Are Afghanistan’s Archaeological Treasures Safe?

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Are Afghanistan’s Archaeological Treasures Safe?

Experts are concerned for the future of Afghanistan’s archaeological sites and treasures following the Taliban takeover. Even if the ancient sites ar

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Experts are concerned for the future of Afghanistan’s archaeological sites and treasures following the Taliban takeover. Even if the ancient sites are not looted and destroyed, there is still the worry that the extremist Islamic group may already be hunting for the famous Bactrian treasure – a collection of more than 20,000 gold, silver, and ivory objects recovered from ancient burial mounds in northern Afghanistan.

Ministry States that the Treasure is Safe

The Ministry of Culture and Information has responded to these concerns, stating that the treasure is in an unnamed safe place. Hamdullah Wasiq, the deputy of the Cultural Commission, said, “The Bactrian Treasure is under the government’s control. It is protected. There is no worry and steps are being taken to protect it.”

The Bactrian treasure, also known as the Bactrian gold, was discovered in 1978 in some 2,000-year-old graves at a site called Tillya Tepe. In the past the Bactrian treasure was protected when it was transferred to a bank’s underground vault. But many other artifacts were not so lucky.

Bactrian treasure ram figurine. ( Public Domain )

Experts Still Worry About Afghanistan’s Archaeological Sites

But experts are also worried about the safety of Afghanistan’s archaeological sites and the heritage professionals still in the country. A location of particular concern is Mes Aynak, a 5,000-year-old site famous for its complex of Buddhist stupas, temples, residential areas, markets, and a fortress. According to Live Science , sources have told them that “all the equipment used for excavation and conservation at the site is gone; and the Taliban have been visiting the site for unknown purposes.”

Furthermore, Khair Muhammad Khairzada, an archaeologist who led excavations at the site but recently had to flee to France to escape the Taliban, said:

“The situation for culture heritage is not OK, because right now no one is taking care of the sites and monuments. All archaeological sites in Afghanistan are [at] risk. [There is] no monitoring, no treatment and no care, all departments in all provinces [are] closed, without money and other facilities [to] take care [of] the sites and monuments.”

A Buddhist stupa at Mes Aynak. (Jerome Starkey/ CC BY-SA 2.0 )

The Taliban leadership has issued statements that they will protect archaeological sites and to date there are no reports of the Taliban intentionally destroying artifacts. In fact, there are reports of Taliban guards being posted outside the National Museum of Afghanistan to prevent looting.

No one knows if they will follow through on their promises. But if the Taliban’s past actions are anything to go by, concerns for the safety of the heritage professionals who are still in Afghanistan and the sites they protect is warranted.

Mes Aynak site, Logar Province, Afghanistan. (DidierTais/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Past Destruction

One of the worst 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 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 artifact they could find bearing a human or animal likeness, which they considered sacrilegious.

Top: Bamiyan Buddha. (Françoise Foliot/ CC BY-SA 4.0 ) Bottom: Explosive destruction of the buddha by the Taliban, March 21, 2001. ( Fair Use )

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.

Defiance and Resilience

Fortunately, despite years of looting and destruction, many priceless artifacts were protected by “key keepers” who hid some of the more valuable items in secret vaults and banks.

In the years since then, archaeological teams have fought back defiantly against the Taliban by painstakingly reassembling thousands of artifacts. In addition, Interpol and UNESCO joined forces with international governments to intercept and return at least 857 stolen objects, with the help of customs agents around the world on alert for ancient Afghan art headed for the black market. Some 11,000 additional artifacts 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 Siddhartha 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 has sent 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 in 2014, “It’s our national responsibility to protect them so future generations will know who we are and who we were.”

Top Image: Tillya Tepe crown, one of the artifacts in the Bactrian gold treasure hoard found in Afghanistan. Source: H Sinica/ CC BY-SA 2.0

Updated September 23, 2021.

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