galleries and puzzling over the English and Afghani signs which identified each exhibit.

In 1992, however, the Russians left and various mujahadeen factions took over Kabul. Within a short time they were fighting each other with a ferocity that made their conflict with Russia look tame by comparison. Naturally they soon stood in need of money in order to finance their conflicts. Their ignorant forbears cheerfully smashed cultural artifacts – one Afghani conqueror gloried in the sobriquet of “the Idol-breaker” – but his modern descendents are more cultured: they still cared not a jot about their country’s history, but they knew people who did.

Two years later, when the fighting died down and museum staff were able to get back to the building, they found it virtually empty. The building was riddled holes from rocket and shell fire which had decapitated the statue of a lion that stood outside the entrance. A broken statue of King Kanishka stood folornly in the lobby and a giant stone bowl from the Islamic period remained in one of the galleries, but that was about it. Enquiries revealed that whichever mujahadeen group had been temporarily in charge of the museum area had used every lull in the fighting to load trucks with the museum treasures and smuggle them out to Peshawar where they were snapped up by traders in the antique bazaar.

Since then trade has been brisk: wealthy Japanese collectors – and why is it that whether we are talking about whales, rare orchids or Afghan treasures, the Japanese seem to show such spectacular lack of scruple? – snapped them up and so, it is alleged, did the Pakistani Interior Minister Nasirullah Khan Babar. It is also claimed that an unsuccessful Afghan war lord, Pir Ahmed Gailani, now living in exile in Quetta, has a large collection of looted antiquities. Police in Quetta recently discovered a Persian mummy which was being clandestinely offered for sale, apparently a Persian princess who died in Egypt and was mummified there before being returned to her homeland, but whose subsequent travels are still being investigated.

It would seem, however, that the home market is now saturated; a London antiquities dealer recently received a phone call from a Pakistani businessman offering him some “newly excavated” antiquities. He expressed interest and was sent photographs of the objects which he immediatly recognised as the missing ivory panels. He purchased them and donated them to the Guimet Museum, a Parisian institution specialising in Asian Art, but it is believed that Nasirullah Khan Babar has more of the panels and is negotiating to sell them back to the Afghans.

It is, however, possible that not all the museum treasures are missing. In 1989 the then president of Afghanistan, Najibullah, removed 20 tin trunks from the museum and deposited them in the presidential palace; his excuse was that they would be safer there. When the Taliban took over and rather gruesomely disposed of the unfortunate Najibullah, they moved the trunks to the Ministry of Information. They are believed to be still there and the Taliban claim that the seals are still intact, but as the trunks are thought to hold the Bactrian Treasure, some 20,000 gold objects dating from the first century BC, it may be wondered how long this happy state of affairs will continue.

The Taliban refuse to open the trunks or return them to the museum, probably because they disapprove of anything which is not Islamic. When the Taliban captured the Bamian Valley they promptly blew the head off the smaller Buddha and then fired rockets at the larger one. Frescoes that had survived the passing of Genghis Khan – no lover of culture – were damaged and destroyed by these modern vandals.

Like all governments, however, economic realities are gradually dawning on the Taliban authorities and just as their fundamentalist neighbours in Iran are coming to realise that while it may be a fine thing to preach fiery rhetoric against the Great Satan of America, if they want their country to prosper they need dollars and American good will, so the bearded fanatics in Kabul are recognising that man shall not live by fanaticism alone.

“We would like international visitors to see our war-torn country,” Abdul Rahman Hotaki, the Taliban’s deputy culture minister, said recently. Unfortunately the limbless veterans with which Afghanistan is so plentifully supplied do not constitute a tourist draw: the infidel idols of Bamian do. The decree went out that the statues of Bamian should be protected.

In addition, someone must have related the story of the goose which laid a golden egg to the Taliban leaders, who belatedly realised that while they might earn a certain amount by selling their country’s treasures, they would get much more by charging tourists to look at them. Another decree was issued against the gangs of looters dispatched by Peshawar antiques dealers to dig at archaeological sites in Afghanistan.

Despite these positive measures, it was doubtful whether the Kabul museum will ever achieve its former glory; spilled milk is notoriously difficult to recapture and dispersed treasures are equally hard to gather back again. We can but hope that as the Taliban become more civilised further scientific excavations will be allowed which can perhaps recover more the the nation’s history for the delight and education of both locals and tourists.

Unfortunately, at the end of February a particularly devoted member of the Muslim clergy issued a fatwa decreeing that all infidel “idols” in Afghanistan should be destroyed. (A fatwa is something similar to a Catholic encyclical, the difference being that any cleric can issue one, whichthen becomes binding upon all Muslims, not just those in his congregation or parish. (It was a fatwa which caused all the trouble over Salman Rushdie and his Satanic Verses.)

The ostensible reason for the decree is the fact that Afghanistan is suffering from a drought, which the imam saw as a sign of God’s displeasure. Unfortunately such tokens of Divine judgements are difficult to interpret: he thought it was because of the presence of “idols”; more objective observers might point out that the “idols” have been there for over two thousand years without provoking the deity and a more likely source of Divine anger is the arrival of the Taliban and their treatment of women.

Nonetheless, impelled by the petard of their theology, the Taliban authorities – whether reluctantly or otherwise – set about the work of destroying all “idols”.

“Statues have no place in an Islamic society,” intoned the Foreign Minister, while another official dismissed international outrage with the words, “We are only destroying stones.” Large quantities of explosives were assembled at Bamian and in anticipation of the happy event the local militia joyously fired off rockets, rifles and tank guns at the faceless Buddha. Once these individuals had expended their enthusiasm and their ammunition, the experts set to work. Holes were drilled in the stone, explosives set in place and the huge statue was blasted apart.

Religious fanaticism is never pleasant and it is well to remember that every religion has its darker side. Puritans destroyed “idols” in Britain with Taliban-like enthusiasm in the 17th century. Hindus destroyed a mosque in Ayodia in the 20th century; examples could be multiplied from every faith.

At the moment, however, it is the Muslim fundamentalists who pose a threat to the world’s heritage. The consequences if these people should ever seize power in Egypt make us shudder. It would be tragic if someone took a hammer to Tutankhamun’s death mask!

April 2001

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