As the Taliban rises, uncertainty looms for Afghanistan’s historic treasures

Some cultural heritage experts are hopeful; others are growing anxious about the coming departure of American and European troops from the battered country.

Photographs By Robert Nickelsberg
Published 21 May 2021, 12:06 BST
Buddha Head
Buddha Head: KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 19: The head of the Buddha’s crown of hair and elongated earlobes that may symbolize renunciation of the material world is on display at the Presidential Palace September 19, 2016 in Kabul, Afghanistan. The head, from the second century CE, was found at Tepe Kafariha, in Hadda, eastern Afghanistan. The sculptures from Hadda reveal the first use of the delicate technique of stucco in Afghanistan. Although the National Museum of Afghanistan maintains the records of the artifacts, the valuable head is kept in the Presidential Palace in Kabul. The National Museum of Afghanistan is supported by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

In September, when the last NATO forces exit Afghanistan, many fear the beleaguered country could descend into another brutal civil war that ends with the collapse of the U.S.-backed government and the triumph of the Taliban. This prospect would seem a particularly grim possibility for those tasked with protecting the nation’s unusually diverse cultural heritage.

After all, the last year the Taliban were in power, in 2001, they blew up the world’s largest statues, the Bamiyan buddhas, went on an iconoclastic rampage at the National Museum in Kabul, and took part in lucrative looting of ancient sites. The unprecedented orgy of destruction, aimed particularly at pre-Islamic remains, made them international pariahs.

2436: KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - AUGUST 31: A museum curator holds a damaged head of a Buddha from Hadda, in Nangarhar province on display in a storage crate at the National Museum of Afghanistan August 31, 2016 in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Gandhara-era statues were destroyed when looters, and later the Taliban, ransacked the museum in early-2001. The broken clay heads have since been reconstructed at the museum under the guidance of an Italian conservator who trained Afghan staff during the work. The National Museum of Afghanistan is supported by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
Photograph by Robert Nickelsberg, Getty Images

Recently, however, the Taliban—which calls itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan—promised to respect Afghanistan’s history. In a surprise statement, they instructed their followers to “robustly protect, monitor and preserve” relics, halt illegal digs, and safeguard “all historic sites.”

Significantly, they added that they would forbid selling artefacts on the art market. “No one should try to disturb such sites or think about using them for profit,” the statement read.

Noor Agha Noori, who leads Afghanistan’s Institute of Archaeology, is skeptical that the Taliban have turned over a new leaf. “To be honest, we are very worried about the future of cultural heritage were the Taliban to come into power,” he says, noting that there is evidence the Islamists are still engaged in looting sites to generate revenue. (In Cambodia, evidence ties illegal antiquities trade to terrorism and violent crime.)

CHARIKAR, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 18: A hill of rubble lies on a hill below the Topdara Buddhist stupa September 18, 2016 in Charikar, Parwan province, Afghanistan. Once a repository of sacred Buddhist relics, the stupa’s drum has a diameter of 23 meters and would have originally been.covered in white plaster with parasols adorning its crown. The Topdara stupa was most likely constructed around the 4th century CE. During recent stabilization and restorAtion work, the original ceremonial staircase leading from the ground level up to the base of the drum was discovered. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
OLD BALKH CITY, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 15: A path runs along the spine of Balkh’s ancient wall September 15, 2016 in Old Balkh City, Afghanistan. The earthen wall, which once guarded the “Mother of All Cities,” now encircles an area of roughly 2,300 acres, mostly orchards and small farms. From 2011 to 2012, the U.S. Embassy provided support to the French Archeological Delegation of Afghanistan (DAFA) to conduct a survey of these ancient walls in order to develop a plan for their long-term preservation. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
Photograph by Photograph via Robert Nickelsberg

Mohammad Fahim Rahimi, director of Kabul’s National Museum, is likewise wary. “Unfortunately the statement is not clear, especially concerning the pre-Islamic heritage. You know what happened to the collection during the civil war and in 2001.” It took years for museum conservators to piece together the many wooden and stone sculptures looters intentionally shattered. 

Others are more optimistic that talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government will take into account the need to protect the nation’s past as part of any peace deal. In December, government officials agreed to discuss “ensuring the security of historical and Islamic sites” during negotiations, and the February statement signals a willingness by the Taliban to engage on the hot-button issue.

“It’s a great and positive step,” said Nasratullah Hewandall, who represents the Kabul branch of the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage (ARCH), a non-governmental organisation based outside Washington D.C. He noted that the Islamist group last year repudiated the 2001 destruction of the Bamiyan buddhas, blaming the action on al Qaeda and its extreme brand of Islam that opposes art reproducing human or animal forms.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - AUGUST 31: Photographs taken in the 1920’s and stored at the National Museum of Afghanistan document clay Buddhist heads and a variety of molds found in Nangarhar province August 31, 2016 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Between 1923 and 1928, French archaeologists excavated an extraordinary archeological complex in Nangarhar, eastern Afghanistan, where they found and photographed the clay Buddha heads and molds which represent sculptural fragments delivered to the National Museum in 1931 during the reign of King Mohammad Nadir Shah. The National Museum of Afghanistan is supported by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

Now, he said, the Taliban leadership appears to grasp both the economic importance of ancient sites as potential tourist draws, as well as the public relations pitfalls of wanton destruction.

