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  February 6, 2002  

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Central Asia/Russia

Afghanistan's rich cultural heritage in ruins
By Nadeem Iqbal

ISLAMABAD - Many outsiders probably see only rubble and desolation in Afghanistan, the last known lair of fugitive Osama bin Laden. But archeologists and other experts say the war-devastated country has much to offer in terms of because of its unique past and role in world history.

Indeed, that is why the reconstruction and preservation of Afghan heritage is the focus of "International Year of Cultural Heritage - 2002", launched by Koichiro Matsuura, director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) last month here in Islamabad. Afghanistan, after all, was once fought over by the some of the greatest names in the history of mankind, among them Alexander the Great. The northwestern city of Herat was made the capital of the Mongol conqueror Tamerlane in the late 14th century, and subsequently became a center of Persian art and learning.

UNESCO's Pakistan representative, Ingeborg Breines, said that although it is hard to include culture in the Afghan reconstruction efforts at this stage, the UN agency is still working to integrate the restoration and preservation of the cultural heritage into the country's policies and plans. "The immediate priority is the formation of a cultural policy by the Afghan government, revival of Kabul museum and the reconstruction of Islamic cultural heritage in Herat city," she said. "As in [other] post-conflict countries, it is extremely important that the people in the new rebuilding operation be rallied at something that could give them national identity - and that they care not only for the Islamic but also pre-Islamic culture."

To be sure, Afghanistan right now is a "cultural disaster", among other things. But observers argue that this makes it all the more important and urgent to raise international awareness about the issue to prevent further destruction and restore sites of historic importance.

Because of its location, Afghanistan became a logical part of the adventures and travels of people in the past, making it a treasure trove of relics of many religions and cultures, among them Greek and Persian, as well as Buddhist, Jewish, Christian and Islamic. In the Bamiyan valley, for instance, breathtaking giant centuries-old Buddhas were carved right into the face of a mountain. But they are now all gone after the then ruling Taliban blew them up last March. Months after, smaller Buddha statues in Falodi and Kakrak were also destroyed. Although some speculate that the Buddhas were blown up or smashed to bits because of the Taliban's extremist beliefs, others note that the Taliban's own culture ministry had participated in an August 2000 exhibition highlighting the world cultural artifacts in Afghanistan. It was only after the UN Security Council imposed economic sanctions on the Taliban, they say, that the ruling militia decided to destroy the Buddhas.

Experts point out that it was in Gandhara - as the ancient lands of Afghanistan and Pakistan used to be known - that the human image of Buddha first appeared. This innovation came from King Kanishka, whose patronage was extended to Buddhism, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism in the second century. Superb examples of Gandhara art actually formed a large part of the collections at the Kabul Museum. But many of these exquisite pieces were lost when looters sold them to dealers outside Afghanistan almost two decades ago.

Ehsanullah Mamundzai of the SPACH (Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage) says that during the 1980s, the cultural heritage of Afghanistan was more or less secured. But it was after the takeover of Kabul by president Burhanuddin Rabbani that different warlords started stealing the rare artifacts and selling these mostly to outsiders. Most of what was left were destroyed years later by the Taliban, including those stored for security in the Information and Culture Ministry.

According to UNESCO's strategy, the first stage in the preservation of the "tangible" cultural heritage in Afghanistan is the assessment of specific sites with regard to their cultural value, significance in rebuilding the surrounding communities and restoration of sites. These would include the likes of the Kabul Museum, Bamiyan, the Minaret of Jam, the Mosque of Haji Piyada in Balkh province, the site of Surkh Kotal, Herat including the Friday mosque and the ceramic tile workshop, the Musallah complex and mausoleums of Gawahar Shad, Ali Sher Navai and Shah Zadehah.

The second stage envisages emergency consolidation in order to provide income earning skills in cultural heritage - ceramic tile and brick-making, for instance - to the Afghans, perhaps especially those who know only how to fight. The incorporation of heritage preservation in national policies and to provide protection to monuments, museums and archives is among the long-term goals. Experts say all these would cost at least US$3.6 million.

Observers say there are many issues that have to be resolved, including the question of whether or not the Bamiyan Buddhas should be rebuilt. UNESCO's Breines admitted that while the locals are more interested in reconstructing, believing that would revive the tourism in the area, the international community is divided over the idea of rebuilding the Buddhas.

Other problems include how to stop the theft of what few rare artifacts remain, as well as how to force the return of stolen pieces to Afghanistan and how to stop illegal excavations, some even with the use of bulldozers and tractors.

At least some experts are confident that many of the recovered artifacts will be returned once the Kabul museum is constructed, since these now being kept in a museum in Switzerland. UNESCO chief Matsuura has said, "Many relevant peoples and organizations are prepared to return these objects with the condition that they are kept in safe custody. Possibly we have to wait till the construction of the new museum."

But others say that it may be harder to get back artifacts that are now in the hands of smugglers and private collectors. According to Pakistani archeologist Ahmed Hasan Dani, the illegal trade of artifacts goes back before the war with the Soviet Union, and then accelerated afterward. He concedes that most of the artifacts stolen from Afghanistan passed through Pakistan, although both are signatories to the 1972 UN World Heritage Convention.

But he clarified, "The material that came into Pakistan before the war was not from Kabul museum but from private collections as the families that came to Pakistan from Kabul and Herat sold their possessions like costly rugs, illustrated manuscripts and bronze ware. It was after the Taliban takeover of Herat that large quantities of antiques started pouring in to Pakistan," he said. Dani noted, though, that the buyers of these artifacts were mostly diplomats, as ordinary Pakistanis could hardly afford the high prices quoted for the items.

(Inter Press Service)

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