Afghans defy the Taliban to save ancient relics
The war in Afghanistan is a modern-day conflict, but the consequences reach into the ancient past of this historically rich nation. One of the greatest historical tragedies that occurred in this conflict-ridden country is the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan – two enormous 1,700-year-old statues carved into the cliff face in the Bamiyan valley which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. But that is not all the Taliban destroyed. Over the last 35 years, the country’s National Museum has seen 70 percent of its collection destroyed or stolen .
Most of the destruction occurred in 2001 after Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar issued an edict against un-Islamic graven images, which means all idolatrous images of humans and animals. As a result, the Taliban took to the Bamiyan Buddhas with explosives, tanks, and anti-aircraft weapons, and stormed the National Museum in Kabul, smashing every artefact they could find bearing a human or animal likeness, which they considered sacrilegious. The ancient archaeological remains of Afghanistan were thrust into the cruel world of battles of ever-changing aims and alliances of national and international politics and religions.
The National Museum in Kabul once housed one of the most important collections in Central Asia, with over 100,000 items dating back several millennia. Its collection reflected Afghanistan’s rich history - located on the Silk Road trade route linking China with the eastern Mediterranean, ancient Afghanistan was a magnet for settlers from different ethnicities and religions, from Hindus, Muslims and Jews to Buddhists and Zoroastrians.
Fortunately, despite years of looting and destruction, many priceless artefacts were protected by “key keepers” who hid some of the more valuable items in secret vaults and locations, and in banks. The Bactrian Hoard, a cache of some 20,000 gold, silver and ivory objects recovered from ancient burial mounds in northern Afghanistan, was protected when it was transferred to an underground vault in the Central Bank of Afghanistan. But many other artefacts were not so lucky. Thousands of fragments of destroyed relics were swept up and placed in boxes and bags in storerooms.
However, in the years since then, archaeological teams have fought back defiantly against the Taliban by painstakingly reassembling thousands of artefacts. In addition, Interpol and UNESCO joined forces with international governments to intercept and return at least 857 stolen objects to the museum, with the help of customs agents around the world on alert for ancient Afghan art headed for the black market. Some 11,000 additional artefacts have been seized at Afghanistan’s own borders
Among the 300 of the most important of the 2,500 objects destroyed by the Taliban that have been reassembled over the past few years are the statue of King Kanishka; a larger than life-sized, cross-legged statue of Bodhisatva Siddartha dating to the second or third century AD; and a series of Greco-Bactrian Buddha statues that are some of the earliest representations of Buddha in human form.
Every piece of antiquity that is restored to the halls of the bombed, pillaged and now rebuilt National Museum of Afghanistan sends a message of defiance and resilience against the Taliban, the warlords who looted the museum, some of whom are still in positions of power in Afghanistan, and to the corrupt custodians of the past who stood by while some 70,000 objects walked out the door.
“Archaeological artefacts are our national identity,” said the museum’s archival head, Mohammad Yahyeh Muhibzada. “It’s our national responsibility to protect them so future generations will know who we are and who we were.”