There remains much to be lost. As the geographical crossroads of Central Asia, Afghanistan has drawn merchants, pilgrims, and armies since Alexander the Great arrived and married an Afghan princess.

Here, Buddhism spread to China, while Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism flourished before and after the arrival of Islam in the seventh century A.D. As a major artery on the Silk Road connecting India with Iran and China, Afghanistan is strung with remains of ancient cities, monasteries, and caravanserais that housed travellers—including Marco Polo on his way to the glittering court of Kublai Khan.

The specter of chaos

Cultural heritage experts may be divided over the Taliban’s sincerity, but they agree that chaos, rather than an Islamist takeover, poses the greater danger.

OUTSIDE MAZAR-E-SHARIF, AFGHANISTAN: A leaf motif is visible on a support pillar of the 8th century Noh Gunbad Mosque September 16, 2016 outside of Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. The interior of Noh Gunbad was once covered in pigments made from semi-precious lapis lazuli stone and red ochre that eroded over time. A team of conservators have managed to preserve the small traces of coloring and the original stucco carvings. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

“Our fears are less about a possible threat posed by the Taliban than the prospect of a breakdown in law and order,” said Jolyon Leslie, a preservationist currently working to shore up an ancient Buddhist stupa outside Kabul. He has worked to involve local communities that are better placed to protect such monuments.

Hewandall argues that chaos already prevails, particularly in rural regions. A lack of security and constantly shifting alliances have enabled looters—whether poverty-stricken villagers, roving gangs, Taliban, or various militia—to pilfer artefacts that then are smuggled to art market hubs like Dubai. Buddhist sites, often packed with highly valuable statues, have been particularly hard hit. (See 20 of the world’s most beautiful Buddhist temples.)

Despite fears of a Taliban-dominated regime, the United States last month returned to Afghanistan over 33 artefacts worth an estimated $1.8 million (£1.2 million). The objects had been stolen in the past decade and were part of an extensive collection owned by a New York art dealer.

“These recovered works are irreplaceable pieces of Afghanistan’s diverse culture and rich history,” said Afghan Ambassador Roya Rahmani at the repatriation ceremony in New York. “It is my greatest honour to help facilitate their return home.”

HERAT, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 9: An upward view of the exquisitely painted central dome of the interior of Shahzada Abdullah mausoleum September 9, 2016 in Herat, Afghanistan. Spanning 12.5 meters, the dome underwent structural stabilization to its original brickwork, and plaster and paint were expertly re-applied to the most fragile areas. The shrine’s restoration was supported by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
HERAT, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 9: Women and children leave Shahzada Abdullah shrine September 9, 2016 in the historic center of Herat, Afghanistan. Under the patronage of Queen Gowhar Shad, the daughter-in-law of Tamerlane, Herat was the center of arts and learning in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries CE. Clad in plain-fired brick, the mausoleum’s exterior is styled with ogee portal arches. The shrine’s restoration was supported by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

Will they survive the coming years? Fredrik Hiebert, a National Geographic archaeologist who helped identify the artefacts, said that he is confident that Afghan officials, who often braved arrest and even death to protect sites and museums during the last Taliban regime, are more than capable of keeping the nation’s ancient past secure. “They will be good caretakers,” he said. “I have total confidence in them.”

New attack raises fears

Three days after the New York ceremony, Taliban forces ambushed and killed several government soldiers guarding Mes Aynak, an ancient Buddhist complex outside the capital. The site includes a warehouse originally containing some 8,000 Buddhist artefacts, Noori says. Given the lack of security, officials already had transferred some 3,000 of those artifacts to the safety of the National Museum. (Here are the cultural heritage sites the world could lose in an Iran conflict.)

But Noori adds that a few archaeological excavations continue around the country, including an Afghan-French dig at Kabul’s citadel. In March, the Ministry of Information and Culture announced that, with support from Turkey, it had begun to rebuild the birthplace of the 13th-century poet Rumi in the northern city of Balkh.

HERAT, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 10: Pedestrians make their way as a bus navigates through the old city market below the Citadel September 10, 2016 in Herat, Afghanistan. The Citadel has served for centuries as a fort, palace, treasury, arsenal, and prison. Today, after restoration supported by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, it houses a museum. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

“Once lasting peace comes to our country, we are eager to share this heritage with the world,” said Murtaza Azizi, a senior ministry official. “We hope our tourism industry—  and with it, the economy—will grow, not only in Balkh, but all over Afghanistan.”

Whether the nation’s threatened cultural heritage can emerge from the current crisis largely intact is ultimately not just a matter of protecting ancient objects and buildings, said Omar Sharifi, head of the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies at Boston University. “This is about our preservation of our people.”

Andrew Lawler is a journalist and author who has written about controversial excavations under Jerusalem and the search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke for National Geographic.

Robert Nickelsberg worked as a Time magazine contract photographer for nearly 30 years, specializing in political and cultural change in developing countries. He is the author of Afghanistan – A Distant War, published in 2013 by Prestel, which represents his 25 years of work in Afghanistan. Nickelsberg’s latest book, Afghanistan’s Heritage: Restoring Spirit and Stone, done in conjunction with the U.S. Department of State, was published in English, Dari, and Pashtu in May 2018.

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